Deciding to do an MA (Master of Arts) in acting is an intensely individual decision which people arrive at for a host of different reasons. Perhaps you’ve done a degree in a different subject altogether, but through engagement with a drama society, you’ve discovered that acting is your calling. An MA can offer a stepping stone to the acting profession and give you the training and connections you’ll need to succeed.
Or maybe you skipped university altogether and found your way into acting through a different route – music, dance, or something entirely unrelated. After a number of years as a professional performer, you might want to deepen your skills and apply academic rigour to your practical experience.
Many will go into an MA programme directly from acting-related BA courses. Perhaps you want to focus on an area of acting you didn’t get to fully explore in your BA. You might want to deepen your connections or continue studying rather than dive into the daunting freelance lifestyle. A lot of actors struggle through their 20s and truly come into their own in their 30s and beyond – so it’s a good opportunity to use some of that time honing your craft rather than your bartending skills.
Part of the attraction of doing an MA at a prestigious school comes from the belief that agents will flock to the final shows, but this is not always the case. So, if you’re only interested in attending courses to get an agent, you might want to reconsider basing your decisions solely on this hope. But whatever your reasons, the UK offers exceptional choice and world-class standards in the MA programmes that are on offer. A range of factors will influence your choice, whether geographical, academic focus, or time (most MAs take one year but some take two or even three), but Backstage has picked out a selection of courses that deserve to be on your radar.
- London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA)
- The Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA)
- Guildhall School of Music & Drama
- Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts
- Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA)
- East 15 Acting School
- Guildford School of Acting
- The Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA)
- Manchester School of Drama
- Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance
- Royal Birmingham Conservatoire
- The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama
- Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS)
- Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD)
London-based LAMDA is the oldest and one of the most famous drama schools in the UK, with alumni that include Benedict Cumberbatch, Donald Sutherland, and David Oyelowo. They don’t offer a one-year MA for UK students (it’s only for international students), but there is a two-year MFA (Master of Fine Arts), where students work in “small-group classes and will receive constant, personalised feedback and support to advance your skill-set and accelerate your career.” The first year covers core disciplines of acting, voice, movement, and music, and includes screen, audio, and new-writing projects alongside material from Jacobean plays to contemporary theatre. The second year “will prepare you to become an independent and stand-out professional within the industry.”
It’s also worth mentioning that LAMDA’s new boss Sarah Frankcom has been at the forefront of improving accessibility for low-income actors, and LAMDA has recently slashed audition fees.
ALRA has campuses in both London and Manchester, giving students the option of where to be based while having the ability to enjoy facilities and events at both. Their 15-month MA Professional Acting course comprises three terms of teaching followed by two “performance terms,” which includes recording a film, a theatre production, and showcases in both campuses.
ALRA has a reputation as a no-nonsense drama school delivering well-rounded graduates, and their MA “includes most aspects of a drama school BA Acting course, but is delivered at a fast pace.”
Masters students at Guildhall study for three years alongside the bachelor-level students, taking on additional coursework to better-hone their critical and reflective skills. For example, first-year courses in acting, voice, and movement are taken alongside undergraduates, while specific modules including critical evaluation are taken at Masters level. A “unique personal development plan” also has a hand in a student’s first and third year. In the first, student actors evaluate their desired journey and goals through their master’s studies; in the third, they reconfigure those goals to make a personal career plan beyond the university’s London campus.
This London-based academy has an international reputation as one of the UK’s very best training grounds for actors, musical theatre performers, directors, and theatre technicians. Spanning three terms and 45 weeks, the institute’s intensive master’s performance programme for post-graduate level actors emphasises that students must come in “prepared for hard work.” Students can expect the first two terms to include performance projects including two contemporary plays and one Shakespearean work, plus course study provided by fellow actors, directors, and other industry professionals. Lessons cover skill sets that performers of theatre – musical theatre and straight play alike – must know in order to succeed: acting, screen acting, approach to text, dance, improvisation, movement, radio technique, sight-reading, singing, stage combat, and voice. For the programme’s third term, master’s students participate in film and TV workshops and fine-tune their auditioning technique and their CVs, all in an effort to properly prepare them for the professional world. A fully-staged production open to the public is also developed and performed in addition to a professional end-of-year showcase.
