Using the example of one student theatre company which is making work, Hannah Elsy asks if drama school is necessary for aspiring actors, or if regular universities have something to offer, too.
Going to drama school is not the only way into the theatre industry. Places are becoming increasingly coveted, but do not always provide you with a necessary platform for success. There is no guarantee of getting an agent after your final third year showcase. As the cost of higher education and living soars, many future theatre professionals are choosing to qualify in arts or humanities subjects at academic universities and getting their ‘training’ and contacts in an extracurricular theatre society. As well as giving the individual plenty of time (and lovely Student Union funding) to make those initial mistakes inherent in creative development, a BA arts or humanities degree might give a greater chance of job security should the theatre career (for any reason) go wrong. Universities such as Oxford, Warwick and Durham have their own on-campus theatres, which are well regarded in their regions in their own right as hubs of culture. But even so, is it possible to make the transition from an academic university straight into the industry, or is the drama school experience essential?
The University College London (UCL) Runaground Society is one group from which many members are hoping to transfer into formal work without any training, and therefore are working just as hard as any drama school. Runaground is currently in Edinburgh with three plays: Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge; The Winterling by Jez Butterworth and The Walls by Lisa Dillman. From speaking to Nick Flooks, the Director of A View from the Bridge, it is clear that the value of small student companies like Runaground is that the actors have to do all of the backstage and production jobs needed to put on the show, and therefore are learning on the job rather than just focusing on acting. Flooks describes taking A View from the Bridge up to Edinburgh as hard labour, and says that it is essential that all of his cast members are resourceful. If things go wrong technically, like props breaking or misplaced costumes, it falls entirely to the actors to find quick solutions. Every member of the team has to be extremely versatile and determined to make the show happen, no matter how small the job.
A View from the Bridge cast members Marcus Bazley and Rob Thomson believe that Runaground’s ability to create a compelling adaptation of a classic play comes from its close engagement with the text – skills honed in academic textual analysis at university. This is not to say that Runaground skimps on practical training. Using workshop techniques that have been collected, magpie-like from a variety of professional sources, it tailors its workshops and rehearsals specifically to suit the group currently present. Regardless of a lack of formal training, there is a desire from Flooks and cast members to make their shows as professional as possible.
Following the successes of companies such as Belt Up (from York University) and the Exeter University Comedy Society, UCL Runaground is debating setting up a breakaway graduate company composed of ex-members of Runaground who are beginning to work professionally. The advantage of such a company would be that it is continuing to work with people with whom creative relationships have already been established. There is also a ready supply of younger talent from Runaground company still based in UCL. Perhaps it is not your drama school training that will get you work in the theatre industry, but the contacts you have – contacts that can be made anywhere.