What Are Drama Schools Looking For? With Lise Olson.

There’s no denying that getting into drama school can be an arduous affair. I often tell my students that there are a myriad of reasons why a school could ultimately decide not to offer them a place and many of those reasons may have absolutely nothing to do with ability. As true as this is, it still doesn’t quite numb the sting of getting rejected from somewhere you had your heart set on.

So what is it that a drama school is really looking for?

You don’t have to look very far to become overwhelmed by the plethora of contradictory information in circulation, which makes it very difficult to know who and what to listen to. I come across simple misconceptions and bad advice all the time and it never fails to surprise me. In an attempt to try and find some clarity, I reached out to acting coach and director Lise Olson.

Lise has been auditioning people internationally for UK drama schools for 17 years and currently leads the MA in Acting at the Birmingham School of Acting. She is the recipient of directing awards in both the US and UK, and her West End credits include The Witches of Eastwick, Coyote on a Fence and A View From The Bridge. Last year she directed the European Premiere of The Sins of Sor Juana for BSA.

I was very eager to get her opinion on some of the most common questions I receive.

Lise Olson

Lise Olson

What are you looking for in someone auditioning for drama school?

I would say that we are looking for someone with potential for training. This includes being available to new ideas and generosity to others (if there is any group work). Someone with an understanding of what they are saying in their speeches, not just reciting lines.

What are some common mistakes you see people make in auditions?

Trying too hard to ‘stand out’, making the audition about themselves rather than about the work they are doing, not trying hard enough to push themselves in something that they find difficult. Women not tying hair back for movement work or candidates not wearing appropriate clothing (if you have been told not to wear jeans, don’t wear jeans!). Choosing inappropriate audition material – if you are 18, don’t do King Lear. Don’t act to the side wall. Don’t hide – put your imaginary scene partner downstage. I personally don’t like people staring into my eyes when they are doing auditions. I need to be able to break away and take notes. I am not your scene partner! People on the panel have a job to do and you will be seen and assessed more clearly if you don’t ‘use’ us. Of course, this is a personal quibble. Some people don’t mind it.

What are you looking for in my monologue choices?

In the classical piece I am looking for understanding and making sense of the verse. Many classical monologues are written about the big moments and decisions in that character’s life. Let us know what the stakes are. Don’t just recite lines. Discover what that person wants and needs and use the monologue to share that with us. Figure out the problem. Contemporary monologues these days tend to be very televisual. That’s not a problem, as long as it’s not just showing us behaviour. I also (again, this is personal) don’t like speeches that use excessive bad language (learn the difference between some and excessive) or are about child abuse/rape victim trauma (male or female). You can show the same range with a piece about a close personal friend or family.

How important is being able to take direction?

Important. If you don’t open yourself up to new ideas, we will think that you’re inflexible and can only do one thing. I look for actors who are curious about exploration.

The Sins of Sor Juana

The Sins of Sor Juana – Directed by Lise Olson

What’s the number one piece of advice you’d give to someone hoping to get in to drama school?

BE YOURSELF!!! We need to see who you are as a person. Are you going to fit in with others? Remember, you’re auditioning the school as much as you’re auditioning for a place. If you don’t like a vibe, it’s probably not the place for you. Don’t be seduced by shiny studios; you can train in lousy facilities and get great training. Talk to current students, they will be the best people to tell you about the school. You are giving up three years (or one in the case of a postgrad) to work on yourself. It’s a luxury few people get. Embrace it. Make the choice that is right for you. If you are all about me, me, me you won’t be happy in a place that fosters ensemble. Every school is different. Do your research, don’t just stress about ‘getting into drama school’.

What should I do if I don’t get in?

If you don’t get in, use your year well. Audition for anything and everything to get more experience, take a foundation course, take part-time classes to up your skills. Sign up for an extras agency and work as an extra on films to see how the industry works. See as much theatre as possible. If this is what you were meant to do, a rejection from drama school won’t stop you. There are many ways into the industry but those who have trained have a solid foundation to begin their work. Try again (choose different pieces!), and then again. If you haven’t got a place after three years of attempts, the universe is perhaps telling you that drama school may not be for you. BUT that doesn’t mean you need to stop acting. Find a home and a place where you can perform if that is your goal. Perfect your craft. Keep the joy!

Andrei Costin on Life After Drama School

For an actor, life after drama school can be many things – turbulent, emotional and occasionally glorious are a few words that come to my mind. I recently got the chance to catch up with my good friend and actor Andrei Costin and he described life after drama school as ‘challenging’.

Andrei was born and raised in ‘newly democratic and peaceful Romania’ and moved to the UK six years ago to train at the Birmingham School of Acting. Since graduating, he has completed the UK Tour of ‘The Kite Runner’, playing the role of Hassan, and had his West End debut when it transferred to the Wyndham’s Theatre where it currently resides. He also recently completed filming for BBC’s Doctors and is now working on a Romanian-British feature film called ‘Memento Amare’.

