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U.K. Acting Schools Prove an Alluring Draw to American Students

U.K. Acting Schools Prove an Alluring Draw to American Students
Britain is known not only for tea, the royals, and dry humor, but also for its thespians. Among so many others, Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, Julie Andrews, and Patrick Stewart trained in the United Kingdom, where they honed their skills to become renowned brilliant actors.

Though the United States has produced incredibly well-known and highly praised actors as well, some aspiring American performers venture across the pond to the U.K. for their acting training. There, they meet artists from all over the world, study at schools that have taught their icons, and gain skills and experiences that last a lifetime.

A New Experience

"I always wanted to live in England," says Lexie Helgerson, a recent graduate of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. "Looking at my favorite actors, they all received training in Britain, so I thought that training in England, for at least a little bit, was such an integral of what it is to be an actor."

Helgerson studied communications at UC Berkeley and in 2006 moved to New York, where she worked at Town & Country magazine. She didn't begin pursuing acting until her mid-20s and then decided to attend acting school, but she wasn't sure which one.

She looked at graduate programs at American colleges, such as Yale, NYU, and Juilliard, but it typically takes three years to receive an MFA from those schools. "Since I already had an undergraduate degree, I wanted a one-year course," says Helgerson. The Portland, Ore., native then looked at the top British acting schools and found what she was seeking.

Helgerson applied to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, which offers a one-year course for international students. "When researching, I remembered I met an actress in New York who had done it a couple of years earlier and felt a really great vibe from her," says Helgerson. BOVTS asked her to audition, and she traveled to London for the first time.

"Actually visiting the campus and seeing the people really sold the school to me," says Helgerson, who recommends other aspiring actors do the same if possible when applying to drama schools. BOVTS accepted her, and she applied for a student visa, paying the required fee. (For information on student visas, visit

When Helgerson began her program in October 2010, she met people from all over the world. Now that she has graduated, she was glad to "have a different experience in a country where theater is so embedded in the culture." She says, "Not to take anything away from American theater, but the idea of training really lives in a different way there than it does here."

Helgerson will move to Los Angeles in the coming months and look for acting jobs. Though she has received training from one of the top acting schools, Helgerson doesn't plan to rely solely on the reputation of BOVTS or British training in general.

"In some ways going to a British acting school is like having an MBA, because having one may really help you in finance or other business, [but] in other cases you may not have one and still be making millions of dollars."

She continues, "A friend of mine who is an agent in Los Angeles said to me before I went to BOVTS, 'Lexie, half the people you meet will absolutely care and be impressed by your training and the other half won't give a damn.' I'm prepared for that."

Preceding Reputation

"The American students we invite onto the course have a similar range of skills to our U.K. students" says Kim Durham, head of international acting course at BOVTS. "However, initially they are likely to find emotional engagement and commitment easier than their sometimes more reserved British counterparts."

Gemma Lloyd, owner of Act Up, an independent organization that offers short, part-time acting courses, agrees with Durham. "There is a higher visible sense of self-belief and confidence in the States which we need more of within the U.K. industry. We are still very self-deprecating in the U.K., and I do think we need to take a leaf out of the U.S. style of thinking," says Lloyd.  

Despite admiring Americans' work ethic and their ability to invest in roles emotionally, British acting schools teach their American students new ways to approach their craft. "It's a generalisation, but I think there is some truth that British training tends to put a greater stress on a rigorous mining of the text and a little less on mining the self," says Durham. "I was working with a very able American student, who had had some good American training, on a speech from David Rabe's 'Hurlyburly.' He'd done some Method work on it, but it wasn't really working. We looked at Rabe's punctuation—only three full stops in a page-long monologue. He played the punctuation and unlocked the speech. As he said to me afterwards: 'No one's ever told me to do that before.' "


Ross Campbell, head of singing and music and director and chief examiner at the Guildford School of Acting, tries to teach his American students "ensemble values." He explains: "We believe that the theater is a collaborative art form and that individual artists will develop their strengths most powerfully within the shared values of a core ensemble, directing their talents and skills to the shared objective."

Geoffrey Colman, head of acting at the Central School of Speech & Drama in London, also says collaboration is crucial for all students: "British students will unlock Shakespearean text by studying it, whereas an American will unlock by experiencing it. It's quite a fascinating coupling of these two ideologies when Brits and Americans are in the same room. What you have then is a wonderful dialectic."

To maintain this dialectic, each of these schools tries not to rid Americans of their cultural identity. Colman quips, "We don't have a class on wearing a dinner jacket or toasting the queen." He adds, "We're not about erasing or rewiring cultures."

