Britain has some of the finest performing arts training establishments in the world - the 22, including, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, RWCMD, LAMDA, Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the like, which belong to Drama UK, formerly CDS — and many others. So it’s no coincidence that we also produce some of the world’s most outstanding theatre — as the recent Olympics and Paralympics Opening Ceremonies helped to highlight.
But surely there has to be a saturation point? I suspect we are now training far more performers than the relevant industries could ever absorb, even if every trainee were of star quality.
Whenever I review a drama school showcase for The Stage I do so in the knowledge that many of the 20, 30, 40 or 50 students in front of me will never find work in the field they’ve trained for — partly because there are too many of them and partly because high numbers usually mean a long tail. Yes, of course, actors and other performers have always expected to rest for substantial periods of their ‘working’ life but why are we making it so much more difficult by training so many more than we used to?
And if you don’t believe this is happening, then just look at the way established schools have grown in recent years with new courses, more students, extra staff and bigger buildings. There are also large numbers of new independent schools launching all the time. Some — the Musical Theatre Academy and PPA, for example — are excellent and have acquired enviable reputations for having a large proportion of former students in work very quickly and consistently. Others are distinctly lacklustre.
It’s a jolly good thing, in my view, that there are trainers willing and able to give the established schools a run for their money. I approve of healthy competition. On the other hand, there is only so much business out there, in the form of potentially employable students who really would benefit from this training. This ongoing splitting of the market is not doing the industry any good.
Did I mention money? Because that, of course, is what a lot of this is about. Every student, especially an overseas student, brings a useful dollop of income. And they don’t, at audition stage, even need to be any good. You can just bring armies of them in, charge them and reject them — quite a milch cow. Against a background of funding cuts, the larger schools seem to have become quite adept at alternative ways of enhancing their income — which they need for all those expensive building programmes and the kind of 21st century ethos which styles the principal as a chief executive who has, like other senior staff, to be paid a high salary.
Hardly a week goes by without my hearing of another new school. The motivation of people who start does seem to be generally less mercenary and more altruisitic, at least to begin with. Passionate people want to share their expertise and develop young performers, but they are still running businesses and need at least to be cost-effective - obviously.
I think it’s time we stopped setting so many performing arts students up to fail professionally, and that means not training quite so many. Relentless expansion just means that hundreds and hundreds of young people are being sold short every year. It simply isn’t fair to take their money and foster false expectations.