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Audition fees: scandalous discrimination

Last week Henry Bell, Sheffield-based lecturer and performance director, tweeted: “I’m currently helping a student to apply to drama school. They are auditioning for five schools and the cost just to apply (travel and audition fees) is £500. The student has taken on another job to afford it. This HAS to stop if the industry wants to change”.

Well said, Henry – with whom I, and several others then had angry, supportive follow-up twitter conversations.  Now I return – yet again and without apology – to the topic here and elsewhere. And I shan’t stop until something gives.

Drama School audition fees are a scandal. They are immoral and unfair. Drama aspirants should not be punished for their passion. Beyond the initial UCAS registration fee, no hopeful maths, history or business studies student has to pay for the “privilege” of applying to his/her chosen institutions. To make potential drama students pay a substantial audition fee is a nasty form of discrimination – exactly what, in other contexts, the performing arts industries work so hard to demonstrate they are against.

And yes, before you jump down my throat, I know that some drama schools run modest – numbers usually capped – audition fee waiver schemes for low income families and “hard to reach” groups. Auditions are sometimes conducted around the country to save student travel expenses. And some enlightened schools build workshops into the process so that the applicants get some sort of value for money too.  But none of that is the norm for most students most of the time. The vast majority have to travel, often expensively at peak times, and pay a fee to the school in question.

Some of the fees are very high too. RADA charged £76 this year unless you applied before 13 December in which case it was a “mere” £46. The fee to audition at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School is £50 and at East 15 it’s £55. No student, obviously, applies to just one. Henry Bell is right.  You need a generous “audition budget” if you’re to stand any chance at all.

The truth, of course, is that for the larger, most sought after schools this exploitation of students is a jolly good income stream because they see the applicants in big batches and, typically, get rid of them pretty fast at the first sift.

On one occasion a distressed and disappointed student told me he had been part – at one of London’s most famous schools – of a group of 200 auditionees.  I carelessly quoted this figure, without checking it, in a printed piece which brought the wrath of the school’s principal (whom I knew) down on my head. I had damaged the reputation of the school in question, I was told furiously, because “only” 150 were brought in at a time. It would be funny if it weren’t scandalous.

No school is willing – surprise, surprise – to share with me the exact profit it makes from auditioning. So consider, once more, my back-of-the envelope calculations which allow the hypothetical school a generous margin and so are probably an underestimate. Bigger schools run lots of different courses too and my figures relate to just one. I’ll leave you to do the additional multiplication at the end.

Let’s say School X, which is based in central London and therefore expensive to get to, has 2000 applicants each of whom pays a £50 audition fee. That’s £100,000. It auditions 200 per day over ten days in batches of 100, one lot in the morning and the second group in the afternoon. For this it pays a freelance audition panel of three people £200 each per day.  That’s a £6,000 overhead. It also has to heat and clean the building and maybe provide a few refreshments. Let’s allow a further £400 per day – £4,000 in total – for that. And we’d better factor in some “on-costs”. I’ll assign £5,000 which is £500 per day.

So it might cost £15k in all to run 10 days of auditions. Not much of a dent in that £100k is it?

In my view – and that of any other decent person – it is quite wrong for a drama school to be “pocketing” something in the region of £80k from the applications of students. It’s exploitation and it stinks.  It’s a miserable blot on the industry too.

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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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