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Dramatic failures

13 Mins read

By Izzie Price

Age 14, Catrina Briggs was working a Saturday café job in a small Scottish town with one aim in mind: to go to drama school. This wasn’t an idle dream. She’d spent years poring over theatre programmes, carefully examining the performers’ biographies to see how they’d got there. “I didn’t know of anyone from my village or the Scottish Borders at all who had become a performer”, she states. “It was difficult for me to figure out what the steps were.” 

Eventually, she drew up comprehensive lists of the various drama schools these stars had trained at, and then cross-referenced the schools that came up most often. No surprises: all the schools in her final list were in London. So, she started saving. But Catrina wasn’t saving up for the fees — she’d worry about that at a later date. She was saving, three years in advance, just to be given the chance to audition at one of these exclusive London-based academies that had the power to give her the big break she so desperately wanted. 

A drama school audition is essentially the equivalent of a university interview. Drama schools are higher education institutions in their own right, and graduates of a three-year course consequently hold a degree in BA Acting. In terms of the auditions themselves, applicants are commonly invited to prepare two two-minute “audition pieces” – one from a contemporary play (typically anything written post-1980) and one from a Shakespeare play – and perform them in front of a panel at the school.

macbeth play in book open with sunlight on the book

Macbeth by Shakespeare [Unsplash: Matt Riches]

Panels vary in size but are typically made up of two or three staff members. Applicants may be invited to prepare a song, and be ready to sing it unaccompanied, and may perform their speeches to the panel in front of each other (in audition groups typically made up of around fourteen auditionees), or one by one. 

They may be required to take part in a “workshop” made up of games, movement and vocal work among other disciplines, or a formal interview. They may be asked to do one, or all, of the above in a single audition , but it really depends on the school. Applicants may be recalled once, twice or even four times; many final recall days are usually one or two full days of specialised workshops. In short: drama school auditions are physically and emotionally demanding and can go on for months. 

It’s a common practice among UK drama schools to charge for individual auditions. Every accredited drama school (with the exception of Liverpool Theatre School, which scrapped its audition fee in recent years) charges to audition.

Fees range from £45 at the cheapest, to £65 (GSMD, Guildhall School of Music and Drama ) or even – if you miss the “early-bird” option offered by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and submit your application after 13th December – £76. If an individual decides to audition for three schools, they’re looking at forking out an absolute minimum of £135 –  and that’s just for the privilege of being permitted to walk into the room and show what they can do.

Factor in additional expenditure, such as audition texts and travel costs, and suddenly the decision to start fulfilling a lifelong dream becomes a seemingly never-ending budgeting nightmare. At best, these audition fees are unfair. At worst, they help to make the acting industry an inherently privileged one, in which class and money play as big a role as talent (if not a bigger one).

Take Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Lily James and Carey Mulligan: four of the UK’s most prominent, successful and current actors. All are from privileged backgrounds and all, with the exception of Mulligan, trained at drama school. These actors are four of the UK’s most prominent representatives — and yet, if they are to be taken as reflective of UK society, they fundamentally misrepresent it; the UK is not made up solely of white, privileged people. But the cycle of white, privileged actors winning all the roles continues and is perpetuated by that first test: that of the drama school audition fees. 

exterior of guildhall music and drama school

The exterior of Guildhall school [Flickr: Matt Brown]

Age 17, Catrina Brown had saved enough money to send off applications to four schools. But just a few days later, she fell and broke her back. “All my savings over three years were gone and none of the schools I’d applied to were willing to refund my audition fee.” 

So, she started the uphill struggle all over again; this time with a life-changing injury to contend with. It took nine months for Catrina to get back to full health, although she’d started working part-time in McDonald’s before then.

She took on another job in a bagel shop and then added a job in a dance studio, working on reception and teaching ballet.

“The big draw of the job was that they also allowed me as many free dance classes as I could fit in. It really helped to keep me motivated. I knew that even if I was toasting bagels all day, I’d be able to do ballet, commercial jazz and then contemporary classes that evening.” 

