The eyes of many hopeful performers finishing school or sixth-form college in July will be set on that sought-after drama school BA. But deciding to follow a three year degree course after just A-level and youth theatre experience is no small commitment – as Mairi Hayes, Community Drama and Diploma Manager at London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, points out, “it’s a big step to go into three years of training, so you want to make sure you’re doing the right thing.”

For this reason, some are instead choosing to test the waters of a professional training environment on a diploma course. Central – whose alumni include household names from Judi Dench to Kit Harrington – offers a popular Gap Year Diploma to help students develop a sense of their career ambitions, improve their performance skills and hone their audition technique before progressing to full-time study. As Polly Waldron, Central BA student and ex-Gap Year-er puts it, the Diploma offers “a glimpse into drama school life without the full-on intensity – it gives you a few more tools. For me, it was the perfect first step on the ladder.”

The Gap Year programme covers practical skills of voice, movement and textual analysis, taught by experienced in-house practitioners and internationally recognised visiting workshop leaders – culminating in a final performance which, Hayes stresses, is not an industry showcase for acting agents, but a more relaxed opportunity to “consolidate the year’s learning in a studio setting.”

“There are a lot of skills on offer from the various, incredibly talented people we were allowed to be in a room with”, Waldron remembers. In the past, fellow former student David Thackeray adds, these have included “stage combat, and even animal studies with Jacques Lecoq.” Both found that learning these approaches allowed them to move beyond the superficial acting they’d picked up at school, and discover deeper strategies for embodying different characters. “It was a case of finding the basics,” Waldron reflects, “getting rid of the ‘idea’ of acting and discovering the exciting stuff underneath.” Thackeray agrees: “This course really helped me find ways of portraying a richer character with more dimensions, rather than a stereotype.”

Unlike the time-consuming foundation courses offered by some drama schools, Central’s Gap Year Diploma allows students to pursue different projects – or earn some money – during their first year out of education, as classes mainly take place on weekends. “We expect people to commit to the course – it’s not a drop-in, drop-out situation,” Hayes explains, “but it is an opportunity to get a bit of life experience as students have their weekdays free.” Waldron took advantage of this timetable to take part in theatre-in-education productions, whilst Thackeray worked full-time at Sainsburys to pay for the course and his BA auditions. As all creatives know, it’s often these hours outside of training that really influence your craft – “I had to work as well,” Polly thinks back, “temp jobs and waitressing. I got a lot of material through that!”

Places on the Gap Year Diploma course are awarded by audition. “We ask people to prepare a modern monologue”, says Hayes, “so I’d give the advice that most people do which is to choose something that shows you in an honest light – a piece that you feel a genuine excitement about and a character you connect with.” Any definite don’ts? “Unless you’re amazing at accents maybe don’t try a seventy year-old North American woman – choose something that shows what you can do.”

Young actors needn’t fly all the way to India on a gap year to find themselves, it seems – by the end of the year, Hayes considers, “the growth is really noticable in every student, and they mature both as actors and as people.” In fact, it could just be more fulfilling than downing suspiciously luminous cocktails at one of Thailand’s notorious full moon parties – “acting’s fun,” Waldron says, “and that’s not something people often focus on. But this course allowed me to realise that, because it gave me the confidence to just get up and do it.” Not that it’s all fun and games; “the rehearsals were physically demanding and mentally,” Thackeray admits, “I had never experienced anything like it – but I knew I was hungry for more.”

Find out more about the Gap Year Diploma on their website.