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What price history?

Dangerous Daughters. Photo: Francyne Carr

Do actors need to study history? Answers on a postcard please, or at least in a posted blog comment.

Two experiences in one day last week set me thinking about this. First I went to Sylvia Young Theatre School (SYTS) which has now moved into its magnificent new building off Edgware Road complete with ten studios, two spacious floors for academic work, large canteen, gardens and penthouse flat for Young and her husband. It’s a vast converted, former Christian Scientist church with exquisite stained glass and now is all set to educate increasing numbers of children who have performing arts talent to an even higher standard than before. I was there to interview Young, Artistic Director Steven Baker and two students about the new building, for a Stage podcast which should be available very soon.

But something struck me, in passing while I was talking to SYTS student Grace Vance, 16, who plays Molly in BBC TV’s Ashes to Ashes. Grace, who is applying herself very hard to her GCSEs as well as working professionally, told me that she hopes to go next year for A levels to a college which will understand why she hasn’t done a subject such as history at school. “But I have done things like Expressive Arts which are more use to me, given my career hopes,” she said.

A few hours later I was at the Drill Hall for the first night of Musical Theatre Academy’s Dangerous Daughters (pictured above, in a photo by Francyne Carr) which I enjoyed very much. The piece, whose fine music and lyrics are by MTA’s dynamic founder, principal Annemarie Lewis Thomas, with book by Nick Stimson, was performed by the college’s first intake of eleven young women and two young men at the beginning of their second and final year. Despite the newness and smallness of the college, every one of these actors is employable and castable and several - Erica Birtles, Sam Hallion, Lauren Austin and Samantha Hull - are outstanding. Agents and casting directors should have a field day here when these trainees finish their course next summer. No wonder the new intake of students who start this month were such enthusiastic audience members.

I was reminded, though, of Grace’s remark about the expendability of history for performers. The moving and intelligent Dangerous Daughters is about the suffragettes and very well researched - I’m not at all bad at history but I learned several new (to me) things from this show. ‘Of course none of the students knew anything of this history’ Lewis Thomas told me during the interval. ‘But they’re absolutely smitten with it. They’ve researched and researched and are still excitedly still swapping via Facebook the new things they’ve learned.’

I’m reminded of Alan Bennett who said of the first NT production of The History Boys that he and Nick Hytner had to spend a lot of the rehearsal time filling in the education gaps of the young cast who didn’t understand the allusions in the play.

So performers DO need to know some history and a basis, as part of their school education, might be a good starting place. Thinking just of the shows I’ve seen in London in the last few months, you’d never make sense, say, of The Crucible, Danton’s Death, the Henrys and many more without some pretty solid understanding of historical context. Or can you merely mug it up when you need it? Surely that’s mere soundbite history and precludes the real depth of knowledge you need to bring a performance to life?

I await your thoughts with interest.

2 Comments

Just a quick correction to the information regarding the students you saw at The MTA in Dangerous Daughters - they were in fact our first years - this was the final production of the inaugural year. Really pleased that you enjoyed it. Here's hoping that the industry feels the same as you about the employability of our students this time next year.

History as an actor, is as important as maths to an Engineer, moreover, as a human being, the simple fact that you do/don't research why things have happened/are happening, tells loads of things about a person. Obviously, we're talking about endlessly information, but at least, you can have a notion or knowledge chronologically about where you come from, where everything comes from. If you know that you're about to do a play about a particular moment of history you do not know about, the least you can do is google it (God bless technology that makes it simple now)
before the first day of rehearsing, is common sense to know this information, is definitely going to be reviewed and not only that, it will help to develop a character and know the intentions. Some actors needs to understand that knowledge comes from everywhere not only on stage.

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