After a year, Catrina was financially stable enough to think about reapplying for drama school. She took on yet another job, temping with a hospitality company, and anything she earned from that was set aside for her auditions. “Each application cost me roughly a day’s wages, so I was really motivated to only apply to the schools I was desperate to go to.” 

All the schools (with the exception of LAMDA, London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art ) held auditions in London. She vividly recalls one audition in particular, when she got a ten-hour coach down to London and then back up to Scotland all in the same day, to avoid paying for accommodation. “It made me feel really out of place. I felt like they were testing to make sure only the most determined working-class people even made it into the audition room, whereas the wealthier people didn’t have to worry about getting back in time to start toasting bagels at 7 a.m.” 

As soon as Catrina was offered a place, she accepted. Whether or not it was her first choice or the top school didn’t matter –she quite literally couldn’t afford to waste this opportunity. “I had a couple of other recall invitations from more prestigious schools but I just couldn’t justify spending a week’s wages to go to two or three more auditions when I had a solid offer from a school I loved.” 

When I was auditioning for drama school myself, the question I was asked most often was: “How important is drama school, really?” 

To illustrate my invariable answer to this question, it’s worth taking a look at the nominees for Best Actress/Actor at this year’s Olivier Awards. Patsy Ferran and Sophie Okonedo are up for Best Actress for their respective roles in Summer and Smoke and Antony and Cleopatra. Both trained at RADA. Katherine Parkinson received a nomination for Home, I’m Darling. She trained at LAMDA as did David Suchet, up for Best Actor for his role in The Price. Simon Russell Beale and Ben Miles are both alumni of GSMD, and both are nominated for their roles in The Lehman Trilogy. I could go on. 

Crowd of people on the red carpet at the olivier awards

Olivier Awards Red Carpet [Flickr: Troy David Johnston]

In other words: to say drama school is important is an understatement. Drama school is of the utmost importance when it comes to making (or breaking) an aspiring actor’s career. “The thought of entering into the world of acting without first attending drama school was deemed a ludicrous if not impossible task by all accounts,” recollects Julia Pagett, a graduate of Drama Studio London (DSL). 

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Going to drama school is no guarantee of stardom, and there are many successful actors who didn’t attend drama school. But for an aspiring actor with no contacts, experience or formal training, going to drama school is their best chance. 

And yet it’s hard – for many reasons: competition is fierce and the training itself is emotionally and physically draining. But before even starting to worry about any of this, the initial hurdle to be jumped over is that of the audition fee. 

This was a hurdle that Jessica Graham, an aspiring actress from Lancashire, wasn’t ever able to vault. “I first thought seriously about applying to drama school three years ago and I knew, instantly, that it would have to be a long-term project in terms of financing — by which I mean I’d have to work for a certain period before I’d be comfortably able to consider auditioning…as I have no family support financially,” she admits.

Very sadly, it was a long-term project that Jessica wasn’t able to see through to the end. “After a while, the odds just stacked up to such a massive degree that even with careful saving there was no way that I’d have ever been able to comfortably afford not just the fees, but loads of other expenditure as well.” 

Put bluntly, these audition fees don’t exactly show drama schools to be a shining beacon of inclusivity; quite the opposite. This is a view corroborated by Labour’s 2017 inquiry into access and diversity into the performing arts. Many respondents here reportedly felt that the cost of auditions is both deeply unjust and unfair, commenting that many other higher education institutions – such as Oxford and Cambridge – interview for places. Not only are these interviews free, but applicants are often housed and fed   at no cost to themselves  for the duration of the interview process. 

At this point, it is important to state firstly that there are audition fee waivers in place at many UK drama schools. “We are acutely aware that for some applicants, the £55 audition fee could present difficulties and we never want the fee to be a barrier to application”, explains Megan Hunter, a spokesperson for Central School of Speech and Drama.

