Going to drama school is a big decision. For many, it’s the first big move towards making a dream come true. Something you may have thought about for a long time and are now taking the first step to make it happen. For some, it’s part of a decision as to what sort of further education you feel you would most benefit from.
Without doubt, the high standard of training that is offered by Britain’s leading drama schools is exceptionally useful to people who enter many walks of life. Yet whatever your reason for heading into the hallowed halls of drama training, it’s a big step.
It’s also an expensive step. Attending interviews for five universities can be done for the price of five day-return train tickets booked in advance. Attending interviews for five members of the new Federation of Drama Schools in Britain can cost upwards of £400, not including travel. Given that a successful first-round audition will almost definitely result in a recall and further travel expenses, it’s an expensive business.
If you’re determined to get in at all costs and are auditioning for all the London drama schools, plus one or two out of the capital, it’s quite possible that you won’t get much change from £2,000 once all those advance rail tickets are booked, together with the odd Premier Inn.
Is there anything you can do to up your chances of success? Can you reduce the odds on getting a place?
Up to this point, something has driven you. Hopefully it’s talent and genuine ability. Sometimes it can be purely enthusiasm and a love for acting.
The Oxford School of Drama promises to audition everyone who applies before the closing date. Applications for next year will be open from September 2017 to Spring 2018. Photo: Quentin Lake
The drama school audition process can be a hard moment of revelation, showing there are lots of other people out there who also want to make a career out of acting and you might not be the best among them. You are the best you there is, however, so putting your best foot forward and giving it a go is worth it. It is better to have tried than to live in regret at a missed opportunity. As has often been said: “You don’t choose acting; it chooses you.”
You’ve selected the number of drama schools you want, or can afford, to audition for. You’ve planned the travel. You’ve read the excellent advice that often features in The Stage on choosing a suitable audition speech, but you’re keen to invest as much as possible in the audition process to try to ensure success.
This is the point when you may decide to turn to coaching. Trying to get a little extra help to make yourself stand out in the crowd. For it is a big crowd these days. More and more people are auditioning for a growing number of courses at Britain’s drama schools. Is it worthwhile to increase your expenditure and enlist the help of someone in the audition process?
There are several ways you can get coaching. If you’re going to be auditioning for drama schools
during your final year in the sixth form, then the first route is probably going to be your drama teacher, or your local youth theatre leader if you’re a member of such a group.
These may well be the people who have encouraged you in your dreams and helped you to apply for drama school in the first place. It’s good to listen to them. This may be a person who is close to you and knows you well, so they know what suits you. Many young people who are still part of the education process like the security of being told what to do. It is much easier to do what your drama teacher tells you to do, rather than to have to decide for yourself.
But just what experience of auditions does this person have? Check that out. Did they audition for drama school themselves? Were they successful? Why do they think the speech they are suggesting you do is a good choice?
A quick internet search will reveal a plethora of acting and audition coaches. Many of them are actors. Many of them are actors who are not inundated with work – they offer coaching on the side. Some of them are excellent acting coaches, some are not. Just because they may be a good actor, it doesn’t follow that they make a good teacher.
I spoke to Rory Feeney and Laurence Mitchell, both of whom are actors who now offer a lot of coaching and teaching. Feeney’s website lists a high level of success in coaching people for drama school. Without being too specific, he also says that he has experience of being on the audition panel at “various London drama schools”. This can be very useful. Quite often, when auditioning for drama school, it’s not the performance of the actual audition speech that brings the nerves and the problems – it’s the set-up of the whole day and not knowing what will be expected of you.
‘If you hire an audition coach, make sure they are unleashing your potential, not simply directing you’
As Feeney says: “Drama schools are not looking for highly polished performers when they audition prospective students. They are looking for bold and adventurous theatrical explorers who can understand and express text and ideas within the writing. They are seeking good-quality raw materials and not a finished product.”
To spend time with someone such as Feeney, who has some insider’s knowledge on such things, can be very valuable if you use his coaching in the right way.
Mitchell has an impressive CV as an actor and has taught at many different drama schools. He leads the Get Into Acting courses at the Actors Centre and, like Feeney, is keen to stress that it’s how the coach works that is important.
“It’s key that the person’s passion is explored; that the coach works with them to extend their versatility, rather than to direct them. The choices must be their own.”
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School holds a two-stage audition process for its full-time acting courses. Preliminary auditions are usually between November and April, with recalls between January and June.
From my own experience of more than 20 years auditioning enthusiastic young people for the National Youth Theatre, an organisation that itself provides a very valid and viable alternative to drama school, coaching doesn’t always deliver results. Quite often, an auditionee would stand in front of you and deliver a speech in which every gesture, every inflection and every look had been carefully worked out beforehand. This is often distracting enough if the person has set these boundaries themself. When the limitations have been set by a drama teacher or an acting coach, the result can often be deadly.
One key test of this is to redirect the speech and ask it to be delivered in a different way. Once, in a dank and dark church hall in one of the furthest parts of our kingdom, I witnessed a particularly rigid interpretation of the opening of Twelfth Night. Every inflection sat on a prearranged tune. I asked the candidate to redo the speech imagining they were standing on a windswept hillside where it was difficult to be heard. An extraordinary piece of mime followed for the next 20 seconds where the candidate was buffeted by the wind and rain. Then, they stood perfectly still and delivered the speech as before, identically, note for note.
If you’re looking for a coach, make sure that you’re working with somebody who is unleashing your potential, not simply directing you in your speech.
Look for someone who has experience of the process that you are about to go through. The fact that they can tell you how long the audition day is and exactly what the workshops will contain may be of more value in real terms than giving you a couple of gestures.
A lot of this advice might be available from sources where you don’t have to pay. If you are going to fork out for an acting coach, then talk to others who have worked with them before. People such as Feeney and Mitchell certainly have experience. But they just might not be for you.
Personally, I think that coaching always shows. Not necessarily in a good way. Good drama school auditioners are looking for potential. Potential that, if some of the drama school showcases are to go by, might not be delivered on. But what they don’t want is the finished product. No drama school can teach you to act, but they can offer you an impressive range of skills and techniques to make you more effective as an actor. The best can also offer an incredibly useful bridge into the profession. Perhaps, for some people, the best way to up your chances is to save the money you would spend on coaching and pay for another audition and train fare.
Given that there are many courses available at leading drama schools these days, getting in is probably less of a problem than you think. Getting on to a good course at a good school is what it’s about. And to do that, they want to see what you can do, not only what you’ve been taught.