Performing arts courses: All the world's a stage, so why not do drama?

You might just be surprised where a degree in the performance arts could lead you, says Nick Jackson
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The Independent Online

For many of us, university is a chance to reinvent ourselves. And there is no better place to try on new faces and characters than through performance, finding out which one or ones fit, and discovering, as Sartre did, that man makes himself.

Many universities offer courses in performance arts, theatre studies and drama. They are understandably popular. After all, who can resist the peculiar mystery of how we as a crowd face, judge or love individuals. Along the way, you get to read some of the greatest poetry in the world, possibly write some of your own, and play with lights, sets and costumes.

With such a broad canvas, it is understandable that different universities offer very different courses, so you need to do your research and find the mix of history, theory and practice that suits you.

Many, like the theatre-arts course at Derby University, do a combination of all three. And you can broaden your options even further by doing a joint honours degree. Yvonne Hunt, who runs the course, says that students combine it with everything, from business to creative writing.

Hunt says that students are not expected to arrive knowing what they are best at. It is up to her, she says, to help them to discover that. "We try to give students as many options as possible," she says. "We're here to nurture their potential." One recent graduate has just landed a stage management job with the RSC, after working on several student productions.

More important than knowing exactly what you want to do, says Hunt, is your attitude. The one thing you won't find on these courses are starlets. Students are expected to work as a team. If your dream is to bring the house down at the Old Vic, or pout your way along a Hollywood red carpet, you are probably better off going straight to drama school. "We're not looking for stars," says Hunt. "We're looking for people who are generous with other actors, people who can work in a team."

Steve Griffin is doing drama at Exeter University. "It's something I've always enjoyed," he says. He decided to go to university rather than drama school because, in a fickle business, he felt it would be good to have a qualification he could fall back on. It sounds as if he made the right choice: at the moment he is doing a third-year option in drama in the community, taking plays round schools. "It's fantastic," he says. "Working with young people, seeing how they respond, it's different. It's really interactive - you're not just performing to them."

For this kind of course, it is important to look beyond the curriculum. It's not much good studying drama if you have no chance to see plays or explore your ideas in productions. Although Griffin does not do any performances as part of his course, as president of the university theatre company, he helps to put on eight shows a year. He is also involved in the Exeter Footlights production of Fame.

Performances don't have to take place in theatres, or even schools and prisons. Dr Pat Healey is one of the heads of the new Masters programme in digital performance at Queen Mary, University of London. His background might seem about as far from the performance arts as you can imagine: he is a reader in cognitive science in the computer-science department. The course takes performance and applies it to the impact of technology on the way we behave.

Dr Healey points to the "flash mob" trend as an example of how technology affects performance and group behaviour. "Flash mobs use texting to gather people together. And texting was designed to test networks, not to be used the way it is now. It has totally altered how we interact."

The course combines performance theory with theories of human interaction and technology. And it has a commercial application, in computer games. In fact, the university is working with a gaming company on the course. "We're looking for simple ways of engaging with complicated materials," explains Dr Healey. "Performance does that very well."