Professional Preparation Courses in the Digital Era

By Steven Sparling

For many students, the transition from college to the world of work is difficult. For Musical Theatre (MT) students, who are graduating into a profession with no guarantees of success, it is especially so. To help facilitate this transition, most theater programs now offer some form of "professional practice" or "career preparation" course as part of their curriculum. 

The rapid pace of change in the professional world makes it critical to offer our students relevant, up-to-date information about the business they will be entering. I have identified at least three factors necessary for a successful professional practice curriculum in the current economic climate. 

First, preparing graduates for an increasingly digital casting world, where jobs are advertised online, submissions are made online, and, increasingly, actors are being asked to "self-tape" and upload, means that strong digital skills are critical for emerging MT graduates. Second, given the income uncertainty that often accompanies an arts career, offering students concrete strategies for developing other income-generating activities beyond performing is equally important. Finally, balancing the realities of this crowded and competitive profession, without discouraging young artists from pursuing their dreams, is a tricky but necessary task for any career prep class. 

What follows is the description of pilot project in which a traditional professional preparation course was rebooted to address the issues mentioned above. At the end of this article is an appendix which lists several weeks of "digital playlists" I created for the course.

 

Background

In 2015, as a new faculty member, I assumed the responsibility of teaching the Professional Practice module for final year students in a BA (Hons) Musical Theatre degree in the UK. As the academic year was about to commence, I taught the curriculum as it had been established by my predecessor. This curriculum relied heavily on visiting guests talking with students about various aspects of professional practice. Visitors included: someone from Actors Equity, an agent, representatives from the key casting services (Spotlight and Casting Call Pro), an accountant, a website developer, and some professional actors, each of whom spoke about their area of practice and took questions from the students.

The older course was assessed using a hard-copy portfolio submission of audition materials and a hard-copy essay. The portfolio included: a sample letter to an agent and a list of suitable agents; an application letter for a front-of-house or backstage job; a resume and a headshot; a biography; and a selection of suitable audition materials. The essay was a detailed plan for their first year post-training, taking into consideration their strengths and weaknesses and where they felt they were best suited to work in the industry. 

For the 2016-17 academic year, I identified some issues I wanted to address in the revised curriculum. (Although I teach in the UK, colleagues in the US have told me they experience these same issues.)

First, despite the rapidly growing trend toward online employment searches and submission processes, students were not always comfortable working digitally, and current courses were not playing to students' strengths as "digital natives." 

Second, booking appropriate visitors was an ongoing challenge. Scheduling was difficult, campus visits had to be approved by security, and my department had no budget to pay for these guests. As such, I had to rely on personal contacts or businesses hoping to sell their services to students. Instead of having the most qualified person to speak to the students, we frequently had to settle for the person who was available and willing to come for free. 

Third, I observed a kind of "group think" among the students. The standard vision for the future was based on a very narrow career path, one that involved securing an agent from their showcase, maybe doing one cruise contract, and then hopefully landing a role in a West End musical. Not only was this unattainable for most of the students, it didn’t take into consideration that they could use their MT training in other ways: inside and outside of the performing arts. Also, most students had the passive perception that once they found an agent, the agent was responsible for finding them work and would build their career for them.

Finally, the students faced considerable financial challenges that they were ill prepared to meet. They lacked a realistic grasp of how little they were likely to earn from performing and how much they were likely going to have to subsidize their performing through other kinds of work. To further complicate their situation, the 2016-17 graduating class had been affected by the tripling of UK tuition in 2012 (from £3000 per year to £9000 per year). This tuition hike meant that they were graduating with a much higher debt load than previous cohorts. Understandably, they had a lot of anxiety around this issue, and had no real role models for how to handle a large debt load and pursue a performing arts career. They needed financial education. 

Updated Curriculum

The 2016-17 course revision had three main components:

  • Adopting the use of CampusPress (an electronic platform for a variety of digital content) to create a digital eportfolio and a blog
  • Use of digital "playlists" for the majority of the curriculum, with some appropriate visiting guests (see Appendix)
  • Peer and alumni mentoring

 

CampusPress

One of the first changes to the curriculum was to move the hard-copy portfolio and essay assignments to a digital environment. Besides equipping students with skills in website creation and content development, using CampusPress also required them to make choices about how they would present themselves digitally—what they would and wouldn’t include, layout, design and colors—all of which enabled them to reflect upon how they wanted to present themselves as a brand. The existing literature on eportfolios supports these objectives:

Eportfolios are not only outcome based—they can assist students to acquire and develop skills in information technology . . . they provide a way to link student learning to university-wide generic skills-graduate attributes. …The decisions they require allow students high levels of creativity and independence in presentation of themselves as reflective musicians and educators. They raise issues of professional identity and self-reflection, and allow discussion of other areas of pre-service preparation, in this way becoming a medium for teaching and learning in themselves. 

