Masterclass: Can Acting Be Taught? (1/3)

23rd July 2004



In conjunction with the Theatre Royal Haymarket Masterclass series, Geoffrey Colman, Patricia Hodge and Steve Larcher tackle the big question. David Benedict hosts. Recorded live.

If you learn how to be a person, you can learn how to be an actor. Fundamental to that is self-knowledge.



In conjunction with the Theatre Royal Haymarket Masterclass series, Geoffrey Colman, Patricia Hodge and Steve Larcher tackle the big question. David Benedict hosts.

Recorded: 23 July 2004

Transcribed by the V&A © This transcript is copyright of the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you wish to refer to this in publication its reference is MASTERCLASS: CAN ACTING BE TAUGHT? (1/3) and you must use the full url as displayed in your browser’s address bar.

David Benedict: Good afternoon and welcome to theatreVOICE. My name is David Benedict. This afternoon’s discussion: Can Acting Be Taught? This is a discussion that has raged over many, many years and it’s clearly believed by Masterclass, the organization that provides access to excellence with year round master classes for young people aged between 17 and 30, at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket. Clearly they believe that acting can, to a degree, be taught. There is a famous quote that people have attributed to everybody from the 19th-century composer Robert Schumann to 20th-century composer Elvis Costello that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and I think probably, that talking about acting is probably likened to that activity somewhat: very difficult to write about. There are any number of books, it seems to me, where people tell you about acting and how to act. And I would say that about 99.9% of them are junk. There are usually, however, gobbets and nuggets within those books, that do actually provide enlightenment or a way forward or an idea. To debate this idea of whether of not acting can be taught, whether it’s a skill or a talent, how you might hone it and indeed where you might hone it, I have particularly illustrious and well-informed panel. We have actress Patricia Hodge, who has given a Masterclass recently; we have Geoffrey Colman, who is Head of Acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama; and we have Steve Larcher, who has just left the Central School of Speech and Drama having, as we will discover shortly, had a rather perfect route into Central, in terms of this discussion. But let me begin with you Patricia. You trained as an actor, where did you train?

Patricia Hodge: At the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

DB: And was that anything like what you imagined drama school was going to be?

PH: I am not sure that I had any imaginings, as it were, just at that stage. Well, I suppose, as always, historically there have been two routes; the one that you do drama school or the other one that you don’t. And I had no access because of where I was brought, up on the East coast, you know, all they have there are amateur actors. There was no professional theatre so it wasn’t a question of my going knocking on the doors of the local repertory theatre (which I would have done, I am sure I’d have done from the very early age, but I couldn’t); and so the only way that I knew was to get into drama school. And I have to say that I did that after another training; I mean I was quite sort of late getting into it, mainly because everyone told me not to.

DB: Do you think – racing ahead here, we won’t spend too long because I want to hear from everybody, then open the discussion out – but I’ll just throw in at this point – do you think it was useful that you went later rather than sort of 17, 18, 19?

PH: I think that unquestionably, and it’s interesting that it was a moment in time when LAMDA began to realize that this idea of taking children, 18-year-olds, straight from school – instead of their going to university or some other place of higher education, they went to drama school instead – that it wasn’t working. There was too big a drop out rate, mainly because they hadn’t got time to grow up. And the basis of LAMDA training was very much to do with the development of the individual. I mean we come in to this but, that was a starting point: that if you learn how to be a person, you can learn how to be an actor. And therefore fundamental to that is to be able to know yourself, and to know yourself, you are going to be pitched into a forum where other people are going to jibe you, and question you and ask you to stand up for yourself, and to be put through a series of rather high emotional rollercoasters, and you’ve got to be able to take that. So I think in my year there were 6 or 8 of us that had already seen our 21st birthdays. We’d all been and done something else and it wasn’t interesting to them what we had done, the fact is that we had grown up a bit because everything is an education for life.

DB: Hold onto that thought. We’ll come back to that. Geoffrey, did you train – you are now training actors. Did you train as an actor?

Geoffrey Colman: No I didn’t, I went via the university route. And upon completing my university study I sort of set up shop as an untrained actor and suffered the consequences in many ways, and through the exposure to working with trained actors, realized there was a complete arena of experience that I’d missed. Subsequent to that I became a director and in a sense fused my experience of acting and university study more fitfully but, no, I didn’t go to drama school at all. Much to the delight of my students, when they know that.

