Many aspiring actors, after graduating high school, face the question of what to study. There are many pathways into the industry of acting. There’s the standard route of training, which involves studying for a diploma or bachelor’s degree. However, some actors skip the intensive training and jump straight into auditioning. It’s about finding the option that is best for you. Here at Stagemilk, we emphasise the value of training for actors. Studying for a degree equips you with the skills and experience to enter the industry as a capable actor. If you want a degree that will prepare you for an acting career, you have a few options.
I studied a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Theatre Studies. Most universities will have a theatre and performance department. However, many other actors choose to go to a dedicated drama school, which can be attached to a university or be an independent institution. These institutions will usually offer a Bachelor of Performing Arts or Fine Arts in Acting.
So should I get a degree in theatre or go to drama school?
That is the question.
I am currently finishing my degree in theatre, so I can tell you all about that experience. To help me answer your questions about drama school, I interviewed James Caspersz-Loney, a second-year student at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, an internationally renowned Australian drama school, with acting alumni such as Cate Blanchett, Judy Davis, and Miranda Tapsell.
What’ll You Learn?
This article isn’t meant to convince you that either option is better or worse. After reading it, you will have a better knowledge of what to expect from both a theatre degree and a drama school program, helping you to decide what works best for you.
Getting into a Theatre Degree
To gain admission into my Bachelor’s degree in Theatre Studies, I had to meet certain academic requirements and apply directly to the university. The entry requirements for these programs will vary, however for a Bachelor’s degree, you will need to have graduated high school and will need to meet some English language requirements. These programs do not offer admission based on acting ability. As this degree is heavily theoretical, you rarely need to audition. Many students enter degrees in Theatre Studies and are disappointed that the degree is like an English degree. While there are some practical components, you need to be prepared to write essays and think critically about the elements that create theatre. To find out the specific admission requirements, research the theatre degrees offered at universities near you.
Getting into Drama School
Now, here is where it gets tricky. Good drama schools are notoriously difficult to get into. If an acting program is easy to get into, this can be a bad sign. Each country has a few drama schools that are highly respected in the industry. In Australia, we have the National Institute for Dramatic Arts (NIDA), the Western Australia Academy for Performing Arts (WAAPA, the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and the Actor’s Centre (ACA). Each of these schools auditions a few hundred or even a thousand actors per year and admits 16-24 students into their BFA Acting programs. Many students will audition for multiple years before gaining admission.
All of this isn’t to dissuade you from auditioning – by all means, go for it! But if you’re wanting a Bachelor’s degree in acting, be prepared to work hard and potentially audition for multiple years. If you are offered a spot at a prestigious drama school, that’s wonderful and a testament to your hard work.
James Caspersz-Loney is currently a second-year at NIDA and spent two years completing Diploma programs at WAAPA before his admission into NIDA’s famous BFA program. “I really like telling stories, using my body and my voice. I felt that using acting would be the best possible avenue to explore that,” he said.
Young people auditioning for acting programs often believe the only entry requirement is being outrageously talented. But these programs also focus on finding strong collaborators and open-minded people who can work in an ensemble.
“Be yourself… I think that a drama school really is looking for that. You also have to show an amount of promise. They really are looking for nice people who are easy to work with as well as being able to adapt and change,” he said.
What You Learn in a Theatre Degree
The distinction between a theatre degree and an acting degree is that the former is mostly theoretical, whereas the latter is mostly practical.
A degree in theatre requires you to use critical thinking to analyse theatre as well as create it. In my degree, we learnt about various performance techniques, the history of theatre, Shakespearean language and elements of production such as sound, lighting and costume design. There were also courses available in devising, playwriting, and directing. However, you only get a small taste of each of these aspects. Assessments were primarily essays and creative portfolios.
What You Learn in Drama School
A drama school degree is different. It’s very physical and essays are rare. Most of the time, you are on the floor, practising performance techniques. At some drama schools, you will also have the opportunity to collaborate with students from other disciplines such as design, production, writing and directing.
“Along with the basic voice and movement classes, we also do clowning, mask work and puppetry. We do accents and dialects class, as well… We also have singing lessons and dance lessons,” Caspersz-Loney said.
“The degree suits me really well because I’m a very physical person. I love being on my feet and moving around because that’s how I learn,” he said.