[pullquote align=”right”] “The cycle of white, privileged actors winning all the roles continues” [/pullquote]

“In addition to students engaged through Central’s Outreach work, the school provides free auditions to applicants based in England who may face barriers in accessing conservatoire training. Last year, we awarded over 1,200 free audition vouchers enabling more applicants to attend auditions and access specialist drama training.” 

Many schools also now hold regional auditions, thus reducing travel costs for applicants. “As of 2019 entry we are offering regional auditions/interviews in Manchester, Newcastle, Bristol and Leicester so that applicants don’t have to pay travel and accommodation costs to London”, says Megan.

This is an initiative echoed by Adrian Hall, Principal of the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA): “We are piloting a scheme with two other schools [Italia Conti and DSL] in Newcastle and Doncaster this month which vastly reduces the audition costs.” The scheme in question will see applicants being given the opportunity to audition in Newcastle and Doncaster for all three schools in just one day, for a total of £30. 

Finally, both Megan and Adrian claim that no profit is made from the audition fees. “As 100% of the tuition fees paid by our current students go directly on their training, the institution is unable to subsidise the cost of the audition process from our income”, states Megan, while Adrian outlines that ALRA’s audition fee directly pays for the staff and facilities associated with the audition process.

“ALRA is a non-profitmaking organisation in that all surplus revenue is re-invested in facilities or equipment. There are no shareholders nor dividends to Board members”, he explains. 

That being said, it’s important to turn again to the comparison between drama schools and other higher education institutions. If Oxford and Cambridge can actually pay for their applicants’ accommodation, and other universities interview for places without charging any sort of a fee outside of UCAS, why are drama schools finding it so hard to break from this frankly unethical tradition?

birds eye view of a theatre, red chairs

Birdseye view of theatre [Unsplash: Alev Takil]

Whatever the reasoning behind them, there can be no denying that audition fees are essentially a barrier to be circumnavigated by whatever means the individual has at their disposal, whether that be working full time for a year or applying for a waiver — and this is all before the actual tuition fees. 

Once training at drama school becomes a series of barriers to be crossed by huge swathes of the UK population, what does this say about the inclusivity and diversity not only of drama schools but of the acting industry as a whole? And how do these barriers make young, aspiring actors, those with limited means, feel? Presumably, they reinforce what is, for many, a pre-existing belief: that the world of acting is not for them, but instead for those who are lucky enough to be born into privileged families. 

Steve Green, Founder and Artistic Director of Fourth Monkey, is one person who certainly holds the belief that audition fees are indicative of a deeper, darker reality of the performing arts industry itself. “I would argue [that] as an industry, this feels incredibly impenetrable to so many people for a multitude of reasons,” he says. 

Softly spoken yet direct, and polite yet vehement in his beliefs, Steve is emblematic of an individual striving to bring positive change to an industry that is problematic in so many ways. He founded Fourth Monkey — an alternative to traditional drama school training, where students can enrol on either the Two-Year Rep Accelerated Actor Training Programme or the twelve-month ‘Year of the Monkey’ — as an attempt to provide an environment by which acting could be a more ‘sustainable’ career choice.

“We produce work with our graduates, we employ our graduates so that in itself is a different way of framing the whole ‘circle’, as we view it. It just comes at it from an ensemble perspective.” 

The idea of a young person feeling as though the acting industry isn’t for them fills Steve with a mixture of sadness and outrage, and he is unceasing in his insistence that Fourth Monkey prides itself on providing opportunities wherever possible. For example, their £25 audition fee (already almost half the cheapest drama school fee) is waived for anyone who has previously attended a (free) workshop with Fourth Monkey — workshops they hold at their London HQ and that they tour to schools all over the country as a means of discovering the most promising young talent, regardless of socio-economic background.

[pullquote align=”right”] “Competition is fierce and the training itself is emotionally and physically draining” [/pullquote]

They will also provide scholarship opportunities where possible, for individuals they believe show particular potential. This includes paying for their transport to and from London to audition. 

