Features Published 25 July 2020

Drama School’s Class of 2020

“It feels like this complex sense of grief”: Joseph Winer talks to a generation of theatre graduates as they reckon with the loss and opportunities the pandemic has brought.

Joseph Winer


When I’d recently graduated, I remember hearing a statistic that something like 90% of drama school graduates won’t be working in the job they trained for within a decade of leaving their course, and less than 10% of those who are will be making a salary that will cover their living costs. We know that the industry, especially for those in their first few years post-graduation, is precarious. But now there’s a whole generation of emerging arts professionals who are graduating into a devastated industry, and might just fall through the cracks altogether.We’ve seen the vast impact of COVID across the board in our education system: schools closed, exams cancelled, university courses moved online. It becomes an even trickier thing when it’s practical training which really demands working together in a physical space. I spoke to six graduates, and two students still in training, who kindly shared with me their concerns and hopes for their own creative futures and, more widely, those regarding the industry as a whole.

They had a mixed response to the ways various drama schools have dealt with the situation. It seemed initially that Mountview, for example, were going to offer no further classes after the end of the official school year in compensation for the training that was lost or moved online. “They made us feel like a cash cow sometimes,” Acting MA graduate Efé Agwele tells me. With 90% of Mountview’s income coming from student fees, they can’t necessarily afford to simply postpone all the training to September. But now, Efé is relieved that a two-week showcase has been offered to MA students next year, and she praises her course leaders for deciding to postpone certain classes, such as stage combat. Not all schools have done the same; The Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA), for example, has offered no further training to the BA Acting course now that students have ticked all the academic boxes. And across the board, students have still missed out on the crucial final production. These students will be entering the industry having not experienced the process of making a show from start to finish, carrying a character right the way through rehearsals and playing to a live audience.

“Going from having such a great time at drama school to suddenly being stripped of any kind of structure threw me and everyone I know right into the deep,” says Identity School of Acting graduate Megha Dhingra. “Everything that we’d been working towards, the showcase, was for nothing really.” The concluding period of a three-year BA not only consolidates the skills that have been thus far acquired, but crucially nurtures the soon-to-be graduates for the first few steps into the industry. Manchester School of Acting BA graduate Hannah Brownlie adds that “At the start of lockdown we were given a lot of support, and it’s not to say that’s gone, but I haven’t noticed it as being much of a focus.” She points out that the third year is particularly important, as it “nurtures and moulds you into someone that understands yourself in the industry, understands your marketing and casting”. For Hannah, this is particularly crucial; “I’m half-deaf, and I’m still not sure where I sit within the disabled community, but it definitely affects my place in the industry. I’ve got problems with sound depth, and I get a lot of intruder anxiety because I just can’t locate sound. Sometimes in a loud situation you feel left out, and I’ve really begun to unpack these feelings in my last year of training.”

Although drama schools have pivoted quickly to online teaching, it can’t possibly be a substitute for the rigorous, practical training that in-the-room learning provides. Students have limited space and resources at home, and the varying quality of sound and computer equipment has made singing and vocal classes particularly challenging. Still, Ferandi Yennas, who has just come to the end of his MA Music Theatre course at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (CSSD), has found some of the positive outcomes from the change to online teaching. Rather than adapting certain subjects for virtual teaching, CSSD have instead offered alternative types of coaching, including training in self-taping and voice acting. “I would prefer face-to-face classes”, he tells me, “but it seems that self-tapes are going to be the way forward for auditions for a while and as a performer you have to adapt to the situation”.

One of the main issues that arose with the adjustments to the final term surrounded showcases and agents. The majority of final showcases were cut or moved online, schools that supported self-tapes could no longer do so and whilst many senior figures in the industry and casting professionals have showed support and empathy for graduates, it becomes quite tricky when the quality of graduating material has been so variably affected by COVID. “I’ve been really disappointed with the quality of agents that have come through for the digital showcases,” says Efé Agwele, before adding that although a lot of acting graduates have at least secured some representation, “the musical theatre students are at a real disadvantage to us because they didn’t have the chance to showcase a monologue, only songs, so the agents can’t really know if they’ll work well on screen, and realistically screen work is all anyone’s going to be doing for the next six months. If it were normal circumstances, so many of them would’ve been signed to amazing agencies.”

