So you weren’t a child prodigy and didn’t go to drama school, but is it ever too late to learn to act? Sheena Hastings reports.

IT’S Thursday night in the centre of Leeds. At Studio 81, a TVproduction/rehearsal space on Kirkstall Road, 13 people (11 women, two men -three more guys are missing tonight) arrive for an evening class. This is theirdrama school.

I don’t particularly want to act, but am interested how the craft islearned. They’re being taught by highly experienced actor Peter Hunt, who hasalso worked behind the camera in TV and as a casting assistant on major TVseries.

The students, whose age ranges from very early 20s to 60-something,exchange news about their week and any work opportunities that have come up.There are people here in the 30s, 40s and 50s, some of whom loved acting whenthey were younger but had to shelve their ambitions under advice to ‘get aproper job’.

Amy Forrest, 29, is all excited because she is going to be playing SybilFawlty on tour, and has also been cast in a musical that will play at theEdinburgh Fringe. A musical theatre expert, Act Up North has helped her topolish her straight acting skills, and her roles so far have included a smallpart in Coronation Street.

Libby Wattis 65, who has four grown-up children as well as aninteresting career history that includes nursing, youth community work and 25years as a counsellor and psychotherapist, has had just an audition for aweb-based TV series. She wants to play Lady Bracknell and Lady Macbeth one day.

Peter moves on to recapping last week’s class, which had focused onportraying fear. Because so many more actors cut their teeth on small parts intelevision than in theatre these days, the classes he runs concentrate oncamera technique, although stagecraft is also taught.

Tasks often involve being filmed reviewing the material and receivingfeedback from Peter and each other. The group splits into threes and fours withan alarming brief that we have 15 mins to devise a small drama involving aneight-line script in which there is a revelation affecting each member of thegroup.

This is stressful and difficult, and there’s a sense of panic as we comeup with a school staff room situation, with one colleague delivering the shocknews that another teacher has been suspended for allegedly sexually abusing achild.

The feedback session shows that a few of the class have a real flair forcomedy. Our little performance is more intense.

The rest of the session is an exercise in listening. In pairs, onestudent tells the other a story and the camera is trained on the face of thelistener.

Playing the footage back shows that some of us are ‘faking’ listening,with facial expressions sometimes inappropriate to what is being said.‘Listening shots’ are often used in TV and film and have to look real – not asthough you’re bored or thinking about what to have for dinner. Not as easy asit sounds.

Peter Hunt, 30, started Act Up North because he felt there was a need tooffer a way of training actors (or offering ongoing ‘top-up’ sessions inprofessional technique) that didn’t involve the £9,000 a year fees for afull-time drama school course plus the huge expense of living in London.

Classes cost £15 for a two-hour session, and aside from teaching actingand audition technique, his contacts in the industry mean casting directorscome and talk to classes, and regularly ask him to send students for auditions.

“I felt really strongly that people shouldn’t be excluded from learningto act or extending their skills because they can’t go and do a full-timecourse,” says Peter. “And lots of people can’t afford those courses, so actingis in danger of becoming exclusively about people from families where there ismoney.”

“When I had the idea to start adult acting classes, I held an opentalent workshop. At 7.20pm there was no-one here, but at 7.30pm in walked 20people. People had heard through Facebook and word of mouth. I haven’t had toadvertise.

In the first couple of months of the classes were running two nights aweek, and by the end of a year he had enough students to fill four nights inLeeds, Manchester and Liverpool. Around 150 now attend and there’s a waiting list.

Peter does some of the teaching at each, with the curriculum the same inall. Other professional actors who also teach in London lead sessions at Act UpNorth.

Can anyone have a go? “Of course. There is an audition that costsnothing to get into the class, and we have a real mix of experience, includingthose who’ve done nothing except drama classes at school and some who’ve doneamateur dramatics regularly.

“There are also actors who want to keep up their learning, people who’vedone something else but have always wanted to have a go, and those in otherjobs who think the skills we teach will be useful. At one point we had a groupof barristers who said it helped them in court.

“One of the things that motivated me was also that I felt peopleshouldn’t miss out on learning about acting because they want to stay up north.Casting directors shouldn’t have to bring actors up from London so often, whenthere is such a great wealth of talent here.”

Libby decided in her mid-50s to pursue a dream she’d had since she wasnine. She did drama GCSE and A-levels, then a one-year course in London andgoes to Act Up North to add to her skills. It’s also useful for networking.

Jobs are sporadic, but she’s appeared in student films, TV drama,theatre in this region and was a walk-on in The Ladykillers at the GielgudTheatre in London for several months. She has three small jobs coming up.

“Years ago repertory theatre did a lot of training, but that’s gone, sohaving classes like this close to home is ideal,” she says.