Do you have to go to drama school to be an actor? Well, if you were under 25 and asking me that question, I would certainly recommend you to do so. Life is much harder if you don’t. There are not the same opportunities in the business to apprentice as there used to be. The repertory system has almost gone and the big companies don’t make it easy for you to ride up the ranks. More and more shows are looking for ‘names’ in order to fund their projects. So it is hard to break in.
An accredited drama school offers you three years of intensive practical training, putting in muscle memory and automatic techniques. It gives you are a rare opportunity to be brave, to fail, to experiment, to work in depth over a long time-frame and, at its best, sets you up for a lifetime’s work.
It also, in theory, helps you to get an agent through showcases, offers you some career advice (not usually enough), a little screen training (not usually enough), enables you to join Equity and The Actors Centre and, above all, gives you self confidence. When they ask you where you trained, you can announce it with pride knowing you are part of an illustrious alumni and that the very fact that you were accepted into that school means that your prospective employer is guaranteed that you have talent and commitment. Having said that, it is still hard to break in!
But are there other routes? There are the lottery winners – the lucky few who are discovered in their sixth form school play, like Henry Cavill, who I coached on his first job on ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ in 2000 and is now about to play Superman. Or the ones that the newspapers claim have been ‘discovered’ in H&M or on a beach in Cannes. There are many other young actors with whom I have worked on their first major films and who, through luck and talent, hit the big time: Keira Knightley, Milla Jojovich, Ed Speleers and Sam Riley (who was foolishly turned down by LAMDA and RADA). But they truly are lottery winners – what are the lottery odds? Many millions to one?
What else? What if you’d like to have gone to drama school but life got in the way, finances didn’t allow you to or you decided late in life. What if you are moving disciplines – I have worked with many sports people, singers, dancers and models who have moved into acting, having already been successful in their own fields and who bring with them valuable skills. What then? Well a very big percentage of working actors didn’t go to drama school or do formal training. They learnt on the job and supplemented it by doing workshops, short courses and individual training.
So what other training is around? There is the wonderful City Literary Institute www.citylit.ac.uk that offers great teaching at low cost and some evening and weekend courses. They are very popular and you have to apply the minute the new term starts taking applications. The only down side is that there will be a lot of second language speakers and not everyone is at the same level, but, nevertheless, it’s a marvellous second option.
Morley College http://www.morleycollege.ac.uk/departments/drama also offers a range of great classes with highly professional teachers, both ongoing and as workshops. Again, get in quickly as it is very popular. Like the City Lit, the training is highly affordable and can be done as evening and weekend courses.
I have always been London-based so I don’t know much about other regions but there may be other good FE colleges offering classes in your area. Check around.
If you have the money, you should consider a one-year postgraduate course at an accredited drama school. This could be ideal and some places like The Drama Studio http://www.dramastudiolondon.co.uk/ specialise in one-year courses – others offer MA degrees. But it is expensive, a year goes very quickly and, to be honest, the showcases are not so well attended by agents as the three-year courses. Most of the famous drama schools like RADA, LAMDA, Guildhall and Central offer summer schools and a few do evening classes, so you may find these useful to open up your training and to put a toe into the water to test whether you want to pursue the drama school post-grad option.
Once you are in the business, there are places to hone particular skills and do ongoing workshops like The Actors Centre http://www.actorscentre.co.uk/classes_members.asp (where you will have to audition if you are starting out), The Northern Actors Centre in Manchester http://actorscentrenorth.org/ The Actors Guild www.actorsguild.co.uk, transmission workshops http://transmissionworkshop.com/ and Caravanserai http://www.caravanseraiproductions.com/
There are many excellent tutors offering one-to-one classes, people teaching individual techniques and so on. Try many things, by all means, but be very wary of signing up for ongoing classes at a non-accredited school. Some are fine and altruistic but many have shoddy teaching, uncommitted participants and are trying to exploit the hungry. So do your homework.
A full range of classes and teachers can be found in ‘Contacts’ published by Spotlight and in ‘The Actors Yearbook’ (Methuen) edited by Simon Dunmore (who vets his list). A word of advice – don’t get ‘hooked’ on one method or technique – there are a million ways to train. Keep flexible. And don’t get dependent on any trainer – a good coach should have one aim in mind – to let you eventually fly free, farther, and with a greater imagination than the teacher.
It’s hard to get an agent when you are starting out. (It can be difficult, even if you’ve been to drama school). Never pay an agent money. Bonafide agents charge a reasonable commission on work they get you. Try to get a showreel together. Look on www.shootingpeople.com for low or no fee films and the film colleges for student films and try to get some good footage. Have it edited professionally and offer it to agents. Try to get something in a good fringe show where you can be seen and write to everyone. Make sure you are in Spotlight www.spotlight.com. It is where all professional actors can be found.
Some of the most successful people make things happen. As well as networking, doing enormous research and training and working on their craft, they set up their own projects. They mount shows in the Fringe (which can be expensive), take shows to the Edinburgh fringe, tour their one-person plays or get together with young filmmakers to make short films or low budget movies. They write scripts, direct others, teach (a great way to learn) and find a million ways to keep their passion alive. They usually have part time jobs going to support themselves as well.
It is not easy and it is not cheap, but if it is your passion and you have something to offer the market (after all it is a business as well as an art) then go for it for all you are worth. There are many paths to choose – you are selling a unique brand – you have life-skills and experiences to offer that can only enrich your work. And work is your best training ground. To be honest, a month’s solid work probably offers as much training as a year at a college. But you must be careful not to pick up bad habits that will limit you, so keep up a lifetime’s exploration too.
It is better to keep growing and to do on-going training all your life than to go to a three-year course at eighteen and then think you are trained and that’s it. In the best of all possible worlds you would do both, but if you don’t go the conventional route, you are in good company. So if that is how it works out, never feel you have to apologise for it or feel you have ‘cheated’.
And there are a few plusses about not having a conventional training. It makes you resilient. It makes you self-sufficient. Some kinds of training can make actors head-bound and beset by ‘rules’. They try to follow internal decisions, directing themselves as they go. That means they are not brave or spontaneous or ‘in the moment’.
It is only the unnatural side you need to train for – using words that aren’t your own, ‘hitting the mark’, learning text, vocal skills, freedom of movement and so on. And also to enrich your palette, learn your own patterns so you can find new possibilities and to keep growing. The ‘natural’ side, you’ve had since you were a kid – the ability to believe absolutely in an imaginary world and to really be in that world, feeling, reacting, trying to get want you want. That, no one can teach you!