Validated by King’s College London, RADA’s one-year, four-term MA Theatre Lab course enhances and develops Masters-ready actors’ skills through a post-Stanislavsky lens. Educators’ experimental approach and emphasis on collaboration instils acting, both physically through movement and character creation, and mentally through in-depth theoretical study. RADA is centred on three “strands,” beginning with an understanding of the practice and methodology of acting and performance. While the school’s foundation is in Stanislavsky’s system, also expect to befriend the contributions of Brecht, Copeau, Meyerhold, and Grotowski. Courses further contextualise experimental theatre from the international stage while also delving into new writing and performance since the early 1900s. The second strand is a development of performance by fine-tuning of an actor’s natural strengths and by pinpointing their weaknesses, ranging from singing to creative writing to improvisation and more. The third and final strand is scene study, which is present throughout the year and provides a playing field where students can interact and experiment with the knowledge they’ve gained in the classroom and elsewhere.
Voted first for Drama in the Guardian 2020 University Guide, the east London and Essex-based drama school has been coaching drama students for over 50 years, growing from its Stanislavski roots to embrace approaches from diverse practitioners such as Michael Chekhov, Rudolf Laban, Jerzy Grotowski, Jacques Lecoq, and Peter Brook.
East 15’s 12-month MA Acting course from its Loughton campus offers to give you “a personal methodology based upon East 15’s unique practices.” In other words, it places an emphasis on developing one’s own practice rather than following a set method. Also of note is their open-mindedness about accepting promising students that may not have a degree or acting experience, while also drawing their intake from professional actors who wish to extend their range and increase their professional contacts.
With 80 years’ heritage and a reputation as one of the world’s premier musical theatre conservatoires, Guildford School of Acting (GSA) boasts a 22-seat on-site theatre and alumni like Bill Nighy and Michael Ball. Their 12-month MA Acting course offers practical actor training focusing on technical skills, and it includes a range of practical projects including screen acting and public performance. Entry is restricted to those already with bachelor degrees in relevant subjects as well as “previous engagement” with drama, theatre, and performance. However, they can overlook those criteria for applicants “who can demonstrate exceptional talent” on a case-by-case basis.
Described by co-founder Paul McCartney as “one of the best performing arts schools in the world,” LIPA is a young institution that has nevertheless received gold status for teaching excellence. The one-year, full-time MA Acting (Company) course has been created in association with the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse theatres, and is a practically-minded programme that offers “a thorough one-year professional experience of working in and developing work for touring and finding audiences.” The prospectus adds that it’s “an opportunity to develop or reinvigorate yourself as an actor and create work for touring.” While the emphasis is very much on active working within a company, modules include Professional Development, Inquiry & Critique, Advanced Acting Techniques, and Professional Performance. It’s worth noting that their graduates are likely to go on to form their own theatre companies.
Part of Manchester Metropolitan University, the Manchester School of Drama offers an MA in Contemporary Performance which can be taken in one year full-time or two years part-time. Focusing on contemporary and innovative performance practice, the course is aimed at artists and graduates working within experimental theatre, contemporary dance, performance art, dance theatre, and physical theatre. Seven core units include Professional Practices, which looks at the professional contexts that exist for contemporary performance, such as state support for the arts, arts marketing, and arts networks. Maintaining a grounding in the practicalities of an arts career, the course-makers claim that graduates will leave “able to operate as makers of informed and sophisticated contemporary performance, as well as to understand some of the key professional and critical contexts in which these practices exist.”
Situated in the south London suburb of Sidcup, Rose Bruford is an acting conservatoire which sets out to promote “creativity, experimentation, diversity, and excellence,” and it is lucky enough to count among its former students the likes of Gary Oldman, Rosalie Craig, Stephen Graham, and Tom Baker.
