As the National Youth Theatre’s free training scheme delivers its first round of graduates, our theatre editor asks, can we really expect people to pay £27,000 to go to drama school…?
I’ve never been to drama school. You can tell by the way I enter a room.
But, what I lack in the ability to emotionally inhabit a bagel, I more than make up for with invitations to exciting industry events (such are the perks of being a theatre editor).
Which is why I found myself, last week, sitting in the Duncan Bannatyne seat of the Dragons’ Den studio, watching the NYT Rep graduates do their showcase thang across a bare wooden floor.
If you haven’t already heard of NYT Rep then allow me to explain: set up this spring, NYT Rep provides free, industry-based, vocational training for young performers. It’s not drama school, it’s not trying to be drama school, but it sounds like a pretty good alternative. Especially when a place on an undergraduate course will, this year, cost you around £9,000 a year. Let me just say that again: £9,000 per year. That’s an eye-watering, bum-squeaking, wallet-burning £27,000 for a degree that qualifies you for one of the most competitive, poorly paid, unstable and unreliable professions in the world. Not to bring you down, but going to drama school is increasingly like betting thirty grand on a three-year game of poker; fun, interesting, a good lesson in bluffing but more than a little risky.
Once you’ve paid your £27,000, you are then entering an industry where little luxuries like holiday pay, statutory rights, financial stability, a pension, maternity allowance and mental health are rare, if not entirely mythical. Not to mention the fact that, with arts cuts across the board, there are simply fewer paid acting jobs out there. Theatres, filmmakers, schools and television commissioners are all cutting back where they can, which means more unpaid jobs, cheap reality TV over original drama and relying more heavily on bankable stars. It has, arguably, never been harder to make a living as an actor. Which makes the idea of starting out with over £25,000 of debt even more worrying.
But, training is important. There may be a – what do you call a collection of actors? A neurosis of actors? A speech of actors? A Benylin of actors? – a hosiery of actors who have never set foot in a drama school: Gina McKee, Ian McKellen, Sarah Solemani, Thomas Turgoose, Russell Tovey, Jemima Rooper to mention just a few. But many of them will have trained in other ways – vocal coaching, clowning courses, personal tutoring, academic degrees, dance lessons and on-the-job development. Training gives you discipline, a collection of tools and techniques to fall back on, industry contacts, time to develop and the chance to try out different genres, approaches and theories. It is invaluable, if not inexpensive.
Which is why vocational alternatives like Fourth Monkey’s £2,000 training scheme, Frantic Assembly’s physical training courses and NYT Rep are such an exciting prospect. The twelve young people who took part in the NYT scheme this year have each been given an industry mentor (including David Walliams and Griselda Yorke), the kind of workshops that would make a professional blush (physical improv with Kneehigh’s Emma Rice anyone? A Q&A with Hugh Bonneville? A weekend in Stratford with the Royal Shakespeare Company?) the chance to perform a showcase in front of an audience of industry bigwigs and, in several cases, an agent at the end of it.
Perhaps, when it comes to dramatic qualifications, all we can really do is exercise a degree of hope. And caution.
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Illustration by Narcsville.
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