Demand for masters degrees in the performing arts is booming. Hilary Wilce looks at the options


Jon Nathan had got to a point in his acting career where he felt he had exhausted his possibilities. After graduating from the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, he had done "bits and pieces" of work, but felt he was making no progress.

So, at 27, he decided to do a one-year postgraduate course in musical theatre at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and, two terms in, he is sure it was the right idea. "I partly thought about it as a practical thing, that it would give me the possibility of going into teaching, but it has been fantastic. Also it's such an intensive, practical year. When we're rehearsing we do six hours of dance a day, and the vocal training has taken my voice to a place I never thought it would be. It also keeps you current. Musical theatre changes all the time. Ten years ago, it was all operatic shows; now it's rock musicals. You have to keep up."

In the hugely competitive world of theatrical performance, more and more people are realising that building specialist qualifications is a great way to hone skills and make important contacts. But you need to do your research carefully. Plenty of universities now run postgraduate courses in performing arts, but they can have very different slants. Some might be skewed towards a particular speciality, such as theatre in education; others are more concerned with theory and research than with the kind of intense practical training that most performers are searching for.

Yvonne l'Anson, of the Mountview Academy of Theatre Studies in north London, says that to be sure you should go to the Conference of Drama Schools and ask for their guide to drama training at their 21 schools. Drama schools, she says, tend to have much higher student-staff contact hours, and can offer much closer contacts with the profession. "For example, at Mountview we present West End showcases for our performance students, and our theatre directing students also showcase their final production. We help students prepare for auditions and learn how to market themselves, and if they need our support after they've left they can always come back."

Big schools offer a range of courses, with diplomas in acting and musical theatre as well as technical theatre qualifications for those interested in stage management, lighting design or sound design. You can also find postgraduate diploma courses in theatre directing, and screen and radio performance. But they are intensive. At the Royal Scottish Academy, musical theatre students cover song and spoken word, drama, movement, jazz, rock and singing classes, as well as tutorials in self-management and audition technique.

Courses are also highly competitive and attract applicants from all over the world. They might be former lawyers or accountants, or have experience of the business. Your first degree doesn't necessarily have to be in the performing arts, and if you have relevant experience you might not need a degree at all.

But you will need to be very determined. At the Central School of Speech and Drama, in London, applications for the classical acting course have gone up 44 per cent in the last year, and the 70 places available on the postgraduate certificate of education course in drama are always full by early spring. "It's a tough old industry. You have to be committed. It's no good showing a vague interest," says a spokesman.

Martin Jady, 37, is so committed he has spent years saving the £8,500 fees he needs to take the theatre directing course at Mountfield. But he is sure he is getting his money's worth. After 16 years as a stage manager he thought he knew a bit about the business but had, he says, "no idea how much I had to learn. I came with a check list, but it was not nearly as big as the list of things they said we had to cover. But it's phenomenal to sit down and work on a text in a way I have seen directors doing. And we work with professionals, and have talks and workshops and make connections."

At the end of it, Jady hopes to get a job assisting a director, then maybe get his own small show and build his career from there. "But you have to have a great deal of self-belief and stamina. What this course will give me, I hope, is that fundamental thing: feeling brave enough to stand up and say: 'I'm a director.'"