Their MA programmes include Collaborative Theatre Making, Actor Musicianship, Theatre for Young Audiences, Devised Theatre, and Actor and Performer Training, a 13-month full-time practice-based course for those seeking “intensive advanced training as actors and performers alongside rigorous academic study and performance research.” The MA sets out to integrate “traditional text-based conservatoire training and practices with the physical collaborative approach that has grown out of eastern and central Europe over the last 60 years,” and as a part of this, it includes an expedition to Georgia in south-east Europe for ethnographic and cultural research.
It’s worth noting that over 90% of students in 2014 (the most recent year we have data for) were from the state sector.
With almost 4 million people, Birmingham is the UK’s largest metropolitan area after London, so it’s no surprise that it has a prestigious conservatoire to match. Housing a 500-seat concert hall alongside a recital hall, jazz club, and organ studio, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire has an international reputation which, they tell us, celebrates diversity.
The conservatoire’s roots are firmly in music, and that is still evident. However, their 2017 merger with Birmingham School of Acting led to Royal status and a vibrant, world-class acting faculty, ranked as a top 10 university in the UK for Drama and Dance in the Guardian University Guide 2020.
The MA Acting course, based in the city centre, has sent past graduates onto the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and many other prestigious roles and companies. The intensive, one-year course is largely practical and studio-based, “focusing on the practical application of acting, voice, movement and singing,” while developing flexibility “to confront issues that you may experience within your profession.” And not to be sniffed at – Birmingham’s course is also the first anywhere to use the university’s new £62m TV production facilities.
Known in the industry as Central, the London powerhouse conservatoire was founded in 1906 and boasts alumni that include Vanessa Redgrave, Harold Pinter, Sir Laurence Olivier, as well as the more contemporary Riz Ahmed, Kit Harington, and Andrew Garfield.
Their list of MA programmes is almost as extensive – students can choose from a range of MA courses including Classical Acting, Contemporary Acting, Acting for Screen, Applied Theatre, and Music Theatre. With a leaning towards academic rigour, the Contemporary Acting MA is “a creatively, physically and intellectually demanding, advanced level, conservatoire acting programme specialising in contemporary plays.” The course addresses the actor’s “relationship with the writer,” exploring Shakespeare, Chekhov, Stanislavski, and on into new writing and the development of new work.
Central is well connected to the industry, and they particularly encourage applications from under-represented groups.
The RCS claims to be the only place in Europe where you can study all of the performing arts on the one campus, and there’s no denying the breadth of their offering. Located in buzzing Glasgow and counting Richard Madden and James McAvoy among its alumni, RSC students have the benefit of “the Ath” – their own 344-seat theatre – in which to hone their acting chops, and the conservatoire is consistently ranked within the world’s top 10 performing arts institutions.
MA courses include the popular Masters of Education in Learning and Teaching for those interested in exploring teaching while keeping their options open to perform, and it’s available part-time. The MA Musical Theatre is “an intensive blend of high-level vocational education and creative opportunities for students,” combining “project-based learning experiences with focused skills classes in acting, voice, singing and dance.” The MA/MFA Classical and Contemporary Text is “a vocational postgraduate programme of study for emerging artists,” aiming to “enable actors and directors to acquire practical skills, knowledge and understanding in relation to contemporary/new writing and classical text.”
The RWCMD is the national conservatoire of Wales, and is a world-class institution with direct links to organisations including the BBC and Welsh National Opera. It also boasts small class sizes, with just 10 people a year accepted onto its Masters course. Cardiff is a significant creative hub and includes the BBC’s largest drama production centre outside London.
The MA Acting for Stage, Screen & Radio is a 13-month, full-time course that incorporates practical studio and rehearsal-based training with core acting skills workshops and mentorship in the initiation, production, and performance of original work – and this emphasis on collaboration and initiation could explain why alumni like Rob Brydon and Ruth Jones have gone on to become writers as well as performers.
Looking for work after graduation? Check out our UK audition listings.