“This isn’t about — Damian Lewis, this isn’t about…do you know what I mean?” He pauses to collect his thoughts. “This, to me, is about: who is represented in our society? What voices do we hear? And what voices do we want to hear interpret the words of the world’s best playwrights? I don’t want to hear Shakespeare spoken purely in this [he puts on a clipped, upper-class accent] ‘RSC’ voice. I want to hear it rattling around the chest of a young kid from Tottenham — or wherever it might be — because they connect with what it’s about.”

He elaborates further: “It’s about love [as he slaps his hand on the table], or it’s about death, or it’s about whatever. It’s so clear on the page if you engage with it. Let’s hear that on a human level, as opposed to this cerebral, intellectual understanding of what Shakespeare is. Do you know what I mean? ‘This is not for you’. Actually, it is.” 

He is adamant throughout our interview that the audition fees are a part of a much bigger and frankly alarming exclusivity that is an embedded part of the acting industry today. He agrees on the barriers that audition fees present need to go, that something needs to be done — but he maintains that the fees are part of a bigger infrastructure that needs to be torn down and rebuilt.

“I can think of so many privileged, white academics — men! — who are sitting in roles as Artistic Directors in theatres, [and] they’re casting people they feel comfortable with. They’re not creating theatre that has a heart, or a spirit, or a soul. You need people who give a fuck, frankly, who wants to change society, and those people who are genuinely speaking are those people who’ve got something to fight for in life.

So — when you deny those voices, you deny passion on the stage. When you deny those voices having a presence, you deny a visceral experience when you go to the theatre. And that to me is what theatre is about. It’s about you sitting on the edge of your seat, being moved to possibly change something or think about something differently. That’s why it came into being — for social comment. You’ve got all these lovely, comfy, fluffy, white male-driven narratives — fucking boring! But you only change that by changing the whole infrastructure.” 

Steve Green is not alone in holding this opinion. A 2017 paper by academics from LSE and Goldsmiths, investigating the claim that the British acting profession is increasingly dominated by those from privileged class origins, conducted 47 interviews with British actors from a variety of backgrounds.

film crew and director behind camera in countryside scene

Film crew filming actor [Unsplash: Joel Muniz]

These interviews demonstrated that, although in theory, the challenges faced by actors with limited means and those from affluent backgrounds are the same, material inequalities often created structural barriers (such as drama school audition fees) for many actors due to the restricted resources at their disposal. The article concluded that the ability of actors from privileged backgrounds to draw on familial resources is instrumental in kickstarting their careers, not least because it enables them to pursue “cultural legitimate educational pathways” – in other words, drama school. 

Safe to say, then: the audition fees charged by UK drama schools inevitably promote exclusivity, both at drama school and in the wider industry. Yes, there are fee waivers in place. But that’s not really the point. The point is, the barrier has been set up. It’s a barrier that can be navigated, certainly (although there’s no guarantee of this), but it’s still a barrier. And it’s only a barrier to some; others vault it, barely noticing it’s there. 

So the question that we must continue to ask is: what does this barrier say to someone who – in a UK acting industry undeniably dominated by white, upper-middle-class drama school alumni – already worries that the industry is not for them? It reinforces that belief even more. 

If we’re ever to see a genuine, honest representation of our society reflected on our screens and stages, the industry needs to change. The existing infrastructure – which gives precedence to these white, upper-middle-class actors – needs to be torn down, and another needs to be rebuilt. I know this is a monumental request, and one that won’t be achieved overnight, or even over a decade.

But if anyone’s looking for a place to start: have another look at those audition fees. Re-assess how fair, and how necessary, it actually is to be charging between £45 and £76 for what can be a 20-minute audition. Because if an individual already has a niggling feeling that ‘this industry is not for me’, those fees will reinforce that concern. In the words of Steve Green — actually, it is. 

Some names have been changed at the request of the interviewees. 

Featured image courtesy of EaglebrookSchool via Flickr

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