Photo: MA students rehearsing Love & Information, 2020. Photographer: Steve Gregson
“The biggest misconception about our course is that it’s academic – a theoretical study,” says Simone Coxall, joint leader of the MA Acting course at ArtsEd, “when it couldn’t be further from that!”
Simone speaks with passion, as does her co-leader, Richard Neale, when it comes to describing the course. “It’s vocational training. Rigorous, focused and intensive vocational actor training. People hear ‘MA’ and assume they will be writing essays about theatre.” Richard jumps in to qualify, “but our MA a one-year, professional actor training course.”
This is important for many reasons, says Richard. “There is the fundamental difference between academic and vocational in terms of the curriculum and learning, which is no small thing. Then there’s the funding element. Although the ArtsEd MA is a vocational course it is still eligible for government funding, a fact that is not widely known. People may be put off at the prospect of fees, but financial help is there if you look for it.”
An online search for ‘postgraduate funding’ reveals encouraging government support for MA studies (more than £11k can be available for UK residents, for example), and there are several other options for support. Student finance, in the form of loans similar to those for undergraduates, is available. Funding options exist for single parents, low-income families, care givers and care leavers, disabled applicants, migrant students and more. Richard strongly advises applicants to look through all the information on the government website, which is linked at the bottom of this article. “Funding isn’t necessarily reliant on applicants having an undergraduate degree, either”, he says.
Which brings us to another misconception about the Acting MA – the idea that you must have an undergraduate degree in order to apply. “You don’t need to have done a degree to qualify for our course,” Simone confirms. “In terms of funding it’s not a necessity, as long as you fulfil other criteria and as long as the course you are applying for is eligible, which ours is. But entrance is not all about funding, anyway.”
So, what is the criteria for the ArtsEd MA in Acting? What are Simone and Richard looking for in applicants? “Applicants need to know they want to be an actor!” says Simone. “An applicant must be hungry, curious, hardworking. We are seeking a really interesting, diverse cohort of students that demand something of themselves in a rehearsal room. I can’t give a tick list of attributes or experience we are looking for, because our course is very much led by the group. Every year will be different.”
Richard agrees. “We get inspiration from our students. The impetus comes from within the year group. It’s the lived experience of the students, and the wonderful individuality of those experiences that affects how we study and interpret a text. We aren’t gatekeepers of art. Art is a shared experience, and that’s how we work, every day with our MA students.” Simone is also keen to emphasise that “we aren’t looking for the finished article. Just as with any Actor training course, we’re looking for potential, and an eagerness to learn.”
As joint course leaders, the pair complement each other brilliantly, often helping to finish a thought or evolve an idea. As Richard puts it, “we work differently towards the same outcome, and wrestle with ideas together, bashing around until we come to a meeting point and then ‘bing!’ we hit upon the same solution!”
When it comes to their teaching style, and methods, they are completely aligned. “Simone and I teach through offers, suggestions, and guidance” says Richard. “It’s about personal exploration as opposed to ‘this is right, that’s wrong’, which is vocabulary that we don’t use on our course. It’s about unlocking, harnessing, and sharpening the thoughts and curiosity of our students.”
As new course leaders, Simone and Richard take seriously their responsibility to consider the relevance and ongoing development of their curriculum, particularly given the current conversations and progress across the industry. “We are interested in keeping hold of the traditions that are constructive, and rethinking those that are less constructive, less useful now. We retain only the techniques and training that are actually useful for the actor working in the modern, progressive world.”
Supporting them in their vision is Julie Spencer, Director of the School of Acting, to whom they directly report. Since her appointment two years ago, Julie has developed the ArtsEd Acting curriculum to decolonise techniques and training, and bring the students’ cultural experiences into the conversation, throwing off the long-established Eurocentric approach of ‘we say, you do’. In a recent article by Lyn Gardner for The Stage, Julie set out her stall: “Actor training can’t remain static. If you have different students in the room, you have to respond to that. It’s about widening the canon and the curriculum, not losing rigour.”
Why a one-year MA?
Simone and Richard are keen to emphasise that the MA Acting course is not a three-year course simply crammed into one. “This is a course for many different types of people, different ages, with different skills and experiences, but perhaps with one major thing in common, which is that they have not taken the ‘standard’ route to vocational drama training” says Simone. Both go on to discuss the various circumstances a person might find themselves in when considering a one-year course instead of a three-year degree. Some are older than the average undergraduate, and perhaps pursued a different avenue before discovering a passion for acting. The course attracts a lot of musical theatre graduates, both from the UK and, particularly, America who decide they would like to spend a year sharpening their acting skills and technique. Others have some professional experience already and don’t feel it necessary to go right back to basics with a three-year course. The age range in the current MA cohort is 22 to 55, which Simone and Richard say is “brilliant – so exciting! It’s closer to what you’d expect to find in a professional company of actors.”
What about the training?
“The one-year format isn’t a diluted degree,” says Richard “it’s just accelerated. It’s intense. It’s highly focused work, eight and a half hours a day, five days a week, where we jump straight in, full throttle. There’s less time for slowly discovering oneself, which is fine because our students don’t sign up for that – they want to get cracking from day one, exploring a text and bringing it to life. Just like in a professional rehearsal room, that’s what we do!” Simone describes the MA process as “grabbing everything from around you and really making demands on yourself in that one year of focused work.” Both are keen to underline their understanding of the emotional challenges of a career in the performing arts and their commitment to preparing their graduates for the rigours inherent in the profession. “Our students leave us with the tools and skills they need to keep themselves physically and emotionally robust for the industry,” says Simone.
Simone and Richard are excited to develop the MA in Acting course at ArtsEd and continue to push the boundaries of what it can achieve for its students. Both are strong advocates of diversity. “It becomes a positive feedback loop” says Simone. “If we create a truly diverse cohort our course becomes responsive and reactive to that cohort. The ‘who’ and the ‘what’ of our texts and our work is moved and shaped by that unique set of actors, working collaboratively. It becomes transformative.”
For more information and to apply: MA in Acting
For more information about MA funding: UK Government website