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Where Are We Now? (or ‘How Do You Solve A Problem Like Career?’) – part one

 

tower house

LAMDA at Tower House

I first moved to London in 1995, when I won a place on the Three-Year Acting course at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). During those next three years, I got to know West London pretty well. Earls Court, High Street Kensington, Hammersmith – my fellow students and I owned those mean streets. We strode down Chiswick High Road in our baggy dance trousers and character shoes, talking too loudly about David Mamet and Alexander Technique, confident in the belief that in just a couple of years, we would be far too famous to get around without security and a smoked-glass Range Rover.

But there was one place we got to know better than anywhere else. From our first audition to the very last performance, all the most significant events of our time at LAMDA took place at the MacOwan Theatre. If I walked through those doors today – the scene of so many pivotal moments in our young lives – I could still confidently give you a comprehensive tour of the place.

Macowan theatre

LAMDA’s MacOwan Theatre

Except, of course, I couldn’t. The MacOwan Theatre no longer exists. LAMDA moved from Earls Court to its current location in Baron’s Court in 2003, and finally sold the MacOwan in 2011. The bulldozers moved in, and now its place has been taken by the usual block of West London luxury flats (Logan House). Which no actor could ever hope to afford.

When I read about this a few months ago, it set off a little chain reaction of nostalgic explosions in my mind, so it seemed like a good time to track down my fellow Old LAMDArians, and try to find out what we all feel about our time there – and the years since.

Hair LAMDA 1998

LAMDA class of 1998 in ‘Hair’

As is inevitable with any year group, we have scattered far and wide in the years since we graduated – Wales, Mallorca, New York and – yes – LA. A few still cling on in London, while many have succumbed to the verdant charms of The Regions. There were 29 of us when we left LAMDA in 1998 – now, a quick survey of Spotlight shows that 15 have kept up our subscriptions. Not too bad a showing, I suppose, but I wanted to dig a little deeper to understand the forces that have either kept us in the profession, or driven us out. So, I sent off a list of questions.

Not everyone responded, but in the end I heard back from more than half – 15 in total, and they were all very honest and frank – on the promise of anonymity.

I started at the very beginning, and asked why they had wanted to act in the first place…

LAMDA word cloud

When we started at LAMDA, we ranged in age from 18 to 26 – some fresh from school, some straight from University. I was 23.

IMG_3455

Your author at LAMDA in ‘Hair’

I look back on our LAMDA years with great fondness. I felt I was at the centre of everything I wanted to be part of, and I spent those three years feeling stimulated and challenged. Inevitably, when I asked my friends what their own feelings are about that time, it elicited a range of responses, some very positive:

– It was the first time that I really learned ‘how to learn’.
– I met some wonderful people who have stayed in my life for a long time.
– I was as happy as a pig in shit. Sooooo happy to be there. One of the most profound and rich experiences of my life.

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Some of the LAMDA class of 1998

Some less so:

– I found it quite tough… I found their methods for the most part to be very undermining.
– I don’t think I was rated particularly highly by the staff, and as such often felt somewhat overlooked and neglected at times.
It certainly seemed to be the case that the squeaky wheels got the most attention.

Some felt they hadn’t taken full advantage of their time at LAMDA:

– I didn’t make the most of it. I was very young – first time away from home.
– I could have gotten so much more out of it if I hadn’t let my self-doubt and lack of confidence get in the way.
– I do regret not making more of the opportunity.

I asked what they valued most about the training they received:

– The opportunity to work continuously on productions for a year is something outside of the RSC or NT you rarely have the opportunity to do.
– LAMDA allowed me to love what I do. In a messy, imperfect but deeply passionate way they put me on the track to my profession.

– It was a celebration of one’s idiosyncrasies.
– The cleverness of people. The humour. The importance and value of work. As Colin Cook said (this is my working mantra to this day) ‘Work is your armour’. And above all I think – my friends. It doesn’t matter where we are or where we go – I would do anything for any of those people that I shared those three years with.

