How to make it if you didn’t go to Drama School. Rachel Cole chats with Jemma Rix

Welcome to Stage Door Shrink, a regular column penned by Rachel Cole aimed at helping performers chortle their way to a #win.

As a performer, I have always had a big old chip on my disproportionality skinny shoulders. It is shaped and smells like a piece of WAAPA pie. Let it be known publicly, that I auditioned for WAAPA twice and VCA once and wasn’t successful. Whilst proclaiming the panel deaf and blind comforted me momentarily, I let that failure define my worth as a performer for years.

IMG_3884WAAPA reports that they see 600 auditionees for their Musical Theatre course with just 18 spots. I was a 3% chance (probably lower accounting for the gender balance of more girls than boys auditioning.) But what do numbers prove? I tortured myself by attending their graduations, wallowing, and eating all the free satay chicken skewers and spring rolls I could find, wondering why each girl on stage got in and I didn’t. Picture me sitting out the front of the Seymour Centre singing Casey Chambers, “Am I not Pretty Enough?”

The training offered at Drama school is excellent, but if you don’t get in, are you poked? To be honest, it might make it harder to get your foot in the door when you’re first starting out with agents and auditions alike. But, talent, training and discipline go a long way in this biz. Five years on, WICKED is a cast of 33. 7 went to WAAPA, 5 went to Ed5, 4 from NIDA and 1 or 2 each from various Dance courses. The point is, the training is what is important, not the name of the school on your CV.

Here are some people who didn’t do formal tertiary training: David Harris, Katrina Retallick, Esther Hannaford, Mitchell Butel and Jemma Rix, who is my expert this week.

Jemma is the second longest running Elphaba in the world. Growing up on the Central Coast, she left school in year 10 and did a beauty apprenticeship. After seeing a close friend on stage in We Will Rock you, Jemma decided to move to Melbourne and pursue a singing career. She didn’t audition for drama school as she hadn’t heard of WAAPA or VCA, and didn’t consider herself a ‘dancer’ enough to do a full time dance course. She rose to the top through exceptional skill, determination, hard work, right place right time and a little bit of luck. This is her advice on how to ‘make it’ if you didn’t do drama school.

Update (November 6, 2017): Jemma is currently appearing as The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.

1. Consider other training institutions

I definitely regret not having the opportunity to study theatre at a tertiary level. Being immersed in musical theatre, and learning 5 days a week is an incredible opportunity. If you didn’t get into WAAPA, VCA or NIDA, there are plenty of other schools that offer 1 or 2 year courses. Check out: Ed5, Brent St, Dance World, Ministry, The Space, Todd Patrick, and short course at acting / film schools: The Actors Center, NIDA, Screenwise, 16th Street, Howard Fine and Screen Actors.

Work out what skills you lack, and craft them.

2. Perfect your skills

Even though I didn’t attend a drama school or a full time course, from a very early age, I took weekly singing lessons and as many dance classes as I could whilst working full time. Ask people in the industry for the best singing teachers, and learn from them. If you require the discipline of a course structure, then audition for a school, if not, get yourself to private singing and dance classes.

3. Get an agent

It is very hard to get a foot in the door if you don’t have an agent. Firstly, you won’t know about the audition brief and secondly, if you do, the casting director is less likely to see you if you are unrepresented.

I was already playing Elphaba at Universal Studios when I started looking for an agent. A friend recommended her agent to me, and fortunately, they signed me. If you don’t have professional work on your CV, you will need a showreel and headshot before approaching agents.

Check the Equity website for a list of Registered Theatrical Agents, and talk to friends for recommendations.

4. Until you get representation, be your own agent

My first audition (Universal Studios) was a cattle call I saw the newspaper. Casting websites like AT2, Showcast or Starnow will list cruise ship, Universal and Disney auditions, which can be a great starting point.

Likewise, attend dance classes to be around people who are represented because you will hear about upcoming auditions.

Sometimes, you can submit yourself to the casting director.

5. Be a consummate professional

You do not want an audition panel to notice a difference between your professionalism and someone who went to drama school. In my first callback audition for We Will Rock You, I missed my intro and the panel started singing to help me along. Whilst it’s ok to make a mistake, you have to learn from them and not repeat them. Creatives and casting directors talk, so even if you do a great audition but don’t book the job, they will still think highly of you.

6. Market yourself

These days, people can be discovered on YouTube overnight. Although I started out in the days before social media, if I was starting out today, I would make myself a website (try Wix or SquareSpace), create social media profiles, a YouTube channel etc. Get your name out there. Perform at industry events, particularly the ones that are filmed professionally, to give you great quality video footage to market yourself online.

Consider auditioning for reality shows like The Voice or So You Think You Can Dance, to gain exposure.

7. Attend theatre

See as many theatre, dance and live gigs as you can afford. Think about what works, what you liked and didn’t like. Could any of those songs work as audition pieces? Listen to soundtracks to increase your repertoire, knowledge and love of theatre.

8. Consider Co/op, profit share or low fee projects

In your early days, it can be strategic to do free, pro-am or co-op jobs with reputable choreographers or directors to make connections. You might consider doing student films to get some quality footage to use for a showreel. Be discerning with this though, as it’s easy for performers to be taken advantage of in regards to doing free gigs.

9. Be patient

Don’t expect it to happen overnight. You may have a hard time securing an agent without the benefits of an agent Showcase or the connections you make through drama school, so be prepared to be in it for the long haul.

Knock backs are part of the business; so don’t let them break your spirit. I was turned down for many auditions before I was cast as Elphaba in WICKED Australia.

Rachel Cole

Rachel has a degree in Psychology from The University of Sydney but is currently masquerading as understudy for Miss Honey and Mrs Wormwood in the Australian production of Matilda the Musical. She likes to think about what makes people tick. She also likes: Podcasts, politics, pepperoni pizza, property, puns, puppies and cheap things. If you know of a political podcast full of puns we can listen over a cheap pepperoni pizza while we walk a cheap dog looking at cheap property, we might just be fast friends. Follow Rachel on Instagram at: @rachelacole.

Rachel Cole

One thought on “How to make it if you didn’t go to Drama School. Rachel Cole chats with Jemma Rix

  • Determination, perseverance, tenacity, patience, self-marketing… and of course, to have the right ‘look’ for a role.


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