“How long is a piece of string?” Lucy Skilbeck’s response is instant and telling when asked what the ideal student looks like at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). She might have provoked a similar response had she asked the same of the performance practitioners who attended her session on discovering emerging talent at late May’s Leaders Meet: Talent Pathways at Manchester City’s Etihad Campus. Onstage, she discussed RADA’s approach to talent development alongside William Mival, Head of Composition at the Royal College of Music.
By John Portch
At the end of the roundtable discussions that followed the session, the attendees were keen to know how RADA picks its talent in the first place. The attrition rates in performing arts bear an uncanny resemblance to those in high end sport. More than 3,500 students apply to attend RADA each year before Skilbeck and her colleagues whittle the field down to a first-year class of 28. This annual four-stage process is designed to drop potential students into a variety of situations intended to test their imagination, their ability to communicate both physically and verbally, and to challenge them into generating a sense of agency for themselves.
The Leaders Performance institute presents Skilbeck, in her own words, elaborating upon RADA’s recruitment process as both she and her colleagues work to unearth suitable students:
Stage One: 3,500 applicants
We look for imagination, instinct, intuition and empathy. At the very first stage we see 3,500 people, one after another, over a series of months. They troop into a room and perform two speeches; one contemporary and one classical. They have to have facility with language; they have to be able to communicate with the audition panel; they have to have some sense of their body and being embodied so they’re not standing there feeling uncomfortable; they have to show some basic facility to be able to communicate a story effectively.
Stage Two: 600 to 800
From there we go down to between 600 and 800 depending on the level of the first round. In the second round, they have to do the contemporary speech and the classical speech, they have to sing a song unaccompanied, and they have an interview. We’re not working on the speeches at that point, we’re still looking for facility; then for the song we’re not training singers, although they do singing training the whole way through. They have to have the confidence to stand and bring something forward to us; and to think that their impulse is to communicate through words and language with the person they are talking to. That communication is vital; and kind of what always happens at that stage, is that people come in, particularly people who have been stage school kids, they come in and they do a whole kind of routine of Oliver Twist or whatever and they’ve got the moves but there is nothing in there that is about taking what that person is saying and offering it to us as a conversation.
Stage Three: 300 to 400
If they get through we have about 300 or 400 who go to our workshop. In the workshop stage it becomes absolutely about working with other people; and so we’re looking at people who can be in response to others; they can take teaching and direction from people at the workshop, which will be me and two other people, but they also have to be able to work with a scene partner; so we say that thing you learnt as a monologue, you now have to think of as a scene; you’re not saying it for yourself, you’re saying it to change the other person; so you have to change somebody else and you have to be changed by somebody else. So we’re looking at that two-way relationship; that ability to change and be changed.
Stage Four: 100 to 120, and then 28
If they get through that round, which is about 100 to 120 people, then they do a whole day where we’re looking at their physical and vocal facilities, so we’re checking there’s no kind of significant damage that might need surgery before training, for instance; they’re doing improvisation sessions, they do a scene study; they do a thing called a Meisner class, where we’re absolutely pushing them in relation to the other person and we’re really looking at how can they engage, how they are opening and can be open in space in relation to another person so that when somebody reaches towards them they have the response. We’re not looking at what the response is, necessarily, but are they actually able to be working with somebody else in the space and then collectively with a group in the space. Because if they can’t do that, they could be the best person in the world, standing there and delivering a speech beautifully, but they’re not an actor, because an actor is someone who is in response all the time. That’s what we’re looking for and it’s intuitive; we can’t say we can tick this box or that box; we have to see them at work in a number of environments. Curiously, we made an offer to one student this because the way he embodied an eagle in the physical improvisation session; it was breath-taking. Now, I can’t tell you exactly why his eagle was breath-taking but they had to be eagles going across the room; there was a moment where he prepared himself to be that eagle; ridiculous, I know; but it’s the embodiment of an imagination and an instinct. You see in those little fractional moments and when you see it once you know it’s there and within them; so you’re looking forensically and constantly for those moments.