Exit Stage Left: Are graduate showcases an accurate indicator of talent?

 It’s showcase season in London, and across the country this year’s throng of graduates are rapidly reaching the culmination of their training and their introduction to the wider acting world. After an exciting third year of creative endeavours, the drama school showcase looms on the horizon; the business elements of the course are becoming more prominent as and students are asked to consider their unique selling points and deliver them up to the industry. Over weeks and months, material is considered and discarded in a closely monitored process to find the best platform on which to present the school’s students. After three years of stretching themselves  in many different directions, the actor is asked to identify what they do best, and to find the right piece that sells it.

It is a challenging time, and one I found uncomfortable and worrying. The safety of the drama school bubble is suddenly burst, and the feeling of standing alone in an overly saturated business is palpable. I agonised over my choices of material, wondered how it was possible to sum myself up in a minute-long speech, and found the whole thing to be forced and artificial. I can’t say I enjoyed the day itself. It had the feeling of being a cattle market of young talent, parading ourselves around in front of shadowy figures in the dark scribbling notes in their programmes, making snap judgements based on the limited work on show.

Decisions at this stage are beyond the actor’s control. It can come down to appearance or cast type – perhaps agents have a 5’6”  blond already, and their books are full. Even the date of a showcase can count against students if the industry has already made its pick of the graduates that year. Actors can easily sell themselves short – having given accomplished and moving performances in training, they are forced to distil this into an inconsequential monologue that doesn’t rely on given circumstances, doesn’t upset? Hector is an odd choice the audience and primarily entertains.

But the showcase is a means to an end, and must be viewed as such. It’s unlikely one will feel they are doing their best work in this stilted, unnatural environment, but it’s an opportunity that must be seized . For the class of 2012 this is just the beginning, a chance to show a particular element of their wide spectrum of talent, and to embark on a journey that could take them in hundreds of different directions. It must be remembered that you are not selling yourself as one thing alone – casting directors and agents have a good eye for a rounded actor and the imagination to see them in all kinds of different contexts. It is important to know one’s strengths in any industry, but when you start work, you can be called on to do absolutely anything, and you must be prepared from it.

Since graduating in 2010 I have played significantly above and below my age, in a variety of genres, even in musical theatre, something I never expected. An audition can come up for something you may never have considered suitable; you can be called on to interpret multiple roles, try different accents, even drastically change your appearance. This is the spice of life we all seek as actors: the chance to transform and embody characters far from our comfort zones, and it is where a varied and comprehensive drama school training will stand you in good stead. In the days of regional rep seasons actors would “play as cast”: perhaps Romeo one week and Iago the next, creating roles quickly and efficiently, without considering whether this matched their carefully considered “brand image”.

The bottom line is that a showcase is the only time when you have to decide on what you do best. Happily, in the professional world, there are other people to interpret what you might be capable of for you, so it is of paramount importance that you keep an open mind. You never know, you might end up surprising yourself.

Image by John Walker.