(Dunbar-Hall et al. 61)

 

The essay was reconfigured as a blog post on their site discussing their first year post-training and where they felt they were best suited to work in the industry. They were also required to post a budget for their first-year’s expenses and a discussion of different ways they might earn the required income both inside and outside of the performing arts. 

Digital Playlists

The revised course still met in person and some suitable industry guests—for example Equity representatives—did come to speak. However, in order to broaden the pool of "experts," I also created digital playlists that students could access on their own schedule. These playlists were made up of podcasts, YouTube videos, web pages, blogs, online newspaper articles, and relevant academic e-journal articles that were applicable to the professional journey. Content ranged from Equity statistics on members’ earnings, to podcast interviews with leading West End performers and casting directors, to academic articles about a lack of representation of working class actors in the UK. 

The goal was to challenge students' assumptions about what a career in the performing arts might look like, and to develop digital literacy skills. The hope was that these digital resources would lead students to doing further (online) research. 

As students worked their way through these materials, they were encouraged to use the blogging capabilities of CampusPress to reflect on what they were reading and to be reflexive about what their unique career path might look like. 

 

Mentoring

While the digital playlists provided multiple viewpoints on a career, the "voices" heard tended to be established performers and senior industry figureheads. While this information was valuable, it didn’t necessarily address the needs and concerns of very recent graduates. In order to give students concrete examples of entry-level careers, I enlisted our MT alumni as mentors. 

I believed that learning to seek out mentorship on an on-going basis was a critical skill for graduates and would boost their chances of succeeding on their chosen career path. 

Each student was assigned an alumnus of the program as their personal mentor. These pairings were made at the beginning of the year as the result of a Facebook callout; students were encouraged to speak with their mentor as soon as they were paired, and then when appropriate over the duration of the year as a source of post-study information. We also hosted three alumni panels in our classroom meetings. These panels had between four and seven alumni, depending on availability, who spoke to the class about their post-study pathways. These panels provided students with alumni perspectives in addition to their assigned mentor. 

I deliberately allowed for a variety of alumni mentors: some were full-time performers, some were working full-time in a non-performing job. Some had agents, while others did not. I elected to focus on alumni who had been out of university for at least one year so they had at least some experience of the "real world." This diversity offered a substantial pool of information on post-study pathways. 

To sow the seeds for the future and to establish a mentoring culture, we also paired students in the career preparation course with first-year students. Everyone took part in a classroom training session with a representative of the university’s Mentoring Services team. They were also given a mentoring manual.

 

Results

Both the eportfolio and the essay counted for 33% of students' final grade (the other components were 33% for their agent showcase and 34% for a mock audition). One hundred percent of students completed this assignment on CampusPress. Whether they realized it or not, by completing the assignment they gained familiarity with doing different tasks in a WordPress environment (WordPress developed CampusPress), which may prove to be a useful skill for them in the future either for their own marketing and/or in an administrative job. 

The blogging was not graded and therefore there was no mechanism to require students to do it. However, 36 of the 43 students wrote at least one blog post, with 14 of the students writing five or more posts. The mean was four posts. Given that this exercise was optional, I felt this was quite a good result. 

Based on students’ writing, it appeared that many appreciated having a safe space where they could reflect upon what they were learning and be reflexive about their future career plans. (They might have been less open about the honest exploration of their fears and apprehensions in a classroom setting.) Because the blog wasn’t being graded, it was also a place where they could express themselves without worrying about spelling or grammar, and this seemed to allow them to write more freely. Here is an unedited example of a student’s post:

I don’t explain it very well, but my point is this: in order to work effectively as an actor, you have to work effectively as a person first. It sounds very simple but i think its easy for those of us in the industry to forget that we’re not walking talking creative punchbags—taking rounds after rounds of auditions and rejection only to feel that we’re not good enough. it can become easy to lose value in yourself as a person, a few months ago and again recently this was the way i felt. i’m not even relying on Acting to live and i really started to doubt everything i am... i ended up telling myself that despite what anyone else thinks ‘i am enough’ and if i can get that way with how little i rely on my profession at the moment then i dread to think what it could be like for other actors who do live the life i want.

