RADA’s Nona Shepphard on Applying for Drama School

RADA final year production – Love for Love, by William Congreve, directed by Annie Tyson

RADA final year production – Mother Teresa is Dead, by Helen Edmundson, directed by John Dove

Nona Shepphard is associate director at RADA as well as second year tutor on the school’s BA (Hons) in acting. Here she shares her advice on choosing the right drama school, preparing for auditions and getting out there in the big bad world of professional acting.

What should young people look for in a drama school?

If you can afford it – because there’s a fee for applying – apply as widely as you can, because then you’ll see as many schools and you’ll get a flavour. Often it’s good when you’re there to see if you can have a chat with some of the students that already are there because they’ll be very useful to you. Obviously read the prospectus and all that. The main schools – the top schools – are very useful to you simply because they’re the top schools. A lot of agents, directors, casting directors will go to their showcases, by definition.

Nona Shepphard is associate director at RADA

What should applicants do to prepare for their preliminary drama school auditions?

What we require is a principal classical speech and a secondary classical speech and then we require a contemporary speech. All of these need to be learnt and worked on. That’s for the first audition. And more than likely they’ll just come into the room where there will be two people and those two people will probably have a little chat with them about where they are in their life, where they go to the theatre, why they like the theatre, why they want to be actors, all that kind of stuff, either before or after they do their speeches. Then they will be required to do their two speeches in whatever order they like, their principal speeches, their classical and their modern speech. And if the panel then want to see more of their work they’ll ask for the secondary classical speech.

How should applicants go about choosing their audition speeches?

It’s very important that people choose work that they love so they have some connection to it. It’s very important that they choose pieces that they could be cast for. Because often people make the mistake of thinking, ‘I’ll choose something completely way out because they won’t have seen that before so therefore they’ll remember me’. And so they often choose things that are unlike themselves. What people need to remember is that we’re not looking at this stage for finished actors, we’re looking for people to train and it doesn’t matter if I’ve seen 35 Juliet’s in one day, if you’re the person that makes me believe you’re that Juliet, then that’s wonderful. One of them must be their own age or near their own age, I think. The other can be contrasting. You’re trying to show us different sides of your work. So if for instance you choose a very serious, soldierly man in your classical speech, then you want to think of a much lighter modern piece.

RADA final year production – Love for Love, by William Congreve, directed by Annie Tyson

What are you looking for in applicants?

Obviously to a large degree you’re speaking subjectively because some people’s taste is not other people’s taste, but our panel’s been working a long time and they’re all actors so I would probably say that we more or less agree. The thing I look for – and we all look for – is somebody we think that after three years training has the potential to make a career as a professional actor. So that’s the bottom line. We see everybody that applies, which is our pledge because we want to be as wide as possible in our access. That’s really important to us. If you can transport me to the place you say you’re in and make me believe you’re the person you say you are, then that is a marvellous thing to be able to do.

Is the advice and teaching you provide different depending on whether students want to go into theatre or film?

No. They make two short films while they’re here, so they do have experience of film. We have a film and television department here as well and a radio section. We try and prepare them for all aspects of the business, however we do say we offer a classical training because the demands of the classical canon are so great on an actor.

Many RADA graduates are snapped up by agents who attend the final degree showcase; what advice do you have for those who aren’t? 

A lot of people I know that are doing extremely well left RADA without an agent so it doesn’t matter to a certain degree – the business is so uncertain. But I suppose what they did was they didn’t give up, they were very lively, they wrote to a lot of agents, they got work, they worked in fringe things, they had work that they wanted agents to see and they were persistent, they made films, they made showreels.

RADA final year production – Six Pictures of Lee Miller, by Edward Kemp, directed by Edward Kemp

When the work doesn’t come and actors need to do other things, are there fields that are particularly suitable?

Well I suppose the actors’ jobs in the catering industry – waitressing and bar jobs – are there because obviously they’re very flexible. I often feel that whether you survive as an actor – I’m not talking about whether you instantly shoot into work and you get work all the time, but what I would call a jobbing actor: they have periods of work, they have periods out of work, they get work again and so on – I think that depends on your temperament and how you cope with those periods outside, when you don’t have work. And if you’re going to be so depressed that life isn’t worth living, then you’re not going to last really. But some people just take a lively, strong attitude to it: do lots of other jobs, find as interesting jobs as they can that they can be flexible in, try and create some work of their own.

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