Theatre Degree Workload & Time Commitment
The workload and time commitment of a theatre degree is less than that of a drama school degree. In my experience, I had four classes per week that each went for around 3 hours. This added up to about 12 hours per week of classes and an extra 5-10 hours a week of readings and assignments. These subjects weren’t all in theatre either. If you complete a Bachelor of Arts in Australia, your major will make up only a third of your subjects.
With this time commitment, it is possible to pursue part-time work outside of the degree. Many students who study a theatre degree will also become involved in student theatre or independent productions outside of their university work.
Drama School Workload & Time Commitment
Drama school is a massive time commitment, but that is also what makes it worthwhile. These programs are immersive and are equivalent to a full-time job. With that in mind, it is near impossible to maintain outside work while studying at drama school. You’ll need to dedicate most of your time to training for three years.
“So in the first year you’re there 9-5. In second and third-year you’re there 9-6. On a Monday, I might have movement and voice, and that takes up four hours. Then I’ll have my one hour lunch break, and then I could go into rehearsals for a play for the rest of the afternoon,” James Caspersz-Loney said.
“Having a job outside of drama school is tough. Just because I do actually have a casual job, I work in a cafe on the weekends. So unfortunately, I don’t get too much of a break. It’s very challenging, but it is possible if you have good time management skills,” he said.
Productions & Showcases in a Theatre Degree
With most theatre degrees, performance opportunities are rare. Many students will become involved with student theatre and independent productions outside of their studies, applying their theoretical knowledge in a practical capacity.
That being said, the knowledge of production, design, writing and directing that you get in a theatre degree can empower you to create your own work. I have developed a better knowledge of sound design and marketing for theatre through the subjects I have taken, even though my focus is on acting.
Drama School Productions & Showcases
Drama schools definitely win in this section (not that it’s a competition). You will have so many opportunities to collaborate with fellow students and perform. They also bring in industry directors and mentors to work on their student productions.
These schools will also have an end-of-program showcase, where they present their actors to the industry and help them find agents. They will also produce professional-quality showreels for their students. Both the showcase and showreels are an undeniable advantage.
“You get to take what you’ve been learning in class and put that into an actual production. For example, you can take what you’ve been doing in the voice class, and you can transfer that onto stage, or on the screen. I think the good thing about drama school is that it allows you to fail. So even if maybe you don’t get 100% right the first time, that’s fine,” James Caspersz-Loney said.
Theatre Degree Industry Success
A theatre degree gives you a diverse set of skills. However, if you graduate with this degree and begin the search for an agent, you’ll be a step behind the drama school students. This is because their degree is practical and a theatre degree is more theoretical.
The way to overcome this is to build your practical experience during the degree. Get involved with student theatre and films at your university. Search for fringe and independent theatre opportunities. If you have the chance to do an internship, take it and reach out to reputable companies. Take additional screen acting classes to learn camera techniques if you’re interested in screen acting.
The people I know who have been successful in finding industry opportunities with a theatre degree are those who branched out. You will need to seek performance opportunities, complete internships and potentially create your own work if you want to find work in the industry.
You can also build on a Bachelor’s degree in Theatre and continue an academic path. Many people choose this degree to become teachers, writers, or arts management workers. If you are seeking this type of work, a theatre degree might suit you best.
Drama School Industry Success
If you have your sights set on acting, graduating from a reputable drama school will give you a leg up. This is partially because of the showcase opportunities and the professional showreel you are given. But it is also because these institutions have spent years building an excellent reputation and building trust with theatre companies and industry professionals.
James told me that the third-year at NIDA is a dedicated industry year, teaching students about agents, casting directors, the actor’s lifestyle and marketing.
“In third year, you get to talk to a whole different number of agents and casting agents about what they’re looking for when it comes to casting people. We have practical classes as well, like how to do taxes… or how to create and run your own work,” he said.
Drama schools also give you a great professional network, as your fellow students will all be working in the industry with you upon graduation. Your cohort will probably work at major theatre companies and film production companies. This differs from a theatre degree, where many of your fellow students are training to be teachers or just filling an elective.
There are many ways to build a career as an actor. Training is always worthwhile, however it’s important to train somewhere that is respected in the industry.
You might be drawn to the flexibility of a theatre degree and the diverse skill set you gain. Or you might prefer the immersive nature of a drama school degree and want to learn through using your body. It all still comes down to working hard, being resourceful and collaborating with your fellow students, so choose what works for you. Good luck!