With a steep increase in mental health issues amongst students, the blogging allowed many of them an opportunity to try to make sense of the anxiety they were experiencing about uncertain futures. Also, I was reading and responding to the students’ posts and, where I saw things that concerned me about a student’s mental health or emotional well-being, I was able to suggest ways in which they might seek support from university services. This opportunity was an unexpected benefit that I hadn’t foreseen. 

Reading and responding to their posts was hugely rewarding, but with 43 students, also quite time-consuming. As I had made a commitment to the students that I would read and respond to every post—in order to incentivize them to participate—I often found myself doing this work on my phone while commuting home on the tube at the end of a long day. At times, my commenting on their blogs took on the tone of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet as we discussed art and their place in the world. 

The digital playlist approach was also very effective. Several students wrote in their blogs that they were saving links they found useful, especially those related to taxes and finances, so they could return to them later. 

Students struggled with reading academic papers as they found them long, difficult to follow, and the critical language often inaccessible. Given that they were required to write a 5000-word dissertation for their degree (a separate course), I explained that these academic articles were good examples of how they might structure their dissertation. This meant that reading the articles had additional value beyond the content. 

Some students expressed that materials that presented a negative view of the profession—for example, survey statistics about employment rates or an academic article about class barriers in UK acting (see Friedman, et al.) was “de-motivating.” Here is one (unedited) response:

In the Equity Membership Survey 2013 (3549 people) it states that 34.9% (1,239) of people who took the Survey had less than 10 weeks work in the last 12 months. whilst a mere 12.1% (431) had more than 40 weeks work; to put this into perspective most people in ‘regular’ (non arts) jobs work on average 44 weeks a year. this statistic alone can make the situation of emerging into the industry—like i soon will be—quite bleak.

While this material might not have filled them with hope, by presenting it early in the year and then offering mentors to provide examples of post-graduate life and career options, students gained a more balanced, realistic, and positive view of their chances of succeeding post-college. Here is one students’ blog post about their first mentoring session:

[Mentor] spoke about work he’d done and what he was up to now, it was interesting to hear from someone who is ex-[Name of School] who had gone into professional work. It’s quite re-assuring to know that it does lead somewhere in the end and it made the idea of actually working in the arts much more plausible. 

Also, the very fact that the mentors were not their tutors meant that what they said was given a greater consideration. As one student wrote:

I feel like the mentoring scheme is very worthwhile as it allows you to ask someone who has no reason to “sugar-coat” or “tarnish” the reality of the situation.

The mentors also allowed students to consider and explore a variety of pathways beyond just performing. One of the students, who had already decided a performing career was not for her, was able to find in her mentor a validation for pursuing a non-performance pathway:

We covered . . . how you naturally feel like a failure when the rest of the year want to only pursue a performance career and you find yourself left behind wanting to explore another area of the industry. I’ve felt like this a lot lately and talking to [Mentor] made me secure in my choices and decisions. It’s ok to not want to only be a performer. We further conversed about the value of a Musical Theatre degree at [Name of School], which is immeasurable. It teaches us so much, how to communicate, how to sell yourself, work with others, act independently and react on the spot. There are so many transferable skills that this course teaches us, that can be applied to other careers and it’s really nice to find someone who shares that value and to have it reaffirmed.

In a few instances, where students were paired with alumni who were not actively working as performers, the student expressed verbally to me that their mentor had nothing to offer them. I explained that these mentors still had much to offer in terms of their experience of surviving in the world of work with a BA in MT. I believe such pairings brought students face-to-face with their fear of not "making it" as a performer and, therefore, they didn’t want to engage with a mentor who represented their worst fears of life post-college.

In terms of mentoring the first-year students, when it worked, it seemed to be highly effective. Here is one final-year student’s blog about his meetings with his mentee, where he has been able to offer some practical advice based on his own experience:

I’ve met my mentee on multiple occasions to talk about how she’s coming along at Uni. Much to my surprise, she was very open to talking to me and completely got on board with the whole mentoring system. She’s largely been getting on okay but is often struggling to keep up to some rapid deadlines alongside doing log books. I suggested she try to create a schedule to stick to each week to help space out time.