DB: Indeed, so other than, what clearly some students might describe as complete arrogance, and you probably describe as confidence.

GC: No, I agree with arrogance.

DB: What was your route to getting your hands on the minds and bodies of the young by actually being the Head of Acting?

GC: From 1986 I have been freelance theatre director. And the portfolio or career of a director is such that it interfaces sometimes with the industry in its entirety and sometimes with the hinterland of industry and training, so some of my work as a director was in a paid professional context, and other contexts were those of drama schools. You know, a young director needs to direct to learn the craft of directing, and the drama school sector is a terrific opportunity for directors to learn actually the craft of directing. So that is the route I took. And I discovered that was a route and a landscape that I actually enjoy very much.

DB: Okay, so we know your take on that, on your past. Your present briefly. You presumably, absolutely believe that acting can be taught –otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it.

GC: Yes, yes, I think I’d out of the job if I actually have on the record that I think it can’t be taught. Of course it can be taught. You know, one can teach anything. It’s the reception; it’s at the point of reception that determines how well that learning and teaching context is taken. And, I suppose, I am asked this question frequently and I suppose the example that I often cite is that I learnt to ride a horse as an adult, very late on and I was taught the basic skills of how to ride a horse, but I am not a very good horse rider but, equally, other people with the same tutor and the same skills being imparted, have become fine horsemen and -women. So it is a craft, it is a process, there is nothing mystical about it. Although on occasion it can seem mystical but, yes I absolutely believe that you can teach acting. You can’t teach talent, maybe we’ll come to that in a moment. You can certainly teach processes, certainly.

DB: Good distinction there, so let’s go direct to the horse’s mouth, dare I say. Steve, you have been through Geoffrey’s school. You have been through the system. As you are now leaving, or have just left, so you could actually, you can actually turn around and say to your formal boss: “No, it can’t be.”

GC: His casting doesn’t depend to this interview.

Steve Larcher: Very true, whether, well in the future, is a good point. I don’t want to say anything to offend anyone.

DB: But ah, let’s just before we talk, before we discuss that point specifically, let’s get your route. Now I am right to say that you attended a Masterclass so you are the perfect, you are the perfect pupil.

SL: I suppose yes, I have been right through the process. I also came to drama school a bit later than most people, certainly a lot of the people in my year. And I had done a music theatre course beforehand, and, basically, because I had those skills as well, and I thought to myself, “Well, I have these skills, and I am good to what I do, it would make sense to go in to that – I enjoy doing it.” But this is the whole point about drama schools and why I think it is a good idea that they are now taking people who are a bit older, a bit more mature, they have lived life a bit more and have a better idea about where are they going and what do they want to do. Because, at this point I decided I that I wanted to make more of a slightly different direction away from music theatre and into straight acting. So I went along to a Masterclass I’d heard about, I think through the grapevine. I went along and I saw – I think my first one was probably Sam West, someone like that – and I thought, “Wow, this is incredible, this guy is young, enthusiastic, incredibly talented.” I was just really inspired by what he was saying, and the fact that he was, he has achieved so much. Even a few years ago, when I went, he had achieved so much but yet he’d stayed such a humble person, you know. It hadn’t gone to his head and I thought to myself… it just really inspired me to go on and do what it was in my heart which was acting. So I went to quite a few Masterclasses that year, and one being Geoffrey Colman’s master class on getting into drama school, because I decided that I had two options: one was I go out, I was lucky enough to have some agent interest before from the previous course and I could have taken that option, but I felt, for me with the lack of a good rep company, and so many rep companies closing down, I just felt that it would be much harder for me to learn on the job treading the boards than maybe you can do realistically in the past. So I decided to go to drama school and I attended this master class and it was just incredible, for me answered every single question I needed to know about getting into drama school; what did they look for; what was the best way of making the right impression, and, also, I was very lucky, I pretty much put my name down at the last minute to do a piece for, in front of Geoffrey and to be directed on it. And, funnily enough, there is another boy in my year who has just left and he was on the stage as well with me and we were both worked on by Geoffrey. And I think it was really wonderful because Geoffrey spent 10 minutes on my piece and pretty much said, “What are you doing? It’s awful you have got to change everything you are doing, there is no way that you’ll ever – you’re not going to get into a school doing what you are doing.” And it is very important that you are aware of what you do. Because, at the end of the day talent can’t be taught, that’s very, very true, but, training can give you hints, techniques, an advantage, because at the end of the day talent isn’t everything. And that’s really what I got from the master class. And really, to be honest, I mean yes I went to Central and we had a funny discussion when I went for my audition. He said: “Don’t I know you?” And I said, “Yes, I auditioned for you.” But I really think that Masterclass particularly and master classes in general is such a wonderful thing because I was lucky enough with the basis of my talent, and also tips and pointers that I got from that Masterclass, to pretty much get in to every school that I wanted to audition for. I’d certainly get to the later rounds for the top schools so, that was really invaluable for me.

