Where to Train – UK or USA? An Actors Dilemma
By Mina Rios
A.C.T.’s founding artistic director, William Ball (left), and Mortimer Fleishhacker, one of the San Francisco civic leaders who secured A.C.T.’s residency at the Geary Theater in 1967, put up the sign announcing A.C.T.’s new home. Photo by Ganslen Studios; courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
Mesmerised by the young protégée’s powerful stage performance, the audience wept as he took his last breath. Praise every actor yearns for following an acting achievement. Such a capacity as an actor requires an abundance of natural talent, ambition, classical training, and a bit of luck. Typically, a serious aspiring stage actor pursues the best possible training available within their means. More often than not, the aspiring look to the U.S. and the U.K. for superior drama training. To choose between the two, knowing what distinguishes British drama training from training in the United States is important. While acquiring this information, it’s essential to note that current research on drama training is paramount, as the industry has evolved tremendously over the years and yesterday’s news does not necessarily apply today.
In the U.K. (and parts of Europe), classical acting techniques by actors/theorists Konstantin Stanislavski and Michel Saint-Denis are prevalent. British drama denotes action driven stage acting, style, and technique; and is associated with some of the finest actors of our time including the late Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud.
For a time, between the 1930s and 50s, Method Acting – the emotion-driven technique developed for screen acting, fathered by Lee Strasberg and inspired by Konstantin Stanislavski’s techniques, was the primary acting methodology taught in American drama institutions. Still widely taught today, but not exclusively, in Method Acting, actors use remembered emotions to find their character’s truth, enabling the actor to “live” the character; often times incorporating improvisation. Some actors have even been known to remain in-character through the duration of a film or stage performance.
A variety of different acting techniques have emerged over the years, several of which are variations on Stanislavski’s System. Many drama programs and institutions teach multiple drama methodologies to provide actors with options in case one technique isn’t working for them. In fact, some drama students over recent years have conveyed certain frustrations with Method Acting – they say they find it limiting. Other popular acting techniques embraced by drama professionals and institutions worldwide include Stella Adler’s Method, Meisner Technique, The Chekhov Technique, Practical Aesthetics, and Theater Games.
British drama does have its distinctions of course. Actors are primed for the stage with emphasis on control, precision, and memorisation of all lines – allowing the actor to bring the scripted character to life – thus eliminating any possibility for improvisation; a common liberty used in Method Acting. Drama programs in the U.K. also impart supplemental training skills in areas such as accents, singing, movement – i.e. period dance, stage combat, and more.
To remain competitive and meet public demand on a global scale, drama programs everywhere have integrated screen acting into their curriculum; a change that has unified more institutions as opposed to differentiating them.
Course work at leading University drama programs such as Juilliard in New York, Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, and Yale School of Drama in Connecticut, have become far more comprehensive than decades prior, drawing a closer parallel to U.K. drama training in such areas as voice, speech, movement, mask, clown, script analysis, theatre history, and other areas.
Admission into reputable drama institutions no matter where they are in the world (the U.S., U.K., or elsewhere) is highly competitive. Among the most prestigious U.K. based drama institutions are The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA), Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and Oxford School of Drama.
Some false generalisations by industry professionals over the years, infer that drama conservatories don’t exist in America when they actually do. There are simply fewer American conservatories in comparison to the U.K. and other countries abroad. Drama training programs in the U.S. are predominantly affiliated with 4-year colleges/universities. The idea is that the four year college degree provides graduates with leverage when seeking employment outside of their declared specialisation (acting); hence the reason two years of course work is spent on required general education.
A little known fact is – the early 1960s was a pivotal time for American theatre. The art form was becoming increasingly important to audiences. Theatre productions expanded from nightly engagements to performance seasons, opening doors for actors versed in international theatre repertory, ultimately leading up to the availability of conservatory training in acting within the U.S.
American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) founded in 1965, is a leading drama institution located in San Francisco’s theatre district. A.C.T. was the first American theatre to win a Tony Award for the quality of its training program and its productions. A.C.T. was also the first independent theater in the nation to win academic accreditation and the authority to grant a master of fine arts degree in acting.
While more than half of the world’s most sought after drama schools are located in the U.S. and the U.K., several outstanding programs can be found sprinkled around other parts of the world. No matter where you choose to train among the institutions mentioned in this piece or any overlooked, yet comparable, the investment in training is sure to provide you with the necessary wherewithal to help you advance your career. What you should find out in advance is – what kind of networking opportunities does the institution provide with industry professionals? Further to that, ask whether mentoring is available to help you market your personal brand, as this is an area drama schools are gradually working on to improve.
Best of luck! Break a leg.
Below, Mina has compiled a list of leading institutions both here in the UK and in the USA
Leading Institutions in the UK
Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London: Graduates: Ewan McGregor, Joseph Fiennes, Daniel Craig, Rhys Ifans, and Orlando Bloom.
London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA) – among the world’s oldest drama schools; Graduates: Donald Sutherland, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Chris O’Dowd, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Oxford School of Drama in Woodstock Graduates: Catherine McCormack, Will Adamsdale, Claire Foy, and Anna Galvin.
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). Graduates: Peter O’Toole, Joan Collins, Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Vivien Leigh, Clive Owen, and Tom Wilkinson
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (Formerly Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama) – Alumni: Alan Cumming, David Tennant, Sheena Easton
The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School – founded by Laurence Olivier in 1946: Alumni: Olivia Colman, Sir Daniel Day-Lewis, Greta Scacchi, Naomie Harris, Jeremy Irons, Sir Patrick Stewart, Mark Strong, Miranda Richardson, Gene Wilder
Leading Drama institutions in the United States & Canada
American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) in San Francisco – Alumni: Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Winona Ryder, Nicolas Cage, Benjamin Bratt, and Elizabeth Banks.
Juilliard in New York – Alumni: Adam Driver, Mandy Patinkin, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Robin Williams, Jessica Chastain, Laura Linney, Viola Davis, and Kelsey Grammer.
Tisch School of the Arts at NYU – Alumni: Alec Baldwin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michael C. Hall, Jeremy Piven, Oliver Stone, and Martin Scorsese.
Yale School of Drama in Connecticut. Alumni: Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Paul Newman, Angela Bassett, Henry Winkler, John Turturro, Patricia Clarkson, Frances McDormand, and Paul Giamatti.
The National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal. Teaches the classical Michel Saint-Denis Technique. Teachings include exploration, writing, studio presentations, imagination, improvisation, “the mask,” and audition preparation.
Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mina Rios is a freelance journalist and voice for the global arts community through stimulating, under-reported journalism. Driven by her background in music, dance, drama, and a passion for the arts, Rios writes for a variety of California based publications including: Sonoma Magazine, In Dance, North Bay Bohemian, Pacific Sun, and The San Diego Reader. Rios also offers writing services in ad copy, press releases, business proposals, and grant acquisitions.
You can find out more about Mina by visiting her website www.minacommunications.org