21 August, 2009

Ask Al: Training & Working in the UK

A few years back I received an email from a totally lovely, eloquent and hopeful student named Lauren. Lauren is terribly bright and articulate (she was attending Barnard College at Columbia University when she wrote this) and she was curious and crafty enough to do her research and she randomly found and contacted me through my website to ask me a few questions about the big bad world.

Then that got me thinking: if Lauren is out there, and has questions I can answer, perhaps my answer to her could serve to help others out there with similar concerns and queries.

Thus! I decided to start a new serial entitled Ask Al; in which I post, as you know, a real-life question and answer correspondence (edited for privacy of course), in the hopes of helping, enlightening, or perhaps merely entertaining, other inquiring minds out there.

Since this note, I have had the extreme pleasure of meeting Lauren in person at stage door and want you all to know that Lovely Lauren was the start of it all.

I now offer you the very first Ask Al.

* * *

Hi Alexandra,

I recently read the "Fresh Face" article on Theatre.com about you and "Fiddler on the Roof." First of all, congratulations, and even though I do not live in the UK, I would love to see it!

I guess I'm writing to you because as a young actor I am looking for advice. I just graduated high school in Cleveland, Ohio and am going to Barnard College, Columbia University in the fall to study theatre and pursue some other academic interests. I have done some professional theatre here in Cleveland and some summer programs (British American Drama Academy, American Conservatory Theatre, Stagedoor Manor) and eventually want to break into professional theatre as a career. As much as I love the US, I have to admit, I have always been an Anglophile and even more intrigued and impressed by the British theatre. That said, I have done a lot of research on drama schools and even though graduate school/conservatory training is four years away, I'm still looking for guidance considering attempting to go abroad for more actor training or staying here for school (that is if I get in!). I have always been impressed by the advanced level of training in Britain and the almost different approach and appreciation of theatre. And you having gone to RSAMD obviously had an amazing learning experience and piece of it! In fact, I feel that maybe my "theatre values" are more similar to the majority of British "theatre values" versus some American "values" (although that may be too presumptuous of me).

I guess what I'm getting at is what do you recommend for an American actor who is thinking about going to school in the UK for training and eventually wishing to work in the UK? I have heard so many conflicting views on trying to go to drama school in the UK and even more on getting work in the UK. I have constantly been discouraged in attempting to go the UK because I have been told I would never work as an American even if I had pursued a degree at one of the drama schools. You obviously have defied that assumption and I guess I am wondering what your advice is on that matter. As corny as it sounds, I have always dreamed of studying in the UK (in fact I almost went there for university - I got accepted to a few academic schools for English and English & Drama but decided to stay here) and moreover working as an actor in the UK but have always been told that it is pretty much impossible. You are doing what I long to do so you seem like the right person to ask for advice!

So, once again congratulations on all your theatrical accomplishments and thanks again for reading my lengthy e-mail, I appreciate it! Break a leg!


* * *

Dear Lauren,

First of all, you are a very articulate and impressive writer! Your email was very descriptive. But what you are asking me to articulate is complicated. I cannot speak on behalf of any organisation, and I also encourage you to remember that everything that has happened to me in Britain is fairly uncommon, and that working as an actor anywhere (not to mention in a foreign country) is never easy no matter how strong the desire. So, that all being understood, I am about to administer some non-flowery, utterly realistic tough love... get ready...

You clearly have a very set view of what you want to do with your life, and also seem to be ambitious and have a concept of your world outside of "the box." Yes, training abroad is a wonderful, irreplaceable experience, and twice the education you would get at home due to the cultural exposure alone.

It must be understood however (and I can't tell you how many times I've explained this to other American students-- which is why it will be in bold) that if you are not eligible for a British WORK (not student or travel) VISA (be it through European Union ancestry, marriage [though this can be VERY precarious and not at ALL a guarantee], being a celebrity, Commonwealth citizenship), YOU CANNOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES WORK IN THE UK.

There have been many "schemes" that fluctuate regularly, allowing graduates from British Universities and Drama Schools to stay for a period of 24 months after graduating. The rules change almost annually, but as of now this opportunity exists for most foreign students. [*Update 11/2013: This opportunity NO LONGER exists in the UK in any manner.*]

Still. If you decide to train in the UK, there will still be many things you will not be able to do that your British classmates will benefit from: you will not be able to work as an actor during training (this happens quite often-- a student will leave temporarily or before they actually graduate), you will therefore not be able to legitimately audition for anything pre-graduation (a valuable experience), and all of the contacts, agents, casting directors will be of little to no use to you once you quite probably return home.

Example: my friend (let's call him 'J' shall we?) is an American actor who trained at RSAMD, and desperately wished to stay in the UK after graduation. At the time (roughly 2005) there was a new scheme from the Home Office called the Fresh Talent Initiative, that allowed anyone with a degree from a Scottish University to stay in the UK for 2 years without work restrictions. He successfully applied, landed one of the best agents in the country, collected many contacts, and did reasonably well for a young actor starting out. His career and life began to take root and flourish in the UK. He made professional connections, made a little name for himself, worked regularly and made and built upon personal relationships.

