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OPINION: Annemarie Lewis Thomas – Facing up to the cost of tuition


Annemarie LewisI read a great post today on the “Book of Face”, about a parent asking a person ‘inthe know’ this question: If you get only sixhours teaching a week in a university, couldn’tyou do drama school training in the same time?

It’s such a great question isn’t it? I mean there are loads of universities out therecharging the £9000 maximum top up fee, all claiming to be able to get studentsindustry ready within the confines of their three-year course. In addition to theclaim, the aforementioned student will also end the course with that all-elusive,parent-approved piece of paper that says ‘degree’. Whereas we now charge£28,000 in total for just two years of studying, and you don’t even get the degree.

You have a nice ‘in-house diploma’ (albeit printed on an embossed paper to makeit more special). Also note that the £9000 you’re paying to a uni is a ‘top up’, ie, the Government is also making a financial contribution to your child’s study,whereas for us we literally just have the £14,000/year that our students give usto try and make ends meet.

Some colleges are forever going on about how tight it is at the moment to makeends meet – so much so that they’ve been forced into upping their intake tocreate more of a revenue for themselves. There are definitely degree courses with just a handful of people on them…however there are also degree courseswith as many as 75 in one year group (more if rumours are to be believed).

Clearly they’re not taught in those big batches…however at the end of the coursethe uni or indeed drama college that is offering a degree course, still has to ‘showoff’ every single one of that year group in a bid to find them agent representation.

I wouldn’t have the first idea how to show off that many students fairly. If thereare 75 in a year group you’re instantly looking at an income of £675,000/year intop up fees alone. That’s more than our college makes in total per year.

Anyway, I digress – back to the Book of Face. My initial reaction though is whywould a parent be happy with 6 hours teaching a week if they were paying£9000/year? The amount of families struggling to find £27,000 to find out thatheir child doesn’t even get a full day’s teaching a week? Or what about that allinclusive statement of ‘private study time’. So yes there’s only X amount ofcontact hours a week, but that’s because your budding child actor will beprivately studying the rest of the time. Now if I added in just one hour of privatestudy time every morning on our course I’d save myself £18,000 a year. It’srather tempting isn’t it? I mean I could give myself and indeed my staff a lovelypay rise with that extra money.

What if I followed the uni route a bit more and gave my students a whole day offevery week for ‘private study’. Well that would save me a minimum of £66,000 ayear. Of course I’d make these types of savings as all of my staff are freelance,and are only paid if they’re teaching, but then I don’t have a huge pot of moneysitting there, so I have to ensure that every penny counts, so staff are only paid ifthey’re physically in the room teaching/coaching the students. We’re anindependent college so the staff aren’t bogged down with paperwork at the endof a session. They simply spend 5-10 mins writing a brief synopsis about theirclass, so that dep teachers can just pick it up should they need to disappear forwork, and it enables us to keep a close eye on every student at every moment ofthe day.

Damn it…again I digress. Now as tempting as those savings are, I just don’t thinkthat I could deliver the course in that time. If I lost just an hour a week, I don’tthink that we’d see the results that we get.

So we’re training our students in all three disciplines, and give or take an hour hereor there, we split our time evenly between the three main disciplines. However evenwithin the disciplines there are divisions. Dance is a minefield, there are just somany components to it. I mean they have to do ballet every week, after all that’sthe foundation for all the rest of styles, but we’re teaching them to go into today’sindustry so we have to cover jazz, tap, commercial, contemporary, pas de deux.

So just thinking of the minimum I could get away with that would be 6 hoursright there, to just ‘touch’ on each discipline once a week. Of course dancing is allabout muscles and stretching and core strength, so an hour a week just wouldn’tcut it at all, so my lot actually do 17½ hours of dance every week, during a typicaltechnical studies week.

Then on the acting side that’s quite tricky to pin down too isn’t it these days? Somany practitioners to explore, texts to study, then we have the added issue ofbeing the only MT course that splits the focus of our acting course 50/50between stage/screen. However I’ll try to keep it to a minimum in an attempt towork as near as damnit to the uni’s contact time. So what if we did an hour ofscreen acting a week, an hour of stage acting…ah…instant problem as thatincorporates the need for some vocal technique. You might be the best actor inthe world but if your audience can’t understand or hear you. Then there’s thatthing about sounding like different people, you know learning accents, phoneticsthat sort of thing. Maybe I could get away with 2 hours a week on voice (an houron being heard, and an hour on sounding different)? So back to the stageacting…they can be heard, but there’s still the techniques to master, and justbasic stagecraft. It’s good to do some impro, yet you also need to do your scriptwork. What if I just allocated two hours to use as my Head of Acting saw fit. So thatwould be just five hours of acting a week. However added to my six hours of danceI’m already up to 11 hours a week…and we haven’t covered anything musicalyet.

So singing, a bit like dance has various strands to it, you’ve got your basictechnique, your choral classes (learning how to blend, do harmonies), maybe wecould skip the MT history (as they could do that in their ‘private study’ time).

The voice is a muscle though and needs to be stretched and ‘used’…so maybe Icould just get away with 2 hours a week? Or let’s say 2½ hours a week and thatcould incorporate a one to one session too. So at a squeeze I’ve just condensedour course down to 13½ hours a week. That’s not great though is it…I’m alreadyon twice as much contact time as the uni that’s offering to get their studentsindustry ready on six hours a week.

However if I implemented my new uni inspired course, would my students havethe stamina to do an 8 hour rehearsal day? Would they have the vocal andphysical stamina to do eight shows a week? What about all the bits that I haven’tcovered but we think are important like rep classes for dance, the private studyin musical theatreis flawed because you haven’t got someone joining up the dots for you, making sense of the history. Would they be ready to shoot a short film after anhour a week of screen acting? How would they cope concentrating on a 12-hourtech day?

There’s too many ‘would they be able to’ for my liking…and my students havepaid £28,000 on the guarantee that they definitely would be able to. So weactually do a minimum of 40 hours contact time/week for 40 weeks a year. Wehave no private study time, we only take a maximum of 22 students…and still,somehow the books balance at the end of the year.

If I could deliver the course to the standard that I consider industry readyin sixhours a week or indeed any less than 40 I would do so, as it would saveme money (that I could pass onto my students), and quite frankly would give mea bit more of life. Instead we often find ourselves working through lunch breaksattempting to nab more hours here and there. My staff can often be found atcollege during the holidays, grabbing time with students that might need someextra assistance in a certain area.

Drama colleges are vocational, geared 100% to get you out into the industry.That’s what you’re paying for.Of course, that will be some brilliant degree courses out there delivering morethan sixcontact hours a week, with amazing faculties. However, I’m increasinglyseeing students coming to audition for our course treating it almost like a postgrad, therefore paying double the money that they needed to, just so that theycould get that unimportant piece of paper that says ‘degree’ first. Or as mostpeople refer to it – ‘something to fall back on’. What angers me, though, are theones that have already paid £27,000 and yet haven’t got a clue what the ‘realworld’ is really like, and are essentially being forced to pay the same again inorder to get the skill set that the first place had offered them.

I won’t give up on this idea, though….I’m going to spend some time working outhow to run the course on twoprivate study days a week, then treat myself and therest of the staff to a much needed holiday with the ‘saved money’.

Annemarie Lewis Thomas is Principal of the Musical Theatre Academy

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