As would-be thespians show their talents, Lyn Gardner spots deepening rifts in drama education. Do some students do too much study and not enough treading the boards?
Tonight and tomorrow, 44 young actors will step into the spotlight for what could be the most important three minutes of their lives. All have been handpicked from the graduating year of the leading conservatoire drama schools that are members of the Conference of Drama Schools (CDS). Each of the 22 men and women will have less than 180 seconds on stage to perform and impress a panel of casting directors and leading actors in a competition run by Spotlight, the UK's largest actors' agency.
These young actors are already winners. A report from the CDS last year highlighted the fact that it is twice as hard to get into a leading drama school as it is to get into Oxbridge, with the ratio of applicants to places averaging seven to one.
These young people have not only beaten off the competition to win their places, but are now deemed by their schools and teachers to be the cream of the crop. But how well prepared are these young actors to succeed in a profession in which 80% earn less than £10,000 a year, and is three years at drama school still the best way to enter that profession? It's a question worth asking when it increasingly seems that the entirely untrained can just stroll up for an audition and get a shot at stardom in a reality casting TV show.
As the theatre producer Richard Jordan says wearily: "Even among drama school students, when you ask people what they'd like to do after graduation, some answer that they want to be famous. It's a big problem in the industry that those reality shows make it seem as if being an actor is easy, and that you don't need the training. But if you're going to survive, then being properly trained is crucial, not just in acting technique but also in the techniques of getting a job, building a career and surviving in the longer term. Lots of young actors are no longer in the profession just six months or a year after leaving training. They may be very good actors, but they haven't got the skills to survive the harsh realities. Drama schools need to teach those skills too."
Getting that training is crucial, but finding the right course can be confusing. There have never been quite so many routes into the profession. Pick up a copy of The Stage and you will find it full of adverts offering full and part-time training - at a price.
Some of these courses will be excellent, but some - as Matthew Lloyd, artistic director of the Actors' Centre, complained last year - will be turning out actors with substandard training. In any case, drama school is no longer the only option. Whereas in the past, if you wanted to act, a university degree would be followed with a postgrad year at drama school, the proliferation of performing arts university courses is producing a generation of young performers and theatre-makers who are completely bypassing a traditional drama school training and going straight from university into the profession. With drama schools now offering degrees and universities offering more practically based courses, it's sometimes hard to distinguish between the merits of each.
"Yes," says Iain Reekie, the programme director at the highly respected Sidcup school, "we do offer degrees in acting, and Rose Bruford was one of the first drama schools to go down that route, which has subsequently become the norm. But 80% of the course is practice-based, and it always will be, whereas many universities are offering courses that are mainly academic but have a practical element. I think what we've seen is a shift that now allows the academic world to recognise that practice-based work is just as valuable. "We see no reason why our degrees shouldn't have the same kudos and respectability as a degree in engineering." That may be true, but while the prospective employer of an engineer will almost certainly want to know the candidate's class of degree, I've never heard of an agent or casting director enquiring whether someone auditioning has a first or a 2:2.
Reekie agrees, saying that "at showcases people are looking at the person in front of them, not the degree they've got". He adds, however, that in his experience those with good degrees often do better in the profession. This might be because the academic component has made them strategic thinkers, something he believes is crucial if "we are going to produce actors who don't just service the industry like puppets, but also help to change it".
Jonathan Holloway, a theatre director for over 25 years who had experience of the higher education system when he was briefly head of performing arts at Middlesex University, says what is needed is a system that "brings together a university training that produces performers with a capital P with the skills-based training of drama schools that produces actors with a capital A".
He says: "When I've worked with university trained actors they sometimes lack basic skills, but sometimes when you are working with drama school-trained actors you become aware that they've never been in a devised show and don't know how to work in that context.
"There is now a real tension about the way actors are being trained, because the industry has entered a new era. Actors can't just act any more. If they want to work they have to be entrepreneurial: they have to make work, build companies and find spaces for that work. The graduates from universities are good at this. They are able to make context for the work, not just work itself."
Adam Jennings, who has just graduated from a leading drama school, believes that the pressure on drama schools to fulfil the accreditation demands of degrees, and to assess and mark students, can compromise training because "there's such an emphasis on achieving grades".
He also believes that too often students are not encouraged to think beyond the final showcase.
"It's as if the entire training is geared to that one night and getting an agent, when what we need to know is how the business really works, and how we can make it work for us. It feels as if we're being trained like soldiers to fight a war. I sometimes feel as if I've spent three years being trained to be directed, rather than to think for myself. In hindsight, I can perhaps see the benefit of university."
Iain Reekie knows drama schools have to be responsive to the changing demands of the industry, which might mean looking at the things that universities do well.
"We're not trying to be like them. It's not a case of trying to keep up with the Joneses, because at the Conservatoire schools we're offering something very different. But the days of the old conservative training are past - we must put each individual student and their creativity at the heart of the process, and that means we must have the funding for contact time with each student, so that they can learn to take responsibility for themselves.
"Training an actor is as intensive as training a doctor. Of course we all value doctors, but perhaps we also have to value what artists bring to society too, and fund their training properly. It's a leap of faith, and we have to take it."