How to get into acting

Actors reading their scripts
Becoming an actor means committing to an unpredictable lifestyle. Find out whether this is right for you and how to become an actor.

Actors perform in theatre productions, TV dramas, radio plays and films. They can also work in theatre-in-education performances (which take drama into schools to help students understand a topic or a piece of literature better), or in training courses to help people learn how to do a job (for example playing the part of a patient to help train medical students).

Should I become an actor?

Actors are usually self-employed, which means that they don’t have a permanent job but instead take different parts with different employers as and when they are offered them. Most actors spend quite a bit of the time without acting work and take on temporary jobs (such as working in a pub or restaurant) to help pay the bills. This situation is likely to continue throughout their career, so acting isn’t the best option if financial security or getting on the housing ladder is a high priority for you.

You also need to be prepared to travel, and to change your plans at short notice. Most actors can’t afford to be picky about which jobs they accept, so if you get offered a part in a play in a different part of the country, or in a touring production, you’ll need to pack your bags and go. If you’re offered an audition – or even a part – at short notice, you need to be prepared to ditch your plans with friends or family.

How to become an actor

Most actors get work via an agent, who puts them forward for auditions for suitable parts and in return is paid a percentage of the actor’s earnings. It’s harder to get paid acting work if you don’t have an agent, but getting an agent can itself be a challenge. There are lots of would-be professional actors and each agent only needs a certain number of actors on their books and wants a range of ages, genders and appearances.

A typical route to becoming an actor is to take an acting course at a drama school, and to try to get an agent during or after this process. A good drama school will organise showcase performances for its final-year students and invite agents to come to watch; the more prestigious the school, the more likely they are to attend. Some students will get an agent via this process, but not all.

However, not all actors go to drama school. If you have good contacts or good luck, you may be able to get yourself an agent without going to drama school, or land your first paid part by yourself and take it from there.

What are drama schools?

Drama schools specialise in intensive, practical training courses aimed at training students for a specific career within drama. Many of these are degrees, which are validated by a university and for which normal student funding rules apply. There are also bursaries and scholarships you can apply for if you need help with the costs. Acting degrees are the most common; some drama schools also offer subjects such as musical theatre, physical theatre, stage management, directing, set design or lighting design. You need to know which course you want to do before you apply.

When to go to drama school, entry requirements and how to get in

Some actors go to university before attending drama school; others don’t. Most drama schools specify either that you must be over 18 to start a course, or that you need A levels, Scottish Highers or equivalent (such as the International Baccalaureate or a BTEC National Diploma). It doesn’t usually matter what subjects you study at school or university to get into drama school. However, you’ll need to get through the highly competitive audition process so it’s a good idea to get lots of acting experience, whether this is through formal education or in your spare time.

You could get involved in school productions, student theatre at university, youth drama groups, amateur drama groups, community theatre (often connected to a professional theatre) and short courses or part-time courses aimed at non-professional actors (drama schools and local theatres are a good place to start looking for these). It’s also worth auditioning for the National Youth Theatre, which offers training and the chance to be in shows, or National Youth Music Theatre (if you’re interested in musical theatre).

Drama schools typically charge an audition fee. Some have schemes to offer free auditions to applicants who meet certain conditions, such as low household income or being from a particular area.

Types of drama school courses

Drama school course options include:

  • Acting foundation courses. These are introductory courses that last one academic year or less; they begin to build your acting skills and help you prepare to audition for an acting degree. They are popular with students applying to drama school straight from school or college – you don’t have to take a foundation course but it can be slightly easier to get a place than to get straight onto an acting degree.
  • Undergraduate (BA) acting degrees. Acting degrees typically last three years; you can apply straight from school or college, though you might find it helps to do a foundation course first.
  • Masters (MA) acting degrees. Masters degrees in acting are aimed at students who’ve already been to university to study another subject first. Typically they cover similar content to a BA in acting but in a shorter space of time – one year is common, but some are longer.

Choosing a drama school

The Federation of Drama Schools is a group of UK-based drama schools that have to meet certain conditions in order to be members. These include minimum standards for the number of teaching hours provided, the percentage of graduates who get an agent or paid employment, and whether students are taught by staff who work or have worked in the area they teach. It includes the UK’s ‘big name’ drama schools (such as RADA, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and LAMDA) plus a few others. Of course, it doesn’t mean that you can’t find good training elsewhere, or that all drama schools in the federation will be good in practice, but it’s a good starting point.

Other ways to assess whether a drama school will be good for your career include:

  • Look at the biographies of any actors you watch to see if they went to drama school and if so where they went.
  • Investigate whether you have any connections to anyone who has been to a particular drama school. Your drama teacher, youth drama leader and anyone you know through amateur drama are good places to start.
  • Do lots of online research into what the course offers, what its graduates go on to do and the backgrounds of the teaching staff.
  • Attend a short course (such as a summer school programme) at the school if it runs one and you can afford it.

What’s the difference between an acting degree and a drama degree?

Acting degrees at drama schools are very practical courses, designed to train you as an actor. You’ll focus on area such as acting technique, voice, movement, accent, improvisation and stage combat, both through practical classes and acting in a number of shows. Expect a full-on timetable and prep work for evenings and weekends. The end goal is for students to become professional actors – if you want a different career, or to explore different career options, you should choose a different course.

Some acting degrees are taught at universities – in these cases it’s worth checking the detail carefully, as some can be more similar to a drama degree (see below).

Drama degrees are taught at universities and their focus is usually a lot broader than an acting degree at drama school. Typically they combine the academic study of drama with the chance to participate in practical workshops and performances. The practical side of the course includes acting but often also gives the chance to try out different skills such as script writing, direction, video production, puppetry or dance. Usually you’ll have considerably fewer hours of teaching time than on a drama school acting degree.

There’s also the option to do a joint degree in English and drama, which will allow you to study plenty of great writing, and get a traditional, academic subject on your CV in case you change your mind about a career in drama.

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