Lessons Learned at Drama School: US Edition
As you transition from the world of High School Theater to Collegiate Intensives, Conservatories, and College Performance Programs, some things stay the same… Your hopes and dreams to grace the Broadway stage or the big screen will remain intact, but you’ll also begin to notice some major changes. All those times your high school teachers said, “It won’t be like this in college!” well, they were correct. Training at a collegiate level can be an exceptionally worthwhile experience, but it can also be incredibly grueling and push you to your limits. For this blog, I’ve interviewed a series of students and recent graduates who attended drama school in the US. The goal is to highlight some of their most important lessons and give you a few ways to prepare for the experience yourself.
Go with your gut
The first major decision a student has to make when transitioning into a drama school in the US is where they want to go in the first place. Which degree are you looking for? What is your ideal location? What kind of programs are you interested in? All of these are essential considerations when making that final decision. What is less helpful are the opinions of others regarding the program you feel passionate about. Don’t get caught up in the statistics or the rankings you see online. Yes, a reputable program may have lots to offer, but you can thrive anywhere you feel supported and at home. Go with your gut because it may become the most important factor in making sure you’re happy wherever you end up.
Pro tip: Try our programs quiz to discover what could be your new dream school. You can also use the programs database to explore our extensive list of drama schools in the US and start narrowing down your options.
Preparation is key
Not all students are provided the resources to get involved in theater early in their lives. As someone fortunate enough to find the love of acting in elementary school and chase my dream to a performing arts high school, I felt secure in my acting foundation when arriving at university. When interviewing these students, I discovered this was not a universal experience. Arriving at a drama school in the US without a wide range of experience in performance or the theater world can certainly be discouraging, but don’t let that deter you from embracing the conversations happening around you! Instead, soak it all in. Write it all down. Then be a part of the next conversation. You can’t be held responsible for your past experience, but you are in control of where you go from here, so take charge!
It’s not a competition
The audition process for drama school in the US can feel quite competitive, but what you might not know is that it doesn’t end there. Sure, some programs foster a competitive environment that pits you against your peers, but in looking back at my interviews, I realized that people mainly felt “in competition” with themselves. Throughout the years, you will often look your shortcomings in the eye. You’ll walk out of an audition room beating yourself up, feeling like you have no control over your career, but this is not the case at all. A friend of mine told me, “You’d be surprised to realize how many things you are in charge of in the audition room.” I think this is true for all rooms. Instead of beating yourself up, you can think of each performance as a learning opportunity for the next. Don’t become your own worst enemy.
You better work
The most exciting part of beginning the college experience away from home is the freedom and autonomy that comes with it. But, what can be the most enjoyable part of college can quickly become one of the easiest pitfalls for students. Holding yourself accountable for your work and growth throughout your time is vital to your progress, especially in that first year. Nobody else is going to do it. Your parents aren’t around to hover over your development. You are becoming an adult who must rely on yourself to do well, not just in school but in life. Don’t shy away from that responsibility. Do the work because you will see it pay off.
Protect your body and mind
Although I emphasized the importance of working your hardest throughout your years in the program, acknowledging your limitations and setting your own boundaries is just as important. There will be times when you are doing great, and the work will feel easy, but there will also be times when you are pushed towards your emotional breaking point, inside and outside of the classroom. That is when it is most important to prioritize your personal needs. Do what you need to feel safe in your space, in your classroom, and with yourself.
The gift of wisdom
The experiences we go through and the hardships we face are fundamental to the people we become by the end of our time in college. Even though we cannot nor should not want to erase any of this experience, it is easy to look back at our past selves and know what we would have done differently. I asked those interviewed what gift of wisdom they would share with their past self if they could.
Some answers were what you’d expect… Let go of your ego, go to classes and do your homework, write more down, listen more than you speak, but nearly everyone mentioned they’d like to embrace their imperfections, to let go of the voice telling them they had to do everything right and just allow the work they were putting in to carry them through. Imperfections are what make each and every performer different. Programs that focus on creating distinctive artists instead of archetypes will embrace those imperfections with you instead of trying to suppress them.
We are the world
This year has, without a doubt, been an unprecedented time in the performing arts industry and the world as a whole, between the Covid-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the acts of accountability in the Broadway community. The final question I asked my peers was how this has affected their creative work both inside and outside of the classroom. This time was different for everyone, and that was reflected in the answers I received. Many just felt thankful for their health and the opportunity to go forward, changing the world with art. It is easy to take things for granted when you are surrounded by a world full of art.