Then there’s the issue of showreels. Ordinarily, drama school courses will support acting graduates with the creation of a digital showreel, providing them with the equipment, technical team and other support needed to create a high quality selection of scenes which can be featured on an actors’ online profile and viewed by casting directors. Efé Agwele tells me that “what we’re missing out on isn’t having the professionally edited showreel, it’s the experience of working with a crew”. For some actors-in-training this would have acted as their first professional filming experience; it’s now going to be down to learning on the job. Creating showreels at home has had some real positives however, with some students now feeling equipped – literally having the correct equipment – to create self-tapes, which moving forward is likely to be an even more important part of the audition process than previously.

As Efe points out, “As sympathetic as the industry might be towards this year’s cohort of graduates, essentially once you’re working, competing with everybody else, it doesn’t really matter that you were the affected ‘year of 2020’.”  This is likely to lead to particular disadvantages to graduates from working class or low-income backgrounds. Students are going to have little choice but to repay to have new showreels at a later stage, but some students have barely managed to support themselves through their studies. Similarly, with casting website Spotlight due a £115 renewal fee later this year, it may very well be that some graduates have to seriously consider whether this is a fee worth spending.

For LIPA BA Acting graduate Amber Buttery, her”number one priority is to go to work and earn money, to pay rent”. She explains that “I feel like this situation has really put things into perspective for a lot of working-class artists, like myself. I’ve got mates of mine who, luckily for them, have the [financial] support of their family to keep them afloat, and they’re churning out self-tapes every other day. I don’t have the time for that.”

There’s also a growing concern that the immediate future of theatre is going to prioritise commercial theatre, with little investment or risk-taking on the more experimental, form-bending type of performance practice. Clodagh Chapman has just completed the Advanced Theatre Practice MA at CSSD, which focuses on an interdisciplinary approach to theatre-making. For someone in her situation, “it’s a twofold-thing of being a risk in terms of being an emerging artist and a risk in terms of not making mainstream theatre”. Since the announcement of the governments £1.57 billion arts, culture and heritage rescue package there’s been speculation in the public conversations about how exactly this might be distributed, with implications that the government might want to have some significant involvement in who exactly this money goes to. Oliver Dowden and Rishi Sunak might be keen to get Shakespeare’s Globe back up and running, but I hardly imagine a similar photoshoot outside the Vaults entrance on Leake Street, or in small-scale community focused venues such as The Seagull in Lowestoft; places that nurture new talent or act as a cultural hub for their community.

Despite the uncertainties and the bleak prospects currently facing the sector, all the students and graduates I spoke with also highlighted the positives that have come out of this situation. Afua Nuamah is a second-year student on the BA Stage Management course at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. She’s meant to be going on a practical work placement next year, but as a stage manager in training, she hardly feels part of the conversation at all; “I’m starting to think about what other skills I’ve already learnt in my two years of training that I can take into another industry.” But despite her concerns about the job market, Afua Nuamah is “raring to get back to things”, telling me ‘”I’ve had time to work on my craft and have learnt new techniques. I started knitting! Why? Because I thought there might be a show where I need to knit”.

In addition to finding time to learn new skills – or polish up on old ones – creatives are also making use of this time to work on personal projects or test out new ideas. CSSD has encouraged MA students to make their own work throughout the course, due to the lack of stability that many actors face anyway in ordinary times. Ferandi has been focusing on turning writing into movement pieces, and Hannah has reflected on her reasons for wanting to work in theatre in the first place, which has inspired her to develop a new devised show, which is partly about being deaf, an issue she feels needs to be talked about more in performance. Temi is keen to tell new stories, ones which theatres might not take the risk to programme anyway. He wants to turn the negatives of this situation into a positive, explaining “If theatres aren’t picking up new voices, just stick it on YouTube, put it online!”.

