Drama at university vs. Drama school

In this article, third year student Anna Merabishvili explores the difference between acting courses at drama school and her experience of a Drama degree at University of Manchester.

Anna (far left) and fellow 3rd year contemporary theatre-makers

There is a huge difference between studying drama at university and going to drama school, and it is important to know which one is right for you.

Drama school is purely vocational training, and it is intense. Lizzy Hammerton, who graduated last year with a BA in Drama at Manchester and went on to do a Masters in Acting at LAMDA, says, ‘the main difference is the contact hours; we’re in from 9:30 to 9pm doing classes all day…There is no academic work or writing and everything is practical based’. It consists of acting classes, and depending on the drama school, ballroom dance classes, singing lessons, sword fighting, etc.

This completely contrasts with the independent study hours that are given at university. It is normal to have days off, where you are expected to do work outside of contact hours. Classes consist of lectures, seminars and some practical workshops, and usually last no more than a few hours a day.

It is crucial to remember that drama school is for actor training, where the final goal is to get an agent. You do not get graded, but you are being trained professionally for that final showcase, where you will put your talent on show.

Hammerton described her experience at drama school as compared to university: ‘They’re training you for one particular job rather than just teaching you. So your main objective is to get an agent at the end rather than get a good degree’. In drama school, they are interested in your ability to play and use your imagination; academic thinking is not as important.

On the other hand, university is the place for you if you are unsure about what you want to do, or would rather work in other roles in the creative industries. Think about whether you would prefer directing, writing, producing, or perhaps working in backstage or management roles in a theatre? Overall, university is a lot more academic. Expect theoretical readings, and a lot of essay writing; there are practical courses but the amount of practical work you do is up to you.

For example, in third year, drama students are given a choice to do a 40 credit practical course, which are a big part of the degree. I am currently doing Contemporary Theatre Making, a new module run by a well-established theatre-maker Andy Smith. It is on three days a week, and we are given opportunities to act, direct, write, and contribute to every process. The final outcome is a performance, solo or within a group, which we will present in front of our peers.

That is to say that you can still be an actor if you choose to do a degree in drama. In fact, the University of Manchester Drama department prides itself of having several famous actor alumni, such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Toby Jones, the latter of which recently came back for a Q&A. There is a well established drama society, which offers many opportunities throughout the year to act, direct, produce, write and be creative, allowing students discover the right path for them.

Both drama at university and drama school are great in their own way. It is about figuring out whether you are sure about a career in acting. Even with a degree, a postgraduate course at a drama school is always possible, or perhaps at university you will find something else that you are passionate about.



Windows of Displacement

Carlie Hedmann, Drama student and fan of Manchester’s contemporary performance scene, opens a window onto Word of Warning…

“Personal stories, ancestral memory and the shifting politics of diaspora. An urgent story of the past, present and future told through dance, song and word.”

A stunning display of strength, agility and grace, I had the pleasure of witnessing Akeim Toussaint Buck performing his autobiographical solo performance, Windows of Displacement. A staggering piece, the audience accompanied him on his journey from Jamaica to England, tracking his trials and triumphs along the way. A part of Word of Warning’s Autumn/Winter season, inviting audiences to see developing performances and pay what they decide, it is just one example of the sensational performances that you can see every week in Manchester, if you know just where to look!

A mixture of contemporary dance, spoken word and song, Toussaint-Buck charted his journey and his struggles as he took the transformation from an immigrant, a child, in country full of strangers, with even stranger entry requirements, to a citizen, with an accent straight out of the heart of Bradford. Yet, he also managed to delve into something universal: the movement of people and all the ethical questions, issues and changing (and often difficult) attitudes that follow immigrants. Commissioned by the Northern School of Contemporary Dance and supported by Arts Council England, using just his body, a spotlight and a few choice projections, he created a spectacle.

Every ounce of his dance training visible, Toussaint-Buck transformed from a child, to a bellowing solider, a fragile pensioner and back to himself with a just a few subtle movements. Sweat dripping off his body within the first few minutes, you could feel his passion as he kicked, flipped and spun through the air again and again. He effortlessly connected with the audience from the get go, his easy going nature making the moments when he spoke directly to us not so much a break from movement, but a moment to connect on a further level. He even went as far to teach us a Jamaican Mento (folk song) which we came back to throughout on his command, accompanying him in key moments in his life. It is hard to convey a sense of what he performed that evening. It was a piece with a deeply personal passion unlike anything I had ever seen before, taking us all around the world, all through time, whilst we never left our seats.

