Are Drama Schools Training Actors For Real Life?
In an era of job cuts, the redundancy of navy personnel and the perilous future of hospital services, it seems perhaps frivolous to expend pity on young actors – but spare a thought for the people who could be the artists of the future. The people who would, if they were only able to develop, bolster our tourist industry and entertain our hearts in the depression and hard times on their way. Theatre, said Lorca, is the measure of a nation’s greatness. Our theatre is a jewel, and we are throwing its future on the dung heap.
Theatre in our country for hundreds of years has been, in Ed Miliband’s words, a great provider. In America this spring, I heard talk on one university campus of Hugh Bonneville in Downton Abbey on the TV and Jerusalem with Mark Rylance on Broadway. Good actors like this are not produced overnight, and the end of their training marks the beginning not the end of their development. Both actors had their first jobs in small parts in good companies and I – at just over 30 – was lucky enough to be their director. In the same Glasgow play with Rylance was Gary Oldman and Ciarán Hinds – not bad for a rainy Tuesday in the Gorbals.
The acting life has always been a lottery, but with rising unemployment numbers, the supercilious expression “resting” can nowadays be applied to all walks of life. From policemen to architects, it’s not only actors who are resting. Last week I read of a plea to suspend teacher training until the backlog of newly qualified teachers had found jobs. If that argument were extended beyond schools, someone would be locking the doors of the drama schools and the university theatre courses for the next decade.
Take just one drama school among the many: the Drama Centre London, which has given us among many other talents such as Colin Firth, Helen McCrory, Frances Delatour. Would-be actors there have as students a life that is a cross between novice nun and trainee commando. They move from one class to another for 11 hours a day five days a week – on Saturdays they come to work on their own – and every minute of their work is scrutinised down to the minutest, most excruciating detail. Trainee actors sing, dance, delve into their emotional memory, learn accents, develop their vocal range, analyse character. They walk, they run, they fall, they jump, they fence and they clown. There is only one drawback: the profession they are training for hardly exists.
When I became an actor in the 1970s there was a well-worn route from the public shows at drama schools, the theatre societies of the universities – especially at Oxford and Cambridge – where promising actors were snapped up by agents who represented them to the tune of 10 or 15% of their future earnings. Of course, for the canny agent good at spotting potential, it was an investment, as their returns from the young actors’ training grounds – the regional repertory theatre – were minimal. When though the actors had cut their stage teeth – I played 27 roles in just under three years at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre – then it was time to show them off to potential employers in the film and TV industry and get the casting directors of the big subsidised companies like the National and the RSC to see them.
So what’s happening now? The impoverished repertory system can no longer sustain companies or even in most cases casts of more than five or six per play. Paid employment in the form of small TV parts or commercials, or even the glittering gem of a job in the fringe on expenses or even less can hardly give these highly trained equivalents of racehorses the sort of gallop they need.
The drama schools seem locked blindly in the past. “It has always been bad for actors,” seems to be the mantra. Surely a new – and realistic – appraisal is needed. At base, I’d suggest, this is political. Actors must be prepared to wrestle some means of production into their own hands. They will have to generate their own work. There should be more emphasis through their training on making their own work, seeking out collaborators, developing skills in adaptation, and writing, re-inventing and developing a new kind of Poor Theatre for the 21st Century – a theatre high on talent and low on resources. They must have shows prepared, where they can do a one-night stand with props and costumes carried in a suitcase each and to any venue that will invite them. They should be ready for a theatre of bare boards and little else. They must perform where they can – in the streets, in squatted premises, in their own homes. The great Living Theatre in New York was so named because it gave its first performances in a living room on the lower East Side.
For eight years I have held workshops for young actors in the first 10 years of their careers at the Jerwood Space in London where actors do much more than scene study: they form a community; they share experiences; they sustain each other. They are continually reminded of the need to generate their own work.
The drama schools must look not only to the training of actors but their sustenance in the first years of their careers: a career in the theatre will be just that: an uncontrolled bumpy ride, usually downhill. It is a way of life. The actor must learn not to embrace an outdated fantasy of a career path. Actors must prepare for a future where they need not just the skills of a performer but also, as in ages past, those of a buccaneer.
Written by Di Trevis
Taken from www.theguardian.com