“Year Out Drama… you don’t get how special it is”

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Photography by Pip

Before I start, there are headlines notes. We’re all busy and not everyone reads things to the end. So I have headlines notes:

This course was brilliant.

I would advise anyone to go.

It changed my life.

I’ll delve into the how, when and why now, but first, some context.

I had always wanted to act. It was pretty boring for those around me to be honest. I suspect it always has been. I’d been telling people how I wanted to go to drama school at family gatherings since I was about five, which is all well and good, but once you start to solidify those career choices come A Levels time, it can inevitably get a bit tricky convincing those around you that its not a phase. I hadn’t considered a gap year. Travel didn’t appeal to me then. I just wanted to get stuck in and get into rehearsal rooms and get my career rolling. I remember my parents pleading with me to think of something else and then they mentioned that a friend of theirs had heard of this course in Stratford-Upon-Avon where you got to do plays for a year. Kind of like a relaxed drama school/rep theatre vibe. Maybe I could apply and see if it really was for me? Their daughter was there and really enjoying it. I remember pouring through the brochure and feeling hugely excited. It felt like it had been tailor made for me. (Although doesn’t everything when you’re eighteen?) And to be in Stratford-upon-Avon, the epic of all epics, the mecca of theatre? It was too good a chance to pass up.

There is a memory imprinted on my brain. The day of my interview is a bit of a blur, but I do remember this picture. I was shown into a room of students mid-movement session. The first thing I noticed was everyone grinning. Laughing and throwing themselves in, sweaty and happy. It was a shock. My school only ever looked at drama cerebrally. Plays were dead things in books. Actors didn’t sweat. They were kinda perfect and the hard work was invisible. It lit something up in me. I was scared and excited all at once.

The interview process was a piece of cake. It was literally that. A lovely cup of tea and a delicious slice of cake with one of the world’s loveliest people. But eighteen year old me thought it was a trap. I remember thinking I’ve got to SAY the right things. DO the right things. What if she doesn’t think I’m intelligent? I’m intelligent. I’m fucking intelligent. What if she doesn’t SEE me. She hasn’t seen me ACT. How can she know how GOOD I am? I MUST say the right things. And all the other egotistical messy thoughts that come with being eighteen, frightened and desperate with something to prove. I will say that now there is a little practical element to the audition. But I stress again, there is no test. THERE IS NO RIGHT WAY OF DOING THINGS. Otherwise we’d all have oscars because someone would have written the definitive manual on ‘How To Act’. It’s a chance to get to know YOU. I’ll also say that I was eighteen when I applied but most of my year were not. The course is for anyone who wants it. Weeks later I got a letter in the mail. It was covered in stickers. Glittery stars. I should have known how special it would be then. But I didn’t. I only realised how awesome that is years later. It’s just a nice thing to do, isn’t it? Utterly indicative of the time I would spend there. A little bit magic. A little bit glittery. Mistrustful me thought it was a trap of some kind. Another hurdle. Universities don’t put stickers on the envelopes, why would they? But it was just that. A sweet sticker. A thumbs up. (I’m banging on about the envelope but it matters to me because kept that envelope and look at it whenever I feel like shit. It helps. Also sorry Deborah, I realise now you can’t ever not put stickers on envelopes again.)