Yet, its impact on me should not have been a surprise. Since I came to Manchester last year, I have been a eager fan of WTF Wednesdays and the Word of Warning season. Word of Warning, run by Tasmin Drury of hÅb, and supported by a whole host of performance spaces (including the Lowry) has a whole plethora of performances at your disposal, all for the price you decide to pay. Take this season as an example. It included solo performances, live art, a ‘micro-marathon’ called Emergency featuring 30 artists, actors and dancers and a two day ‘rent’ party, where the audience can chose to pay in money or food, for the chance to dance along side the artists in a “21st century, austerity Britain, black, gay, immersive musical in a real block of flats”.

Windows of Displacement is just one example of the theatre that Manchester offers students. Opera, musicals, ballet, solo performance – there really is everything. Most offer student discounts, with tickets as low as £5! As shown by WTF Wednesdays and Toussaint-Buck an incredible performance doesn’t even have to be expensive; it’s just a click away.


Post-Traumatic Stress DISorder or REorder?

The University of Manchester Drama Society’s 2017 Autumn Showcase is quickly approaching this month so make sure you put all the dates in your diary! (Dates and venues are listed at the bottom of this page and tickets available from the Student Union). In this post, 2nd year Drama student Sophie McRae discusses Jade Fox’s play ‘Returning’, a challenging exploration of PTSD.

Post-Traumatic Stress (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that develops in reaction to physical injury or severe mental or emotional distress.

In a Ted Talk, Dr. Jan Seahorn makes a parallel between PTSD and the well-known nursery rhyme, ‘Humpty Dumpty’, she says “one minute he’s on the wall eating a hamburger and drinking beer” and then he falls and “the next minute he is a scrambled egg. His mind, his body, his emotions are very different.” This comparison clearly highlights the idea that one traumatic incident has the power to completely change your mind state and way of life. This stress can cause things such as: insomnia, nightmares, panic attacks and flashbacks; overwhelming waves of emotion that anyone would do anything to escape from. There are numerous ways in which you can develop PTSD, it is extremely common in war veterans due to the horrific and unforgettable incidents that they encounter. More recently, cyber-bullying has lead to a huge number of young deaths and people living with PTSD. Young minds just can’t cope with this amount of emotional stress. A few years ago there were 81 young suicides as a result of cruel and abusive cyber-bullying, two of whom were 11-years-old and one was 12.

Returning in rehearsal

Jade Fox’s play, Returning explores PTSD within the army but primarily focuses on the emotions associated with PTSD, making it a lot broader and applicable to anyone suffering with it. It follows the lives of Jo and Michael who have been living a life of rules, strategy and explosive situations as service people. It shows the challenge of finding a life back in London after the trauma that has completely altered their mental state and their lives. Eleanor Boag, a second year student who plays the Therapist in the play, has a particular personal reason for being involved:

I was drawn to this play as I grew up in an army family, my dad was in the army for 33 years and served in Bosnia, The Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as being based in different areas of the UK. He used to be away for very long periods of time, so it was very difficult for him to adjust when he returned, as well as for us.”

Her Dad, Colin Boag, explained how tough his service was but also how it strengthened him as a person,

“I learned a lot about building teams, being part of a team, leadership, how to get the best out of people.  I have strong values that have become part of my DNA and are how I still try to live my life.  I believe I’m a much better person and a much better citizen as a result of my long service.   I saw some horrendous things that will stay with me forever.  It means that I am very intolerant of vindictiveness, bullies, deliberate oppression and the abuse of power by the strong over the weak.  It also means that I celebrate life because I have seen how easy it is taken away.”

For Eleanor, the rehearsal process for Returning resonates with her Dad’s experience and conversations she has had with him. There are scenes in which Michael and Jo start to open up and explain in detail the way that their PTSD is making them feel, which Eleanor says gave her an insight into the emotions that her Dad was hiding and felt he wasn’t able to express. She believes that the interactions between the two characters and their families depict a friendly and positive way to talk to people who are suffering. Eleanor hopes that,

“the play will be helpful to audiences, as well as to me, to see underneath the fronts put up, and how to help those around you who may not be willing to ask for help themselves.”

