I’ve been following with interest the long thread of polls that the girls over on the 98% pod put out a week ago. Firstly if you don’t follow/listen to the 98% pod you really should. Katie and Alexa speak for the 98% of performers that are unable to make their living out of acting. They focus on the reality as opposed to the media led fantasy of life as working performer.

A number of years ago I was very flattered when they invited me onto the pod to discuss #time4change. They bravely raised their heads above the parapet when so many others looked the other way. With both of them owning their own mental health history we were able to have a truly authentic chat about mental health in the arts, and specifically mental health support during training.

So much has happened since then, the pandemic, BLM, a plethora of complaints and investigations around poor practice within the drama school sector. Then spurred on by Daisy May Cooper’s story the other week around her experience studying at RADA that hornet’s nest has been well and truly rattled again (even though Daisy first spoke about her training a few years ago in a Radio 4 interview I believe). Anyway – as ever journalists took an interest and I suspect that it was this that spurred the 98% to launch their polls.

Now as a disclaimer I should say from the outset that any twitter poll is flawed and not at all scientific. There’s no way of checking if all the entries are real, we have no data to tell us if the people trained last year or 20 years ago or indeed at all. One person’s perceived bad experience does not a case make – however over 1000 people took the poll and the results were unsurprisingly damning.

Once again I should set a caveat as drama training is difficult, you’re asking people to constantly work out of their comfort zone in order to activate their “growth zone”. So in many ways, you’re always teaching on the edge of comfortable – however, that should not mean that people are experiencing a constant barrage of negative feedback with no balance, and under no circumstances at all should people ever be feeling exploited, abused, uncared for or bullied. Yet as always this is exactly the result that the polls showed.

Just 67% of people polled felt that they weren’t ready for the industry after training, yet how can that be after spending at least £27K on your training? Again I would put the caveat that there are lots of schools currently taking people that they know will not be “industry ready” after their 2 or 3 years. They accept them because the accounts need to add up. However even with that knowledge – 67% represents an awful lot of people being trained for nothing. 64% of people felt like their training had raised some serious concerns that they weren’t able to take anywhere whilst 62% had reported poor behaviour but felt that nothing had been done to address the issue.

Acting is life and life is weird, so very often actors are required to ‘expose’ themselves (both physically and/or emotional) or put themselves in a vulnerable position in order to truthfully play a role. This has long been recognised as a ‘danger point’ within the profession and thankfully in regard to the physical exposure we’ve seen the rise of intimacy co-ordinators whose sole purpose is to communicate and keep people safe – yet 63% of people had seemingly not had that support whilst training. Now again, it could be that all the pollsters were of a pre-intimacy co-ordinator age however the Federation of Drama Schools (the FDS) insist that all of their schools use intimacy co-ordinators these days?

However the question that provided my eureka moment was this “Based on my time at drama school I would recommend actor/musical theatre training at my school to others” as a staggering 58.9% of participants said that they would. Given the high percentage of negative replies this means that people are knowingly promoting courses which have harmed them, or that have known bad practice.

Now this was first raised with me after the QC’s report came out over the Arts Ed investigation. When discussing the report with my then students in a bid to find out if they had any similar concerns about The MTA’s training at that point, they said something that stuck with me – they all knew that those practices were going on at that college, but it had been sold to them as the “done thing”. Some of them had been told these “stories” from a young age as they attended local dance schools, often run by former students of the college. It was one of my then students that rightly said that performers were being groomed “to be obedient” from a young age. That sentence really stuck with me.

The results of the 98% poll support this hypothesis – nobody is demanding change as everybody is so desperate to train at these places. It’s the same with the audition fees isn’t it? We all know that they’re financially driven by the colleges, yet year after year people keep paying that fee because college X has been around a long time and they’ve kept seeing the name in the programme. Therefore college X is the only route to success.

So even though there are still dubious practices going on at these colleges, they have such a monopoly on the perception of success that so many young performers and their parents have, people will take the risk and train there.

I’m reminded of that time that Trump said that he could murder someone and the people would still vote for him – seemingly there are a core group of colleges in the UK that have a similar mantra. They’ll just keep on doing what they do cos the “punters” keep on coming.

I guess that the question that we really need to be asking is – how did we get to a place where training at certain colleges is akin to some sort of Stockholm Syndrome, you know that it’s wrong and detrimental to you, but you just keep going back?