DB: Is there a sense, however, I know it’s difficult, we only have one former pupil from Central and one Central teacher and one LAMDA graduate here so, I am not asking you to speak on behalf of all the schools, you all have a particular background. But, is there not a sense that this is a lottery, that actually, I did not train at drama school I did drama at University and I happened to have a very enlightened drama teacher and he said these are the places where you should go. And I didn’t know anything about drama training but I got into two, and I chose Hull, had a great time and whatever. But, I suspect that most actors, most young wannabe actors look at the list and audition and go to the one who accepts them and some obviously very talented people end up with lots of offers and then they can make an informed decision. Is it not the case that people will go right, I will try LAMDA; I’ll try Webber Douglas; I’ll try Guildhall; I’ll try RADA…

GC: Yeah, totally…

DB: …and what you end up with is a lie…

PH: …is what you get. But, there is in life. I met the master of Balliol College [Oxford] a week or so ago, and he was an extremely accessible and a very nice guy. And I said, “Gosh, that’s a quite a thing for the master of Balliol…” if anyone had told me that at the age of 18 that this is where I would end up, I would never ever have believed them. He said, “You really have to learn something about life one is; yes you have to have certain amount of ability but,” he said, “I didn’t have more than anybody else, and secondly you have to have a lot of luck.” And he said, “It’s just that I just happen to tread in the right spaces at the right time and that’s where I ended up…”

GC: I can give you some statistics in that luck lottery. There are 22 drama schools that are professional accredited by NCDT, which is the National Council for Drama Training. And of those 22, last academic year there was generally a pool of about 5,000 people applying for those places. Each year the drama school sector has 1,000 acting graduates. That’s the professional sector. That is not university departments or other allied courses. So we are talking about 5,000 people, 5,000 wannabes as you said, wanting to get onto these courses and therefore it is a lottery; at Central last year we auditioned 3,500 people for 35 places. The statistic on that is beyond actual comprehension, in terms of actual investment in a dream of the desire to get in a course, an acting course, such as that. But my fear has always been, and I have spoken at the Haymarket Masterclasses that it’s not actually enough now to just be accepted anywhere. It’s quite a Darwinian process, of food chain playing in the drama schools. The measure really should be the outcome and the outcome in the part in major parties, is the employment trajectory. If students upon completion are getting agents, if students upon completion are getting work; then something must be working in that training. It doesn’t matter how glossy the brochure or how incredible the website might be. But, if students are not getting agents or work upon completion or within the first 18 months well, then something is clearly going wrong. And it’s my experience; I am chair of the Conferences of Drama Schools’ Acting Board. I have an opportunity to look at the collateral picture of training in the UK, and it’s my experience that, really of the 22 schools, one could reasonably say that there are maybe 8 or 10 that are constantly hitting statistics of agent pick up and employment statistics. Now there are always variants to that – as there are always exceptions to that as there are always people on the west end show who have never trained or never – but, generally of the 22 there is a smaller frame and framework so the advice to aspirant actors is to do that research and to find the actors or actresses that are around there, that one is inspired by: where did they train? And basically, that is the first point of call. So whilst it is a huge landscape, just a little bit of research into that reveals quite startling information I think.

DB: Just quickly to follow up on that, is there a somewhere where – is there a website, does the NCDT, for example, have any grading system, or a sense that you could compare one school to another?

GC: Comparisons are very difficult because the sector itself is in such a period of transition. Some of the schools are private schools, privately funded, and are not part of any quality mechanisms. That say the government funded schools are audited by the Higher Education Funding Council annually. All schools are audited by NCDT for their professional rigour. Now, NCDT and CDS have websites. But, there is certainly a league tabling. But I think there is hidden league tabling in terms of sifting reputations, yes, which sometimes are mythic, and might not actually serve the sector too usefully, but, perhaps more importantly the outcome: what students are appearing in our national theatres? What students are getting in to television and film? That is in the sense the way to league table this I think.