Drama Schools vs University Drama: Why the divide?


For many aspiring theatre professionals, there are two potential routes to their dream career: embarking on a training programme at a Drama School or studying for a Drama degree. Yet students on opposing paths are unlikely ever to be brought together during this crucial three-year period of artistic development. Post-graduation, individuals enter an institution-blind industry where a university educated director is free to source the most technically capable actors her budget can grapple at and Conservatoire-trained actors fight to be seen at auditions of the most cutting edge productions. But what if these professionals were encouraged to collaborate from the outset, wouldn’t this pooling of ideas and expertise impact the creative output of the industry for the better? And if so, why is this simple idea yet to be put into practice?

Imagine the ecstasy of a budding choreographer working with dancers-in-training that possess the ability to breathe life into their extensively researched, innovative and nuanced visions. For the dancers, an invaluable opportunity to work in an environment that creatively requires them to go beyond the execution of steps and reminds them of their expertise—something easy to forget under their relentless subordination to tough instructors. Similarly, the opportunity to compose with near-virtuosic singers would allow music students specialising in genres from opera to hip-hop to push their craft one step further and vocalists would walk away with a CV credit and perhaps even the beginnings of a stand-out voice reel.

Common to many performers is the lack of agency they later possess over their work schedule. If work is slow and rent is due, they are unlikely to be in a position to turn down a performance run whose aims are of limited interest to them. Furthermore, saying no to a job that an agent has spent hours sourcing is never going to be a comfortable conversation. Therefore, having the ability to interrogate the breadth of their versatility and creativity whilst training would be ideal.

However, for students on different paths to learn from one another, their respective institutions would have to acknowledge their inferiority on certain counts. In accepting aspiring actors, singers or dancers from outside their tutelage, universities would be admitting that another organisation’s approach fills a skills gap that theirs could not. This could be problematic considering the remote likelihood that none of their students were aiming at a performing career themselves. The same could be said of drama schools’ predicament who would be unlikely to admit the creative constriction that can arise from training intensively in an institutionally-cultivated approach. Many of their students would be aware of their potentially short-lived performing career and would want a certain breadth to their training to prepare them for a wide range of industry roles.

But if institutions were truly honest about the areas in which they excelled, it would be better for everyone. Free to build links with external departments whose approach complimented their own, their practice would finally mirror the collaborative spirit they seek to foster. The space to research and explore ideas is a key strength of university courses, whereas the detailed refinement of technical practice is central to vocational training. It is these attributes that need to be recognised and celebrated for institutions to be comfortable and confident enough to extend invitations to external future creatives and thereby help their students grow truly useful, inspiring, and powerful networks.

Filed under: Theatre & Dance