Drama Schools are Not Only Teaching us to be Silent, They are Teaching us to be Complicit.

Illustration by Seonaid Fowler

When I was seventeen, I had the opportunity to go to a summer programme at a top drama school. I was over

the moon: not only because it was my dream, but because it was an eighteen-plus program. I wanted to

impress the teachers, show my talent and demonstrate how easy I could be to work with, which was the

reason I didn’t say anything when one of our senior tutors started calling me the nickname ‘jailbait’.

Although the name made me uncomfortable, as I’m sure it did the adults in my class, none of us said

anything. Even though we were different ages, our fears were the exact same.

When I was finally accepted into my three year program, one of the first things I learned was that in the

drama community, your reputation is everything. More often than not, directors and producers will

recommend people they’ve previously worked with for new jobs if they enjoyed working with them in the

past. “So be careful with your online presence” I remember a teacher saying, “And make sure that people

remember you as a joy to work with.” So, as first years, we went into our training with the notion that

being remembered in a positive light was of the utmost importance. And this is significant, because drama

schools work a little differently than regular universities. First of all, the classes are much smaller, so the

teachers will most likely remember our faces. Secondly, drama school has the hours of a full time job, so

we must keep up appearances for incredibly long periods of time. And finally, the majority of staff at

drama schools are also working professionals: dance teachers are also choreographers, acting teachers are

also directors, and research teachers are also writers. Every time you enter a class as a drama student, you

know that you will most likely run into your teacher again in a professional capacity. So the need to

please is not only pervasive: it’s urgent and unrelenting.

This alone is an incredible amount of pressure to place on young adults; we are performing even while we are learning. We have to think about what others think of us every second of every day, and remember that ‘mistakes’ and ‘bad days’ can cost you a job ten years down the line. The pressure is immense, and there is a general consensus in the acting community that if you crack under it, then you are simply too weak to be an actor.

As I learned to deal with this pressure, (it’s an ongoing battle) I also learned what it meant to be “a joy to

work with”. The ideal student and actor is one who does not answer back, never asks questions that can be

misconstrued as challenging your director’s authority, and especially never criticizes that teacher or

director. They behave like puppets; they move when the director says to, speak when they’re allowed, and

laugh at all the jokes. And I thought I could handle that kind of life until I encountered some truly

unsettling situations.

Throughout my foundation courses and degree, I’ve had a teacher berate me for personal reasons until I sobbed, I’ve seen teachers allow white students to perform a rehearsed skit in “Fake Japanese” (it’s just as racist as it sounds), watched a teacher insist that it was funny to nickname a mixed-race American student “China” and I’ve had a school-hired director sexually harass myself and several of my castmates after our performance (In that last instance, we tried to take communal action by writing very truthful, very terrible reviews about our experience with him to the school. They hired him back to teach the next term). The students who spoke out in these situations were quickly and vigorously reprimanded, and their relationship with those teachers did not recover fully for the rest of the term. Their bravery probably cost them a job, or several.

I stayed silent until my second year, when I was lucky enough to be part of the Student Union. After witnessing several upsetting trends in our administration, I brought my complaints and ideas to a teacher. When they were dismissed, I went over her head. I spoke to anyone who would listen until I finally reached a high-ranking staff member who could implement change. As it turned out, she agreed with many of my points. I left that office thinking that I must have misconstrued the message drama school was trying to send, and that change most definitely was possible. It inspired me to write a speech for our Student Union meeting with the board. However, around a week before the meeting, I was informed that my name had been removed from the list, and that I would be the only member of the Student Union who would not be attending this board meeting. And who was in charge of creating that list? The very same senior tutor who had agreed with all my ideas for change.

Drama schools have sent their students a very clear message: Speak out, and you will be punished. Stand up, and you will be penalised. Get angry, and you’ll be dismissed. Those are just a few of the instances I’ve witnessed of racism, sexism, and bigotry. The arts have cultivated a reputation of being left-leaning, progressive and inclusive, but the reality of our industry

couldn’t be further from those principles. There are a staggering number of ‘old-school’ directors,

teachers, and producers who have some very outdated beliefs, and even more fragile egos. I have laughed

along at heinous jokes, smiled through my discomfort and gritted my teeth at offensive language. At the

time, it truly felt like I had no choice. If I spoke up, I would be labeled as “difficult”, if I looked sullen or

dissenting, I would be labeled as “moody”. Either way, if they were looking to recommend someone to be

in their next film, it wouldn’t be me. So not only did I remain quiet, but I became complicit - and if most

of my peers are honest, so were they. All of our reactions stemmed from pure fear. At this point, you may

be thinking, “Fear of what? Losing one job doesn’t sound so bad”. But let me explain, In the same way

that they can promote actors they’ve worked with in the past, producers, directors, casting directors, etc,

are able to blackball actors. They can wipe us off the board. They can make it hard enough to work that

we will actually have to relocate just to find someone who will hire us. Every day in drama school, we are

in front of people who could make or break our entire careers, and we know it. And so do they.

So to any directors who get the pleasure of teaching young actors at Drama School, please realize that

students standing up for their boundaries is not a criticism of you personally. We still really want to

impress you. We still really want to work with you. We are not challenging your authority in the room.

Tell us it’s a safe space, and really follow through on that promise, even if it means you yourself have to

suffer through a little introspection or discomfort. I guarantee your students will flourish; they will want

to work hard for you, they will want to impress you, and they will want to make your vision come to life.

To any teachers and drama school administrators reading this; please stop scaring us into submission.

Please stop promoting the idea that standing up for yourself and your rights is something deserving of

punishment. Stating your boundaries and being disrespectful are two different things, so please, please

stop responding with the same treatment. There are thousands of intensely devoted drama students across

this country who are willing to put in more and sacrifice more than most at university. Your school is

their life. Do yourselves a service and listen to them - they are not against you. They want change for the

better, they want change for the benefit of your school, and they are not pariahs.

And to my amazing fellow and future students; I will not tell you to ‘be brave’ and sacrifice the career

that you’ve worked so hard for. But I will tell you to be safe. Confide in other trusted adults, friends, and

family. If you notice an injustice in the system and are too scared to speak up, contact a past graduate. We

understand that we have far less to lose now that we’ve started to build a reputation on our own terms. We

are here for you. We will fight to protect you, and to keep protecting you. Please reach out, even if it’s not

on a public platform. Don’t suffer in silence. You have worked so hard, and you deserve so much more.

Before I sign off, I’d like to thank the black and minority students who first began speaking out about

institutionalized racism in drama schools. Your courage and bravery are the hallmark of this new

generation of students standing up. Thank you.

Written by a 2020 Grad (who would prefer to remain anonymous)