Choosing a drama school is difficult. You’re told that audition day is as much for you to check them out as vice-versa, but they actually know what they’re looking for. For the wannabe wannabe, it can be hard to know what to judge by. The classrooms smell nice, is that important? The students are all in full blacks, what does that mean? The audition panel all look like Professor Trelawney, is that good?
And with audition fees at £30-£60 a pop, you can’t just apply to them all in the hopes that one is secretly Hogwarts. How do you narrow your options from the glossy, bloodless PR exercises that are the prospectuses or school websites?
I’ll make a confession. When I first looked at the prospectus for St Andrews, my alma mater (do we say that?) I thought it looked like the dullest university possible. I applied a few years later anyway and wound up spending four amazing years there. But the prospectus didn’t tell me any of the important things: that they have an incredibly prolific theatre scene, or a library that will charge you for anything it can get away with, or that I wouldn’t enjoy metaphysics as much as I thought. (They also kept the ‘highest student rents outside of London’ thing pretty firmly under wraps.)
You’re never going to know what your priorities will be in two years, so all you can do is gather as much information as possible and settle on your current priorities. Visit the schools if you can. This is a lot easier if you live in London, when there are at least 13 schools within the reach of public transport, than if you live on the coast of rural Fife, where the nearest school is a three-hour bus ride and the rest are an overnight train away.
In Round One, my priority was simple enough. I was nearing the end of a four-year undergraduate degree and I wanted out of full-time education. At the same time, I wanted high-quality training. I trawled the websites of DramaUK (formerly the National Conference of Drama Schools) members and applied to every school with an MA course in acting.
Since then my priorities have changed. I have a more realistic assessment of the benefits of full-time, long-term training. I want a really thorough training from the basics up – and that’s going to take longer than three terms. This time around – Round Two – I’m applying solely to three-year courses.
The things you choose to prioritise will depend on a whole host of personal things. You’ll also need to be practical. Some things to think about include:
Funding and Fees. Remember that not all drama schools are state-funded universities: fees can vary wildly. Check the proportion of students who gain Dance and Drama Awards and see if they have their own in-school system of bursaries and funds.
London or Not-London? You’ll be right in the thick of it down in the capital, but is the fuss (and expense) of big city life what you want?
Focus. You want as wide a range of skills as possible. However, if you think you’d be a great voice actor, make sure they have more than a single radio technique class at the very end of third year.
Practical vs. Academic. If you want to act professionally, those skills need to be practical ones, like ‘how not to lose your voice after a month-long theatre run’ or ‘how to sob your heart out while pretending there’s not a camera and fifteen other people right in your face’. Literary analysis is fun and worthwhile, but not at the top of the list. Drama schools range from departments in Actual Universities to departments in Actual Theatre Companies and the balance they draw between academic and practical work will vary a lot.
Employment Stats. Don’t focus on big names: most of these will have years of hard work and false starts between graduation and their first blockbuster. Instead try to find out what alumni are doing six months, one year, three years down the line.
The four schools I’ve chosen to apply to for Round Two are all pretty diverse. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland has fantastic links both in Scotland and London, but won’t involve the excitement of moving somewhere new. Oxford School of Drama has incredible employment statistics but might be a little isolated. Guildhall School of Music and Drama offers a three-year MA, so I wouldn’t be getting the same qualification twice, but is bang in the middle of the most expensive city in the country. LAMDA is an entirely unknown quantity, with its intimidatingly terse website. What they all have in common are the butterflies I get in my stomach when I think of attending any of them. I’m looking forward to find out more about them, visiting them, and eventually auditioning for each.