LAMDA 1998 2

More of the class of 1998…

This is a view I share. It seemed to me that LAMDA encouraged us to be ourselves – we had all heard about the schools that ‘break you down to build you up again’, and LAMDA didn’t feel like that at all to me. But others disagree:–

– I don’t feel I was ever encouraged to keep the quirks that I entered with.
– I do not honestly know whether the whole “take you apart to put you back together” approach is now being over-exaggerated in my memory, but I did find it quite tough at times, and not particularly productive.

I asked what they felt the training lacked:

– Screen acting for a start.
– Vocal technique

– Weirdly, lack of acting classes.
– I can think of two teachers that had their favourites. It was frustrating to watch them fawn!
– I don’t think it lacked anything, actually. Like, how much more could we have actually done in three years?

LAMDA 1998 1

The rest of the class of 1998.

It seems that much has changed since we left the Academy. Our screen acting training felt cursory at best, although I did learn that it was best not to volunteer to smoke in a scene, unless you wanted to work your way through a whole pack. These days, to quote from the current LAMDA prospectus:

‘All students who graduate from LAMDA’s BA (Hons) Professional Acting leave with a professionally-shot show reel and a voice reel.’

It’s very important to bear in mind that this was all nearly 20 years ago. LAMDA is a different school now, with a different Principal, mostly different teaching staff and in a completely different location. It still calls itself LAMDA, but much like Trigger’s broom, all the significant parts have changed…

 

Even the qualification you graduate with is different: the three-year acting course is now a BA (Hons) degree course, whereas we left with a diploma. In a perverse way, I’m rather glad it was that way round, as it gave our training a kind of rarity, a refinement if you like, whereas a degree just seems rather everyday. And I already had one anyway, for all the good it ever did me. But I am aware that the ‘employment landscape’, as we must call it, has altered a lot since those bygone days, and a BA degree must help when the graduates are propelled blinking into the light of the Real World. Because there is a big difference between the idealised world of a drama training and the harsh realities of an actor’s life.

I asked if they felt prepared for an acting career by the time we graduated – and perhaps unsurprisingly, most did not:

-No I didn’t feel prepared
-NO NO NO NO NO. It does not teach you how to survive as an unemployed actor, how to see yourself as a product
– I question now if I would have done better not to have pursued what I was already doing.
-Definitely not! We spent 3 years in a bubble.
-Noooooooooo!
-yes and no..because it destroyed my confidence… but i learnt a lot of tools that then helped me to be able to direct
– business wise no. As an artist, yes. I wasn’t – but that was to do with me.

LAMDA 1998 4

Pages from an ancient artefact: our LAMDA Prospectus

There is a distinction here, to be sure. Those of us who were lucky enough to land work straight away were able to apply all the skills that were fresh in our minds. I went straight into a nice TV job, and despite my sketchy experience in front of a camera, I felt very comfortable and understood what was required of me. But I was pretty clueless about how to generate work.

– I was prepared for the jobs I got eventually – yes. There is only so much they can do at drama school – after that it comes down to practical experience.
-for an acting career, yes. For the non-acting part, no.
-Well, no. But I think that’s more to do with where I was, personally, Not because of anything that they hadn’t done.
-Yes, apart from the business side
-In many ways, yes.
-On the whole, yes.

We were part of a different generation to today’s drama school graduates, with no significant social media element to our lives; the internet played a much smaller role, and we didn’t even all have mobile phones yet. Some of us had pagers, for heaven’s sake. Off we went into the world, clutching our A-Z’s.

London-A-Z

Significantly, almost all of my respondents did not feel supported by LAMDA after graduation:

– No.
– Not at all.
– No. Once you leave you are on your own. They are happy to bask in the glory of actors who do well and have a glittering career, but for all the thousands of unemployed actors that they helped produce there is nothing.
– Honestly no. I think they were interested in the people who got famous quickly and could be used to raise funds. Sorry that’s cynical but that’s how it felt.
-Not really, no.
-No. There was kindness and love, but not enough rigour.