Still, this past year, while performance has been scarce, we can be grateful for each and every potential opportunity. Many have taken this period of retribution to assess the importance of change-making in the industry, doing something when you see injustice happening. There is a feeling that we should be taking part in the projects we consider important and tell stories worth telling. We can only hope that we carry these major lessons into the future as we return to “life as we know it.” The changes we are seeing should only be the beginning of what a new generation of artists will define!
Hi, my name is Gabbie Pisapia! I’m a New York-based actor, singer, and songwriter. After an eventful childhood full of singing and dancing, I continued my theater education in Manhattan, attending the Professional Performing Arts High School as a drama major. In my senior year, I made the decision to continue that theater education moving from PPAS to PPA at Pace University, working to receive my BFA in Acting. https://www.gabbiepisapia.com/
To BFA or not to BFA?
To BFA or not to BFA?
Should you commit to highly specified training at the expense of a liberal arts education? Are you better suited to a good BA program, knowing that you can continue your training post-college in professional studios or by studying for an MFA? How do you decide whether a BA or BFA program is best for you? Truth is, that’s not a question we can answer in a single blog post. It’s not a simple equation where we can add up your must-haves, subtract your must-nots and end up with a clear sum. This is a big question that we’re planning on approaching from a bunch of different angles for a long time. So what can we do for now? We can offer a personal experience
My BFA journey
I have a BFA. I’m very proud of the work I did to get this degree. But sometimes I regret not going to a more generalized BA program. This perspective is shaped by so many things: the particular conservatory program I attended, my artistic philosophy, the work I wanted to create, how my vision of the work I want to create has shifted since graduating, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. This is why there’s no simple answer: artists and their needs are unique. So let me tell you a bit more about my personal experience.
I attended the conservatory program at Rutgers University to study acting. When I attended, the training was grounded in Meisner technique (and still is), but I also took classes in Michael Chekhov, Clown, a few different movement techniques, stage combat, devising, on-camera work, and spent an entire year in London studying approaches to acting Shakespeare and more. It was an amazing four years. Almost everything was laser-focused on acting, but since I’ve graduated I’ve also worked as a sound designer, composer, director, and producer. I never considered taking on these roles during my college years, but they’ve since brought me so much joy. I might have discovered that earlier–and been able to train in them -if I had attended a program that wasn’t so singularly focused on acting.
Though my acting training gave me a lot of tools, I’ve since come to think Meisner was not the best foundation for me. But I couldn’t have known that then. Nor could I have known the value of the liberal arts education I was giving up. It might sound cliche, but theatre touches on ALL of the human experience and it’s impossible to overstate how often your work will touch on history, science, philosophy, religion, literature and more. Some BFA programs recognize that importance, but some will train you like a technician who only needs a specific set of skills. You’re an artist, not just a technician. And we need artists who can think big, ask big questions, and take big risks. I encourage you to look for the programs (BA or BFA) that want to train those artists.
While part of me wishes I had chosen a BA program, I’m also extremely grateful for my BFA experience. However, I wish I had done the in-depth research that would have helped me understand the options I had. I knew I loved highly physical training, and I wish I had prioritized that more when looking at schools. In a highly competitive field, it’s easy to feel like you’re lucky to have any program accept you. But your school search should start with what you want from your training. There is not one objectively “best” school. Different artists need different things.
Choosing a program for YOU
So here we are at the end of this post and if you were hoping I would switch courses and come through with some nice, clear-cut wisdom you’re going to be disappointed. What I do want to end with is a reminder that I have to give myself repeatedly: YOUR CAREER IS NOT A SPRINT. It’s so easy to feel as though we have to find our success early and fast or we’re never going to find it. THAT IS A LIE. But it’s a powerful lie that can push us to choose our college program based on the desire to break into that professional market ASAP.
You need to choose a program FOR YOU. For the artist YOU want to be. One of the definitions for success in this field is simply longevity–good artistic training helps you develop an artistic core that will let you run marathons. So if you want the time to explore other interests the way a BA program would allow, then good for you! If you want a highly focused education in one specific area of study from a BFA program, then go for it! I’ve worked with a ton of amazing artists from both backgrounds. You can be outstanding in both. And we’re going to use this blog to keep exploring this question so you can make an informed decision. So stick with us. We got your back.
Tim Giles is a theatre artist who likes to make work capitalizing on risk, coming together, and a little chaos. He also makes music, bakes a mean loaf of bread, and runs around outside a lot. As a Southerner, he thinks everyone needs to recognize the beauty of one of the best words ever invented: y’all. It’s gender-neutral! If y’all start to incorporate “y’all” into y’all’s everyday vocabulary, y’all’ll quickly understand its usefulness.