Not all of these pairings worked and not all of the students—both first-year and final-year—saw through their commitments for the mentoring scheme. The first-year students, in particular, wanted their mentor to chase them down and make the relationship work, which was a misunderstanding of how the roles work in a mentorship relationship. Even though both mentors and mentees received training, more monitoring would probably be necessary to get the most out of this mentorship scheme. 

 

Conclusion

While this curriculum proved to be effective in helping to facilitate the transition for final-year students from study to profession, it did take a lot of tutor time and energy to monitor and facilitate; probably more so than the previous taught curriculum. Overall, however, I feel the additional time was justified by the independence it fostered in students and the confidence with which they went forth from the institution. It’s not possible to quantify whether they were better equipped to succeed, and it is too soon to judge their career success, but as an educator I felt I had done my best to prepare them for a digital future that was both uncertain and exciting.

 

WORKS CITED

  • Dunbar-Hall, Peter, et al. “ePortfolios for Music Educators: Parameters, Problems and Possibilities.” In Proceedings of the 29th World Conference of the International Society for Music Education, 2010, pp. 61-64.
  • Friedman, Sam, Dave O’Brien, and Daniel Laurison. “‘Like Skydiving Without a Parachute’: How Class Origin Shapes Occupational Trajectories in British Acting.” Sociology vol. 51, no. 5, 2017, pp. 992-1010.

 

Appendix

Here are several sample weeks of the digital playlists created for the course. Not all links may still be active and many of the pieces are UK-specific, however, everything is included here to give an idea of content. 

 

Week One

  • Log into Campus Press. Choose a template theme. Add your photo to your home page. 
  • Listen to podcast of Olivier Award Winning Denise Gough, Honest Actors Podcast: http://inanything.com/episode-notes-eps-1-2-denise-gough-tom-goodman-hill/ (35 Minutes)
  • Read Equity Membership Survey from 2013:https://www.equity.org.uk/documents/2013-equity-membership-survey-summary/ 
  • Then watch this brief video about How Statistics Can Lie https://youtu.be/TiaVGBEFiZs - think about how some of the statistics in the Equity survey might be misleading. 
  • Read this blog post on Getting Acting Work: https://www.dramauk.co.uk/articles/nuts_and_bolts_getting_acting_work 
  • Write your first blog post - your response to report and podcast (write for yourself with no min/max. Write as many words as you need to reflect). 
  • Set up time to speak with your alumni mentor. Arrange time to meet with first-year mentee. 

 

Week Two

  1. Make a list of everything you love about performing and being an actor. Make a list of the reasons why you want to become a professional actor. Make a list of why you want to do acting as a job or profession rather than as a hobby. Put these lists on your blog. 
  2. Listen to podcast “Inside the West End Ep015 Room 108 at Phantom” which you can either find on their website here: http://insidethewestend.com/blog/ or search “Inside the West End” in iTunes (it’s free) and then click on ‘See All’ (to see all episodes) and select episode 015. 
  3. Read: Friedman, Sam, Dave O’Brien, and Daniel Laurison. "‘Like skydiving without a parachute’: How class origin shapes occupational trajectories in British acting." Sociology 51.5 (2017): 992-1010. http://soc.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/02/26/0038038516629917.full.pdf+html (I want you to take note of what is discussed in the article, but also take note of how an academic article is formatted and how the authors go about both quantitative and qualitative research, which will be of relevance to you for your dissertation) 
  4. Write about your reflections on the podcast and the article in your blog. 

 

Week Three

  1. Listen: Debbie O’Brien (Casting Director) Interview, Inside the West End Episode: 010 http://insidethewestend.com/blog/iframe-width540-height540-srchttp/embedacastcom/insidethewestend/itweep10debbieobrien-scrollingno-frameborder0-stylebordernoneoverflowhidden/iframe 
  2. Read: Tepper, Steven J., and Danielle J. Lindemann. "Perspectives: For the money? For the love? Reconsidering the “worth” of a college major." Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning46.2 (2014): 20-23. Search for this article on the UWL Library website (Summon). It is available as a full text download. 
  3. Listen: Interview with Pippa Ailion (Casting Director). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SOxJuVW5HE 
  4. Write in your blog your thoughts from this week’s material. 

