'We train artists, not passive vessels or mere pretenders'

Good acting is built on reflection, not reality-TV dreams, the head of acting at Central School of Speech and Drama tells Melanie Newman

February 5, 2009

When the comedian and television actor Lenny Henry makes his debut in theatre in the West Yorkshire Playhouse production of Othello on 14 February, one academic will be hoping for rave reviews.

Geoff Colman, head of acting at the University of London's Central School of Speech and Drama, coached Mr Henry for the role. "Lenny is a great actor and a very intelligent man," he said. "While working with him, I've seen a power of thought and body that the British public could never imagine because he's been adopted as a favourite of a particular type - a comedian."

Although interviews with some film stars might give the impression that intelligence is not a prerequisite for an acting career, Mr Colman insists that brains are essential.

He tells the story of a famous Hollywood producer who sent him his latest protegee - a young model - to "diagnose" for talent.

"She was extraordinarily beautiful. But she did a little speech, and I knew immediately that she didn't have the inner material - she lacked the intelligence and imagination to be an actress."

Mr Colman took her for a long walk down the Finchley Road. "She broke down towards the end and said: 'I don't think I can do this.' It was heartbreaking." She was flown home, her acting career over.

Coaching actors is all about "dealing with delicate psychology", Mr Colman said. "I have to convince them that they can do it, but to do that, I have to believe in them."

The reason many actors come across as witless in the press is that they are "not good at presenting themselves as artists", Mr Colman suggested. "They can't cope with being viewed as anything other than people who pretend."

Artistic aspirations

The school teaches its students to perceive themselves differently.

"We realise a vision of training artists. I want to engender in all our graduates the sense that they are shape-changers, not commodities, and that through their performance they can change people's lives."

Mr Colman's life was changed at the age of 15 when he went on a school trip to see a production of A Man for All Seasons. Until that point, his career options, as suggested by the school's adviser, had been "the RAF or the Co-op".

The Central School, unlike other drama conservatoires, takes research seriously. In 2006, it became the first drama school to offer postgraduate research degrees; it then went on to become the first funding council-recognised centre of excellence for training in theatre.

Mr Colman's research covers post-dramatic and postmodern theatre, actor training and cabaret. "We try to foster the notion of interrogating rather than receiving the craft - actors should not be passive vessels," he said.

But the school's lofty ideals for its graduates often conflict with a more prosaic reality. "We are training actors in the best canonical tradition - to play Hamlet or Hedda Gabler - for an industry that isn't there," Mr Colman admitted. He has seen his best graduates take jobs with the TV medical soap Holby City and with slapstick children's entertainers the Chuckle Brothers.

Every year, students put on a "showcase" for agents. "It's my least favourite part of the year," Mr Colman said. "It's the most important part in terms of the industry and the least important part in terms of art and culture."

The "vacuous commodification" of acting he bemoans is evident at auditions for the Central School's degree courses. "We sometimes get ten people who all look and sound the same." The number of applications has boomed - last year about 4,000 people sought entry, making the race more competitive than that for the University of Oxford.

Mr Colman attributed the boom to reality TV shows. "Everyone thinks that they can do it ... when you are 17 and hoping for a celebrity lifestyle, drama school looks like a legitimate route in."

No 'tingle factor'

The process of whittling the numbers down was not about an elusive "tingle factor", he insisted. "That level of guesswork is irresponsible - it's fuelled by personal prejudice." The transparent selection process involves three rounds of auditions and is based on assessment of a number of attributes including posture and musculature, vocal health and use of breath and ability to interpret a character.

For all that, Mr Colman admitted that some candidates defy categorisation. It is hard to imagine alumni such as Sir Laurence Olivier and Dame Judi Dench being rejected because of poor posture.

One such recent applicant was Gael Garcia Bernal, the Mexican actor who went on to star in Amores Perros and The Motorcycle Diaries. "He was incredible - an artist. He had some kind of higher factor - how do you put that down on the assessment sheets?" said Mr Colman, who became Mr Bernal's tutor.

"My other tutorial students used to talk about their overdrafts and troubles with their landlords. Gael wanted to ask about whether I thought Sartre believed in this or that. He was breathing the air of a different planet."


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