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OPINION: Annemarie Lewis Thomas – The true price of auditions

Annemarie LewisLast July I wrote this blog all about the dilemma of running an ethical audition day, and more specifically about the difficulties that we face. We hear time and time again from auditionees how unfair the audition process is to get into drama college, with the main point of the argument always coming down to money, asking why, unlike any other college entry procedure do drama colleges charge for the audition day.

To recap, drama auditions are expensive. If you’re going to audition at several places you are very quickly looking at spending in excess of £500 by the time you’ve paid the audition fee, paid for your travel, and in lots of cases, paid for an overnight accommodation. Add to that the fact that a lot of the larger colleges have a recall round too, so you’ve got double the travel/accommodation costs if you’re ironically doing well.

We’ve always run a whole day audition, and we’re the only college that guarantees to give every applicant written feedback on their day. I’m aware of a few colleges that say that they are now doing this, but applicants have to ask for that feedback, whereas we automatically send our feedback back to everybody that has taken the time to come and spend the day with us.

Unusually we also tell applicants on the day of the audition whether or not they’ve been successful. So for the £45 that auditionees spend in applying for our course it truly is a whole day experience – with all the loose ends tied up on the day too.

We also give every applicant a questionnaire to anonymously fill in at the end of the day. The point of this is for me to be able to monitor whether or not the auditions are working from the point of the view of the auditionee. So we ask the scary questions like ‘did you feel like you had value for money?’ ‘were you treated as an individual?’ then the more general questions about what they like/disliked about the day, and anything that we could do to improve on their experience. I’m so incredibly proud of the fact that in six years 100% of the applicants have said that they felt like they had had their monies worth, quite tellingly approx. 95% of applicants have noted that ours was the first audition that they were referred to by their name not by a number. As an aside my favourite responses ever from the questionnaires were both complaints about the day. One person under the question would did you like/dislike about the day, answered that they felt that it was too long, and they got a little bit tired towards the end (a ringing endorsement I feel for the ‘whole day audition’). Then there was the person who under the question ‘what could we have done to improve the day?’ answered (without irony), pointed out that the day was really busy, and given that they were with us for the full day, they would have liked us to have provided a lunch for them too.

In other words, we work hard to ensure that from the moment that somebody first enters our building we invest in them (clearly not enough to provide lunch…but enough for them to know that we see them as an individual).

We of course cap our auditions at a rate approx. 5% less than most of the bigger colleges. I don’t need to see thousands of people to fill my course. I just need to see the right 22 people that we can train, and I can find them within a small number of auditionees. I don’t want to spend weeks auditioning thousands of people when realistically I have found my elusive 22 within the first 6 days. I’d rather spend my time on my current students who have paid their fees to be taught by me.

I keep resisting holding auditions anywhere other than our own premises. If a person is motivated enough to come to London and spend the day with us, they are the type of person that I’d like to teach. As opposed to the person that sauntered into the next door classroom just because myself and my team were on site that day. I want our auditioness to get a feel for our environment. If I auditioned them within their own FE college how would they ever know if they liked the vibe of our place? I want them to meet our students…but I’m not going to pay hundreds of pounds to transport my students to various UK locations.

If you’re an overseas student, I can’t audition you via a pre-recorded example of your work, as I can’t see how you socialise with others, I can’t see how you take direction, I can’t see how quickly you pick up routines. So even our overseas applicants have to come to the UK to audition. However if they’re successful, we won’t charge them a premium to train with us just because they originate outside the UK. What is that all about? Why are other colleges charging overseas students more to study? It doesn’t cost me anymore to train an overseas student than it does a UK student?

Then back in the audition room I really don’t get why some colleges invite a panel of ‘experts’ in to chose the successful applicants? What’s that about? So I have my entire senior faculty with me on our audition day, as they are the people that will have to work with the successful applicants, I need to hear their opinion as they will have to work with them. So for example, I’m listening to their voices trying to work out whether or not I can solve their technical difficulties within the confines of our course, similarly my other staff are working out whether they can resolve difficulties within the confines of the course. What’s the point of having someone there if they’re not the people training them? If I paid for a non faculty member to sit on my audition panel, surely they are just commenting on whether or not the auditionee has potential/talent…but they don’t know whether the college is able to realise that potential or indeed work with that talent, unless of course they’ve had in depth discussions with all the relevant staff prior to the audition to find out exactly what they can do within the confines of their course?

I should imagine if I were 18 and auditioning for a major college, I would be excited and possibly even in awe of the fact that there were a well known professional, or indeed an agent sat on the panel – it makes the ‘dream’ seem a bit more real doesn’t it? However, I don’t want to wow them with ‘celebrity’ impressions on an audition day. I just want to see if we can realise their potential and train them up to be industry ready within two years.

Over the last two years more and more people are beginning to question the ethics behind drama school auditions. More recently the infamous tweeter West End Producer has been attempting to explore the difficulties, but he (like many others) only focus on the Drama UK colleges. Ironically though it tends to be those very colleges that are auditioning thousands, and who are earning an awful lot of money from the audition season. Which brings me back to my age old question of why aren’t Drama UK looking at this issue? Why aren’t they issuing guidelines that would protect young people from being exploited? They’re not asking why overseas students are charged more…instead they’re supporting colleges sending teams on overseas fishing expeditions in the hope of enrolling even more overseas students? What exactly are Drama UK doing as an organisation to monitor their elite club (other than their five-yearly check-ups and reading through a report prepared by the colleges by way of an annual update)? An accredited college has historically been the benchmark for other colleges to aspire to, the elusive (and expensive) Drama UK stamp of approval, reassuring parents up and down the country that an accredited college is the best. Yet they are not monitoring the audition process, they have already admitted to me publicly on Twitter than they can’t enforce any pastoral guidelines for their colleges….increasingly that benchmark doesn’t seem to be worth the price of the logo that the ‘elite’ colleges are so quick to use on their publicity.

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