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And yet, despite rising fees and a difficult economic climate, applications are not in short supply: at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, hundreds of applicants compete each year for just a few dozen places on the school’s graduate and undergraduate-level courses.
It’s not difficult to see why. With the world of professional acting notoriously difficult to navigate, a good acting degree seems the only way an actor stands a chance of making it in the business.
While recent years have seen an influx of celebrities and reality TV stars on stage and screen, the days of the classically-trained actor are far from over. In the UK, stalwarts such as Sir Ian McKellen and Kenneth Brannagh, as well as new stars like Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddlestone, can all point to degrees from prestigious institutions at the start of their careers.
But the situation is completely different here in Malta, where many TV and theatre stars receive little or no formal training. In fact, in a recent interview with The Sunday Circle, Deceduti star Gordon Bonello said that he never studied drama, training himself by studying people: “I think drama school is all around us.”
Locally, actor training is still largely an after-school activity.
Many parents enrol their children in drama schools such as Masquerade and Stagecoach, and these schools provide training in acting, singing, and dancing well into the children’s teens.
But beyond such institutions, there are no professional drama schools to receive these students, and apart from sporadic adult courses and master-classes, there is no way at all for them to further their training.
Young actors interested in continuing their training and attempting to forge a career in acting must therefore set their sights abroad, often leaving Malta for Europe or the UK, and in so doing depriving local stages of their most promising prospects.
One such actor is 20-year-old Luke Farrugia. Luke has already been acting for a number of years, and recently appeared at St. James Cavalier in an acclaimed production of a Shakespeare-inspired play, “When You Hear My Voice”. Now he is in the final stage of auditions for a top drama school in London.
Luke tells me that formal training is vital for an actor hoping to take his art beyond a hobby.
“Not being 100% sure of everything I’m doing makes it frightening and impossible to realise for myself what I’m doing wrong. Training will help me be in full control. Also, drama school gets you an agent.”
But according to Luke, the problem with theatre locally isn’t so much the lack of a professional drama school as much as the lack of a market for professional theatre.
“Unless a market is created, a drama school would produce actors with nowhere to work. Might as well go abroad and train so you can crack into their market with their own expertise rather than get a Maltese-style influence and then attempt to crack a British Market.”
Indeed, Malta has neither professional theatre companies nor full-time actors.
Those involved in the art, both on stage and on screen, hold down full time jobs and squeeze their rehearsals, performances, and shooting on evenings and weekends, often five nights a week or more.
And while foreign artists working locally often comment on their surprise at the fact that the quality of work staged by local theatre companies often belies their amateur or semi-professional status, less praise tends to be heaped on the nevertheless hugely popular local television scene.
Adrian Buckle, a theatre producer and the Artistic Director of Unifaun Theatre, finds the standard of acting on local television programmes to be poor. “Sometimes I wonder if the actors I see on TV are the same I see on stage, and for this reason I usually give local TV a miss,” he says.
One young actor, 22-year-old Joseph Zammit, believes that the problem is that companies do not give enough attention to the quality of the acting when putting TV programmes together.
Joseph, who has worked both on stage and on TV (where he appeared last year in NET TV’s “Lift”), tells me: “In my experience, the acting aspect is ignored: there’s far more focus on camera work and storytelling, and this is highly evident to anyone who’s ever watched Maltese drama.”
Adrian Buckle: “Unless one has talent, it is useless to attend a drama school, but, talented individuals should attend to sharpen their skills. When casting, I usually go for experience or quality of an audition. I do look at training but it is not a decisive factor in my casting.”
Joseph Zammit: “Training is important, although one could gain training through experience on stage. I never had formal training before my first experience in theatre, but every production has been a learning process.”
Luke Farrugia: “Definitely. There’s a difference between going on instinct and being able to control something as abstract as acting. So it’s also a safer bet for the actor to train because then he doesn’t have the fear of being “hit or miss” and can give a controlled, good performance every time.”