Tag Archives: rodney cottier

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.

LAMDA 1998 3

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…

HEY! Teacher!

pink floyd teacher

Even if your education was rather more Pink Floyd than Madness, most of us can point to a teacher who has, at some point, had a significant effect on the path our lives have taken. This is often particularly true of those of us who end up in the arts – creative people draw a lot of strength from outside support and it can be profoundly important for our development when someone recognises something in us at an early age that we suspect is there. I can name two people who helped me along the way.

I was always a fairly acting-minded child, and I certainly received encouragement from my drama teachers at school; I remember one, Mr Edney, saying of me, ‘There’s only one person in this room who could be another Olivier’ – probably the best review I have ever had, even if it has yet to be borne out by my career. My French teacher, Mrs McHugh, also made an impact – her son was a theatre director, and she eagerly encouraged my ambitions. I remember her being outraged that I didn’t know the French for ‘rehearsal’. I do now, of course – um… er…

It’ll come to me…

But oddly, the teacher who had the strongest influence on my future career path was a fellow called Mr Skriabin. Mr Skriabin taught P.E. Now, I was not what you might call a ‘jock’ at school. Many were the letters I produced from my mother excusing me from games, and when I had to take part, I perfected the art of maintaining a constant distance from the ball (whichever ball it happened to be) while all the time pretending that I was trying to get closer to it. At one point I was signed up to the school football team (on the substitute bench, and much against my wishes, I should point out) but in the single match I actually attended, I spent the whole time walking around the pitch singing Karma Chameleon.

All the signs were there. Mr Skriabin was in no doubt that I was not a natural sportsman – he knew I had no enthusiasm for his lessons. But I will still always remember him as being particularly important to my acting career.

One day, I took part in a morning assembly, in a short play about two parents waiting up for their political activist daughter (this was the 1980s, after all). It was a script-in-hand affair, but nevertheless I prepared for it as if it were a first night at the National. As a result, for the rest of the day I had children offering congratulations on my performance. And that afternoon, in my Art class (second favourite lesson), Mr Skriabin appeared, being a friend of the teacher. I was shocked to see him come straight over to me and say, ‘You were really good this morning, Naylor. You should think about becoming an actor.’ Rather a lightning bolt moment: the least likely teacher in the school had somehow talent-spotted me and endorsed my own quiet suspicions. His words set me on the path I still follow.

LAMDA 1998 Greg Jarvis Jack Tarlton

Fast-forward ten years or so, and I arrived at LAMDA, a callow, gawky chap. Already five years older than many of my peers, but somehow more clumsy and buttoned-up; their senior in age, but not by any means in terms of maturity. One thing I dreaded in particular was Movement. I was sure that, in black ‘movement’ clothes, my skinny, gangly and sweaty frame would look absurd and be the object of ridicule from my elegant, graceful fellows. Thankfully, the feared black tights and ‘dance belt’

dance belt

were never pressed into service, but even dressed in what our American cousins might term ‘sweats’, the figure I cut was less Nijinsky:

nijinksy

than Nijinksy:

nijinsky horse

As far as the work went, I certainly began badly, clumsily. But gradually I became a little more confident and comfortable, and by the end of the three years, I knew that movement – and in particular, Movement Theatre – was my favourite subject. This was down entirely to one person: Christian Darley, the finest teacher I have ever encountered. Somehow she was able utterly to dispel that old cliché of ‘Movement Class’ being about a load of self-indulgent ‘luvvies’ rolling around on the floor, crawling all over each other and pretending to be trees.

christian darley

Christian’s work was focused, specific and eminently practical. She helped us develop our listening skills, our sense of timing and observation and an awareness of our bodies in the space that was absolutely connected to the text and to each other.

Christian brought me to a major breakthrough towards the end of my time at LAMDA, during rehearsals for a devised piece on the subject of ‘fear’. We all loved working with her, and it ended up being a very effective performance. One part involved a child character fiddling around with his mum’s valuable watch – over-winding it and breaking it, then having to tell her what he had done. Christian asked me to improvise the scene, and to think about the character’s movements becoming more exaggerated and contorted as he tries to summon up the courage to confess. I felt I had made a very ham-fisted attempt at the scene, and she asked another actor, the wonderful Giles Fagan, to try it. As far as I was concerned, Giles had made a much better job of it and I asked Christian to choose him for the performance as I thought I’d done so badly.

giles fagan

Christian pondered for a while, and then told me that, no, she thought I should do it after all. She knew perfectly well what she was doing, of course, namely bringing out of me what she could tell was there. That short scene went on to be one of my favourite moments from three years of training. I remember quite a few people coming up to me afterwards to say how much they’d liked what I had done – rather like they had all those years before after my school assembly, in fact.

I shall never forget the advice she gave me in my last tutorial with her: ‘Chris, I think you just need to go and sit under a tree.’

I was lucky enough to carry on working with Christian after LAMDA in her own workshops. Those classes had no specific end in mind, other than to continue her exploration of the actor’s work. I look back with great pleasure on those times, and I remember the pure joy we all felt at sharing Christian’s sense of endless fascination with the actor’s body and what it can achieve.

Christian became too ill to work towards the end of her life, but a good friend of hers, Dictynna Hood, suggested she write a book based on her teaching methods. She finished the first draft just before she died in 2008 and the book, ‘The Space To Move: Essentials of Movement Training’, was edited by Dictynna, Sue Mitchell and Linda Baker. It is published by Nick Hern Books, and is a wonderful document, both for those of us lucky enough to have worked with her, but also for anyone interested in movement and acting. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

space to move

We are often told to discard what we don’t find useful from our training, and I suppose the implication is that the things we do want to carry forward will somehow always remain with us.
But often the reality is that we might not get the chance to revisit those methods in the profession – there is just no guarantee that the work we go on to do will accommodate them. The working environment of each job is dependent to a large extent on the director, after all. So how can you maintain a method of working without practising it regularly?