Jan Seahorn says that PTSD “is not a DISorder, it is a REordering of your neural networks and sensory pathways so that you can survive in a really dangerous situation”. It is practising a new way of thinking and coping with a new way of life. It is a hidden wound, it is invisible, you can’t see, hear or feel another person suffering. People need to see this play because it offers a better understanding and appreciation of what it feels like for an individual to have to deal with PTSD every single day.

Returning is on from the 22nd – 24th November 2017, 7.30pm at Three Minute Theatre, Afflecks.

Autumn Showcase Dates

Holes by Tom Blasden 15th-18th November at the John Thaw Studio Theatre in the Martin Harris Centre.

Returning by Jade Fox 22nd-24th November at the Three Minute Theatre, Afflecks.

Hitler’s Dad by Ollie Norton-Smith / Therese and Isabelle by Wanda Pendrié 29th November-1st December at the Three Minute Theatre, Afflecks.

Pomona by Alistair McDowell 4th-6th November at the Kings Arms, Salford.

Action Man by Lizzie Morris 12th-14th December, International Anthony Burgess Foundation.

Tickets available here OR they can be purchased on the door.

Theatre-in-the-round in British theatre: celebrating the legacy of Stephen Joseph (10th and 11th November 2017)

Current Head of Drama, Jenny Hughes introduces next week’s event celebrating Stephen Joseph

A pioneering theatre-maker and inspiring teacher, Stephen Joseph challenged the theatre establishment of the 1950s and 1960s by advocating for theatre-in-the-round, a form of theatre where audiences completely surround the performance area. Theatres-in-the-round allow for flexible, experimental and accessible staging, and create a truly democratic and intimate theatrical experience. They create relationships of equality between audience members, and between performers and spectators – each audience member has the same quality of view, and can see the actor’s work up close and from all angles. In the words of Stephen Joseph, this is ‘theatre in 3D’.

1.StephenJosephCourtesy SJT
Stephen Joseph, courtesy of Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough


As well as inspiring a whole generation of theatre-makers, including Alan Ayckbourn, Peter Cheeseman, Harold Pinter, Clare Venables and Faynia Williams, he toured experimental theatre-in-the-round productions to communities in ‘theatre-less’ towns across the North of England. Stephen Joseph’s radical influence on British theatre is evident in the artistic practice of those who worked with him, but also in the architectures of theatres across the North of England. His legacy can be felt not only in the architecture of those theatres, but also in the enduring loyalty to such spaces demonstrated by generations of audiences in Bolton, Manchester, Scarborough and Stoke-on-Trent.


Stephen Joseph was the first Fellow in Drama at the University of Manchester, taking up his post at the then newly established Department of Drama in 1962, and working at the University until shortly before his premature death at the age of 46 years in 1967.


2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Stephen’s death. On Friday 10th and Saturday 11th November, staff, alumni and students from the Drama Department of the University of Manchester, with guests from professional theatre across Britain, will come together to celebrate his legacy. Undergraduate Drama students will work with four professional theatre directors from the region, all associated with theatres-in-the-round – Elizabeth Newman (Artistic Director at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton), Matthew Xia (former Associate Director at the Royal Exchange Theatre), Gwenda Hughes

Drama undergraduate students working ‘in-the-round’, University of Manchester. Courtesy of University of Manchester

(Artistic Director of the New Vic Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent from 1998 to 2007), and Teunkie van der Sluijs (freelance director working in London, Manchester and Amsterdam, including at London based theatre-in-the-round, the Orange Tree). On Saturday, a symposium hosted by the Drama Department will bring together alumni, staff and guests to discuss the significance of Stephen Joseph’s legacy for experimental theatre practice and theatre teaching and research today.



When he died, an obituary in The Times said that Stephen Joseph was ‘the most successful missionary to work in the English theatre since the Second World War’.


Elsewhere Sir Alan Ayckbourn has written that Stephen ‘knew more than any person I’ve ever known about playwriting, and he knew more about directing than any living person, and I suspect he knew an awful lot about acting too. It is fitting in this commemorative year to acknowledge all that this country owes to this seminal teacher.’

MA Film student review.

Our MA Film group have been looking at recent cinema releases. Here Rachel Kendall, a part time second year student, shares her thoughts on Darren Aronofsky’s controversial new film, Mother!

As the credits rolled and we moved en masse to the exit a young man loudly asked no one in particular, “What did I just watch?”. I laughed. His friend laughed. A woman behind me laughed. But then he turned to me as if I had the answers and said, “Seriously though, what was that even about?”

