The Road Less Travelled By – or ‘So, You Didn’t Go to Drama School’…

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, Spotlight and The Actors Centre and, above all, gives you self confidence.  When people 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 has now  played 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 have hit the big time: Keira Knightley, Milla Jojovich, Ed Speleers and Sam Riley (who was foolishly turned down by LAMDA and RADA) to name but a few. But they truly are lottery winners – what are the lottery odds? Many millions to one?

But even if you are not a lottery winner – there are ways into the business. There are many thousands who didn’t go to drama school working and making a living within the profession.

Many things make us take an unusual route into the industry. What if you’d like to have gone to drama school but life got in the way or 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? In fact 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 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 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 must be other good FE colleges offering classes in your area. Check around. Or a local accredited drama school doing evening classes? Or classes affiliated to your local theatre? Or maybe you simply take a trip to a major city every so often. Or a trip abroad? (Though – beware – you will need a visa to work in the US. And it’s difficult – however easy people make it sound. But we are part of the EU – so if you speak another language…)

If you have the money, you could consider a one-year postgraduate course at an accredited drama school. This may be ideal and most major drama schools offer them. Some places like The Drama Studio specialise in one-year courses – others offer MA degrees. But it is very 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  (where you will have to audition if you are starting out), The Actors Studio UK  (based at Pinewood) Act Up North in Manchester The Actors Guild, (good for meeting casting directors) Transmission workshops in North London and many many more.

There are excellent tutors offering one-to-one classes, people teaching individual techniques and so on. Try everything that appeals, but be 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. Don’t get too dependent on any trainer over a long period of time – a good coach should have one aim in mind – to let you eventually fly free, farther, and with a greater imagination than the teacher. Though you may want to go back to refresh from time to time.

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. Bona fide agents charge a reasonable commission on work they get you. Any agency advertising for clients is unlikely to give you personal management – good agencies are never short of clients. When you’ve gained confidence, get a showreel together. Look on 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. There are a range of companies offering to make you showreels or edit footage including (where I run a 5 day course a few times a year) Try to get something in a good fringe show where you can be seen and write to everyone. Make sure you are in Spotlight It is where all professional actors can be found. Spotlight also makes showreels as well as offering a valuable – and reasonably priced – facility to tape an audition. Self-taping is used more and more by casting directors on behalf of film companies. (You can do it yourself or with a friend but if the chance is really important – splash out on a professional job at Spotlight.)

Make sure you do your networking – write to casting agents on a yearly basis or when you know they are casting something you are right for – keep your ear to the ground as they say… consider being on  or similar. It’s hard for us, when the artistic side seems the most important, to realise we are also running a self-employed business that involves all that entails including accountants etc.

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. Join Equity when you are able  Many actors don’t realise the enormous benefits of that organisation, including public liability, access to lawyers and so on.

It is not easy and it is not cheap to be an actor, 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. In America actors go to workshops and take classes as a routine – we are terrible at it here. And yet – when did you hear of a musician, ballet dancer or sportsperson who didn’t work out? We can’t work out alone – we need other people.

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!

One thought on “The Road Less Travelled By – or ‘So, You Didn’t Go to Drama School’…

  1. The thing I love about the Actors Centre in London is that it is for actors of all levels and you can work your way up. If you are just starting out, they are offering great non-member classes, they are a bit expensive, yet from what I’ve heard from people who’ve attended them, it’s worth the money. In the Intro to Acting course you get to work with many tutors on different basics and you have a show at the end. Personally, I got the Intro membership right away after auditioning (yet I had some training from USA on my resume). Also, if you are an international actor and worry a bit – so many intro members are ESL speakers – in my current class it’s about 70% of int. actors – although in my previous classes the percentage was the other way around, but the point is, you are not alone. So it depends, it’s very individual, based on your previous experience and how you did at the audition. After that course you should be able to become an introductory member (depends how you did I guess) and take as many classes and workshops, from the list you are given, as you like. After some time (I believe 6 months to a year, depends how often you take classes and how much you’ve improved) you can audition for the next level of membership that is intermediate. And from that you can level up to become a full member after some time and amount of classes taken – which is the level people from drama schools and working professionals are at. It takes time, but it’s an alternative to drama school too. At least this is how I experienced it so far, yet there are some staff changes at the moment at the AC, so who knows if there will be any changes or not.


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About Mel Churcher

I am an acting coach, voice coach, actor and director.