Although others felt differently:

– Yes I do. I worked in the reception there for a while and I helped around for a bit of extra cash – they were very good to me like that.
– I haven’t had any support, but I haven’t been in contact, so it’s just as much my fault. In my first year after leaving they supported me by giving me temp secretary work.
– Not really … but then, I never asked for support. I’m sure they would have been there had I asked.
– I did not feel that it was the school’s role to support me once I had graduated.

IMG_3454

Another groovy scene from ‘Hair’.

Inevitably, this raises the question of just how much responsibility institutions like LAMDA have to their students once they have completed training. No drama school can predict which student is going to ‘make it’ – as William Goldman’s useful maxim goes, ‘Nobody knows anything’ – but they could confidently surmise that a good half of any yearly intake will never make a living in the profession.

At no point do I remember any staff member sitting us down and saying, ‘Most of you will never work’. Of course, it would have been a bummer of positively cosmic proportions if they had. But maybe it would have been a necessary reality check.

Actors have often proposed a cull of their own number – I imagine Benedict Cumberbatch and Olivia Coleman on the rooftops of Wardour Street, armed with high-velocity rifles, picking off the weakest:

cumberbatch gunolivia coleman

But should Ben and Liv train their sights on the institutions, rather than their fellow thesps? One of my respondents thought so:

‘I feel they have a responsibility not to churn out so many actors in a market that cannot cater for them.’

Mind you, success as an actor is so random that perhaps the only sensible attitude is a scattershot one – throw out as many young hopefuls as you can, in the hope that at least a few will stick.

This being the case, drama schools surely have a duty of care to the students they send out into an unforgiving profession.

It does seem that colleges are doing much more these days to incorporate an element of career counselling – RADA has what it calls its ‘Buddy’ scheme, where graduates are paired up with alumni who are established in the profession to offer guidance and support, and I spoke recently to Rodney Cottier, Head of Drama School at LAMDA, who told me about their own new Mentor scheme, which will be launched at the end of June 2017, and which, like RADA’s initiative, will offer support for its students, ‘for the last 6 months of their training, and the first 6 months when they’re out there. It is the beginning and we have received funding for it from the Genesis Foundation, so hopefully this will really work.’

rodney cottier

Rodney Cottier

The Academy also has an industry liaison in the form of casting director, Laura Dickens, who is responsible for the final year professional preparation, as well as its own ‘Buddy’ system, although unlike RADA’s, this one is for new students rather than graduates. Rodney explained:

‘When people are offered a place, they are buddied up with somebody who is already at LAMDA so they can pick their brains – ask them any questions before they arrive, rather than feeling completely terrified on day one. So we’re servicing both ends…’

I think we would have benefited from this sort of scheme; ideally, it would stretch beyond the first six months and further into a career. It’s so easy to feel alone and powerless in this job.

Of course, as Rodney points out, ultimately most of the responsibility to develop a career lies with the individual:

‘There are a lot of things you cannot prepare people for – I occasionally have to throw in the statistics when somebody is late for yet another voice class.’

LAMDA 1998 Emma Bernbach Richard Morrison Joanna Van Kampen Sandra Paternostro Ayesha Mirza Gregory De Polnay

A LAMDA voice class with Gregory De Polnay

But no matter how well-prepared you may be, Real Life has a way of complicating things, as we will see in Part Two

To Take Arms Against A Sea Of Mobiles

cumberbatch hamlet

Once again, tonight at 7.15pm, the lights will go down and a certain Mr Cumberbatch will begin to intone the most famous words in theatrical history.

I haven’t landed a ticket for ‘Hamlet’, sadly, although plenty have (I’m looking at you, Naomi); the rest of us are awaiting the critical verdict in a couple of weeks’ time. But then, maybe we don’t need to wait – ‘Hamlet’ may be sold out, but it sounds like the whole thing will be up on YouTube soon.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s new show is the latest victim of the entertainment world’s most virulent blight: the unauthorised use of the mobile phone.

