November 28, 2004
Actor schools versus regular schools

The Telegraph reports on an interesting, and if you are the worrying sort (as I am basically not), :worrying report about the rise and rise of stage schools:

Some of the most famous actors and actresses in Britain are warning parents not to send their children to stage school because they say that many provide poor training and exploit pupils commercially.

The actors, including Richard Griffiths, Samantha Bond, Julian Glover, Paul McGann and Sam West, say that even children desperate to act would do better to complete a conventional education first.

The reason, they say, is that some stage schools are more concerned with making money than with teaching.

The actors' concern, which is shared by the National Council for Drama Training, has been prompted by a sharp increase in the number of full- and part-time drama schools catering for children, some as young as four.

An obsession with fame and popular culture generated by television programmes such as Big Brother and Pop Idol has been cited as one reason for the increase in the number of courses, and some schools have their own theatrical agencies. The theatrical directory Contacts 2005 lists hundreds of full- or part-time children's courses at fees of up to £7,000 a year.

Sam West, who starred in Howard's End and the BBC's Cambridge Spies series, said that many schools were little more than "glorified modelling agencies" which, at best, were interested only in children who would look good on television and could make it as presenters.

I wonder. Isn't the underlying truth here that almost nobody, statistically speaking, makes it as a successful actor, so no matter what you do to become an actor it will probably fail, and the more people try this, the more true this will be.

So the big question becomes, is actor training a worse education than "conventional education", and I'm not persauded that it's any worse. We are constantly bombarded nowadays with the claim that our economy is becoming less about making things and more about "service", and that's because it's presumably true. And is not "service" a lot to do with presenting yourself to others – audiences you might say – in whatever way will be most appreciated. Trade after trade nowadays, it is constantly said, is "all about presentation".

I reckon all those little failed actors might turn out to be just as useful as all the failed Sam Wests who now roam the earth, with their heads full of drama texts and just bursting to write essays about everything, of a sort that only other essay writers want to read, and not many of them because they are too busy writing their own essays?

I also think that there is a lot to be said in favour of children being exploited commercially much more than they are now. It's called work, and I think children become insufferable little drones if they do not do any of this. But, if they do do work, they ought to be paid, i.e. "exploited".

For many children, might actor schooling not be just a way to avoid the grind of regular education and to do something fun instead? This Telegraph report certainly suggests that there is great enthusiasm for these places. Also, it is probably better exercise, something which conventional education has been doing huge damage to in recent years.

More generally, I wonder what impact all these actor schools will have upon the wider culture. (Think about the impact that art colleges have had, for example on pop music. These are similarly useless places on the face of it.) What sort of things does actor training prepare you to do, assuming what you do will not be doing much in the way of normal acting in theatres, films, etc.? In the future, there will surely be entire new industries as yet undreamed of, that will make use of all these ever more widely dispersed drama skills.

For instance, what happens to global culture when it becomes as easy to converse on television, so to speak, as it now is to converse over the phone? Actor training will be quite a good preparation for that. As more and more of everyday life becomes like a performance, actor school alumni may actually find themselves at a competitive advantage.

Perhaps all these actors will fan out across the globe and become English as a Foreign Language teachers. Quite good ones, I mean. Teaching Indians and Chinese how to to TV telephoning to the white Anglosphere.

Just a few thoughts, from a useless essayist.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:22 PM
Category: RelevanceTraining