Deborah is a genius. She makes the course what it is, but part of that skill is the composition of people there. Our classmates. Our year group. We all met each other slowly over that first weekend. It was utterly joyous. It was university with none of the pressures. We were here to do plays and have fun. I honestly didn’t quite know what that entailed. But I didn’t care. I met people I would never normally have met, outside my own bubble. I met my ride-or-dies, future bridesmaids and beating heart of my friendship groups. We had a ball. We laughed. We cried. We bickered. We argued. We made up. We laughed again. They’re my brothers and sisters. That place is so special. It’s a bit culty. Like, I’ve just reread all this and it sounds like I’m describing a cult. Because in a way, I sort of am. But it’s a cult that, if you want to be a generous actor, my god, it’s worth getting on board with. I have never before or since experienced that unique environment with honesty, generosity and sheer abandon that challenged the way I thought, acted and performed. Drama school didn’t even come close. That’s not to say YOD was happy clappy all the time. Sometimes it was hard. I had a deep rooted cynicism then. I still do. And part of acting is unlearning being an adult. This was the first time I was challenged with it head on. Deborah Moody taught me how to play. I would absolutely never have gotten into drama school later down the line had it not been for her quiet determination to get me to stop thinking and people pleasing and worrying what everyone else was thinking. Being so ‘well-behaved’. It was only looking back that I realised she did this. That she did this for everyone, whatever everyone needed. That she doesn’t accept anyone on to the course who she doesn’t think will be ready to grow and learn and have a good time. Some people aren’t ready to do those things at any age. I wasn’t quite ready then, but she knew I would be one day. And that I’d thank her for it. Deborah has a spidey sense that is utterly spooky and wonderful. She’s the Nanny McPhee of acting. The thing about the course is it does become a real part of you. If it ever crops up in conversation and people nod in a disinterested way I fight the urge to scream NOOOOOO. YOU DON’T GET IT. YOU DON’T GET HOW SPECIAL IT IS. The best moments are when you describe it and someone narrows their eyes and then suddenly their eyebrows shoot up in recognition. YEAR OUT DRAMA? OH MY GOD, I DID IT TOO. And there’s a scream (usually) and the story sharing starts. It goes without saying this course isn’t for everyone. No course ever is. But I have never met a single individual who left the course who hasn’t been indelibly changed by it. Some people arrive and realise acting isn’t for them. But they still like drama. Great! Then there’s plenty of other jobs. Some people come away with a passion for directing. Or designing. Or they become theatre technicians. Some people go on to be lawyers, doctors, bloggers, anything, but the transferable skills are there. We know how to collaborate. We know the importance of team work. We can work quickly with what resources are there. We are super handy with a craft box, pritt stick and glitter. Because it’s not just plays. We made masks, puppets, sang Christmas Carols in the snow, learnt dance routines, sang song after song, (we were shit hot at doing that), mounted whole productions with visiting directors, saw shows at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and all around the UK, played games, did amazing workshops, took a whole production to Edinburgh. There were devised projects. I remember thinking, ‘ooh, maybe I could write something’. That was a thought that got a little out of hand, but it was the first time I ever saw my own stuff performed. I’m a writer now. Like an actual real one, which is hilarious to me. Year Out Drama is where seeds are sown.

I want to tell me then to have an open mind and an open heart. The course is for anyone who may have use of it or wants it. There is no qualification at the end. There is no finish line. No certificate. Because, much like a career in the arts, you can’t look back at a quantifiable cabinet of achievements. And it’s worth getting on board with that concept as early as you can. Year Out Drama made us patient. Every day was different and you didn’t know what you were going to get. Some days you’d arrive and we’d pretend to be pencil sharpeners for an hour. Some days you’d arrive and there’s be a fight director from the RSC waiting with a box of swords and you’d crack right on. The industry won’t cradle you. Year Out Drama understood that and taught us how to make our peace with it. The unpredictability. The uncertainty. School doesn’t help. We’re told we have to jump hoops to pass and progress. We’re told that success is linear. And how ‘success’ should be defined. Our parents don’t understand either. We have all forgotten how to play. A lot of hyperbole gets thrown around in testimonies. I’ve done it here already. It’s very easy to pepper one’s experiences with it, so please know how carefully I’ve thought about how I’m describing her, but Deborah Moody is someone who changed my life and how I thought about drama and my own self worth. If I could start it all over again, I would. Or maybe I wouldn’t. It feels too precious to touch again. But I can’t see the words Stratford-Upon-Avon written down on a piece of paper without my heart fluttering, because a piece of it will always be left behind there. Thank you.

And to all you bunnies in waiting: apply. There’s a world waiting for you.

‘Dust’, written and performed by Milly Thomas, opens at the Trafalgar Studios on the 4th September and runs until the 13th October 2018.


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