The theatre can offer many examples of device-based bad behaviour, and we frequently hear about actors stopping the show to complain.

Richard Griffiths in ‘The History Boys’ at the National

history boys richard griffiths

Kevin Spacey in ‘Clarence Darrow’ at the Old Vic

clarence darrow kevin spacey

and, famously, Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman in ‘A Steady Rain’ on Broadway were filmed (in character) berating an audience member whose phone rang repeatedly:

And, like most actors these days, I have many of my own stories to tell.

me and julian in the woman in black

I spent a year in The Woman In Black in the West End, and we often had great hordes of school parties in the audience. Their theatre etiquette might not have been as fully-formed as the average play-goer, and we would often be troubled by phones going off, people texting, playing games and so on. I remember delivering one of my many direct-address speeches and seeing the ghostly blue face of a girl in the front row of the dress circle, illuminated in the dark by the screen of her smart phone. I was particularly proud of this speech, and I became infuriated that here was I, giving my all, and this child wasn’t paying the slightest attention. I delivered the entire speech to her – or rather, at her – determined to get her to look up, even just for a moment. But she gave me not so much as a flicker. Eventually I realised that there were a few hundred others who actually were listening to the speech and left her to her Angry Birds.

But the really modern problem – and Benedict’s main gripe – is not simply phones ringing in the auditorium, people actually taking the call or even the freak event of a dolt mounting the stage to try and charge his ‘device’ from a dummy plug socket:

The main event these days is the audience trying film the show. The Cumberbatch ‘Hamlet’ has been plagued in preview by super-fans attempting to record the proceedings, with the result that, when the actors look out into the darkness, they have been greeted with lots of little red dots winking back at them. Benedict himself paid a visit to his gaggle of stage-door Johnnies in an attempt to halt this sort of thing:

Of course, this isn’t just a theatre problem. The world of live music has become completely au fait with this troubling phenomenon over the past few years, and at any gig you choose to attend, a hefty chunk of the crowd will be holding their iPhones or Samsungs aloft, determined to capture every precious moment in perfect HD – wobbly, poorly-framed HD with bad sound.

cameras at a gig

Why is this? Have we become so wedded to screens that we can’t really experience anything, unless it is safely contained within a frame? Perhaps a live experience is just too unpredictable – after all, who knows what emotions might be stirred up in us if we surrender to the moment completely? At least when we watch it on the train later on there‘s no danger of our being surprised by anything.

Perhaps we should just accept that the creaking old tradition of live performance will have to adapt to survive. Maybe, when we visit the theatre in the future, we should expect our neighbour to be watching the whole thing on a screen the size of a packet of fags.

But then, maybe not. Last year’s hottest ticket – someone who had hardly been near a stage in 35 years – had other ideas.

Kate Bush

When Kate Bush announced her ‘Before The Dawn’ shows in Hammersmith, she made a specific request of her fans:

“It would mean a great deal to me if you would please refrain from taking photos or filming during the shows. I very much want to have contact with you as an audience, not with iPhones, iPads or cameras. I know it’s a lot to ask but it would allow us to all share in the experience together.”

I was delightfully lucky enough to be able to score a pair of tickets to the second night – cue unflattering photographic evidence of myself with my pal Lisa (from outside the venue):

Me and Lisa at Kate

and I don’t remember seeing a single phone, iPad or camera all night. But I know I shall never forget that extraordinary moment when Kate shimmied onto the stage, her backing singers conga-ing behind her. Or the thrill of recognition as the first chord of ‘Running Up That Hill’ began to grow. Or the breathtaking coup-de-theatre when her blackbird finally took flight. Those moments were all the more powerful because they were shared by everyone there, as they happened. That can’t be captured by a little electronic box.

As Kate Bush knows, performance, at its purest and most affecting, is about the artist communing with the audience. ‘Hamlet’ is the ultimate example – with those soliloquies, the Dane isn’t just talking to himself, he is asking for our help, our counsel. You can’t do that if your audience is just waiting to watch it when they get home.

cumberbatch hamlet 2