Parents often tell me they’re worried about offspring who want to train for a professional performing arts career. They fret about future uncertainty, especially unemployment.
My advice to them is always that there is nothing whatever to get anxious about. Even if everything goes totally pear shaped and Olivia or Oliver never gets any professional work at all (and that’s pretty unlikely) he or she will be so wonderfully employable after two or three years at drama school that it won’t matter one bit.
Over the years I’ve visited every accredited drama school in the country and a large number of independent ones. In every single one I’ve been hugely impressed by the calibre of the students – and I don’t mean their pirouettes, top Cs or Shakespearean soliloquies. It’s their other skills which get me. They are articulate, efficient, mature, hardworking, organised, focused, well informed and friendly. I usually leave thinking that other than for, say, specialisms like brain surgery or flying a 747, I’d employ these people for almost anything in preference to, say, your average history or business studies student or graduate.
I remember, for instance, chatting to a group of students at Manchester School of Theatre (part of Manchester Metropolitan University). One of them was singing the praises of the 30 hours per week contact time and the strictly enforced punctuality requirement – general in most drama schools. He had popped back to the flat he shared one lunchtime to collect something he’d forgotten and been utterly horrified to find his flatmate, a maths student, still in pyjamas. That’s the drama training work ethic, speaking.
They’re usually a clean living bunch too. Typically, if you meet them over lunch as I often do, they’re eating salads often made at home and brought into college. They know that a healthy body is a key professional asset for a performer. Moreover, if you booze all night and don’t go to bed until 3.00am you simply won’t be fit for class or rehearsal in the morning thereby jinxing the chance of giving what you chose to do your best shot and probably letting others in your group down. So they tend not to do the stereotypical student thing.
The hard work is extraordinary too. Not only do these people do 30 hours a week (and often more) of what is always concentrated and often physically taxing work but many of them juggle two or three part time jobs on the side in order to pay their way. One I know, for example, teaches swimming. Another drives a delivery van at weekends. Many do front of house shifts in theatres ( possibly right place, right time etc – good choice) and they’re pretty good behind bars, well able to deal with difficult customers as well as, often, teaching children’s drama classes in the holidays among other jobs. And it all has to be fitted in round college rehearsals and shows. A drama student’s life is one long juggling act and that’s excellent preparation for any sort of career.
I can never quite make up why mind why most drama students seem to be so different from many students in other disciplines. It could be because anyone passionate about performing is already very focused by definition. Or perhaps it’s testament to the expertise of drama school admissions staff they are very adept at identifying people with the potential to develop such a wide and useful portfolio of skills. Or both. Or something else. It doesn’t matter much anyway. Let’s just be glad that it is so.
So Mr and Mrs Anxious, please don’t panic. Encourage your son or daughter to apply for drama school if that’s what her or his heart is set on. Someone who has trained in performance will never starve. The skills which performance training spots or develops have applications way beyond stage and screen.
Oxford School of Drama. Measure for Measure. Credit Ludovic Des Gognets