With a film like Aronofsky’s Mother! these kind of questions can only be asked rhetorically.

For some, this film has a biblical resonance, that Poetic bleeding heart a tell-tale symbol of Catholic rhetoric. Home is where the heart is. Or in this case, the toilet. In Aronofsky’s debut, Pi, madness presents itself as a glistening brain on a staircase. In Mother! it is the very heart of a house that beats in time to stiletto heels on a wooden floor.

This is a film in two parts, Old Testament and New. If the first presents the house as prelapsarian space into which enter Adam and Eve (Harris and Pfeiffer), then the resulting descent into part two forms the lapsarian narrative. The director has stated the film looks at the rape of the earth with Lawrence as Mother Nature and Bardem as God, but ‘mother’s’ melancholic, virginal beauty rhymes more, to me, with Our Lady of Sorrows.


Her flawless, blank expression is a complete contrast to the suffering deeply etched onto the poet’s face. It puts one in mind of the Surrealists and the pedestals they placed their muses on; those brilliant, artistic women whose own creativity was never acknowledged, and for this, Mother! could be read as a discourse on the creative impulse.

But I see these themes as strands weaving into the much larger context of gender inequality. For all its allegorical bombast I think this is a film about men and women. I was reminded of that famous quote of Jerry Hall’s mother (!), that “to keep a man, you must be a maid in the living room, a cook in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom”. Here is a woman whose only role is to serve. Where other main characters are referred to as ‘him’, ‘woman’, ‘man’ etc ‘mother’ is reduced to her role, joining the ranks of ‘loiterer’, ‘pisser’, and ‘adulterer’. She cooks, she cleans, she nurses her husband’s delicate ego. And as he blindly bathes in the adoration of his fans, she continues to paint over the cracks, cover up the bloody stains, and medicate to treat the symptoms rather than the cause.

Yet, for all her apparent frailty, she is the one keeping it all together, the heart at the heart of the story. It was she who rebuilt the poet’s house after it was destroyed by fire. Not only did she choose the fixtures and fittings, she did what many consider the ‘man’s job’, the carpentry, joinery, plumbing. She is man and woman combined. Creative, strong and nurturing, yet for all intents and purposes she is only there as recipient of the male gaze. Just as the house she created is trespassed upon, damaged, flooded and stained with blood, so she, too, is treated with contempt.

‘Mother’ is her physical appearance. She is her face, her body, a vessel. As she stands bathed in sunlight, turning to left and right as she seeks out her husband, the light shines through her white nightdress to reveal what is beneath, accentuating the curves and spaces between. Her innocent femininity has become sexualised. Throughout the film she receives various comments about her appearance – “not just a pretty face,” “I thought you were his daughter,”  “nice view” – which her husband chooses not to hear. Her apparent naivety and the virtue thrust upon her by others place her firmly upon that pedestal, yet the moment she rejects a stranger’s proposition, she is ‘an arrogant cunt’. Caught between virgin and whore she is advised to try harder, ie. dress sexily, if she wants to re-ignite her husband’s passion, yet when woken from her slumber and dressed in her nightwear she is asked “Why don’t you at least put on something decent?” Her previously sexualised femininity is now vulgarised.

This film is subtler than Noah, more multifaceted than The Wrestler, more brutal than Black Swan. Taking its cue from earlier films with its point-of-view shots and shallow depth of field, Mother!’s claustrophobia is stylistically emphasised on grainy Super 16mm. While one can never be quite sure what to expect from an Aronofsky film, leaving the cinema feeling like you’ve witnessed a beautiful trauma is usually the case, and with Mother! it’s pretty much guaranteed.

