Written by Tessa Chalmers
Student entering her second year of the BA (Hons) in Professional Acting
What was it like applying to Drama School?
There’s no sugar coating to be done. Exciting, optimistic, fortifying, frustrating, disheartening, confusing, embarrassing even, having to tell people it didn’t happen again and have them not understand the ins and outs of the process. I went through them all in turn, and in turn again…and again… Hopefully it brings you back fighting harder, slightly less mad flailing, more secure.
HINT: Remember you are auditioning these places in return. It’s hard and obviously there’s an overwhelming feeling of not having the privilege to be picky, but with a BA you’re talking about three years. You have to think about if you could see yourself there. Living there. Working there. And smiling there.
I’m originally from Cambridge. Pause for ooh. Correction, a sleepy village outside the city, where the allotment is the hub of all drama and the Co-op is so small it is basically a game of Pac-Man. I work at the theatre and have done for over three years (my favourite question from well-meaning but utterly clueless grandparents being, “So if one of the actors is ill, do you get to hop up there instead?” Bless.) But currently, my badge says Front of House, and to be honest, I have learned so much there and met the most incredible people, I am unquestionably proud that I am a part of that team. I now see the theatre as one moving machine, and wherever I end up, I will never take a single piece of it for granted.
I began auditioning straight after sixth form, though actually split my applications equally between drama schools and paramedic science courses first year. That was an artful personal statement I had to write to be sent off to both. Funnily enough they thought I seemed conflicted. It’s still an interest of mine. HINT: Never lose your passions, however obscure and seemingly unrelated they are. Your interests keep you sane and keep you human, sure commitment and dedication are one thing, but curiosity and imagination are complementary and detract nothing from your day-job, as it were.
I learned the cost and travel necessary for auditions. Waking up at 4am to arrive somewhere at 9am fresh as a daisy and ready to show them my best self, not the drooling, 5-hour train wreck I really was. An acting exercise all of its own. Auditions ranged from speedy solo slots to giant groups. Sometimes, you would sit in a corridor and wait for your individual turn, performing your monologues so quickly after such a build-up that you blink and are walking out of the room with whiplash. Some involved huge group sessions and having to negotiate the nervous energy of 20 other auditionees, exercises and games. They don’t want faces locked into pure terror and rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights-of-a-drama-school-teacher-shaped-lorry, they want focus and a willingness to play. There were interviews where you would try to say what you thought they wanted to hear. HINT: They just want to hear what you are like. You’re going in to learn, they don’t expect perfectly pre-constructed actors.
Fair to say my paramedic application did not work out for me first year. I mean, it did, in that I was offered the place on the paramedic course but the fact that I desperately wanted another go at auditions proved to me that I needed to go for this acting malarkey completely and utterly next time. I made a snap-decision to audition for a seasonal job as a holiday park entertainer. Moved into a caravan for eight weeks that summer, first time properly away from home, learned the meaning of a twenty-five and half hour working day and lived with my colleague’s snake on my kitchen table.
Hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing. If it doesn’t happen, the time in between stretches out ahead like some tunnel to trudge along in, wondering why you’re ‘not good enough’. I kind of hate the term “life-experience” because of how often it was trotted out as the only feedback you’d get but I worked, earned money, met friends for life, did courses in new things, did student films, personal projects like scripts and stories, went abroad for the first time ever, stayed in the house, and spent invaluable time with people close to me that I am so incredibly grateful to have had, and who I miss a lot now. What I learned each year, was that a “No” really stings for a couple of days and as frustrating as it is to not be able to snap your fingers and make it happen, that year is what brings you back fighting even harder the next year. You will be different. There is so much possibility in that year, and if you can see it as that, it makes looking back on everything you did, from the place you finally made it to, even sweeter. Je regret nothing.
Each year, I reassessed the schools I wanted to audition for and honed my choices down to the ones I truly still liked. I heard about DSL and did lots of research into their fairly new BA course. I was more excited by everything I found out and the idea of there being a panto module… OH YES THERE IS! I couldn’t attend the open day, so the audition was the first time I had seen the place. The moment I walked in DSL I felt something. It’s a big town house. It’s a home. It has carpets and banisters and dodgy doorknobs and a tiny mousehole of a door in Studio 1 that probably leads to Wonderland. I sat in the common room downstairs, counted the microwaves and spoke to the other auditionees – I learned first time around that staying silent and isolated only made me more focused on how terrified I was – and we spoke to a girl in her first year as DSL at the time, who was answering questions and chatting to put us more at ease.
We were taken upstairs and taken through a series of stages all together. We did warm up exercises, games, animal exercises and improvisations with partners with two members of staff. All of which you just have to throw yourself into headfirst. We then performed a choice of either our classical or contemporary monologue to the group, and the panel of two teachers. There is some re-direction and some huge transformations from the teachers’ subtle hints and suggestions, incredibly valuable after inevitably being stuck in performing it stoically a particular way audition after audition.
After a short break, we heard feedback for each person as a group and also whether we had been recalled to the afternoon session. The feedback was given purposefully first, so that we actually listened and weren’t on another planet whooping or commiserating the result. Then we were released for lunch. We returned to work with a new panel of two teachers, who worked on our second monologue. They also heard us do some sight-reading in pairs. We then each had a quick individual and informal interview simply to allow them to ask questions and get an idea of our personalities. Natural and chatty, no hidden agenda and by that point, everyone was far more relaxed.
Then we were released back into the wild of Ealing to ponder our fate! I felt after that full day, that it was the best audition process I had ever had. That I had the opportunity to show them pretty much everything I could do and felt that if they didn’t want me it was at least based on a full day of working, so fair enough. I had learned a lot and been there long enough to have fully relaxed and spoken to them like a human being in the interview. It also meant that DSL rocketed to the top of my list!
When I got the phone call offering me a place at DSL, I actually missed it because I was in a library. Having almost given up hope on the waiting list, wavering over accepting a place on a scenic design course and attempting to create some semblance of productivity in my life, the call was somewhat of a spanner in the works, a beautiful, unbelievable exciting, best-kind-of spanner. I ran around the courtyard twice before I rang back to accept because I was going to have to walk back into a silent reading room and tell my brother that I needed to speak with him urgently without bouncing through the doors and leaping from table to table (in the High School Musical version of my life, that is what would’ve happened). I couldn’t hold it in and told my brother right there, he gave me a massive hug and then proceeded to run around the courtyard himself. My favourite reaction was Dad, who apparently answered the phone expecting me to say I had crashed the car! When I told him I was going to DSL he went, “YOU DIDN’T?!” in a very Scottish accent. Incredible.
At my DSL audition I went for my customary wee and discovered the two toilets where past students have written their graduating philosophical, witty, poetic, kind, obscure and obscene comments all over the walls and ceiling. I still find ones I haven’t read before every time I go in there. There’s one straight ahead that stuck with me on my first day at DSL, when I was terrified of walking into a new life.
It just said:
You’re sitting on the toilet at DSL, you are one of the lucky ones. Now go out there and make the most of it.
So, I’m trying to do just that.