Drama schools urged to cut their audition fees

Monday 23 April 2018

Photograph: Johan Persson; Laura Donnelly and Paddy Considine in Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, one of 2017’s most talked-about theatre productions.

Britain’s theatre establishment will gather at the Albert Hall for its most glamorous evening of the year on Sunday , with the American blockbuster rap musical Hamilton, Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman and musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie among the hit shows battling it out for Olivier awards.

Away from the red carpet, however, there are growing concerns that talented working-class actors are prevented from even beginning a career on the stage – let alone rising through the ranks to see their name in lights.

Britain’s leading drama schools are being challenged to scrap the audition fees that prospective students are asked to pay, following claims that the cost of having a go is discouraging would-be actors from poorer backgrounds.

The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama are among more than a dozen leading institutions that charge fees.

Liverpool Theatre School recently announced it was abolishing its £45 audition fee. But many schools charge £55 for an audition, and some charge as much as £80 in total. With students often having to apply to several schools to maximise their chances of a place, the costs can soon add up to hundreds of pounds. Some drama schools offer fee-waiver schemes and support for travel costs. However, campaigners warn that poorer students are still missing out.

Tom Watson, the shadow culture secretary, has written to leading drama schools, asking them to consider abolishing the fees altogether. The move comes after Labour published its Acting Up report last year, which warned that the performing arts were “increasingly dominated by a narrow set of people from well-off backgrounds”.

Julie Hesmondhalgh, the former Coronation Street actress, is among those pushing for an urgent rethink. “There are many obstacles to pursuing higher education when you come from a low-income family in 2018, but the prohibitive fees imposed on budding drama students, for the privilege of auditioning for a place, seem uniquely skewed towards those who can afford it,” she told the Observer. “If you take into account the travel costs to attend, plus the audition fee, it’s clear that this puts huge financial strain on young people from working-class backgrounds.

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“Audition fees are yet another way of excluding huge swaths of society from having an equal chance of success. I would encourage a conversation to begin between drama schools, led by Liverpool Theatre School’s welcome new policy, of abolishing, or at least drastically lowering, the cost of auditioning.”

Research by academics from LSE and Edinburgh universities found that just 16% of actors came from working-class backgrounds, while more than half (51%) had privileged backgrounds. A separate report by UK Theatre found that just 7% of the theatre and performing arts workforce were from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds.

In the letter, Watson writes: “Equality of opportunity and access are important in all walks of life but they are critically important in the stage and screen industries, which tell our story as a nation and should represent the whole country, not just part of it. Drama school is by no means the only route to a career on or behind stage and screen but it is a major one.

“Students from poorer backgrounds are priced out at the very first stage, without even getting a foot in the door. These high fees are a barrier to opportunity and a barrier to access. The audition process is as vital to drama schools as it is to prospective students and it is not clear why the cost of the process should be passed on to the students.”

Alyce Liburd, an actress from West Yorkshire, said that she had found the application process expensive and had had to find another path into the profession. “I hope it does change, as there are so many artists and younger children that don’t have access to the arts or know where they can go for help to get access.”

The Guildhall said it agreed that the TV and theatre industries are disproportionately dominated by people from well-off and white backgrounds, adding that it is taking action.

“To try and encourage applicants from low-income backgrounds, we waive application fees for applicants to our BA acting programme from partner schools and youth theatres with whom we work closely, and we also hold regional auditions across the country to try and minimise travel costs for candidates,” it said.

“Nevertheless, we recognise that the application fee is still a potential barrier, and we are currently in discussions to identify whether there are further measures that we can take, whilst balancing the need to cover the costs of what is a substantial and carefully tailored process.”