Acting my Age

In this post, Sarah Faulkner reflects on the challenges and rewards of starting a Drama degree as a mature student.
Going to University in my 50’s to study Drama was a big decision. Massive, huge, colossal…. you get my drift. Yet making that decision was curiously abstract, based on a love of performance art, boredom with my job and the desire to do something for fun rather than profit. Launching the idea with my friends and adult children was interesting to say the least. My children in particular tested it to destruction, in the belief that I was having a mid-life crisis. My friends were shocked but not altogether surprised. Happily, they are all hugely supportive now that I am here.
Starting University was a major event. A change of identity from NHS Director to undergraduate student, a change in lifestyle, a new environment, new technology (hello, virtual learning environment….) and more. After the first day, I felt shell shocked. What had I been thinking? How on earth was I going to relate to fellow students who are younger than my children? Who could I realistically form close friendships with? People assumed that I was a member of the faculty, or a postgraduate student. All this amid the whirlwind experience that is Fresher’s week. My coping strategy included doing everything that I was advised to do, such as joining societies, finding my way around the campus, familiarising myself with Blackboard (my University’s virtual learning environment), exploring the library and attending every welcome meeting and event that I thought would be useful.
Two weeks on and I have experienced a range of attitudes and reactions, from being welcomed to being pointedly ignored. And it is ok. For all of us this is a time of huge adjustment and everyone reacts differently. The trick is to not worry about what people are thinking and in particular not to project your own fears onto them. That funny look someone gave you is almost certainly down to too many late nights and their vulnerability in a new and confusing landscape. It really isn’t personal.
One of the biggest challenges has been stopping myself from trying to mother people who are missing their home and parents, and who are adjusting to life in Halls of Residence. I am told that it is best to stand back a little and be there if needed, avoiding any temptation to either act as a substitute parent or attempt to relive my youth in nightclubs and bars. In other words, it is fine to act my age and wait for the surprise at my presence on an undergraduate course to give way to acceptance.
The Mature Student Society has introduced me to new friends, the faculty are hugely supportive, and I have the luxury of going back to my own home every night. My children and my friends are there for me when needed.  What’s more, I love my subject and it is what I came here to study. The final bonus is that in University drama productions I have an advantage in terms of auditioning for roles as an older adult. I can act my age.

Assessment in Drama – News and Update from Dr Alison Jeffers


Assessment is an important part of your work in Drama at the University of Manchester. It’s a way of testing yourself and working out what you have (and have not) grasped in a module and it’s a way to work out your enthusiasm for specific aspects of the subject. It’s also, of course, a way to communicate that understanding and enthusiasm to the staff who have taught the subjects that you’re covering. Because we are operating in a formal system of education those staff will deliver a judgement on how effectively you have communicated that learning and enthusiasm and they will make comments on your work as well as awarding a grade to the work that you submit.

In Drama we are guided in how we assess your work by the School of Arts Languages and Cultures (SALC). Our school defines assessment as ‘the process of forming a judgement about a student’s attainment of knowledge, understanding or skills’. Assessment is guided by Educational Principles which govern how much assessment we should set, when it should take place and how to give constructive feedback. We also follow an ethical approach which emphasises fairness in setting and marking assessment tasks, following clear protocols and setting clear instructions and making sure that students understand the feedback they’re getting and how best to act on it.


You’ll come across lots of different ways to assess your work while at university and in Drama we mostly use essays, exams, presentations and performances. These are obviously all very different modes of assessment and they will need different ways to judge their success. As staff we are guided by what are called Grade Descriptors which offer suggestions for appropriate standards and ensure that we mark fairly and objectively. You can see these on all written work when you get feedback through Blackboard and they may be included in the Handbook for that course. The Grade Descriptors generally look for evidence that you have structured your work effectively, that you have a level of knowledge and understanding of the subject, that you can use sources and that you are communicating clearly. We also assess through practice and we are guided here too by sets of descriptions of different levels of practical work. These focus on preparation and on carrying out a number of practical tasks.

umbrellasThis academic year staff will be working with new grade descriptors and will be using a slightly different system of marking. Most students in their 2nd and 3rd years will not notice much difference. We’ll be using what’s called ‘step marking’ which bunches marks into the top middle and bottom of each grade band. So, work in the 2:1 band, for example, will be marked as ‘Good to very Good’ with 62 (low), 65 (middle) and 68 (high). So not exactly world-shatteringly different! Where students might start to see some effect of the new system is in the First Class category where work is classed as, Exceptional (92, 95 and 100), Outstanding (82, 85, 88) and Excellent (72, 75 and 78).

If you have any questions at all about any aspect of assessment please have a chat with your Academic Advisor. You can (and should!) discuss assessment with the member of staff who is teaching you or who is running the part of the module that you’re working on. Any student can also talk to Alison Jeffers (Alison.jeffers@manchester.ac.uk) about assessment at any point in the year because she has overall responsibility for assessment in Drama.

We look forward to working with you over 2017/18 on all aspects of your work!