Make the most of the industry connections offered to you while you’re there, since they’ll be far more important to your career than any skills you pick up. Skills can be learnt on the job, but contacts are what gets you work.
The industry will rarely give you more than one moment to shine
Forget about cashing in on being a drama school graduate long after you went to it. Make a splash in your last year and you’ll be noticed. After that – this will sound harsh – people with think there must be something wrong with you if nobody employed you on graduation.
If you feel you’re not getting to make a big splash at drama school
Dive in, don’t wait for permission. Think of a way to get something happening.
Don’t give all your great ideas away
Keep some things back for yourself. It’s rare, but some drama schools like to claim intellectual property rights over student work.
Get used to having no social life
Theatre almost always happens at night – you’ll be working when your non-theatre friends are partying. Make friends in the hospitality scene.
Drama school is a great educational add-on
But if it’s your only qualification or skill-base, you’ll be unemployed (and cash poor) for most of your life. Get some other employable skills under your belt before, during or after drama school.
Drama school friendships need to be strong enough to endure competition
But they very often aren’t.
Drama school takes a while to get over
The last time I was at one was 20 years ago, and I’m still processing the experience on this blog!
The stakes are always very high at drama school. Don’t go into any project half cooked. Every meeting, audition, opportunity and job prospect across your career will see you judged and appraised in the first 10 seconds. Learn that at drama school and you won’t need to pick up any other skill.
There is no such thing as a learning process
You are on display all the time – rehearsing, work-shopping, preparing, performing – never assume you’ll be given a break because you’re a student. You’re an adult, so take it seriously. There is only success or failure. The audience either likes the show, or it doesn’t.
At one point, they’ll try to get rid of you
It might be a case of the kind of reverse psychology that went out of fashion in 1980, but if a drama school wants to make you work harder they’ll threaten you with expulsion. Get used to surviving such stratagems, they’re an integral part of the performing arts. If you feel you’re about to be expelled, go down fighting, otherwise years of processing ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ awaits you. There are plenty of successful people who were thrown out of drama school before graduating.
They’ll constantly tell you how precarious the industry is
It’s probably to cover themselves in case you try to sue them later, when you end-up one of the 99 per cent unemployed in the performing arts, but you’ll hear plenty of statistics about your chances. Don’t listen to them, because like all ‘odds’, there is no perfect tipster to predict what will happen in your career.
Someone you know will become famous
One or two might even become very, very famous. Plenty of others will give up the industry and you’ll never hear of them again. If you can maintain a career somewhere between these two extremes (with everyone else), you’ll be a resounding success in the performing arts.
You won’t learn everything at any one drama school
Despite what many schools offer, not one of them can teach you everything you need. The rest you must pick up along the way.
Once the show starts, it can’t be stopped
The greatest gift to the drama school student is that all performances are in the hands of the artist, not the teacher. Go for it, it’s your time to fearlessly shine.
Don’t fool yourself about your education
You could do honours, masters, bachelors and graduate diplomas, but as soon as you enter the industry, you’ll still have to make the coffee. Hint: don’t wave your certificates around, no-one cares.
Some people never go to drama school at all
They just get a job in the industry in their teens and work their way up.
The cluster of red-brick farm buildings showed itself on the horizon from a great distance, as a small bus full of students traversed the flat farming country of the East Riding of Yorkshire, me amongst them.
For someone whose first theatrical fantasies were hatched in a shearing shed, this place felt a little like coming home. I’d gotten myself to the middle of nowhere on the other side of the world to be transformed, and that long-winded process really began in the pig farm that had been converted into an international media training centre.
ARTTS International (‘The Advanced Residential Theatre & Television Skillcentre’) was the vision of John Sichel, (a television and theatre producer-director) and Elfie Sichel, a couple who struck-out on their own in 1990 with a vision to train young people in the skills they needed to survive in the entertainment industry.
John was immediately engaging, larger-than-life, in-your-face and over-the-top. He was like a beacon that you could not easily hide from. His greatest attribute, I believe, was his ability to train anyone who was even partially open to being trained.
My class hit the ground running. There was no time to think. Thinking was a creative killer. We were at there to learn by doing.
Within days we were crewing and presenting in the ARTTS television studio, rehearsing plays and other performances. The nuts and bolts of industry processes were learnt through continually putting pieces of television, theatre, radio and film together, very often under pressure.
Living and working with the same people 24/7 also meant that learning to get along with others was an essential part of the training. On Saturday afternoons, the bus took us into the city of York for shopping, cafes, and a brief experience of the outside world, before we made our own fun back at the pig farm.
No side of the performing or recorded arts was off limits – everyone took formal voice, dance, singing and acting classes. The latter was my big fear. I was attracted to acting, but totally afraid it would reveal all my secrets.
But I fell in love with it, and also the writing. Almost every week there was some original project to create, in every genre imaginable. No sooner was it on paper than we were shooting it or rehearsing it. The repetition of the process made us courageous and competitive, reliant on everyone chipping-in.
The landscape around the tiny village of Bubwith revealed itself slowly to me. Another Australian student and I used the centre’s bikes to pedal our way to the four winds, literally. The flat landscape was blasted by cold air coming off the North Sea as we pushed our way to tiny local pub lunches.
Gradually I learnt the history and heritage of the region – which trees had 16th century Catholic martyrs hanged from their branches, and the tiny stone church up the road where their graves were hidden under the floor; and the local castle with its nearby abbey … it all seemed like undiscovered country.
Eventually we started making use of these places as locations for our short film and television projects. The immediacy of making pictures in the open-air vibrancy of a landscape became my favourite part of the filmmaking process, and remains that way to the present day.
On the stage I got to play some great roles, including one of Thorton Wilder’s wonderful stage managers, and Shakespeare’s Malvolio. We also co-wrote original plays, and an entire musical. When I think about it now I can’t believe the amount of work we go through in only 42 weeks.
ARTTS was not a college or a university. It was a skillcentre, and I certainly came away with skills I could use immediately to get employed in the industry.
But there are some life skills that cannot be taught, they have to be lived, and though I managed to transform as much as I possibly could in my year at ARTTS, there were still layers yet to come off. I needed to go out into the real world and learn the rest by doing.
As remote as the place is, one of the pleasures of ARTTS in its heyday was the support the Yorkshire locals gave to students, particularly as the audiences for our many stage productions. I can imagine that the village of Bubwith lost much when it lost John Sichel in 2005, and soon after ARTTS closed down.
John was a high-stakes, high-drama kind of man. That he turned those energies to education was a great gift to an entire generation of international media practitioners who passed through the barn doors.