The Cost of Drama School Training

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As I approach the end of my time at Birmingham School of Acting, and the prospect of entering the already overcrowded acting industry, I have begun to reflect upon my journey, where it has taken me, where it may be leading me to and at what cost.

I have always had a passion for theatre, and performing – and as it became clear to me that drama school was the suggested route to a career in the field I was fairly certain that it was the path I wanted to take. Now I’m here, doing what I’d once only dreamed I could – and yet it rarely feels as satisfying and energising as I might have once imagined. I am certainly filled with much more doubt than when I started my journey.

This article is about the cost of such a training, so I address firstly the financial cost of such a venture. Even before gaining a place at a drama school there is the cost of travelling around the country for auditions, along with an audition fee for each school (which costs anywhere from £40-£100 per school). It cost me well over £1,000 to audition for 6 drama school’s, taking into account the fee’s, transport and accommodation, along with the cost of finding audition material.

There’s the slight matter of the £9,000 per year tuition fees, plus additional student loans which add up to a substantial debt hanging around the neck of anyone who chooses a university degree (in fact, private drama schools often charge more than £9,000 – increasing the burden even further). If I’d have studied a medical, or law degree then perhaps this wouldn’t have much so much of an issue, as I would be well aware that the salary I would earn because of my qualification would justify the cost – but a career in the arts is a different ball game entirely.

Whilst in training there is the cost of industry specific clothing, books and plays, sourcing your own costumes among other costs. You are encouraged to see as much theatre, and film, as possible which certainly is not cheap either. Physiotherapy or vocal therapy may also be an additional cost for the unfortunate along the way too. This added on top of the cost of rent, transport and healthy eating is a weighty bill – especially when the high contact hours limit your part-time employability chances.

Your graduate year also brings with it the additional cost of Spotlight, Equity and other industry membership’s as well as the cost of headshots, websites, business cards and other tools of the trade you may deem beneficial – this on top of the talk of having to move to London or being left behind. So financially there is a lot of pressure on a drama school graduate.

There is no such thing as guaranteed success in any field, but the career outlook for an actor is particularly bleak. Equity’s Annual Report in 2014 found that “virtually half earned under £5,000 per year and 86% less than £20,000 per year”. Added to that, around 90% of actors are not working in their chosen industry at any one time – not figures for the faint-hearted.

One element that perhaps gets overlooked is the emotional cost to actor training – there have been studies that claim creatives have a tendency to be emotionally vulnerable. At times there is a very strong, sometimes overwhelming, sense of self-doubt anyone who embarks on an actor training feels – you can often feel like you will never be enough, or as good as you should be, and sometimes become obsessed with people’s opinions of you.

“Our study adds to the body of research that suggests that there is a psychological cost for participants engaged in the creative arts,” – Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts.

Sometimes things can get rough, as you examine yourself as a person more than any other field might. I lost someone incredibly dear to me along the way: my heart still aches every day and weeps for what could, and perhaps should have been – such is the sorrow that I have not felt complete, or truly myself since. Becoming comfortable with who you are can sometimes seem a real struggle.

To sound out the positives, before this article begins to sound like a lament: training gives you room to experiment, and importantly to fail, and work out who you are and shape your technique. Basics such as breathing and stagecraft are embedded, which give the tools when you need to access them. You meet a supportive bunch of people, who are normally always happy to help out in what way they can. Access to agents and casting directors is also important: as a drama school graduate you are more likely to be taken seriously by those in the industry – particularly if you attend a prestigious institution. 

But in an industry which seems to expect actors to work for free because it will be “good exposure” or “great experience” is it that surprising that those that succeed seem to be from affluent backgrounds, often going to fee-paying schools? The rest of us are being priced out of the industry, held back by a class ceiling.

Perhaps it will all be worth it, in years to come, should the fates decide and the doubt will fade. I don’t claim that training hasn’t had merit, I certainly understand acting, and the world in general, much better than I ever would have without training. I find that I have a better understanding of the way people work, as part of an actor’s work is getting under the skin of characters and finding out what drives them for instance – but with so much uncertainty and doubt it is hard to silence the mind from questioning, has it all been worth it?

2 COMMENTS

  1. Nice article!

    I remember a period of time in second year where I longed to be doing a ‘normal’ class instead. I wanted to be free from the burden of the continual self analysis that comes with training. I wanted to not give a shit about my posture.

    But now I’m out the other side of that period of time, I’m so grateful for everything my training has given me. I have every intention of sticking it out at the moment, but who knows what the future may bring. If I end up doing something else, I will still have this special relationship with my voice and my body that so many people never have. I think the awareness you develop in training is a beautiful thing, and there is a power there to be tapped into that can be used in all areas of life.

    I think the psychological trauma (dramatic word I know but I think it’s the right one) of intensive training is something that needs to be adressed. The amount of people on our course who partook in what I like to call ‘disordered eating’ (skitrting around the edge of an eating disorder but never quite going there) was really, really worrying. I’m kind of amazed there are no workshops on looking after yourself, because as you say, so many actors strugle with getting comfortable with themselves.

    I think it is something that needs to be considered in the selection process. I think that the emotional strength of the applicants should be taken into account. I was really surprised at how many students BSA took straight out of school. Some people, frankly, were not ready. Then again, I don’t know how much time can really be spent on getting to know the applicants on that level.

    I think the answer to your question ‘has it been worth it’ will be a lot clearer once you’ve been out of the BSA bubble for a few months. Drama School is great, but it is also a very toxic environment. It has a way of bringing out the worst in people. It’s a circus, and in a way it’s very good preparaion. If you can make it through the shit that drama school throws your way, you can pretty much handle anything.

    • My training has certainly helped me to develop as a performer and a person – no doubt about that!

      A nice thought, but I’m not sure how you’d measure emotional strength. I’d like to think I’m mentally tough (not straight out of school) but things change and I’ve been at breakdown point throughout these last couple of years, to the point is was seriously restricting my progress. It’s probably more about support from those who understand the unique situation. I think mental health provision is something we don’t really do well enough as a nation, and the education system is certainly included in this.

      We’ll see what the future holds, its all on tenterhooks right now. The whole industry outlook, and society as a whole in fact, seems a little bleak… no wonder those with more financial security are more likely to “make it”.

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