Drama school graduates
The leap into the ensemble

Year after year nearly 200 graduates leave German-language drama schools and apply to theatres. But the end of their student days is for many actors the beginning of a time of trial and trepidation.

„Lulu. Eine Monstretragödie“ by Frank Wedekind, project of the 3rd academic year of the Otto-Falckenberg-Schule;
„Lulu. Eine Monstretragödie“ by Frank Wedekind, project of the 3rd academic year of the Otto-Falckenberg-Schule; | © Franz Meiller
She has always been optimistic; she has had reason to be: she applied only to the Otto Falckenberg School and was accepted straightaway. The drama school is renowned – because of its close relation to the Munich Kammerspiele, one of the large theatres, and because of its graduates who have successfully made the leap into theatre life. Things are going well for Anika Herbst; on the side she also acts at smaller and larger stages. “The first time I was worried was at the final production of the season. I didn’t get one of the bigger parts and then the fear began.” The fear is well founded. Ensembles have long been shrinking; the question has long been in the air whether too many actors are being turned out. Drama schools have long had to work on new ideas for how to ensure good entry opportunities for their students.

Seeing and being seen

To begin with, the future looks good: drama schools want to show their fresh graduates and theatres want to see them. The great talent may be found among them, the stroke of luck for the ensemble. There are therefore central auditions, auditions before intendants and graduate productions. Theatre makers are always on the look-out where drama school graduates are presenting themselves. Then they can invite them to make applications, to come to auditions. In order to increase students’ chances, the Stuttgart University of Music and Performing Arts has introduced the so-called “studio system”: in the last academic year, students are farmed out to four theatres. There they are engaged as non-tenured members of the ensemble, become acquainted with the working life of the theatre, but have a support in the connection to their drama school. “This arrangement has the advantage that students can experience over a longer space of time everyday theatre life, which is tougher than many suppose”, explains Frederik Zeugke, Lecturer in Dramaturgy and Theatre Theory in Stuttgart. Even before this, smaller engagements are possible – but they have to be compatible with the class schedule.

Sabine Hug from the artists’ division of the Federal Employment Agency also believes in the advantages of this system. More acting experience, more contacts: “We observe that graduates of drama schools using the studio system receive significantly more auditions than usual. On the other hand, you have to realize that the places which the students get at the theatres were formerly beginners’ places, which are now dropped”.

Getting to know, making contacts

Anika Herbst also believes contacts are decisive: “It’s really important that outside directors come to the schools or that you sometimes have an outside project. I need to get to know the people at work; I can’t simply go to some premiere part and have a drink with someone”. She is engaged at the Erlangen Theatre, and so is getting to know a smaller theatre. No disadvantage, believes Jochen Noch, Director of the Otto Falckenberg School. Of course many students suppose that an engagement at a large theatre would afford them a better idea of everyday theatre life, but it is precisely at the large theatres that beginners get fewer opportunities to act and develop various parts.

Freelance or engaged: what schools cannot prepare you for

There is one thing that drama schools can only suggest: actors must get to know the difficulties bound up with staying at one theatre or going to a new one. “In the courses”, says Noch, “I formulate again and again what the working world of theatre looks like in this country, but it’s like when your parents tell you to take off your shoes and put on slippers. What the old man is telling them rather goes in one ear and out the other.” Sarah Kempin, who has just graduated from the Stuttgart drama school, can confirm this. Recently she had a steady engagement at the Stuttgart Young Ensemble; now she is a guest there. She decided in favour of freelance work, for more time for film work outside the theatre and for Berlin, the city where she wants to stay for now. “A school provides a very good foundation, but it can’t prepare you for everything. It’s hard to have to notice that things don’t get easier the longer you’re at it. You can’t make long-term plans; you still have to move here or there at thirty. You can only grasp what this really means when you’ve done it.”

The uncertainty does not cease with the first engagement. Exactly the next few steps often cause problems; after all, an actor with experience is more expensive. Barbara Dussler is at the beginning of her career, has just graduated from the Otto Falckenberg School and has been lucky: she has already been in four stage productions, most recently at the Munich Kammerspiele. But she too can tell of fears. Next season she will begin working in Wiesbaden, with a new intendant. Her luck may be the misfortune of another – she knows that: “I think staying at a theatre is always more difficult when there’s a change of intendant. Who will continue, who won’t. To be honest, I don’t want to think now about whether I’ve taken someone else’s job away. We’re starting new: for me this is a huge gift and I simply want to do my job well”. There is no recipe against fear. Sarah Kempin nonetheless smiles: “You shouldn’t take all this personally. That’s hard, but it’s keeps you from falling into a bad mood”.

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