Looking at his list of credits, there’s no doubt he’s had an impressive start to his career. So I was very interested to find out exactly what he meant by ‘challenging’ and ask him what advice he’d give to emerging actors.

What was it like after graduating from the Birmingham School of Acting?

It was quiet for quite a while, I had to understand how this whole thing works and the first step was to move to London. I made the mistake of getting a job that kept me in the house for most of the day and that stalled me physically and mentally. But I did start auditioning for various things through the agent I got from our showcase and kept looking for jobs on all the industry websites. Going to some workshops with casting directors helped me to gain knowledge and get my face seen. It took me a while to accommodate, but I do think that the possibilities are endless when you’re down here.

Did you ever question your decision to be an actor?

There are the odd times when I go all philosophical and question my purpose in life but the gut instinct of performing, expressing myself, learning and needing to create as part of a team has never gone away. It really is a strange thing to do and pretty selfish and narcissistic if you strip it all down but oh boy is it fun and it keeps you young and curious!

The Kite Runner - UK Productions

Andrei Costin in The Kite Runner

How important is it to keep up your skills whilst out-of-work?

If practising your skills, improving or learning new ones is something you think will make you feel better, do it. And it will. Speaking for myself, it’s most important to keep confidence up. Without confidence, you won’t do your best in an audition. So keep it up, one day at a time. Read something out loud every day, read plays, learn monologues and scenes, improvise with friends, write, practise the crap out of that favourite song, go and watch plays and films for inspiration and education, pick up an instrument. There is time for everything.

Is life as an actor how you imagined it would be before going to drama school?

No. Every day brings on a new challenge and adventure, whether you’re working or not. It’s a full on life and not the romanticised version that a college kid has in his mind. Although, at its best it really is the dream come true, when you get to do what you love with people that you love and admire.

Do you think it’s important to go to drama school?

I think it is important to have training of some sort, not necessarily because of the technical skills you acquire but more importantly to prepare you for life as an actor outside of performing; managing the lifestyle, how to work in a team/company/ensemble and for the discipline it can teach you. I guess those are also skills. It’s like learning the rules of a game in order to make it easier to play with others. Of course, you can be a fantastic team player and a gifted actor without going to drama school and just learn everything else from experience.

What advice would you give to an aspiring actor/actress?

Go for it. If you feel the urge to do it, something will happen for you and you won’t regret doing it. Read up on acting, on theatre, watch interviews with actors, watch shows, films, live performance, delve yourself into that world. If you’re aspiring, you’re probably already doing some of that… But also set yourself small and achievable goals. When it gets hard, keep at it.

What’s next for you?

Over April, I’ll be going up to Chester to play a Syrian refugee in a new piece of writing called ‘The Lost Boy’ and some stuff I’ve filmed recently will be coming out soon. I just want to keep working, learning and finding variety in my work.

MA Acting at the Birmingham School of Acting

At the beginning of March I interviewed acting coach and director Lise Olson for my article ‘What are Drama Schools Looking For?’ (If you haven’t read it yet you can find it here!)

I received some wonderful feedback from people currently auditioning for drama school and several were interested to find out more about the MA course at the Birmingham School of Acting, of which Lise is the course director.

For anyone considering an MA in Acting, I cannot recommend the Birmingham School of Acting highly enough. Having completed the BA Acting course at BSA, people often ask me ‘What was the training like?’ Well, as far as I can tell it’s like the training at all the other leading drama schools. Most actors I meet seem to have undergone something very similar to me. Yet amongst aspiring performers, the old-fashioned idea that London is the only place to become an actor continues to persevere. When interviewing Andrei Costin (BSA alumni, The Kite Runner, West End) for another article, he told me he didn’t know what the training at other drama schools was like but the lifestyle in London is certainly more expensive.

There are several great schools outside of London and BSA is one of them. The teachers that work there are amongst some of the best and most brilliant people I’ve met in the industry so far. My advice: you won’t know if somewhere is right for you until you go there. When it comes to picking where to audition, don’t limit yourself;  getting into drama school is difficult enough already.

MA Acting at BSA

BSA is currently accepting applications for its MA Acting course starting September 2017. If you want to find out any more information visit their website here:

Next month I have tickets to see Henry V at the Attic Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, and its cast includes Joanne Amaral and Dru Stephenson – BSA alumni from the MA course. I reached out to both to get their opinion on the training they received.

“Training at BSA was a thrilling and rewarding experience. The course is very complete and industry focused so you know exactly what to do when you complete your training. As a foreign actress, I was accepted in other Drama UK accredited schools but all of them wanted to label me as an ‘outsider’, suggesting me to their MA International courses or trying to persuade me to do a longer MA degree. At BSA I felt none of that. I was welcomed and respected and taught to play my strengths and particularities. Definitely a great place to grow as an artist and as a human being.”

“The BSA MA course was one of the most challenging and exhausting years of my life. But it taught me so much, mainly about myself, and it gave me the confidence to pursue acting with renewed self-belief and a whole heap of resources to draw upon.”

The Marriage of Bette and Boo - BSA MA Acting

The Marriage of Bette and Boo – BSA MA Acting