How to become an actor in four days…

13th July 2010

Revealed: my inner luvvie

First published in the Daily Telegraph, 13 July 2010.  Theatre critic Dominic Cavendish moved from stalls to stage when he went on an acting course at the Poor School. 


Have you ever stood among a roomful of strangers striving to embody a colour of your choice – emoting from your lungs to your fingertips the sensation of being, say, red or yellow or green? No, neither had I until I signed up, in a moment of rashness and insatiable curiosity, for a four-day acting course at the Poor School, King’s Cross which I saw advertised in a well-known London listings magazine.

Nor had I ever sung a song from a musical – other than in the bath, that is. Nor had I ever performed a play-extract after little more than a day’s notice. Or delivered lines from Shakespeare in the face of a director’s needling critique. Or pretend-punched, slapped and eye-gouged someone. Or given any kind of thought to my diaphragm. You don’t do these sort of things, do you, in the normal scheme of things?

Once you’ve settled into the world of work, with all its desk-bound routines, that type of experience can be reached for only, if it’s available at all, in the domain of amateur dramatics.

Yet the Poor School, rare among London’s drama schools, issues a compelling invitation to rip up the script for a short while, and see what you’re made of as an actor – to search, if you will, for your inner Mark Rylance – and get professional guidance doing so.

Founded in 1986, it runs proper, well-respected two-year programmes conducted during evenings and at weekends so that it’s a near-perfect fit for those with day-jobs. But for the last three years during the summer, its open-door policy has targeted an even wider demographic. Anyone, so long as they’re at least motivated by what the school’s founder and principal Paul Caister calls “a serious whim”, can have a go on the intensive crash-course.

You have to pay, of course: £295. But what’s that? A couple of nights out at a big West End musical? You have to risk potential embarrassment too – that’s more of a worry. And yet there comes a time in everyone’s life when the thespian itch needs to be scratched; in my case, having not trodden the boards for 20 years since university, when the likes of Alexander Armstrong, Jez Butterworth, Ben Miller, Steve Mangan and Rachel Weisz bounded about easily eclipsing ordinary student hopefuls like me, the time was now.

Splosh! In at the deep end from day one, minute one. I turn mildly crimson at Caister’s introductory welcome to the 30-odd attendees when he points out that there’s a Telegraph critic in their midst and not to hate me too much. “He’s being very brave,” he mutters. If I’m feeling self-conscious now, I wonder, how am I going to cope when asked to imitate a chimpanzee or whatever it is they do here?

As it turns out, no animal impersonation is called for, nor do the six teachers showing us the ropes for six hours a day display any interest in the sort of improvised dialogue that’s a torture to those lacking a ready extrovert wit. But as with the above-mentioned exercise in colour-empathy, there’s plenty on offer that your everyday self would recoil at. What you soon learn, however, is that because everyone else around you is busy shedding their everyday selves, your own inhibitions get shown the door too.

My likeable group of 10 range in age from a 15-year-old school-boy to a 59-year-old semi-retired Scot and in aspiration from would-be actors to those simply seeking to roam outside their comfort zones. Within a few hours, we’re not only on first-name terms, we’re playing tactile trust games, forming circles to relay spontaneous sounds and movements, and even giving each other massages as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

I’d forgotten how much actors love the business of limbering up: occasionally in the big cracked wall-mirror of the school’s third space – the rooms are hardly models of five-star opulence – I catch glimpses of myself, a PE catastrophe as a child, showing every sign of still being as supple as plywood. The difference with the school-playground is that here the activities put you past caring. And once you’re past caring, you’re on the way.

“People go from being shy individuals to being committed to a group stunningly quickly,” insists the school’s sweetly eccentric vocal coach Clare Davidson whose forte lies in making classes emit the funniest sounds without constantly creasing up and whose piece de resistance involves getting everyone to deliver lines from Shakespeare with their tongues hanging out of their mouths – a hideous speech impediment that can then, rather magically, be shed to reveal a clearer timbre.

Her sentiments are echoed by music theatre teacher Grantley Buck who takes us in just three lessons from mumbling along to Some Enchanted Evening from South Pacific to a loud and proud ensemble rendition of another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, Clambake, from Carousel; a miraculous transformation that even Simon Cowell, I swear on my life, would drop his jaw in wonder at. “I believe anyone is capable of learning to sing to a standard and anyone can hold a tune,” Buck maintains. “You can get anyone singing, even those who say they are tone deaf. We’ve found people who have never done anything like this before in their lives grab it by the horns and go for it.”

Suddenly, just as we’re all beginning to feel like we’re the new Kids From Fame, the week winds up. It’s been hot, sweaty and airless, but it’s been bliss. Barely have the fiendish insider-tips divulged by Alison de Burgh, Britain’s first female fight director, begun to sink in, barely have four pages or so of Pinter’s Old Times begun to move with ease around my memory, than the end-of-week showcase is done and dusted, and Caister is thanking everyone for taking part, suggesting some should put themselves forward for audition, and drawing others aside to offer them places.

“For the record, I would have offered you a place,” he tells me. And, stunned, I wonder aloud what it would mean for someone to embark on a whole new chapter, just like that. “It takes over people’s lives,” he advises me, no messing.

“They become obsessed by it. They go home and talk about it endlessly but it’s not something you can easily communicate to others. I’ve seen it break up relationships. It becomes all-consuming.” Yes, I say. I can see that. Really I can.

The Poor School, Pentonville Road, London N1: 020 7837 6030.

This article was originally published here

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About Me
Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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