Building on recent interviews with actors and actresses as part of his PhD research, Manfredi de Barnard explores how attending a drama school (and possibly a prestigious one) has helped to shape their careers and the broader impact on the whole theatre ecosystem played by training institutions.
In the theatre industry, there are two ‘known knowns’ which sit behind the findings of these interviews.
Firstly, rates of pay in theatre tend to be low, and the working patterns are often “bulimic”. Long hours of rehearsal and intensive periods of performance are typically followed by months without paid work. It is no surprise, then, for actors to build so-called “portfolio careers” juggling acting with other jobs to sustain a more stable income.
Secondly, being considered for and cast in a role isn’t a straight forward or easily navigated process. Job allocation is the reign of informality, and the best way for most actors to get an audition is through their own and their agents’ networks.
Initial findings confirm the hypothesis: drama schools play a role in the career paths of actors beyond the initial training they deliver – arguably because of the opaqueness of the casting process and the difficulties faced by actors in achieving a financially sustainable career.
It is well documented that drama schools facilitate the transition from study to work. Teachers often push young graduates into their professional network through minor roles in personal or peers’ projects. Similarly, students often collaborate, found companies and set up projects once they graduate, building on their experience together in school. Lastly, and arguably most importantly, agents attend drama schools’ end-of-course performances, looking for promising students to represent.
Perhaps less well know is that drama schools often provide a crucial source of reliable income for some actors. As most performers never reach financial sustainability through acting work, teaching others becomes a viable option to transfer their skills.
Drama schools are definitely not “just” training institutions, especially for young graduates. In nurturing students’ social capital, or expanding their personal and professional networks, drama schools emerge as key gatekeepers in the ecosystem. Without them, paid jobs would remain hard to find, let alone access.
However, a startling finding was that many interviewees could connect every single professional role they had played to someone they met at drama school. With tuition fees at typically c.£10K per year (and three times that for international students), and few graduates ever achieving financial sustainability in the industry, are drama schools masking systemic issues around equitable access and wider opportunities in the theatre industry?
The past years of Covid-19 showed the profound precarity of creative labour, especially for performing artists. This needs to be addressed more broadly through government policy and the educational ecosystem to enable more sustainable futures for work in the theatre sector.
 https://www.lamda.ac.uk/all-courses/acting-directing-courses/ba-hons-professional-acting; https://www.rada.ac.uk/courses/ba-hons-acting/
Manfredi de Bernard is studying the career pathways and complex connections between actors and other individuals working in the performing arts sector in the UK as part of his PhD studies at King’s College, London, a collaborative doctoral award funded by the LAHF in partnership with Creative United.