By Emma Wright
To drama school or not to drama school, that is the question. But is drama school the only way to enter the arts industry as an actor?
Cate Blanchet trained at NIDA, Hugh Jackman studied at WAAPA (he was one of many rejected by NIDA), Rose Byrne honed her craft at ACA, and Deborah Mailman graduated from QUT with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Performing Arts. Meanwhile Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike was turned down from every drama school she auditioned for, Carey Mulligan (another Oscar nominee) auditioned three times without success, Oscar winner Russel Crowe never formally trained in acting, and the list goes on. The moral of the story is: there are great actors who attended the big-name drama schools, there are great actors with arts degrees from less ‘prestigious’ institutions, and there are great actors who’ve never stepped foot in an acting class.
The question you should be asking yourself is what is the right pathway for you, and that may not be the pathway your favourite Hollywood actor took. As actors and as humans we have different needs to fulfil as we embark on our own unique journeys, and those journeys are not static things – with time, they will change. There are many ways to enter the industry, but there are no guarantees. What works for one actor will not necessarily work for another. This article will introduce and explore just a few of the potential pathways. We hope it’ll serve as inspiration as you carve your own path, feeding and nurturing your inner fire and artistry.
And if reading articles isn’t your thing, or if you’re looking for more on this topic, check out our Ask An Actor series which you can find on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.
The Drama Schools You’ve (Probably) Heard Of
First up, we have the National Institute of Dramatic Art AKA NIDA. For actors, NIDA offers the following programs: a Diploma of Stage and Screen Performance (1 year), Bachelor of Fine Arts Acting (3 years), and Diploma of Musical Theatre (1 year). Founded in 1958 (2021 marks its 62nd year of operations), the main campus is situated in Kensington, Sydney. Their Fine Arts Acting degree is particularly competitive, with only 24 spots in the program and approximately 1000 students auditioning annually. Many a big name actor trained here, including Judy Davis, Baz Luhrmann, Sarah Snook, Yael Stone, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Tapsell, Andrea Demetriades… we could go on. John Bashford is the current Director of NIDA’s Centre for Acting, and regularly teaches holiday workshops at ATYP – so keep an eye out for those!
Then there’s the equally competitive Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts AKA WAAPA, established in 1980 (happy 41 years!). WAAPA offers a Bachelor of Performing Arts majoring in either Performance Making (this is what Jump StART Co-Founder Lucy Clements did!) or Practice Transition (3 years), Bachelor of Arts majoring in Acting or Music Theatre (3 years), Diploma of Acting (1 year), Diploma of Screen Performance (1 year), and Diploma of Musical Theatre (1 year). Graduates include Jai Courtney, Dacre Montgomery, Virginia Gay, Tim Minchin, Geraldine Hakewill, Lucy Durack and more. WAAPA’s Bachelor of Arts’ acting stream accepts 18 students a year for three years of fulltime study. Subjects include acting skills, foundations of performance and movement, discovering the performer’s voice, extending and exploring acting techniques through character and screen, and professional preparation: audition techniques. The school is located at the Edith Cowan University campus in Mount Lawley, Perth.
The University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Music hosts the Victorian College of the Arts AKA VCA. Established in its preliminary form almost 50 years ago, VCA runs a Bachelor of Fine Arts in which students can choose to major in Acting, Theatre, or Music Theatre (3 years). The campus is based in Southbank, Victoria, and the current director is Barbara Bolt who just last year took over from Jon Cattapan. Graduates include Nicole Kidman, Alison Bell, Julia Zemiro, Jason Clarke, Hugh Sheridan, Marta Dusseldorp, and Elizabeth Debicki.
While NIDA, WAAPA, and VCA are often dubbed ‘the big three’, The Actors Centre Australia and Queensland University of Technology are certainly hot on their heels. ACA opened their doors in 1987, moving to its current home in Leichhardt, Sydney in 2014, and offer a Bachelor of Performing Arts Stage and Screen (3 years). Alumni include stars on the rise Joe Davidson, Jack Crumlin, Amy Hack, Emma Harvie, and Mansoor Noor. QUT’s program sees students graduate with a Bachelor of Fine Arts majoring in Acting (3 years), and alumni include Brenton Thwaites, Remy Hii, and Heath Ledger Scholarship winner Anna McGahan.
Screenwise, who are branded as Australia’s leading film and television school, is another popular option for those looking for screen training (as opposed to the more traditional theatre training). Their full time Advanced Diploma course spans two years, and entry (as per all the above drama schools) is via audition.
More Formal Education Options
In Queensland, the University of Queensland and the Queensland Conservatorium (partnered with Griffith University) offer a Bachelor of Arts, with UQ presenting an option to major in Drama and the Con also offering a Bachelor of Musical Theatre. At the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) you can choose to study a Bachelor of Creative Arts with the option to major in Theatre, or a Bachelor of Theatre, with the option to major in Acting or Theatre Making. The New York Film Academy Australia (NYFA) offers both Diploma and Advanced Diploma Screen & Media programs. You may also choose to follow in my footsteps, and look into studying film production at Bond University. Though not an acting course, my degree provided me with invaluable industry insight and skillsets which have made me a multidisciplinary artist, leading me to co-found my own theatre company.