Lessons Learned at Drama School: UK Edition
Drama School in the UK offers a number of different types of courses from acting to stage management, multiple design disciplines, musical theatre and more; it is a vibrant and exciting place that is sometimes a little overwhelming. It can be hard to know whether drama school is the right path for you and what to expect from the experience once you get there. I decided to give our readers an insight into what it’s really like to study at a drama school in the UK by interviewing a selection of final-year acting students and recent graduates. I asked my interviewees what their ultimate drama school takeaways were. Below I have listed, in no particular order, the real-life lessons they learned and the top tips they have for the aspiring actors following in their footsteps.
Imagination is key!
‘Your imagination is the most wonderful and unique tool you have as an actor – use it! At drama school, you are given the opportunity to play characters you might never get to play in real life. It is such a fantastic way to stretch your imagination and transform yourself into characters that feel very far removed from you and will end up being a massive help in your work even with characters that feel close to you. The chance to make bold and brave choices is an exciting one, so make them!’ – Anushka, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
Always be true to yourself!
‘The most important lesson I learned at drama school in the UK was to BE MYSELF. I spent so much time trying to emulate others in my year or other actors that I loved on TV. As soon as I stopped trying to be someone else and started reacting in the moment, that’s when I started to do my best work. There is only one you. Don’t waste your time trying to be someone else’ – Emily, Royal Welsh.
Read between the lines
‘Subtext. I love thinking as the character. What did he do this morning? What’s on his mind during the scene? How might his feelings about the other person evolve as he listens to them? I think it’s useful to wonder generally about these things without being rigid. Exact thoughts can’t be controlled or conjured’ – Zachary, Guildhall.
‘I think the top lesson I’ve taken away would be just to live life. Drama school in the UK is intense and a lot of hard work so it’s easy to be consumed by it and feel like you’ve got no time or energy for anything else. Finding a balance in life is really important. Remember to make time for other things you enjoy, time to relax or time to try new things and see new places’ – Kat, Mountview.
‘Having so many creative people around you Monday to Friday can be incredibly exhausting. So many different opinions and personalities flowing through one space can leave you feeling overwhelmed at times and just wanting to be alone. Please take time for yourself. Be yourself’ – Romario, ALRA.
Focus on your fellow actors
‘How to read people, I seriously thought that I could be hired as a spy after 1st year, we go deep into Meisner and it was magical’ – Libby, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
‘There is so much to learn from your fellow actors – drama school gives you friends for life because you go through quite a unique experience with each other. In our first week, one teacher told us to look around the room at all the strangers who we would come to know so well and it’s true. Watching them change and grow is the best way to grow yourself and I probably learned more from watching them develop as actors and as people than in any formal class’ – Anna, LAMDA.
Do your research, then let it all go!
‘Importance of doing research, but then letting it go. When I’m playing a character, I research and imagine as much as I can about them. I will fill notebooks with ideas and facts and dreams and objectives. Then when I’m actually acting, I let all that fall away and just react in the moment. Because I’ve done the work, I’m reacting as the character instinctively’ – Georgie, Drama Studio.
‘Knowing and enforcing my boundaries. Being at drama school has been one of the most challenging and demanding experiences of my life. The highs are high and the lows are low. I’ve really had to learn how to take care of myself and let myself say no when the work becomes too much. At drama school, you can so easily put the work above all else because you are entering into such an intense environment, sometimes you just have to take a step back and remember exactly why you are here and what you need to do to protect yourself’ – Laura, Manchester School of Theatre.
A little bit goes a long way
‘I learned not to take myself too seriously. Everyone spends so much time worrying about how to hit that specific note, or nail that triple pirouette, but in reality, sometimes the harder you push the harder it gets. I learned, especially vocally, that a little bit a day goes a long way, rather than trying to bash it out until your voice is sore’ – Alice, Royal Academy of Music.
Now it’s your turn! Share your biggest drama school lesson in the comments below! Haven’t been to drama school yet? Tell us which tip from this blog resonated with you the most! Let’s keep the conversation and good advice flowing!
Izzy is a producer and director. She graduated from Edinburgh University in 2020 where she directed, produced and stage-managed multiple plays and operas alongside running Candlewasters, a new writing theatre company, in her final year. In addition to being the producing intern for Yonder Window, Izzy produces and directs for the Bomb Factory Theatre, which is an emerging women-led theatre company based in North London. She also produces theatre independently and has worked freelance for a number of theatre companies such as Wessex Grove and the Birmingham Rep.