Traditionally students who could act did lots of work in school and/or youth theatre and/or extra-curricular classes. Then they applied for three year training at drama school and, if they were good enough, got in.
But thousands of hopefuls were turned down, as they still are. In some cases they were never going to be up to the mark and really should do something else. But others had potential but too little experience to audition successfully - perhaps because they hadn’t had the right guidance and advice.
So along came full-time foundation courses to prepare wannabes for drama school. And the last twenty years has seen a huge expansion in these courses - both from independent providers and from the drama schools themselves.
Having seen many such courses in action, talked to many students who’ve done them and last week visited Read College in Reading, which specialises in foundation courses, I’ve been pondering the pros, cons and issues.
The first problem is that there is no funding for foundation courses. That means that every student has to self-fund or be supported by a bursary from the college itself, one of the many scholarships supported by The Stage, sponsorship or other form of assistance. Read College, a registered charity which fund-raises very enthusiastically is, for example, able to support the student who showed me round - with a bursary.
The other side of there being no funding is that foundation courses can be used as a source of income by established drama schools running lots of other courses at all levels.
30 or 40 eighteen year olds (or in many cases, aged 16+) all paying £8,000 or £9.000 for a nine month foundation course can make a considerable difference to a school’s budget. Cynics in the performing arts training industry - outside the mainstream schools accredited by Drama UK - bandy the term “cash cow” to summarise their feelings about what they regard as the immorality of this.
Of course, some foundation course students progress to three year courses in the same school but there is never any guarantee of this. For some students, in fact, the foundation course becomes a sort of “gap year” project which gets performing arts as a possible profession out of the system before they go on to something else. Others decide that yes, they really do want to audition for a vocational course but not in the same school.
Small schools, such as Read College, Dorset School of Acting and CTA Performing Arts London which do nothing but foundation courses are usually rather more selective. Read College is now in its third year. Every one of its 2011 and 2012 completers - a total of 23 students - got a place on a three year course. DSA, whose first cohort completed this summer, has a 100% success record too.
That is usually achieved only by being carefully (ruthlessly?) selective which students to admit to the course rather than filling up with almost anyone who can pay. It also means teaching the skills leading to successful auditioning very thoroughly and being on top of precisely what each school is looking for so that individual students apply for schools which are likely to be right for them.
So there are advantages in foundation courses, particularly if you go to a competent specialist - but, as always, it’s a case of caveat emptor or buyer beware. Performing arts training can be a minefield.
My advice to any student considering the foundation course route - and to his and her family - would be to ask one key question and don’t stop probing until you get a straight answer: “What proportion of your students got into reputable drama schools in the last two years and which schools did they go to?”
Read College, commendably, has a large photograph of every 2011 and 2012 student displayed in its foyer and a caption saying where he or she went on completion of the course. If a school does not make this sort of information transparently available then we should be asking what it is trying to hide.
Part-time foundation courses are a way of getting round the cost issue because participants can work at the same time to fund themselves. I’ll look at those in a bit more detail in a future column.