The U.K has some of the finest and most reputable drama schools in the world including the GSA, RADA and the Central School of Speech and Drama, not to mention a fine heritage of producing world leading theatre. But are we producing too many drama school graduates every year for the needs of an industry in which only a minority of actors are working at any one time?
Research shows that it is twice as difficult to get into any of the top drama institutions as it is to get a place at more classically prestigious establishments such as the University of Oxford or Cambridge. Thousands pay to audition for a very limited number of places and competition is always tough. By the time they graduate, the selected students should be some of our brightest future acting talent.
With 20+ students graduating from each school, each year there are many students who may never work professionally in the industry for which they are trained and have paid upwards of £27,000 in tuition fees. According to one survey many young actors abandon the industry within 6 months of graduating, which does not make kind reading for any aspiring drama school student. These graduates enter an industry where over 80% earn less than £10,000 per annum and where over 90% of the workforce is not employed in the industry at any one time. Is enough being done to make students aware of the reality of such a competitive, volatile and ruthless industry?
In days gone by young actors would continue their training and start working in repertory theatre, however these days things seem to hang on the final year showcase and getting an agent off the back of it. Many actors are forced to hold down alternative work in between acting jobs and some simply get stuck and never return, by choice or otherwise.
Do drama schools need to take on less students and focus more on developing a smaller more elite group who may benefit from more rigorous training? Or do they simply need to be more honest and make students aware from the outlook of the true nature of the industry before committing to such expensive training. Drama schools are businesses and as such are obligated to find ways to make a profit. Dissuading people from joining their establishment or taking on smaller numbers would not be a way to do this in their eyes. No academy would run a campaign stating that you are unlikely to get work if you graduate from their school because it would be ridiculously counter-intuitive.
Some might note that drama schools produce thoughtful, confident workers who can adapt to and excel in a number of other industries and job roles. But at the end of the day they didn’t go to drama school at such financial burden to apply those skills to a customer service job or likewise.
We are letting our actors down sending them headfirst into a tirade of uncertainty and potentially crippling problems with many left struggling to afford the cost of living with no sense of job security or direction. The amount of students leaving the industry so soon after graduating shows that many are unable to find a solution and that there is a lack of places to turn for help or advice. Many feel they have no choice but to move away from the industry they trained for and a career they feel passionately about.
More needs to be done to protect some of our most promising young actors who although prepared by their institutions for employment as a thespian are not prepared for not working as an actor: or “resting” as it is often labelled. Equity, the arts and entertainment trade union, offers members advice but more needs to be done by the employers themselves.
The bottom line is that there is no bottom line; the dream of becoming an actor for many will still be pursued and drama schools will continue to capitalise on as many as they can. The truth is somebody has to make it as the next big star even if many fail and fade away: this is not an industry short of dreamers to exploit.
Header image rights; Chris Smart