 

Week Four

  1. Read: The Stage, Phil Wilmott on casting (5 minutes to read) https://www.thestage.co.uk/opinion/2014/real-reason-not-called-audition/
  2. Watch: Lives of Actors - Week One (1 hour 10 minutes) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuZMZbHIEYo&feature=youtu.be
  3. Read: Drama UK Studies 2014. These are studies commissioned by Drama UK to chart where graduates of their programs were working within the profession (note Drama UK is no longer in existence). What is of particular interest is to look at the distribution of where graduates of Drama UK programs are working within the first few years after leaving drama school: https://www.dramauk.co.uk/writeable/editor_uploads/files/Drama%20UK%20Symposium%202014%20(Final).compressed.pdf
  4. Read this article on Theatre Education and Entrepreneurship: http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/40610000/essig_suffusing.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ56TQJRTWSMTNPEA&Expires=1479054884&Signature=UweLiXXlAPRzGt4w%2Bqm%2Fe9aThSg%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DSuffusing_Entrepreneurship_Education_thr.pdf
  5. Read the Executive Summary and skim the rest of this white paper produced by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which sets out the Government’s priorities in arts funding and policy: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/510798/DCMS_The_Culture_White_Paper__3_.pdf See if you can spot opportunities presented by strategy and funding shifts. As discussed in the article on entrepreneurship, learning to spot opportunities, and to take action upon them, are important skills for young actors emerging from training. 
  6. Read: Writing to agents: several of you asked for guidance on how to write to agents and invite them to the shows. Please read this guidance I have pieced together from several guides for actors: https://www.evernote.com/l/AC4Xb5ijMiBDtZk7KMQABJ4x2NFtUqKoWKE 

 

Week Five

  1. Watch: Introduction to Freelancing (includes information on starting out as a freelancer): http://creativeskillset.org/who_we_help/creative_professionals/freelance_toolkit/introduction_to_freelancing 
  2. Watch: Skills and Training (this may be less relevant but it’s short and worth a quick look at): http://creativeskillset.org/who_we_help/creative_professionals/freelance_toolkit/skills_and_training 
  3. Watch: Tax and Finance (the dreaded subject of tax and how you manage as a self-employed person to look after your own taxes NOTE: this is really important to learn about as so many actors get themselves tied in knots, or in trouble, over their taxes!): http://creativeskillset.org/who_we_help/creative_professionals/freelance_toolkit/tax_and_finances
  4. Read: For a discussion of expenses (allowable and non-allowable) for actors check out: http://performanceaccountancy.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Expenses-for-performers-19-May-2014.pdf 
  5. Watch: Claiming Freelance expenses: https://ccskills.org.uk/careers/develop-your-career/article/claiming-freelance-expenses 
  6. Read: Look at the range of information available from Gov.uk on money and tax: https://www.gov.uk/browse/tax/self-assessment 
  7. Read: 5 Financial Promises Freelancers Must Make to Themselves: https://ccskills.org.uk/careers/develop-your-career/article/5-financial-promises-freelancers-must-make-to-themselves 

 

Week Six

  1. Watch: Personal Branding: http://creativeskillset.org/who_we_help/creative_professionals/freelance_toolkit/personal_branding 
  2. Watch: Building your Business (includes great information on networking): http://creativeskillset.org/who_we_help/creative_professionals/freelance_toolkit/building_your_business 
  3. Read: Additional reading on networking (ours is a people business and learning to meet people well is a crucial skill). Download the help notes here: https://www.bectu.org.uk/advice-resources/library/1785 
  4. Watch: 5 Ways Freelancers can build Contacts: https://ccskills.org.uk/careers/develop-your-career/article/5-ways-freelancers-can-build-contacts 
  5. Watch: How to deal with nerves around Networking: https://ccskills.org.uk/careers/develop-your-career/article/nervous-before-a-networking-event-good 
  6. Watch: Skills for better networking: https://ccskills.org.uk/careers/develop-your-career/article/skills-for-better-networking 

 

Week Seven

  1. Watch: Health and Wellbeing: http://creativeskillset.org/who_we_help/creative_professionals/freelance_toolkit/health_and_wellbeing 
  2. Read: Health Care for Successful Acting Careers: https://www.dramauk.co.uk/articles/healthy_performance-_training_and_health_care_for_successful_acting_careers_ 
  3. Read: Mental Health: have a look around the website for http://www.artsminds.co.uk 
  4. Read: Physical Health: look at the Health Resources Info from the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM): http://www.bapam.org.uk/perf_advice.html

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