In New South Wales, Sydney Theatre School (STS) in Chippendale is well-respected for their Diplomas and Advanced Diplomas of Theatre and Screen (Acting). The Australian Institute of Music (AIM), Australia’s largest tertiary music institution, runs both Bachelor and Diploma programs in both Music and Dramatic Arts. The Academy of Film, Theatre and Television (AFTT) presents a Bachelor and Diploma option, both in Creative Arts (Acting), with their Bachelor course only two years in duration as opposed to the typical three. If this fast-tracked, fast-paced learning style appeals to you, AFTT may be the school for you. The University of Wollongong and University of New England both run a Bachelor of Performance and Theatre, while the University of Sydney and University of Newcastle have a Bachelor of Arts, which at Sydney Uni offers a major in Theatre and Performance Studies. Newcastle also has the option of a post-grad Master of Creative Industries.
In the ACT students can enrol at the University of Canberra and attain a Bachelor of Creative Industries majoring in Drama and Performance. In Victoria Monash University and Deakin University both have Bachelor of Arts offerings, with Deakin also running a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Drama) program. In South Australia, the University of Adelaide, Flinders University, and the University of South Australia are all options with various arts degrees, with Flinders additionally programming a Bachelor of Creative Industries (Theatre and Performance).
Western Australia has at least three universities offering Bachelor of Arts programs, with Curtin University running a Bachelor of Creative Arts with a major in Theatre Arts, the University of Notre Dame a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Theatre Studies, and Murdoch University a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Theatre & Drama. Tasmanians can graduate from the University of Tasmania with a Bachelor of Arts, as can Northern Territory students from Charles Darwin University.
But what if full time study isn’t for you? That’s OK. It doesn’t have to be, and it’s not for everyone. And there are other options! It’s important that you’re always working on and improving your craft, and you can do that in a multitude of ways, through short courses, through one-on-one sessions, studying overseas, or creating your own opportunities and training regime/routine, utilising and learning from the massive amount of online and published resources.
If you’re in New South Wales and looking for something more short term, the Actors Centre Australia run a 5 month part-time course, their Foundation Program, which is perfect for those looking for a shorter, more flexible period of all-round training, giving you a taste for different techniques and approaches which may inspire future pathways. If theatre training isn’t what you’re looking for, once again Screenwise may be your best fit. Screenwise run a range of short acting courses, including an entry by audition one year part-time Showreel course. The Hub Studio, who have studios in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne, also offer a range of workshops which span anywhere from a weekend intensive to a session a week for eight weeks. The Hub recently introduced the Emerging Studio, a one year part time program for emerging actors. Another Sydney favourite for screen actors is The Actors Station run by Les Chantery. In Melbourne, 16th Street and the Howard Fine Acting Studio are popular options, both of whom offer short courses and have great reputations, and in Queensland you may choose to visit The Warehouse Workshop or TAFTA, which both have a screen rather than stage focus.
If you’re looking to take your studies overseas (which may be more difficult now in a Covid-struck world), you could study at The Actors Studio in London like I did, or at the International Theatre Institute in Singapore like Lucy. The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and the Central School of Speech and Drama in London are highly-respected options, and many Aussie actors find their way to the Atlantic Acting School in New York. Alternatively, find a teacher you like the work of, or ask around for recommendations, and look into booking in some one-on-ones (for any young actors out there, you can book in with Lucy and I at Jump StART!).
For school-aged actors, look at enrolling in a holiday workshop (again, why not join us at Jump StART?). Youth drama can play a pivotal role in shaping and propelling an actors career, and I certainly believe my engagement in the arts as a young person has served me well in finding my feet in the industry.
Learning Outside of the Classroom
And if you’re not so keen on learning in the classroom, community theatre or collaborating with film students may be a pathway worth exploring. Theatres like the New Theatre, ATYP and Genesian Theatre in Sydney have open audition policies, and anyone with any level of experience at any age can put themselves forward and get involved in various capacities. Likewise, reach out to the local film schools and express your interest in getting involved in student films. Having attended film school myself, we were constantly on the lookout for actors eager to step into a range of projects, from single day to week long shoots, and it’s a great training ground for an emerging actor and fantastic opportunity to gather material that showcases you and from which you can build a showreel. You can also sign up to sites such as Starnow on which you can build a profile for free, and submit yourself for a range of projects including short films and stage productions. Just be sure to do your research and confirm the legitimacy of the listing – if you’re a young person, ask a parent or guardian to have a look for you.
Other tips? Watch and soak in as much content as you can, get involved and support the industry as a viewer, and expand your knowledge of the art that has been and is being made. Go to the movies, go to theatre, watch television. I know, a hard ask! Also maybe consider starting a YouTube channel. Write some short sketches, maybe even some short films, perform some stand-up as a character, type out your favourite monologues from your favourite films, film them with some friends on your iPhone or a video camera, upload them, and you’ve got something going! Maybe you’ll be the next Miranda Sings or Fred Figglehorn. Comedian Bo Burnham drew Hollywood’s attention at sixteen years of age from a YouTube video.
So why not start creating content? You don’t need to sit around and wait for the phone to ring. And at some point you are going to want to look into getting an agent, to represent you as an actor and submit you for professional projects, but that’s a topic for its own article!
If you’re still in school, these are all options you can mull over, some of which you can get started on now. We hope you can take away from this article that there are many different pathways into a career in the arts, you can start at any time, and if one door shuts it’s important to remember that there are others out there ready to open. It’s also about remembering that an actor’s training and development is ongoing, and that opportunities to learn come in many different forms. So find the path that works for you, everyone’s is different, and that it’s the pathway that needs to work for you – not the other way around.