Friends of mine often send people to me. “My niece wants to be an actress. She’s auditioning for drama school. Can you help her?” One time I was out in Finsbury Park with my best friend and two shy girls came up to her. “We both really love your work. We’re auditioning for drama school this year. Can you give us any advice?” Minnie said “You should go round Al’s flat and get him to help you with your speeches.” They asked me “What do you charge?” I did it for a bottle of wine. I usually say that the first session is free and then I’ll name my price. Because I know after the first session if it’s going to be like pulling teeth. If it is I’ll charge £100 quid an hour and if they pay it’s worth the horror. If it’s lovely and they’re interesting I’ll do it for fun and a few bob. Ten years down the line they’ll be playing my kid, or killing me with a hammer or handing me an envelope. The two from that evening were both awesome. One of them got into Guildhall and is in the 3rd year now. The other one went all the way to the last round at RADA but then didn’t quite make it. But she was 22. Hopefully she understood that waiting is better than compromising and going to any old place. Hopefully. But time feels so big when you’re 22, and three years is forever in theory.
I have a strange relationship with teaching acting. I won’t do it unless I feel like it. I’m a practitioner. I don’t frame myself as a teacher. I can attempt to put into words what works for me. It would be hubris to say “This is the way it should be done.” So mostly I just use my instincts and build confidence. I’m very good at building confidence, and I enjoy that.
Because of the terrible school system in this country, a lot of people who teach acting frame it in terms of right and wrong because it’s what people are used to. But that’s ridiculously unhelpful. If you’re going to pay the fees these places expect it’s crucial to know that you’ll be getting a good training. It’s the foundation that means that you get re-employed and recommended when you get the job, which is how I have built a consistent career. Every year drama schools disgorge hundreds of graduates who have shelled out loads of money and expect something back from the industry. I paid for mine with my inheritance from my dad. I was lucky as Guildhall is an exceptionally good place. I honestly had no idea at the time, it was just chance, I had no perspective. I just wanted to train. Anywhere would’ve done. Every year a huge percentage of graduates are going to have a reality check. Even from Guildhall I would be surprised if 50% of my year group of 23 still actively identify themselves as actors, even if others are working loads. A good drama school training gives an understanding, an empathy and a confidence that is valuable in many walks of life.
I once got a call from a friend who was directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream at a college I won’t name. “Al, I’m working with these kids in the third year. None of them have any confidence or voice. It’s desperate. Can you come in and give them some? I’ve managed to free up some money for it.” I went in. I worked hard with them. I found it so frustrating. All of these kids were good kids. They were willing and interesting, but they had been taught astronomically badly, and rewarded for turning tricks. The teaching style had also sapped their confidence. It really was a poisonous place, where obedience was the only thing that the principal craved. They pay over 10 grand a year! After three years they are three years older, thirty grand lighter, and with a worse shot at it than they had before they started. Shortly after I finished working with them, another friend who knew I had been there said “Were there any young northern lads from that job you did?” With no preamble I recommended the guy who played Demetrius, who after weeks of work was showing the beginning signs of agency and self -confidence. I really wanted him to get the part – to work with a serious practitioner – to learn on the job and to go on his way. I sent him to a workshop audition with her. He didn’t get it. Some time later I was driving through Yorkshire with my friend. I asked her how he did in the audition. “Oh, God yes. I remember. Oh Al. He was lovely. But … he just couldn’t do it. At all. He really couldn’t. And we didn’t have time.” 30 grand. He probably never worked once. And he had potential. Ugh. If you know people who are in that audition hell, tell them to be careful. There are some godawful places out there.
I honestly have no idea why that’s where my mind went tonight. I think I was going to illustrate another point when I wrote the first sentence and then it ran away with me.
Today I learnt some lines while invigilating an exam, and then I unloaded a big van full of set dressing into a warehouse in South London, and stood on it triumphantly when it was done. Here’s Brian and I, winning the van unload. Have a great day everyone.