The pandemic has shone a light on the inequalities not just within our industry, but across the globe. The Black Lives Matter movement has exposed the structural, systemic racism within our society, and also really forced white people to educate ourselves, to reflect on our own racist behaviours and commit to becoming proactively anti-racist. Efé explains that she’s “not really mourning what the industry was because I wasn’t expecting to see any big game change in the next year or two that suddenly made it an anti-racist, non-able-bodied space.” Instead, she’s seen positive change come from this crisis; “Everything that has happened with the Black Lives Matter movement over the last two months would not have happened if not for lockdown, because people were at home and listening.” Efé is hopeful for the future too, praising one of her teachers at Mountview, Sherrill Gow, who has started a book club with alumni, the first two books being Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. “Thirty years from now, it’s going to be current graduates who are leading things, so if we change our mindsets now, then we’re going to see a much better industry”. 

Another positive that’s come out of this situation is the support that established artists and organisations have offered emerging and early-career creatives. Afua Nuamah has been taking advantage of the international networking opportunities that this period has provided, connecting with other stage managers across the globe – for example in Australia and America – to share techniques and develop her knowledge, allowing her to “go back into third year with a whole new bank of skills”. Megha has met online with casting directors and used virtual spaces to create work with their friends. Efé expresses great admiration for the Collective Creative Initiative on YouTube, which is fully funded until December to offer free daily classes on all things theatre, from acting and voice sessions to workshops on fundraising and mental health. She also praises Mountview’s industry mentoring programme; ‘I’ve connected with four Black female leading creatives in the industry. This wouldn’t have happened if I was back at school.”

Amber also wanted to use this time to find a mentor, specifically someone else from a working-class upbringing. “I had a period where I felt like this job isn’t for me”, she explains, “it feels that privileged that it’s not even worth it […] I felt like I needed to go and do some hard graft because that’s what needs to happen in the world right now”. She ended up connecting with a local director who made her realise “it’s not that there’s not a place for me, it’s just that that place isn’t shown to me”. The National Theatre screenings for example, whilst allowing thousands of households across the country to keep engaged with theatre, really highlighted the lack of working-class representation on our supposedly ‘national’ stages. “Where am I”, Amber asks, “Where’s my voice? Who sounds like me on there?”. Amber wants to prove to her parents that she and her family are represented in mainstream theatre, but the choice of shows streamed during this time generally failed to help her make her point.

“It feels like this complex sense of grief” says Amber, reflecting on the final months of training and transition into the industry that she’s missed out on, and that sense of loss is something echoed across the graduates I spoke to. However, the time has also highlighted the opportunities to rebuild a better world, a fairer and more just theatre sector. Creative professionals are nothing if not adaptable, a notion that was expressed throughout these conversations. On discussing the roots of her love for what she does, Afua Nuamah reflected on Ghanaian storytelling practices

“We need to remember why we fell in love with theatre, because once you forget that it just becomes like any other business. Once you start forgetting about inclusion and access, it loses the essence of what it is. We need to go back to the roots, which for me and my culture, centres around storytelling, where we sit around, talk, laugh, dance. That’s it for us. I think we need to stray away from stories about COVID. We need to move forward.”

However much pain the industry and the people in it are currently experiencing, we need to keep fighting to tell stories, to tell new stories, and in particular to shine a spotlight on the voices which might otherwise be left behind as we collectively step back out onto the stage and face the challenges of a new kind of theatre, and a new kind of world.

Joseph Winer would like to thank the graduates who spoke to him for this piece; you can find more information on their work below:

Efé Agwele she/her (Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, MA Acting) | www.spotlight.com/6611-7866-8943

Hannah Brownlie she/her (Manchester School of Theatre, BA Acting) | https://www.spotlight.com/9976-6753-2168

Amber Buttery she/her (Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, BA Acting) | www.spotlight.com/2373-8972-9912

Clodagh Chapman she/her (Central School of Speech and Drama, MA Advanced Theatre Practice) | www.clodaghchapman.co.uk

Megha Dhingra they/them (Identity School of Acting) | https://www.spotlight.com/0230-7864-7164

Temi Majekodunmi he/him (East 15, MA Acting) | www.spotlight.com/9978-8947-3589

Afua Nuamah she/her (Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, BA Stage Management) | https://www.mandy.com/theatre-professional/profile/afua-nuamah

Ferandi Yennas he/him (Central School of Speech and Drama, MA Music Theatre) | www.spotlight.com/6610-6729-8062

 

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Joseph Winer is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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