The hope, of course, is that that we have absorbed what we have learnt into our process and it will continue to inform our work. But I think it’s vital to take time to remind ourselves of the lessons that helped us, the things we might have forgotten or taken for granted, and most importantly, the people who were responsible for inspiring us and pushing us on.

It’s always a very heartening to hear actors talking about teachers who inspired them when they were young. My fellow LAMDA Class of ’98 graduate, Richard Armitage, writes of Christian Darley in her book that: ‘There are many of Christian’s techniques which I still use… I ended my three years with a physical vocabulary which was highly sensitive and expressive.’

richard-armitage

Eddie Redmayne has spoken often about Simon Dormandy, head of drama at Eton during Redmayne’s time there, and someone he will still speak to for advice: ‘Simon treated us like professionals, taught us to speak verse.’

Eddie Redmayne by Gerhard Kassner for Berlinale

Dame Helen Mirren dedicated her BAFTA Fellowship to her teacher, Alys Welding. ‘She alone was the person who encouraged me to be an actor.’

helen mirren

And Sir Antony Sher has written extensively about his teacher Esther Caplan – ‘A remarkable teacher – to whom I owe my career.’

antony sher

I recently put out a call on Twitter for actors to nominate their most inspirational actors – here are some of the responses:

rory tweet

samantha ritchie tweet

pigtown tweet

matthew bulgo tweet

mali tweet

joseph steyne tweet

joanne ferguson tweet

jo vk tweet

emma tweet

I’d like to add to this roll-call, so thank you, Mr Skriabin, for starting me off. And thank you most of all, Christian, for making me understand what sort of actor I am.

Next!

audition

The drama school audition season is drawing to a close once more, and the offers and rejections will be flying into the inboxes (and letterboxes, perhaps? How much nicer to receive a piece of paper…) of young hopefuls around the country. I was recently talking to friend whose niece has just completed the round of auditions, and inevitably a number of dim memories about our own experiences arose from the murky depths. My friend has moved on from the acting world, and is now able to look back with a degree of distance, but still shivers when she recalls those early audition experiences:

‘My RADA audition was my first ever, and I must have looked like I was in front of a firing squad! I remember my LAMDA audition like it was yesterday. I dried and they kindly let me start again and then I dried again! There was absolutely nothing in my head! Then I tried to get out but couldn’t, as I had to push and not pull the door. Excruciating!’

My own experiences were not dissimilar. Again, I started the ball rolling with a terrifying audition at RADA, where I performed a speech from the Revenger’s Tragedy, clutching an imaginary skull which somehow disappeared mid-way through. This was followed by my first LAMDA meeting, where I, too, forgot my lines. I actually asked if I could look at my script; they said yes, no doubt biro-ing a line through my name at the same time. Central, Guildhall and Guildford all zoomed by in a rush of cluelessness – basically, I really had no idea what I had let myself in for.

goodge street

In my second year of trying, for some reason I only applied to RADA and Central. At my RADA audition, they asked me why I was limiting my chances in this way, and I panicked and said ‘I’m not sure if it’s what I really want to do.’ I walked back to Goodge Street station thinking to myself that it had gone rather well, until I remembered what I had said… Another black line through my name there.

fish chips champagne

Finally, in my third year of applying, I worked out what it was all about, namely that I had to take hold of myself, prepare properly, and approach auditions with a professional attitude. Before that, I was a mess of fear, excitement and ambition – but I do think those early failures were essential for me in regard to learning what auditions are really for. My third LAMDA audition was a very different kettle of fish. Despite still being awash with nerves, I was happy with my speeches, I knew them inside out, and I actually felt ready to walk out in front of the panel. I embraced the recall day eagerly, understanding that it was actually about being open and working as a company member. That very evening, Rodney Cottier called from LAMDA to say I had got in, and the joy that was felt in my family kitchen was unconfined, I can tell you. There was much jumping and cheering; fish and chips and champagne were consumed. It was a day never to be forgotten.

Rodney Cottier

Since then, auditioning has become one of the most familiar aspects of my life and, happily, has long since lost the tang of fear that once used to hang around it. But I’m sure those early experiences can sometimes be so traumatic and frustrating that aspiring actors give up altogether. Of course, knowledge comes with experience, and you learn that when you walk into an audition, the panel are as desperate for you to succeed as you are. They want to fill that place, or cast that role. They are aching for you to be good. Many directors will tell you that what they are really looking for is someone they can work with – someone who responds well to direction and will be adaptable and creative in the rehearsal room. Drama schools too are looking for team players – they are casting a whole year of students who will need to be able to work together for up to three years.

Of course, it’s hard to keep these things in your head when you are so nervous you can barely stand up and face the right direction. But it really does get easier. Sooner or later, auditions go from being things of dread – akin to being summoned to the headmaster’s office – to being something you can’t wait to begin. At its best, an audition is a microcosm of the rehearsal room, and allows an actor the opportunity to sink her teeth into a part, and often, to explore a play she might never have encountered otherwise.

audition waiting room

So, all that time spent on hunched plastic chairs outside drama school audition rooms, dreading your turn and obsessively murmuring your lines under your breath as a blithely confident second-year student crosses names off their list, is actually a vital part of an actor’s development. Strange to say, but one can actually feel nostalgic for decades-old terror…