Friday, 14 September 2012

Drama School

About this time 9 years ago, I’d just started drama school. I still thought that practice skirts mattered and that as long as I read every single acting theory book on the planet, I’d be employed for the rest of my life. I had my leotard, my character shoes, a copy of Keith Johnstone’s Impro and I was ready to take on the world (or at least a very poor staged version of Antony and Cleopatra.)

It’s very interesting to see that the actress Clare Higgins is in the process of setting up a free drama school for those who are unable to support themselves through training. It’s a great initiative because drama school fees are crippling. They hurt you to the very depths of your bank balance and will pull on purse strings that you didn’t even know existed. And you don’t even have a guarantee of making that money back any time soon. If you’re lucky you might get a wonderful role as soon as you leave and you’ll never have to worry about those pesky fees ever again. However, it’s far more likely that, 9 years on, you’re still nowhere near paying back your student loan and that the money you’ve made so far might come somewhere close to paying back a year’s worth of fees if you’re seriously lucky. Of course, you can get a part time job but the ridiculous hours of drama school make this seriously difficult. When you start adding a part time job to a full time course with more overtime than a boss cheating on his wife, you soon get to the point where you never  get a moment to yourself. And oh my, if you’ve been to drama school then you will understand just how important time away from other people is.

Living in a bubble for three years is tough. You spend over 40 hours a week with the same 30 or so people and, very soon, you start to go mildly insane. It starts with wanting to go on your own to lunch and soon descends into having terrible thoughts about clumsy classmates and strategically placed cheese wire. Personalities and mannerisms that at first seemed so fun quickly become more irritating than someone scratching their nails down a blackboard while you wear a mohair jumper and bite down on a towel. The way they say ‘theatre’ will start to grate on you and it won’t be long before you’re getting into an argument with someone over the fact that they refuse to highlight their lines.
I thought drama school would be a bloody blast. I knew it would be hard work but I thought much of my time would be filled with laughter. And it was fun. But it was bloody tedious too though.  There’s a lot of time spent watching other people struggle through lines, make poor character decisions and have their voice/posture/self esteem ripped to shreds. You see, the problem is that you go to drama school thinking that this is finally your chance to take the limelight for three years but instead it’s just a good education in how the rest of your life is likely to pan out. Drama school is just the first step in teaching you that most of the time you’ll be sharing the limelight with a whole load of other attention-desperate people which means that you’ll actually spend a lot of time lurking in the shadows wondering why you didn’t do a law degree instead. 

The problem is that everyone wants their moment of attention and, because rarely are there projects where you’ll be working solo, they get it. Although I learnt many valuable lessons while at drama school (Don’t get through nearly a whole bottle of vodka the night before a dance showing. You won’t be able to walk after doing two hours of capoiera in bare feet.  And, regardless of what you say, you do care about your casting in every bloody show) the main thing I learnt is every single hang up everyone else in my year had. It’s tedious, tiresome but it’s also a necessary evil. There are thirty five actors/lapsed actors out there and I know every single one of their foibles. I know the ones with sibilant s’s, the ones who can’t read and the ones who are secretly from Birmingham. And the problem is that, unless you’re the pushiest of all the pushy people, you’ll find that there’s someone who is pushier than you. This means that most classes will become about those few people. All this calls for is a deep breath, a loud voice and the guts to annoy people for a few years. I wish I’d done it more and I tell you now, you won’t regret it 

The pushiest people are, I’m afraid, the ones who do well at drama school. They’ll end up being the ones that are helped that bit more and get all the breaks. I spoke to a director at an audition a few months ago and he admitted that he now refuses to direct third year drama school shows because of the politics involved. He told me that although students are told it’s the director making the casting decisions, it’s actually the year heads and acting tutors. They would essentially tell him who to cast in the lead roles, regardless of whether they were suitable or not and it became about which actors they wanted to be seen rather than which ones deserved to be noticed.

But of course, if you asked me if I’d enjoyed drama school then I’d say that yes, I did. If you’re going to drama school this year or next year or any other years that come after that then, chances are, you’ll absolutely love it. There will be days when you’ll to make a tent out of your character skirt and cry under it all day. And then there will be days when you’ll want to run down the street naked screaming to the world about how lucky you are to be spending three years doing something you love in such a protective bubble. But mostly, there will be days whether you really need character shoes in the outside world.

1 comment:

  1. I can fully understand your experience of drama school - I suspect it's much more the norm than many people would like to think.

    I was lucky, I did one year on a post grad, and it was fab! Yes, some of the same problems were encountered (you are Soooooo right about the loudest people being the most visible) (and I rather fear I was one of them!)(but I argue that, in my case at least, I was trying to make sure I got my money's worth - there has to be some benefit of having so much life experience before you go to drama school!)(and also being a gobby mare), but it was also an eye opener to some degree about what to expect within the industry. I reckon, of the 28 (11 boys and 17 girls) on my course, 3 have been regularly employed enough to be truly professional (i.e. not need alternative forms of employment) actors. And all 3 are boys!! This is probably the norm for any drama school - and my course was accredited and the school was in the NCDT, yaddah yaddah yaddah.

    So, drama school is definitely NOT the be all and end all, but it can be a very wonderful experience, if you approach it with an open mind (and large wallet) and the ability to know when something will be useful for you, and when it won't. And also you need to realise that the real hard work (finding work!) starts the minute you leave.