The Australian Drama School That Encourages Students to Take Risks + Experiment

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Photo Source: Ah Tuzenbach, A Melancholic Cabaret; NIDA October Season of Student Productions 2018

When it comes to getting a top-notch performing arts education in Australia, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better option than Kensington-based NIDA, the National Institute of Dramatic Art. In fact, NIDA was ranked #10 on The Hollywood Reporter’s list of top drama schools in the world in 2018 and with alumni like Cate Blanchett and Toni Collette, it’s no surprise as to why. 

Whether you’re based in Australia or want to travel down under for your performing arts education, NIDA is known for their Bachelor and Master’s programs, and courses in everything from acting to costume to stage management. 

Recently, Backstage spoke to Dr Amanda Morris, Executive Director, Conservatoire, about what sets NIDA apart from other schools on a global scale, the importance of positive energy, and why the best education comes from students producing their own work.

Dr Amanda Morris

Tell us a little about what you do at NIDA.
I am the Executive Director, Conservatoire at NIDA.

My role is to provide focused leadership for the suite of higher education programs at both the Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts levels. They include the courses that NIDA has become well known for, including Acting, Costume, Design for Performance, Properties and Objects, Scenic Construction and Technology, and Technical Theatre and Stage Management. It also includes the Master’s courses in Cultural Leadership, Design for Performance, Directing, Voice and Writing for Performance.

What are some of the main tenets of NIDA?
Like New York’s Juilliard School, NIDA is practice-led. NIDA’s practice-based Conservatoire model lies at the heart of our training, meaning that students learn by producing work. All the students learn about how to develop their artistic practice and craft via industry professionals, and we produce around 17 student productions each year as well as showcases, readings, rehearsals, workshops, and exhibitions that challenge our students’ capability and artistry.

The key strength of NIDA is its ability to allow students to extend and flex their artistic and creative muscles. There are not many schools where students can create in six different working venues of different sizes, capabilities, acoustics, and spatial qualities. At NIDA, they can engage with different directors’ styles and processes that challenge them—within a safe environment—to try something out and experiment, take risks, and be courageous.

Why is it so important for students to learn from staff members who are still actively working/performing themselves?
The NIDA Conservatoire provides a challenging and safe learning environment for emerging artists to study specialised disciplines with current professionals who are masters of their craft. Our teaching staff maintains their practice and guest artists work with students in workshops and productions so that students develop industry-relevant skills and practices, and extensive local and global networks... The NIDA Conservatoire connects students to the broad arts and entertainment industry, and NIDA alumni develop its future shape.

What advice do you have for international acting students who are interested in working in Australia?
Actors Margot Robbie and Mel Gibson visited NIDA recently to talk to our students and they both spoke about the amazing opportunities in Australia. We recognise the industry here is not as vast as in the U.K. or U.S., but the facilities at Fox Studios in Sydney and MGM on the Gold Coast are just two examples of the infrastructure here where content is being created for Netflix, ABC, and commercial television.

Our independent and established theatre culture is vibrant with companies across Australia producing new work, musical theatre, and large-scale productions. For international students keen to develop a broader cultural perspective and wanting to get a start in the industry, Australia is an exciting prospect.

What about advice for Australian acting students looking to make it on a global scale?
Australian actors have an amazing reputation in the global industry and we are so proud that many of our NIDA students have taken on extraordinary roles across the globe. My advice to any acting student looking for an international career is the same: don’t be afraid to put yourself forward. It’s important to build your networks through other Australian performers, directors, producers who’ve succeeded in getting work in the country you’re targeting, etc. Talk to those who are already there; develop your professional connections. It’s often through your network that you’ll find an opportunity arise.

My advice overall, though, is to stay authentic to who you are because that’s what connects with audiences. And develop your capacity to network effectively to be in the running for roles.

What advice would you give a teen deciding whether to pursue a performing arts degree?
A performing arts degree gives you the opportunity to advance your knowledge, develop skills and practice, and satisfy your cravings for creativity! It teaches you how to collaborate, manage projects, work with other passionate young people, and come out with industry connections in Australia and internationally. You can pursue acting without studying but eventually, you will need to draw on skills deeper than the ones you had when you began at 17 or 18. That’s when a degree in performing arts will take you much further in your career.

If Australian acting students only knew one thing about finding representation after graduating, what should it be?
Approach your entry to the profession with positive energy, knowing that your activities are going to influence the future direction of the area of arts and entertainment on which you are focused. Talk to agents to find out what they can offer you as well as what you can offer them. In additiion, develop your own capacity to seek out work yourself and to create work with fellow colleagues so you have some independence and agency as an emerging performing artist.

Does an aspiring actor need a Masters over a Bachelor’s degree? When would individual courses be a better choice than a full university program?
No, an aspiring actor doesn’t necessarily need a Masters qualification. An actor needs to be exposed to new and traditional approaches to performance so that they can develop their own practice. The opportunity to study in a postgraduate degree opens up avenues for experimentation, investigation and practice as research, which for some actors is of great benefit.

At NIDA, the Masters of Fine Arts students in Directing, Design for Performance, Writing for Performance, Voice and Cultural Leadership provide wonderful opportunities to participate in collaborations, residencies and placements with industry, community and academic partners, as a means of developing essential industry networks.

What’s your best piece of industry advice?
Develop your skills in listening as well as talking to colleagues so that you’re open to new ideas and processes. And always be on the lookout for the next collaboration, the next project where your contribution is integral to the work. Look for a project where your professionalism enables many people from different creative disciplines and from diverse cultural perspectives to recognise the value of your creative contribution.

Now check out Backstage’s Sydney audition listings!