The Unorthodox Actor: The Guide to Not Going to Drama School
Matthew Jacobs Morgan on taking a non-drama school route towards improving your acting skills
One of the most freeing parts about being in control of your training is that you get to choose which techniques and practitioners work best for you and therefore what you want to focus on...
I only did one round of drama school auditions. I applied to all the big ones but decided it wasn’t for me. I didn’t go to my recalls and vowed never to put myself through it again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pro drama school. I think it can be an invaluable way of making connections, finding a peer group and, of course, becoming a better actor. But ultimately, I knew I wasn’t doing it for myself. I was doing it because I thought it was what the industry expected of me, and because I thought I would never work otherwise.
From experience I now know that this is not the case, and I have done some fantastic jobs surrounded by other “untrained” actors, who are some of the most talented and skilled people I’ve ever met. Although I didn’t train formally, I created a training programme for myself and was strict in enforcing it. I also managed to get a fantastic agent who believed in me despite the fact that I took a different path. If you have decided drama school isn’t for you, then listen up!
Get A Job
It is important to be able to support yourself, and let’s be real… we’re not all lucky enough to have rich parents to cover costs for us! When I was 18, I got a job stacking shelves at a supermarket and giving out wine samples. I saved and saved and saved. For a while it might feel like you’re not a “real” actor because so much time is consumed by non-acting work, however the payoff is totally worth it. If this means getting a job “back home” so you can stay with your parents and thus save more money, then do it! I budgeted about £300 per month for the training I detail below. It is a lot of money, however, when you’re starting out, it’s important to make it an absolute priority (after eating and taking care of yourself, of course!).
Find A Private Acting Coach
I had lessons once a week with a private acting coach who focused on solidifying my strengths and strengthening my weaknesses. It is so valuable having someone whose focus is solely on you. Doing scene work and working through monologues one on one is a brilliant way of learning acting techniques and seeing what works for you. On that note, one of the most freeing parts about being in control of your training is that you get to choose which techniques and practitioners work best for you and therefore what you want to focus on. Google, YouTube and borrow books on as many practitioners as you can (I love Uta Hagen, Stanislavski and Meisner).
Try Short Courses and Workshops
Having private lessons is, in my opinion, crucial, however the joy of acting is working with other actors, and group classes are a great way to do this. I did a short course on text work at Central, I did a screen acting class with National Youth Theatre, improv at The Actors Centre and joined a choir to flex my choral singing muscles. As well as being a great way of broadening your skillset, it is also nice to have a network of acting peers. I’m still close friends with people I met on short courses 5 years ago, and we are avid supporters of each other’s work.
An understanding and appreciation of theatre is invaluable. And I think the best way to do so is to read and see as many plays as you can. Classic and contemporary. Straight plays and musicals. I have a stack that I’ve collected over the years. Cheap play texts are easy to find. The book stalls along the Southbank often have a great array of plays, and likewise local charity shops often have great plays for as little as 50p! Some other places to buy plays and books on theatre are The National Theatre Bookshop, the Royal Court’s Bookshop and Calder Bookshop Theatre. Likewise, watching theatre cheaply is often quite accessible. The National Theatre have Entry Pass, Young Vic have under 25 tickets and many other theatres have schemes for young people and those from low income backgrounds to access theatre.
Doing class a few times a week is all well and good, but at drama school you’re in, grafting all day (almost) every day, and it seems like it is that sustained level of hard work that produces such fantastic actors. In order to emulate that constant level of hard work, I made a point of taping scenes at home every day. I found scripts online, set up a spot in my bedroom that is well-lit, and I shot scenes and monologues. Spotlight have a lot of information on self-taping, including guides in video and podcast form.
I find that I am my own worst critic and would often be able to pinpoint the parts that needed to be improved, or bad habits that needed to be polished. If possible, find a friend to read in with you. You can take it in turns taping each other. Also, if you have some great scenes taped and the quality is good, it might even be something worth sending out to casting directors/agents to introduce yourself as an actor.
Have Your Material on Lock
Enticing agents is hard. Enticing a brilliant agent is extremely hard. But there are things you can do to give yourself the best possible chance. Drama school trained actors have their showcase and the bonus of their drama school beefing up their CV, but if you don’t have that, you need to have bulletproof materials. So, first you need a flawless headshot - don’t scrimp here and get your cousin who’s studying photography GCSE to do it! Go to the best. Look through the list of Contacts photographers for location-based recommendations to get you started. Another material which is essential is a showreel. Get some scenes shot professionally and do as many short films as possible. Make it so that nobody can say no to you - you’re just too good. That way it won’t matter how/where you’ve trained, and you’ll be judged solely on your fab self.
Matthew Jacobs Morgan is an actor and filmmaker from London. His credits as an actor include Our Town (Almeida Theatre), Tommy (New Wolsey) and the TV series Cuffs, Wasted, Love Nina, Midsomer Murders and upcoming C4 Drama Pure. He has numerous TV series and films in development including Dylan & Gracie which is under option at Tiger Aspect and Vamping which is being developed on 4Screenwriting.
Image credit: Michael Shelford