It was announced today Alissa Palmer will be the new Artistic Director of the English section of the National Theatre School of Canada. Alissa is a highly regarded and much loved director, playwright, producer and dramaturge. Her work is bold, provocative and passionately Canadian. This is great news for the school, the faculty and for its incoming students.
The announcement made me think of students who want to audition for NTS. They’ve heard it’s one of the best theatre schools in the country. The school’s mission is “to contribute to the appreciation, reach and advancement of theatre and its related arts in Canadian society by training artists and artisans in all the theatrical disciplines at an arts-oriented school that is national in scope and at the same time open to the world”. Without doubt, it has achieved its mission. Many of our finest actors, directors, designers and playwrights are graduates including Colm Feore, Judith Thompson, Hannah Moscovitch, Wajdi Mouawad and Ted Dykstra.
So, is it the best? Nervous high school students and even more anxious parents want to know which theatre school is number one – expecting there to be some type of ranking system. However, like most things – one size does not fit all.
First of all, if you’re auditioning into a theatre school, you have to know exactly what it is you want. You’re committing to the next three or four years of your life. Is it a university degree that is of the utmost importance or is it to be a practicing artist? Do you prefer classical training or is your passion focused on big Broadway musicals? Are you more comfortable with text or physical theatre? Would you rather be in a large program with hundreds of first year students or in a smaller ensemble? What are your strengths? What is your Achilles’ Heel? Are you adamant about acting or do you also want to learn about directing, playwriting and design?
Do your research. What is the overall mission and philosophy of the program? Is the focus on academics (theory and history) or the practical (practicing the art and craft)? Do graduates receive a degree or a diploma? What courses are mandatory? What optional courses are offered? How many hours a week are the students in the studio and classroom? How many hours are the students in rehearsal or production? Who are the members of the faculty and what is their background? How many students apply? How many audition? How many students are accepted into the first year of the program? How many students actually graduate? What percentage of the graduates go on to acting careers? Is the environment nurturing or is it tempestuous?
After doing your research, by all means visit the schools. Most hold open houses to woo applicants and you will get a good idea about the program, some of the faculty and the curriculum. Even better, go see their productions or if you can, audit some classes. Talk to the students. Talk to the graduates. And if you can find people who have dropped out, or who have been asked to leave, find out why.
I’ve known students to be unhappy and disappointed in theatre programs they heard were the best. They ended up leaving after or during their first year on their own initiative or because they were told to do so. I’ve known others to thrive artistically and then to excel professionally after graduating from some of the lesser celebrated programs.
Sorry to disappoint, but the answer to the question is there is no one best theatre program – for everyone. Nonetheless, there are programs that will be a better fit for you. It’s up to your doing your due diligence to know your individual needs and what the programs will best fulfill those needs.
I invite readers who have graduated from or who are currently enrolled in a post secondary theatre program to comment about their schools. It would be great to have a dialogue.