Walking into the Zoom

Members of the Federation of Drama Schools are all currently holding remote auditions for their 2020 intake. Tamsin Stanley learns how it's going

 Rose Bruford actor musicians performing online
Rose Bruford actor musicians performing online

Auditioning for drama school has always been stressful: you walk into a room, carefully prepared speeches hopefully still in your head, trying to be confident and open- while knowing that getting a place is more competitive than Oxbridge – and attempting to forget that the next 20 minutes feel like either the next step towards a career, or a thank you, next in respect of your dreams. No pressure.

And then there's auditioning in 2020, where you're not so much walking into the room, as into the Zoom…

All the Federation of Drama Schools (FDS) partner schools have had to shift their audition processes online in various different ways. While this is not how anyone (candidates, teachers supporting students through the process or schools!) was expecting to recruit the next generation, the process is providing some new perspectives on the process. And the process is still ongoing, with all schools moving through their audition rounds and recalls processes and putting together their cohorts for autumn 2020 enrolment.

Sean McNamara, Head of GSA and Chair of FDS, notes that ‘The creative industries for which we train our students across many of our programmes are increasingly digitally focussed; with self-taping, show reels, digitally available portfolios and online interviews forming a significant part of casting and recruitment processes. Most schools have had some form of self-tape/online process in place for international recruitment, and it is widely used as part of audition processes for entry onto professional training programmes in the USA. What we have been required to deliver as a consequence of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has a precedent and an authentic parallel in terms of current professional practices. Digital and online auditioning might have come in more swiftly than we anticipated, but it's not completely left field.’

While the industry might expect trained graduates to be able to navigate the digital interface professionally, might students looking for training be disadvantaged by this? How can you really show off your great musical theatre skills in this way? Is it really possible to assess talent without being in the room? Thoughts from those who are on the online panels suggest it's definitely possible:

Julian Woolford, Head of Musical Theatre at GSA says ‘It has been the most challenging in Musical Theatre as we need assess singing, dancing and acting in each candidate. As we went into lockdown we created a series of YouTube videos for the applicants which gives them an outline of the online audition and some advice for self-taping. We created videos with some dance exercises we asked them to copy whilst filming themselves. They upload these videos and self-tapes of their singing and acting…The entire process is taking longer than in-person auditions, but we are confident that we will have a fantastic first-year cohort for next year.’

Performing for your smartphone might feel awkward, and it certainly might be difficult to channel Hamlet in the context of your bedroom, but that 20 minutes of make or break that has always seemed to define the live audition has now shifted a bit. A self-tape means every candidate can present the speeches exactly as they wish to. That first audition, when you miss all your beats, and lose your lines? Nobody needs to see that. You can retape it until you feel it's where you want it to be and then submit.

For those on the panels, who are looking at the tapes, and conducting the online sessions, it's also provided a different experience:

‘Each tape is seen by three senior panel members,’ says Kit Thacker at Drama Studio London, ‘We watch these tapes in different spaces and at different times and only then meet up on Zoom to discuss a block of auditions. It has been reassuring to discover how similar our views are. This part is working quite well…The ability to create collaboratively is essential and is the hardest thing to gauge from a tape. We usually do this by a Zoom recall and re-direction. So we are confident the process is robust and fair. By and large it's the same process as it always has been.’

Most schools have recognised that preparing for this method of auditioning might be intimidating, and have been developing additional resources to support candidates – from sending out recorded accompaniments for Musical Theatre songs to extra hints and tips about preparing speeches and technical advice about recording.

FDS schools have always evolved to make sure the training they deliver equips students for the realities of the industry they are joining, adapting constantly to new media, new processes and new ideas, while also retaining the vital crafts and skills that shape great performers. The audition process is a fundamental part of that. So for those students em looking to apply next year, wherever the world is for the next audition cycle, Drama Schools are still going to be out there searching for those with the talent and drive to train, off - or online.