Attending drama school full time can be an expensive business, especially in these financially challenging times, but top quality training is available on a part-time basis all over the country and could lead to a professional career. Susan Elkin examines the options.
“Drama schools in England are in danger of becoming elitist,cliquey institutions, offering training only to privileged actors from wealthy backgrounds.” The speaker is Jonathan Miller and although many readers of The Stage will disagree strongly with him, no one can deny that traditional training for two or three years is, for many, a prohibitively expensive choice…So it could be worth considering some of the less costly alternatives. Enter part-time training. Miller was speaking as patron of the Drama School at City Litwhich he says is “one of the few places trying to level the playing field”.
Another organisation trying to flatten out Miller’s perceived bumpy playing field is ActUpNorth (www.actupnorth.com) a part time training initiative founded by Peter Hunt in 2009. Hunt trained as an Actor at Arts Ed in London and has since gone on to train actors himself at ALRA North in Wigan which was named The Stage 100 Awards 2013 School of the year.
“I did some acting work and some production the moved back up north to work for an agency” says Hunt who grew up in Huddersfield. “And it led to my leading workshops for actors in Leeds where there was nothing available. So I randomly hired some rooms, put out feelers and it grew from there.”
Today, ActUpNorth operates every weekday evening in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds. Actors and people who want to be actors – admission is by workshop audition –come for a single two-hour weekly class with 12-14 students which costs just £15 per session. Hunt ensures they are all taught by very experienced practitioners and tutors and regularly brings in TV Directors, accent coaches, TV actors, theatre directors and casting directors to meet and work with the students – at no extra cost.
He routinely attends a class in one of the three venues himself every evening. Hunt has close to 150 students on roll overall and a waiting list of about 130 in each city.
But does it work? Do the out-of-work actors, barristers, wannabe performers, teachers, ex-military personnel and the rest of his disparate groups find jobs on the strength of their ActUpNorth training?
“Since opening we have seen our students come and go on to various things, including West End theatre and regional theatre,” says Hunt. They’ve also been in soaps as regulars and guests in shows such as Eastenders, Casualty, Holby City and Shameless with numerous students also appearing in a number of high-profile TV campaigns. “Mark Morrell and Saira Chodhury are good examples of how ActUpNorth can support individuals.
Hunt adds: “Such is our reputation that we have caught the eye of a couple of local industry supporters, including ITV Drama and, more recently, Kay Mellor (creator of Band of Gold and Fat Friends) at Rollem Productions who has made donations to support the work we are doing at the school.”
CASE STUDY ONE
Actor Saira Chodhury, 24 is a current ActUpNorth student
What drew you to acting?
I auditioned, without any training or preparation for the role of Anita Roy in Hollyoaks when I was 19. There were dozens of other Asian girls there for it but, amazingly, I got the part and did it for two and a half years between 2008 and 2011.
So you were hooked?
Yes although I didn’t then go to drama school. I did a BA (Hons) in TV and Radio at Salford University. I didn’t like the technical stuff much and decided that I would try and develop myself as an actor, following a module on presenting.
What are you doing at the moment?
I’m not in a regular role although I’ve recently appeared in ITV Drama Crime Stories and done a guest stint on Coronation Street, which runs on July 8 and 9. My dream is a regular role in Coronation Street.
So where does ActUpNorth Training come in?
I’ve been there for about three months now and I value it because I want to keep my training topped up and fresh. The tutor is very good at reminding me about things to consider at auditions- which is really useful. And being part of a training programme keepsyou in view for auditions anyway.
And you’re involved in part-time training in another way too…?
Yes I run my own drama school, TV Talent, teaching acting and dance to children aged three to 16. We operate in five venues in the north-west with classes running in the evenings and at weekends. Have a look at the website www.tvtalentdrama.co.uk
CASE STUDY TWO
Actor Mark Morrell, 48,topped up his training with ActUpNorth
When did you do your full time training?
I graduated from High Melton Performing Arts College in Doncaster in 1999. It’s now part of University Centre Doncaster – set up by Doncaster College and University of Hull.
And the part-time top-up?
I enrolled with ActUpNorth three years ago for 18 months and the work has been coming in pretty regularly for me ever since, including one-off roles, adverts (KFC, Perfect Homes and Harvester) and TV shows including Homefront, Hollyoaks, Sugartown, Come Rain Come Shine, Emmerdale and Five Days and so on. I still keep in touch with ActUpNorth.
What made you choose ActUpNorth and the part-time option?
I’d done some stage work, mainly fringe theatre, but I wanted a change and to do more TV. That meant learning TV techniques which is one of the strengths of ActUpNorth. It’s a great course and I often recommend it to young actors I meet on set.
Have you tried other training?
Yes, and there are too many sharks in the training industry. I’ve has some poor experiences. We have a poor attitude to further training in this country. In Los Angeles everyone does regular continuous professional development and it’s accepted as a normal part of an actor’s life. We need to move towards that way of working here in the UK.
You seem to be a bit of a performance polymath, judging from your Spotlight profile…
Well yes, I do and have done quite a lot of things including conjuring. And I have illusionist, journalist and croupier on my CV too.
FOR MORE INFORMATION VISIT thestage.co.uk
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.