Why Theatre is Not Elitist

Last week, Denis Kelly declared that nothing annoyed him more than the lazy and commonplace assumption that theatre was elitist. “I’m the son of a bus conductor and a cleaner, I grew up in a council house and left school at 16 with no qualifications, but I found a home in theatre…I got involved in theatre young and it kept my mind alive, through brain-numbing jobs that meant nothing to me.” He went onto say that the number of people currently seeing theatre in this country was comparable to attendances at Britain’s other populist event – football matches.

Drama schools such as LAMDA are also working hard to change the false perception that the industry is an exclusive club open only to the moneyed. Having recently appointed Rhiannon Fisher as its first Access and Widening Participation Officer, the drama school has set up new initiatives to give school students more information on vocational drama training.

Speaking to The Stage, Fisher commented: “The idea was to use our [final year students’] first public production as a way of introducing secondary school students to Shakespeare. The students were split into two companies, one of which did Macbeth and one Twelfth Night so they covered four schools each,” says Fisher, adding that each performance runs for 90 minutes followed by a question and answer session with the cast.

Fisher acknowledges that the “Q/A is vital. It allows audience members not only to ask questions about the play and acting those roles but also about vocational drama training in general and LAMDA in particular – the very information which so often fails to get into schools because, on the whole, it is outside the experience of teachers and careers advisers.”

There are further plans afoot to run workshops in 2015 for underprivileged young people in five major cities around the country. Furthermore, the audition fees, which have been cited as eye-wateringly expensive, may be wavered for those who have attended the workshops.

If you don’t qualify for workshops such as at LAMDA, or simply can’t make events such as the Surviving Actors Careers Fair, where Susan Elkin noted: “there was a programme of seminars, workshops and one-to-one sessions” by industry professionals, Audition Doctor offers something similar. However, inevitably, due to the one-to-one nature of the session, it is far more tailored to the individual.

Elkin said in her column for The Stage: “Predictably, what interested me most in all this were the top-up training opportunities for actors [at the fair] and I was pleased to see The Actors Centre, The Actors’ Guild, The Actors’ Cafe, Actors’ Studio and Actors’ Training Centre among others, all busy talking to dozens of actors keen to learn, develop and hone skills.”

As well as being a private acting coach, Audition Doctor also offers sessions at The Actors Centre. This gives her students the added bonus of understanding how drama school students continue to top-up their training even after having graduated, as well as what institutions such as these offer.

Recently in The Guardian, Kristin Scott Thomas spoke about her rediscovery of theatre after years of doing purely film: “I suddenly felt independent. You could walk on stage and you could stand on your head if you really wanted to. No one’s going to say stop, don’t do that, that’s a ridiculous idea. There’s this feeling of independence and trust – I could give myself permission to play things in a certain way and see if they worked or they didn’t. I could trust myself.”

That encapsulates why Audition Doctor is in demand by both professional actors and drama school applicants alike, as the overriding feeling that students take away from sessions is a confidence and trust in their own artistic judgement.

The progress that Audition Doctor’s students achieve can rarely be attained by going to a Q&A or a seminar; the experimentation and discovery lies in actively doing, as opposed to passively listening. This is why Audition Doctor is considered to be so significant in her students’ development.

Auditioning Against The Odds

Although Michael Simkins’ article in the Guardian was hardly a paean to the acting profession, it was an honest account of the fickle nature of the business with all its highs and lows. In “Is Acting Today Just Too Tough?” he talks of the harsh demands of cash-strapped producers, the paltry salary of theatre work and the fact that the defining difference between professional and amateur actors is not talent but “whether you have the stomach for the lifestyle – one in which rejection, disappointment and despair are part of your daily routine.”

The buoying narrative doesn’t stop there as he asserts: “The cruellest aspect of the acting business is not that it’s unfair, but that it’s merely indifferent. It gives everything to some and nothing to others; talent, ambition and virtue have little to do with it. What’s more, with no qualifications or tests to assess how good (or bad) you are, the only benchmark is success.”

Despite all of this, there are still several thousand applicants to drama schools each year and all of them will no doubt have heard all of this before. While the adage “all art is subjective” is largely true, getting into drama school is a way of testing how good or bad you are – albeit an unreliable one. Although success in the profession is in no way guaranteed, it is interesting to see that actors who have found success very early on in their careers have chosen to take a break from the profession to go to drama school. It’s an acknowledgement that drama schools don’t just churn out graduates that are industry fodder; they prepare students for the demands of the profession.

In an article entitled “Life After Potter – Where Are All Hogwarts’ Graduates Now?”, it was interesting to note that many of the young actors were graduating from drama schools such as The Royal Welsh Conservatoire of Music and Drama, LAMDA and RADA despite having spent the ages of 10-21 on a set. Harry Melling said: “I went to LAMDA. The films were a great learning experience, but I wanted to do theatre, get better, to have a process.” While Frank Dillane declared: “Arriving in an establishment (RADA) where everyone is better than you, you can’t uphold any kind of arrogance for very long.”

Drama school may not be a necessity for success, but chancing it in a profession that is routinely prefixed with the word “unstable” is a caveat to all its potential practitioners to be as prepared as possible. A 3 year training does exactly that. With more students coming to Audition Doctor, it is clear that in spite of the warnings, drama schools are more popular than ever. Making yourself distinguishable from the throng has become even more necessary. You are watched at every single stage of an audition; while this makes the process sound rather like a stint in a high-security prison, it is the truth. This means sessions at Audition Doctor are an integral part of ensuring that you are on form every single time you are in front of a panel. There is (literally) no time to mess up, with many panels timing the length of your speeches with a stopwatch.

Although the 26 selected for entrance into each drama school are entering a profession in which 92% are out of work at any given time, the students that come to Audition Doctor are undeterred. Why? Michael Simkins acknowledges that “The answer is that it’s a drug – and once it gets in your system, it’s difficult to break the habit. In any case, despite the withering odds, if you’re an actor, you’re a dreamer. As David Mamet put it: “Narrative always wins out over statistics.”