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Change afoot in performance training

What was it Bob Dylan used to sing about “The times they are a’changing?” I don’t think he meant drama schools but it certainly seems to apply at the moment.

Take audition fees. No one should have to pay to apply for a higher education or training place in any field. Yet, audition fees have long been standard because the largest schools, which see thousands of candidates every year, find it a useful income stream. Well you know – I’ve said it enough times before – what I think of the morality of that.

Two cheers then for LAMDA which has just slashed its first round audition fee to £12. It’s a pity they continue to charge £45 for recalls (“We think you might be in with a chance so now pay up”?) but it’s a start. And where LAMDA leads there is a reasonable chance that other famous colleges will follow. Meanwhile Read College in Reading tells me that it too charges only £12.00. Fourth Monkey (of which more below) is now not charging at all.

The best idea in my view, comes courtesy of TheMTA, a small college which punches well above its weight with a fine track record, founded by Annemarie Lewis Thomas in 2009. Based in north London, the college caps its audition numbers so it has to guard against the no-shows which free auditions might cause. The solution they’ve come up with is to charge a returnable deposit for auditions: you pay up front but get it back once you’ve attended your audition. Genius. I hope all drama schools and colleges are listening.

I’ve followed the development of Fourth Monkey since Steve Green founded it as a training company in 2010. It is now based in its own very businesslike premises (“The Monkey House” near Finsbury Park) where it runs its original one year course as well as a two year course so students can do a full three year training if they wish.

Fourth Monkey has just announced that it is  validating its two-year actor training programme in partnership with TEF Gold Standard Falmouth University – to offer an accelerated,  2-year degree course. The accelerated BA (Hons) Acting degree (provided the validation process is finalised) is auditioning now for entry in September 2020.

That’s good news, I think, for two reasons. First Falmouth University runs highly regarded actor training of its own so, unlike many universities, it really does understand the issues. Second, this will give Fourth Monkey students, for the first time, access to funding and support such as student loans.

“With an alumni employment rate of 84% across all media, from stage to TV and film to radio, Fourth Monkey’s graduates can be seen plying their trade throughout the world” Steve Green told me recently.

Then there’s American Musical Theatre Academy (AMTA). Originally based only in London, it’s another school whose fortunes I’ve followed almost from the beginning.

Like Fourth Monkey it celebrates its tenth year in 2020. It is now an international academy with schools in London, New York, Rome and Belfast so its new name is  ICMT (International College of Musical Theatre). Co-founder Kenneth Avery-Clark tells me:  “We are adding a new degree pathway through Middlesex University, London as a training option.” That, of course, means available students loans and other facilities.

I have long argued – and there aren’t many in the industry who would disagree with me – that you don’t need a degree to be an employable performer. If you can sing the song, dance the dance and entrance the audience no one will care about what certificates you have in your desk drawer. No, it’s all about money. Once a college goes down the accredited degree route students no longer have to self-fund.

Change is definitely in the wind. The schools I’ve mentioned here are just examples. I shall be surprised if there isn’t more news along similar lines from elsewhere in the next few weeks.

In other contexts I often argue, like Henry Ford, that if it aint broke don’t fix it but there is a lot in vocational performing arts education which has been “broke” for decades. Thank goodness a few people are, at last, taking note and doing a bit of fixing. A new trend towards increased accessibility? Fingers crossed.

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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