There are a wide range of organizations offering a variety of drama programs. These can range from primarily recreational to serious, professional-only focus. To students and families looking for quality drama instruction that meets their own personal goals and desires this can often appear as an “apples to oranges” comparison challenge. Act One recognizes that participation in any activity is an investment of family resources not just in terms of money, but also student/parent opportunity; as time spent in (or driving children to) one activity is time that can not be devoted to another.
We offer the ten questions below as ones that every student and their family should ask before joining any drama school, “club” or other organization. The answers will help the student and their family make a better, “apples to apples” consideration of the value of two or more different drama programs. It is our hope that by providing this information, we can help all students find the program that is right for them and avoid any disappointment. Act One and its staff believe strongly in the benefits and opportunities offered by involvement in drama, in all its various forms. One of the most important steps in realizing these positive results is choosing the most appropriate program for you.
Please note these questions are not presented in any specific order of importance, etc. The individual circumstances of each student and their family will likely determine which are the most relevant for their specific situation. They are presented from the perspective that as a collective whole, they should allow one to make a much more informed and successful decision regarding getting the most positive experience possible out of any drama program.
If you have any questions about the recommendations below or would like to hear Act One’s answers to any of them, by all means please contact the school. We would be happy to talk with you
Different organizations offer drama programs of different durations in terms of number of weeks, number of classes and the length of each class. What may seem cheaper in absolute dollar terms or number of classes for a “session”, may actually be more expensive when you compare the total number of hours of instruction of the two, with their respective costs. Act One does not want to imply that the cheapest course is always the best, as other important factors may account for the cost difference. We do however believe that every organization should be prepared to explain the reasons for any price differential in comparable programs. The student can then decide for themselves if the program delivers value for the additional cost.
Many organizations require full payment up front. Others may offer a variety of payment options, with varying discounts for advanced payment. In all cases, a student should make sure they know if they are entitled to a refund if they wish to withdraw early. It is important to know what level of refund you would be entitled to, if it comes with any “conditions” or is no-questions-asked and whether it will be in the form of cash, or “credits” towards other future classes. While this should be an important consideration for all drama students, Act One strongly encourages students trying drama for the first time to pay special attention to this. It can often take two or three tries in different programs to find the one that works best for you. A more flexible refund policy will allow you the confidence to discover drama and try a program with the peace of mind that you can change programs with minimal cost, in terms of time and money, if you realize the one you are in is not for you. If no refund is offered, Act One strongly recommends you only join a program that allows you one or two trial classes before you have to commit formally and pay for the program.
Act One is the first to say that one of the positive aspects of drama is that it can be performed in almost any location. Programs have traditionally been offered in church basements and other common rooms, as well as more theatrically-equipped performance studios and theatres. There is no absolute requirement for fancy stages, nor does a wide array of specialized equipment ensure a quality instructional program or performance. What the better-equipped and more theatrically-focused spaces can provide is a much more immersive and varied learning environment class-to-class as opposed to just for special performance events, as is often the case with generic locations. This will likely be of less importance to someone looking for a purely recreational program, as opposed to a student seeking more actual drama training, but can still significantly impact the overall class experience.
Individual class length will often vary depending upon the program being considered. Typically, classes can range from 30 minutes to 3 hours in length, depending on the format. Most common are classes in the 45 minutes to 2 hour range. While class length is closely linked with a number of other factors listed below, such as Class Size, Student-to-Staff ratio, etc, in general a longer class will give an instructor more time to effectively present and explain concepts and equally important, each student more opportunity to actively try out and practise the material. Drama is very much a participatory activity, with a strong collaborative element. This means that having adequate time to experiment in class is extremely desirable. Effective learning usually requires frequent interaction with fellow classmates and repetition. There are often times where individual attention is also important. For instance, when working on monologues (solo performance). An hour may sound like a lot, however if there are 10 students in the class and only one instructor, this yields a maximum of 6 minutes individual instructor-student attention per class. For high school aged students it can often be difficult to cover material to the depth they are capable of even in one and a half hours. While class size should not be the sole determining factor, please realize that shorter classes can impose limits on the students' learning opportunities.
