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Ban rip-off audition fees

Audition fees for aspirant performers seeking vocational training are in the news. Good.  Shadow Culture Secretary, Tim Watson, has read his own party’s 2017 report  Acting Up, which declared that the performing arts industries are “increasingly dominated by a narrow set of people from well-off backgrounds”  and written to leading drama schools asking them to consider dropping audition fees completely.

Well it was about time somebody did. Over the years I have penned many articles about the scandal and immorality of audition fees but that isn’t going to stop me doing so again – and again and again if that’s what it takes to get them abolished.

Just consider the figures. Good drama schools routinely attract thousands of  applicants. Each one pays a fee to be “seen” and, of course, the vast majority are rejected immediately.

Suppose 2000 people apply to the (hypothetical but highly renowned) Thames School of Drama. If the school is good it would be more than that but for the sake of argument let’s plump for a round figure. Now let’s presume that the audition fee is £50 (and in many schools it’s a lot more). That’s a total of £100,000.

Well, I know that many schools subcontract some of the first round auditions so there are a few freelance day rates to pay. They also have to heat and light the room and get the lavatories cleaned. I doubt that any of that costs anywhere near even £10,000 so that’s £90,000  profit to TSD.

How can they possibly justify exploiting students in this way? Many youngsters want, if they can afford it, to audition for several schools and travel expenses are often an issue too. It would be quite easy to spend £1000 auditioning and many school leavers or recent leavers just can’t afford that. So why is anyone surprised that there are still too few performing arts people from less well off backgrounds training in and graduating from vocational courses?

There are other ways in which the whole auditioning system is morally bankrupt in many schools too. Take the practice of auditioning literally hundreds in a single day – with numbers on their backs like tupped ewes in a field because no one can be bothered to learn their names. I have seen this process in action in more than one school when I happened to be on the premises about something else

If you’ve paid, say £50, I reckon you deserve more than three minutes before casual dismissal too. The best organisations keep applicants there for several hours and give them workshops and opportunities to find out more about the school – but that is still by no means the norm.

Yes, I know that some drama schools offer “fee waiver” (ie free) auditions to a few talented but needy students referred by trusted youth theatres and other partners but how than they possibly think this is enough? No one from a training organisation has ever attempted to explain to me why there is any need for audition fees at all presumably because there is no tenable argument in its favour – apart from its value as an income stream. They know that – and they know that I know that –  so they just keep quiet and hope I’ll shut up, while they go on putting large sums in the coffers.

Perhaps it’s time I compiled a chart cross referencing audition fees with the salaries of vice chancellors and drama school principals. Another blog maybe…

No one should have to pay for the “privilege” of applying for any sort of course. Charging audition fees is such an exploitative disgrace that I can see no reason why it shouldn’t be made illegal. If this hypocritical industry really wants the equality of opportunity it so often bangs on about then this is a perfect starting point.  Abolish those fees for everyone, everywhere. Now.

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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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