A panel of experts asked what the future holds for drama graduates after a recent report found that the employment landscape is changing
Drama graduates would like to think that all the world’s a stage, but more often than not they’re left playing the fool. Recent research into the destination of drama graduates carried out by the BBC’s former head of casting, Jane Deitch, found that less than 2% of drama graduates end up on the West End stage.
On Friday 12 July, a panel of performing arts specialists gathered at a symposium held at Birkbeck University to discuss the research’s findings and the reality of the UK ‘s drama students’ employment prospects.
“For the first time drama school students will have a realistic and detailed picture of their employment possibilities,” Rob Swain, programme director of Birbeck’s MFA in theatre directing and co-host of the event, said.
“It may not only prevent some students from having over-optimistic aspirations but it will also show that their job prospects range from traditional work in theatre and TV to new opportunities in digital media, and to related work such as cabaret and stand-up comedy,” he said.
Deitch’s sample was comprised of 365 students, 77% of the possible 474. The number of jobs which these students reported to undertake in the year after graduation totalled 1,697 (between 4 and 5 jobs per student on average), but it should be remembered that the category “job” includes work that may have been unpaid or only performed for one day. Of these jobs, 987 (58%) were in live media and 710 (42%) were in recorded media.
According to the results, about a quarter of drama students find work in fringe theatre during the year after graduation. Deitch stressed the ongoing significance of fringe theatre as a place for actors to network and gain experience, calling it a “young person’s game”.
There were also a sizeable chunk (17.5%) acting in short films, which Deitch called the “recorded media equivalent of fringe theatre”. Although pay for these jobs is low (if existent at all), short films enable young actors to get experience in front of the camera.
The results were disillusioning for young actors looking to work in commercial theatre. Sixty-six jobs were taken in theatres and major companies, and only 6 in the West End (excluding work with musicals). Deitch called the paucity of commercial theatre “a major concern”, especially given how drama schools prepare students for the industry.
Commercials provided only 93 jobs, but were substantially better-paid than most other options. “If there weren’t commercials, I don’t think graduates could survive”, Deitch said.
The revelation of such employment diversity led to a debate over the function of drama schools: should they focus on the core skills – projection, movement, enunciation – or offer more vocationally orientated content?
The room was split. But the symposium concluded with the sober reminder that an actor’s creativity is almost always underscored by a need for financial pragmatism.