Ever since I opened The MTA back in 2009 there’s always been a rumbling of grievance around the fact that drama colleges charge for auditions. It’s one of the regular ‘hot topics’ that pop up from time to time.
Before I opened the college I remember reading somewhat aghast as one of the main drama colleges unwittingly (I suspect) informed the members of The Stage Forum that it auditioned X amount of students/year, leading a whole load of us to do the sums. They easily made in excess of £105K/year in audition fees alone.
If you’re unfamiliar with the drama school/conservatoire model you pay for the privilege of getting seen, and probably rejected (as the odds are really stacked against the majority of people due to (back then) the numbers of students that they could accept/year). Auditions back then varied from £25-£75, plus you have to factor in travel expenses, possibly overnight accommodation etc. Now if you’re getting an amazing workshop for that money maybe you could argue a case for the cost – but at some colleges, applicants are getting 10mins of somebody’s time, at other colleges applicants get cut before being able to show the panels their full skillset, at some colleges you’re seen in groups of over 100 people! Years later I discovered that at some colleges if you were successful during their first-round you were gifted the right to pay some more to get your next round audition?
I’m not blameless, we charged a nominal fee for years, as at first it was felt that if we charged nothing we would be underselling our course, so in order to ‘fit in’ we should value ourselves with a fee in order for people to take us seriously.
We often spoke about scrapping it, but as our policy was to only audition a small number of people each day we were despairing with the number of no-shows, so we not only kept the fee but increased it in order to deter people from wasting our audition places. Yet still, we discussed it as it just didn’t really fit with what we wanted to represent.
Susan Elkin from The Stage used to regularly call this out, and indeed I had many a conversation with her as I grappled with how we could manage the no shows whilst still placing a value on the course. I salved my own conscience by proudly seeing on every single anonymous feedback form since we opened that applicants felt that we had given them value for money. We had spent the day with them, we knew their names, we had workshopped, we had chatted, we had attempted to be helpful whatever the outcome was, and we would always give each applicant written feedback. We only have one round, but then we only audition a maximum of 15 on any one day, so we got the opportunity to see everything that we needed to see on that day, thereby minimizing the cost of a recall.
Then back in 2017, we introduced #auditionfromhome. A self-tape first round really. Applicants could send us their self-tape and we’d advise them whether we thought that we’d a good fit for each other just based on the skill set. It meant that we were able to save people the additional expense of travel and accommodation if it was clear from the tape that we wouldn’t be the best college for them. Interestingly when The Stage ran our press release I had a bit of flack on the old Twitter – people calling us out for making it too easy for applicants, “audition from home” they said, “how lazy”. Ironic right now don’t you think?
Whilst this certainly saved people some money it still didn’t fit well with me. As I bang on and on about I’m from a council estate in Swansea. My family would not have been able to afford for me to apply for lots of colleges, yet here I was – suddenly on the side of the establishment all because we couldn’t grapple enough with how to solve the problem of how to place value on our time (even though the applicant’s time was valuable too), and how to stop the annoying no-shows, leaving people waiting longer than they needed to in order to audition for us. I mean it was all rather arse about tit, wasn’t it?
So eventually we scrapped our fee. The compromise was to ask people to pay a refundable deposit in order to secure their place. They’d get it back if they turned up for the audition. We kept the day the same, a whole day audition like we’d done from the beginning, no cuts throughout the day, feedback to all applicants, we also threw in some comp tickets to watch one of our shows if applicants wanted to see us in action. Our audition panel was the same as when we started – the senior faculty. The people that the applicants would work with if they’d been successful.
When the pandemic hit we (like the rest of the world) moved straight to zoom. In fact, we were the first drama college to move our auditions to zoom. Obviously, that was just timing as opposed to us attempting to be a ‘first’, we already had auditions booked in for the first week of lockdown. We had a few practice runs at it and found a way that we felt worked for us, and hoped that it would work for the applicants.
In truth, we were shocked. The interactive online audition told us everything that we needed to know, and seemingly the applicants were leaving satisfied too. We’d changed the day to a half-day in order to avoid zoom fatigue, and we stopped the feedback as by moving it online we committed to only seeing 6-7 students at a time.
The zoom auditions worked so well we announced back in August 2020 that we would be keeping them post-pandemic. It was a great way to see people without them having to pay a penny (other than the refundable deposit). Finally, it had all fallen into place. We started this academic year giving students the option of a half-day virtual audition or a whole day in-person audition, and that’s the way that it’s going to stay now I think. I mean who knows what will be thrown at us next. Having recently been bought an Oculus it’s not that hard to envisage a VR audition room within the next few years, and I can’t wait to embrace it (if only because I love a gadget).
Our auditions cost us money, I have to pay for staff to be in the room, not all of them are on salaries, and even for those that are, I need to pay for staff to cover their classes that day. We lose the potential of a room hire in the audition space – a much-missed source of income at the moment, as it’s those rehearsal room hires that pay into our Hardship Fund. The admin takes time, and of course in business time always equates to cost. However, it is our cost to absorb. I got that wrong in the beginning. I just wanted to ‘fit into the establishment’. For those of you that have followed The MTA’s journey, you’ll know how dumb that thought was given that we are forever the course on the outside of the establishment, doing things our way, from the 2 year model to a whole school approach to mental health.
Of course, what’s prompted this blog is the social media call to arms to abolish audition fees at a time when a lot of colleges are just doing self-tapes. The irony of somebody calling this out as wrong whilst simultaneously starting a Go Fund Me in order to help people who are financially struggling sums up the disconnect in our industry.
We shout about what’s not right, we celebrate and indeed laud any of the established colleges that knock a couple of quid off their audition fees in the name of ‘opening up the room’, yet fail to see the systemic failure in the way that we operate.
Next time you’re at an audition, or indeed sat in a lecture theatre on the first day of your course, or see a college online telling you how ‘lucky’ you are to be offered a place because they’ve auditioned thousands of people – do the math. Due to how many people we’d audition on one day we never made money on our auditions. I’m not that sure how many other colleges can say the same with their hand on their heart.
Auditions should be free. . . we got it wrong for really poor reasons actually, however, we’ve corrected it. Maybe the rest should too, and maybe if you’re advocating for a charity or fundraiser trying to help the underprivileged pay those fees, you’re inadvertently endorsing the business model.