These days, training to be a performer can cost anything from £27,000 for a standard degree course, right up to nearly £50,000 for some vocational colleges. An instant disclaimer here as there are also colleges offering training under this price: shop around.
A degree may appear to be the sensible option: enhance your skills and end up with a parent-friendly qualification at the end of your three years. But does it really matter? No performer has ever been cast simply because he or she had a degree; what got them the job was their talent and technical training (which the degree hopefully contributed to). So before spending all that money on a degree, consider a few things.
1. Ask for feedback.
My first bit of advice would be to check with a few people for feedback on whether you really have the talent necessary. As harsh as that sounds, don’t just listen to your mates and family. Dare to ask outside the echo chamber of your social media mates.
Assuming the result of the above is positive, what should a good course (degree or otherwise) offer you?
If you want to be a professional musical theatre performer in today’s industry, realistically you have to be able to demonstrate skills and talent in three disciplines: dance, voice, and acting. A good college will offer you a variety of dance styles (ballet, contemporary, tap, jazz, commercial), a robust vocal health programme (singing and speech), and a sound foundation in acting (from Greek theatre to contemporary playwrights). As your course develops, these skills should begin to intertwine and enable you to do all three disciplines at once, leading to you as a much sought-after triple threat.
You want a course that’s going to focus on your weaknesses, not strengths. You might be the best singer in the world but if you can’t act or dance, you’ll never be in a musical. Are you an instrumentalist, too? Have you considered looking at an actor-muso courses? The good triple threat instrumentalist is rarely out of work.
2. Degree versus vocational.
The big difference between degree courses and vocational colleges is typically the number of contact hours you have with staff. Despite what their websites may say, many colleges muddy this area by adding “private study time” to the number when they tell you how much time you’ll have with staff. Ask to see a timetable and you’ll instantly be able to see what the college is offering you for your money.
Most good vocational colleges now seem to guarantee at least 30 hours per week (whether they’re training you for a degree or diploma), compared with some university degree courses that can dip as low as 16 hours per week.
You also want to check out the faculties: Are you going to be taught by people who are actually working in the industry? Who are able to give you good, current advice? Don’t be spun by the list of guests and mentors—who are the people that are actually going to be teaching you on a daily basis? What links does your chosen course or college have with the industry?
And in an ever-changing profession, the extras a course can offer you might be the very thing that secures you a job (or at the least an audition), so look out for additional skills—stage combat, puppetry, physical theatre, circus skills, etc.—when you start investigating courses. You might be surprised what’s out there.
3. Take advantage of Open Days.
Many schools offering up Open Days for you to “see it before you buy.” Again, be careful of “spin,” as some will have guest teachers present, not the day-to-day training you’ll actually get. That said, these are great opportunities to chat with current students and get a feel for the place.
Generally speaking, all the students will love their training and rave about their experiences. Try to look past that and have some pertinent questions up your sleeve. What’s attendance and discipline like? Do the staff really know them? Do they have a sense of progression?
4. Learn more about the showcase.
Ideally, you’re looking for a college that will showcase you. The infamous end-of-training showcase is often your best chance to pick up representation before entering the industry. Whilst there’s no doubt performers can achieve success without an agent, there’s no denying it’s a bit easier with one. Not all university degree courses offer a showcase, so be sure to find out what a school does do to help you obtain representation on qualifying. If they do offer a showcase, where is it performed? What sort of industry professionals are regularly in attendance?
Some colleges guarantee agent representation at the end of the course, however, even that fact is often not without a “spin.” Find out if they have an agency affiliated with the college that represents those people who don’t yet have independent representation, or maybe find out how many of their graduates chose to stay with their agency over an independent one. In one way this is perfect: Who better to sell you than the people that trained you and know your skill set so well? However, does their agency have the contacts to get you where you want to be?
If you were going to buy any item in excess of £20,000, you would research it thoroughly. It’s strange then that people aren’t more direct with their questioning. A website is great, but is it really giving you the hard, verifiable facts you need to base your decision on? No college can guarantee you a career, but they should be able to give you a good idea of their success rate.
If you’re serious about becoming a professional performer, nobody will care what qualification you left college with. There is no difference between a degree pirouette or a diploma pirouette? Good luck!
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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.