Closely linked with class length, student age range and student/staff ratio, class size should also be considered. While it is often impossible to know in advance how many students may register for a particular class, a student should be aware of what the maximum class size might be. While a larger class is not inherently bad, it must be considered in the context of how it will be staffed, the impact on individual instructional time and the suitability of the location to accommodate the numbers, etc. While there are interaction benefits to larger classes, as numbers increase these can often rapidly be outweighed by the disadvantages of more complicated classroom management and decreased individual student focus. As a starting point, Act One would suggest looking for a range of 4 to 16 students per class (with 6 to 12 being more ideal). In the case of larger or smaller classes, one should request a clear explanation from the program coordinator about what processes they put in place to ensure the class will run effectively.
Equally important is the class student to staff ratio policy. Does the class have a maximum ratio? If so, how is it maintained? Does it cap the class at the maximum or add additional instructors if the class goes above it. If the ratio gets too large, students may suffer; as the ability of the instructor to provide adequate individual attention and maintain class cohesion can be significantly impaired. Act One recommends a maximum student to staff ratio in the 8:1 to 10:1 range as a starting point. A lower ratio will allow greater one on one instructor attention, however it will likely come at a greater cost per instructional hour. Above 10:1, a student should ask the organization how and why it believes its instructor will be able to provide quality instruction, especially with respect to individual one-to-one attention.
Age and maturity can be relative measures during childhood. Equally, some children will mature faster than others. In general however, students of a similar age will relate better with each other and share much more similar aptitudes for a certain level of material than those younger or older. Age difference can be very pronounced in the middle years (ie 8-13) and lesser in younger students and those of high school age but it is still a factor that should be considered. The wider the age range in a class, the more challenging it will be for an instructor to keep the class relevant and engaging for all its students. Often what would be of interest to a 12 year old will be too complex for a 7 year old. Likewise, when positioning material for 7 and 8 year olds it will often be way too simplistic for older students. This is no reflection on the capabilities of the students, merely a realistic acknowledgement that in drama so much of what one gets out of it is dependent upon what one can bring to the class. Older students will usually have greater life experience to draw upon. It is also a fact that drama classes should be fun and part of this is dependent upon the degree with which we share the experience with similar aged peers. This is just as relevant for adults looking for classes as for younger individuals. Students and their families should carefully consider the age ranges of the various options available to them, as this may greatly impact the potential enjoyment and learning value of any drama program.
Any drama program should ideally be taught by someone with experience with the performance aspects of drama. This does not mean that one should only look for the instructor with the most impressive resume. In many cases the value of this experience is directly related to the age and experience levels of the students. Teaching ability, rapport and the ability to connect with the students is also important. Drama is very much about trust and interaction. An instructor with a vast resume of experience, who can not relate to the students in the class, will find that much of their experience is beyond younger, newer students and the lack of interaction will make even basic concepts difficult to convey in a fun and engaging manner. As mentioned above, Act One strongly suggests that a student request a trial class to determine if they like the instructor and their teaching style before committing to any program.
While drama is about more than just performing in plays, shows or film, etc, it must also be acknowledged that learning drama is also more about “doing” as opposed to “studying”. In acting, it is very important that students have the opportunity to try out the various concepts and techniques that they learn. Students should make sure they understand very clearly what performance opportunities are available to the class, how the performances are used to help the student develop dramatically and what, if any additional costs will be incurred by the student and their families; either in terms of show fees, parental obligation or audience ticket costs. Most programs will offer at least some type of course end show. Some questions to ask are whether the class offers other performance opportunities during the term or year, how theatrically equipped is the performance venue and how does the program determine student role assignment?
At the end of the day, the perfect sized class, in an ideal location, with a great instructor will still not deliver a positive experience if the class format, content and advancement structure does not match a student’s goals and/or experience levels. A primarily recreational program may start out enjoyable but for a more passionate student, it may quickly be found wanting. Likewise a student just starting out or pursuing drama for their own personal enjoyment and development may be easily intimidated and quickly overwhelmed by professional classes and workshops geared exclusively towards those wishing to work in the industry. Students should also decide if they are seeking a class that would replace what they might participate in during regular school, one that enhances and augments what they are already obtaining and/or one that gives them advanced exposure to and a headstart on material that they will encounter in future years. Having a clear understanding of these goals will help a student gain improved satisfaction with the ultimate outcome of a class. It is important that a student find a program structure that closely parallels their own dramatic aims. Students will find that once they find this balance they will be able to progress much more rapidly.
With respect to progression, students should also make sure to understand what future options they will have to grow their capabilities if they decide to return to the organization for another year. Does this mean returning to the same class for a number of years or is there a wider variety of course and age brackets available for the student to choose from.