Training vs Non-Training: Is the stage big enough for everyone?


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Training vs Non-Training: Is the stage big enough for everyone?

Fame - The Musical was all about a group of students at a New York performing arts school, but is professional training really that important when it comes to the theatre industry?From an early age, you’re told to work hard at school and get good grades, so you’ll do well in your exams, so you can go to college/university and continue studying and get qualifications… all so you’re guaranteed to get a good job and ‘make something of yourself’. That’s what life is all about right? Not for everyone. There are many highly successful individuals out there who did make something of themselves and are now worth millions – without the schooling and subsequent qualifications that we’re told are all-so-important.

Now, I’m not telling anyone that they should drop out of school to chase their fortune. These individuals are the exception, not the rule, and for every success story, there’s a hundred more who ended up in low-paid, dead-end jobs and whose only hope of becoming a millionaire is buying a lottery ticket every week.

If you’ve had to go through the arduous task of job-seeking, you’ll know how beneficial it is to have some kind of qualification to your name. There are employers out there who will take someone with experience on, or are willing to provide on-the-job training, but on the whole, qualifications go a long way towards helping you secure a job. What about in the theatre industry though?

If you’re applying to work in finance, then it’s expected that you’ll have a relevant maths-related qualification. If you’re applying to work in IT, then some kind of computer-related qualification will provide the best chance of being employed. When you’re auditioning for a role in a play or musical however, should professional training from a reputed performing arts school be a requirement?

The topic of professional training has featured as an aspect in many theatre-related issues – stunt casting, for instance. I encountered it again the other day, when a theatre company’s casting call stipulated that actors must have two years drama school training. Were they right or wrong in this? Let’s explore both sides of the fence before choosing a side to settle on.

If most areas of the job sector ask for applicants with relevant qualifications, then why not the theatre industry? One of the biggest gripes people have with celebrities being cast in musicals is that they’ve taken the easy route to the stage, being handed the role because of their fame and ticket-selling power without any training or stage experience. So often I’ve heard people both in and out of the business complaining about the unfairness of pop singers, reality stars and such others taking roles away from performers who have trained for years, and they certainly have a valid reason to be angry about it. Imagine if you’d worked hard to put yourself through university in the pursuit of a degree and dedicated years of your life to earning this piece of paper that you’ve been told is so necessary to be successful in your chosen field, only to lose out on a job opportunity to an inexperienced and unqualified person because they were related to the boss. Think of it in that way, and their anger is more than justified. One might argue that an insistence that actors have received some kind of professional training is a way of rewarding those who have taken the ‘right’ route, and ensuring that only performers of the highest quality make it onto the stage. In musical theatre especially, training is so important when it comes to having the stamina and vocal ability to handle eight shows a week.

There are plenty of people out there who would strongly disagree with the casting call put out by this particular theatre company though, and the general belief that attending drama school automatically makes someone more deserving to be on the stage. Let me throw some names at you here: Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellan, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Ben Kingsley. What do they all have in common, aside from being highly successful actors/actresses on both stage and screen? None of them went to drama school. These are some of the most talented and respected British actors/actresses of our time, but no-one would dream of looking down on them for their lack of any formal training at a performing arts institution and it certainly hasn’t held them back in their careers. You don’t have to have gone to drama school to make it on the stage, legends like these are proof of that. So too are musical theatre stars like Sheridan Smith and Ramin Karimloo, who have both managed to become huge successes in the theatre world, and beyond, despite never have received any previous drama school training.

Not one of the individuals mentioned above have the required two years of drama school training that was being asked for, so by this reckoning, they would all be excluded. It would also rule out any performer who completed a one-year post graduate course for instance, rather than the standard three years of training.

Of course spending time at a drama school and being trained by industry professionals is an advantage, I don’t think anyone would argue with that. The point of contention here is that not having attended drama school is apparently considered, by some, as a valid reason to turn an actor away. Not everyone has the opportunity to benefit from such training, through financial limitation for example, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t just as talented, just as skilled, and just as deserving as someone who did. What drama schools do is to provide the training for voice and movement and so on, teaching the skills that offer the best chance of making it in the industry. The real education comes after graduation. Nothing really prepares someone for a life in this business, and the best way to learn how to do it is on the job. Sometimes experience counts for more than training does.

In the issue of training vs non-training, it’s difficult to say which side is the right one, or whether there even is a right side. Yes, training is important, but no, it’s not the be-all-and-end-all. What I don’t like is the fact that making drama school a requirement for an actor excludes so many people who shouldn’t be excluded, and it just doesn’t seem right to me. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s TV casting shows weren’t everyone’s cup of tea, in fact there were a lot of people who didn’t approve of using a TV programme to find a show’s leading man/lady, but they did at least provide a platform for unknown talent to be seen and have kick-started the careers of musical theatre greats such as Samantha Barks, Rachel Tucker, Lee Mead, Danielle Hope, and so many more. I know that a great deal of the shows’ contestants were drama school graduates, but the point is that it wasn’t a requirement to have received some form of professional training. The contests were open to anyone who wanted to try, no matter what their background.

All the world’s a stage, but is the stage for all the world? The way I see it, what’s most important at the end of the day is how talented someone is, and that’s it. Like any job, it should always come down to who is best for it, regardless of whether they’re trained or not. Non-trained performers should never be excluded for that reason.

By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25

Tuesday 4th August 2015