Campbell says, "What we are able to offer Americans in particular is the chance to let some of that pressure drop, albeit temporarily, and to give themselves over to the investigation and development of process and technique. This cannot be achieved without a willingness to let go of the end result and an acceptance that a willingness to risk failure in some instances can be most creative."

Similar to American acting schools, these British training grounds offer services to their students to aid them in finding employment. All have showcases at the end of their terms where industry professionals are invited to watch their students. The Guildford School of Acting has showcases in New York in addition to those in London. BOVTS offers to help its graduates make a show reel of their performances.

Building Endurance

"When I finished high school, I decided not to immediately go to university," says Amanda Hootman, of Fort Myers, Fla. "[Eventually] I decided I wanted to go to drama school. I did some research on Google on U.K. schools."

Hootman wished to travel overseas for her training because, she says, "I thought it would be an adventure. I also thought they've got some of the best classical training in the world, so why not try them?"

She applied to the Guildford School of Acting and flew out to audition. The experience sold her on the school. "I really liked the attitude of the people at GSA during the audition, especially their ideas about acting and how laid-back the audition process was. They didn't make it feel like an audition; it was more like a workshop and they were really friendly. That was the kind of environment I wanted to get my training in."

Hootman says GSA gave her a key skill: stamina. "Going to drama school from 9 to 6 every single day for three years, I have an obscene amount of stamina now, physically, intellectually, and emotionally." She adds, "It's already helped me out with promotional and event work that I do on the side. It's helped me out in every aspect of my life. I have a much thicker skin now."

Since graduating this year, Hootman shifted from a student visa to a Tier 1 Post-Study visa, which requires an application fee and a U.K. degree. She plans to remain in London for the next two years to pursue acting.

Even though Hootman has an American accent, she remains optimistic about finding roles. "With any accent, and even somewhat to regional accents here, it's both a blessing and a curse, because it's going to be a good thing for me when I go up for a play or project with an American character," she says. "It can be a hindrance, though, because people may assume I can't do a British accent. Luckily, I haven't really run into [that]."

Understanding Both Worlds

William Byrd Wilkins is a professional actor and teaching artist affiliated with Act Up. An MFA graduate of The New School, he has enjoyed using his experience to teach workshops in the U.K. while looking for acting jobs. When the North Carolina native first arrived in London in 2000, he noticed cultural differences in the treatment of actors. "In America, every hour you're taking break. But here we were rehearsing for three hours before we had a break."

Laura Bradbury, a current student at Act Up, has also detected differences when interacting with British students: "They never talk about studying theater at university. Everyone goes to theater school separately from university. In the States, a lot of my friends studied theater for four years in college in addition to other courses as well."

Despite the stricter work schedule, Wilkins has come to prefer acting and living in Britain. "I have an agent here who specializes in North American actors. I've been getting roles that wouldn't have gotten in America," he says. "I like London because I feel like I'm more part of a global community."

Bradbury shares that desire to be part of a more international community. In March 2010, Bradbury graduated from American University with a minor in theater. After saving money, she traveled through Southeast Asia and Australia, where she met a British man who later became her husband. Bradbury then moved to London. 

She had always intended to return to acting, but says she "felt a bit rusty." At the suggestion of her husband, Bradbury began looking for acting classes in London.

"I didn't want to do a one-year program, because I had already studied theater a lot during the four years I was at American University," she says. Bradbury is also a nanny and works odd hours during the week, which influenced her search criteria. She found exactly what she was looking for at Act Up.

With no audition required, Bradbury signed up for a three-hour course on Saturdays for aspiring professional actors. She and her classmates often explore two different scenes, usually one with high energy and another that is more serious or emotional.

Her instructors have pointed out to her that her acting style differs from that of the English students in her class. "I'm more outgoing and speak a little bit louder," she says. "The English in general are slightly more reserved, and that came out in their acting. I don't want it to sound like I'm better; I'm just different."

Bradbury admits she may still need to master additional skills: "I wouldn't feel as limited in the parts I audition for in the U.K. if I could do a good English accent. That's the next class I'm going to take." Nevertheless, she says, "I think now I have a lot more confidence than I ever did before. I don't worry as much about others think about me. I've come back to it with a whole new mindset."

Bradbury and her husband plan to move to America in a few years, but wherever she lives, Bradbury will continue acting.  She says, "By studying in both the United States and London, I hope that it will be one more thing to make me stand out from other actors—that I have well-rounded theater training."

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