Unfortunately, he was not eligible to extend this Fresh Talent opportunity as it was strictly 24 months and nothing more. He was not eligible to attain a different visa (say the Highly Skilled Migrant Visa which is based on exceptional circumstances-- such as making over a certain amount per year, education, age, work experience, etc), and thus, was forced to return back to the US without so much as an agent, contact, or reputable American acting resume to his name. And though J does not regret or dismiss the value of his UK experience, if he could do things again, he would have just come straight back to the States to begin an American life in the first place, for he had to start all over again from the bottom. (*Update 11/2013* Incidentally, J did pretty well for himself across North America! He recently decided to retrain and change careers because he felt being an actor was a great experience but no longer in line with what he wanted or who he became in the present. Life is a marathon--not a sprint.)

Do you see the predicament? It is a question of

So. If you see yourself living in Britain in 15 years time, and you have no legal way of achieving that, then you need to rethink your goals.

If all you are after is British training, well now that is available to anyone who is qualified. And in my experience, it is worth the schlep across the ocean. (But that is for another time...)

In another contrasting example, my friend "G" was also a forgein student training in the UK and he graduated before the Fresh Talent Initiative was put in to place. He was desperate to stay and create a life for himself in the UK but there was no opportunity for him to do so. G was forced to return home to Canada immediately following graduation and slowly created a life for himself there. He has worked steadily at one of the top theatre festivals in the world, been in several major films, and has quite an impressive role on a cable drama that required some serious English accent action. He is now successful enough to apply as a Highly Skiled Migrant on the back of his North American success if that is what he wanted to do.


You have to be very very clear about what you want to achieve, and every British student around you will most likely be making the logical choices of moving to London and settling in so the pull to follow suit will be tempting. But consider the "costs" of losing the opportunity to stay once you've begun to establish a life you more than likely will have to give up. I believe if you keep the "training experience" and "24 months experience" as a guide, with the ultimate eye on making your way home eventually, you can't go wrong. (Which means nurturing your home contacts throughout the duration of your UK stay).

To answer your other question directly, do Americans work in the UK? Yes, of course. There are hundreds of working American actors all across Britain, and people that tell you otherwise are either making assumptions or il-informed. My film, 1408, was cast entirely with American actors living and working in England. There were three Americans in Fiddler on the Roof. American plays, musicals and films are done all the time in the UK and the real thing is almost always preferred.

But, unless you have a convincing English accent, you will never be seen as anything more than an American actor, and that really limits you. My English accent is something I have perfected to the point of insanity (hours and hours and hours and hours of practice like Eliza Doolittle...), and it has never been questioned. In fact, the advert I did for Zovirax in 2006 was one where I (shhhh!) pretended to be English and although I absolutely can't believe it, no one ever knew otherwise. But amusement aside, it really does have to be that good.

You may at this point be asking, "well how are you working in the UK? And the answer is complicated. The short version is, that I was (by completely fluke-ridden exception) awarded a temporary WORK PERMIT (only lasts for a specific time period, for a certain role, for a specific company) to play Laura in The Woman in White, and off the back of that success I was awarded a Highly Skilled Migrant Visa which is awarded on a points-based system. I was awarded points based on personal recomendations, earnings, and because the circumstances of my fast and surprising success were extreme. But I'm telling you, I BARELY GOT THAT VISA. BARELY scraped by with enough evidence to stay, and it was touch and go for weeks. I don't say that to be discouraaging I am merely presenting an realty/indication of the difficulty. And if I had to return home to the US, I have no American contacts, no agent, no equity card...

So! Best of luck. I hope that is helpful and not too discouraging. Remember that life is a marathon, not a sprint. The most important things in life have very little to do with career, and it is far more pressing to be proud of the quality of PERSON you are, than of the things you own or have achieved. That's my view anyway.

here are a few additional websites of interest:
The Home Office, UK


  1. Brilliant. So helpful and insightful as usual.

  2. Al,

    Just in case Andrew never actually gets you our contact details, I thought I'd shoot you a quick email to say thank you again for such a fantastic masterclass - honestly, best of the year. Hope you are off on more artistic adventures!

    All the best,

    Alyson Lindsay (that American girl who went last...from which you rescued "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood") :)

  3. I'm flattered you put this up! It is SO helpful! I hope it will be useful to others as it was for me.

    And come next month I will be schlepping across the Atlantic to study English at UCL for the year! I will most likely be sending an e-mail with loads of questions over the next few weeks concerning theatre et al. I hope you're well!

  4. PLEASURE all! Soon you may see the fruits of your questions and these answers in more permanent print! :) So the thanks really got to YOU (esp YOU miss lauren berger!)

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