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Education Feature: Theatre

Education Feature: Acting—the bigger picture

Jane Woollard

Jane Woollard is a Melbourne-based theatre director and writer.

Lucy Taylor, Margaret Mills, Still Angela Lucy Taylor, Margaret Mills, Still Angela
photo Jeff Busby
Three theatre practitioners, Lucy Taylor, Benjamin Winspear and Katherine Tonkin, who have graduated from actor training schools in the last 7 years have had very different experiences since leaving their respective institutions. Each provides important insights on their training.

Taylor, who graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) acting course in 1999, says that although she has worked in film and television, most of her employment has come from theatre: “My training at VCA prepared me extremely well. Of course when I graduated I realised there was a huge amount to be learned on the job, but I’d say the training I received has been like a strong but flexible backbone in the body of my work so far.”

Tonkin, a graduate of the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), believes the course provided sound training and gave her the opportunity to “meet and work with some pretty amazing people.”

Winspear graduated from the NIDA actors’ course in 1997. He believes: “The important thing to get from actor training is the beginning of a process.” He stresses that this happened for him through connections with guest tutors Barrie Kosky and Leisa Shelton, as well as the straight drama training he was doing at NIDA. After graduating he responded to the physical work of Nikki Heywood, Benedict Andrews and Kate Champion.

Winspear is now a Resident Director at the Sydney Theatre Company: “I never dared to imagine directing anything while I was at NIDA. I thought that directing was something you came to later in life once you had developed a body of work in another field. My desire to direct came through a vague dissatisfaction with the types of work available to me as an actor.”


Being a collaborator in the creation of work for the theatre, contributing to conception, writing and other aspects of a production have all become important parts of the creative lives of many actors.

After graduating, Benjamin Winspear worked as a performer in shows that toured to the Adelaide and Sydney Festivals and the Weimar Festival in Germany. It was meeting people with a strong sense of continuity in their work and a rigorous, exploratory approach to theatre-making that led to a decision to “consciously pursue partnerships with people I really wanted to work with.” Barrie Kosky was really important for Benjamin in this phase of his career.

Lucy Taylor has also responded to the notion of theatre-making, a philosophical and practical approach for which VCA is well-known. “VCA’s commitment to theatre-making has been the best foundation for the work I have been engaged with in the past 3 years. The training in this area encouraged a creative autonomy that has made my recent work as a performer really satisfying and challenging. It’s been invaluable in my experience working with a director like Jenny Kemp, who encourages the theatre-making process with her collaborators.” Taylor appeared in the premiere of Kemp’s Still Angela and is in the Mobile States national tour of the work.

Winspear found the process of performing in shows at NIDA frustrating at times: “Drama schools can often be quite limited...There are a whole lot of interesting plays that never get up. The restriction of that approach was shown when Barrie Kosky came in and we devised a piece that was so fantastically like building theatre from scratch. That’s when I felt most empowered as a performer.” At times it was a struggle to remain in the pressured environment of the school. What kept him there was friends and collaborators. He enjoyed the “passionate disagreement” with his fellow students as well as the sense of a developing ensemble. In 2003 Winspear received a Fellowship from the Gloria Payten and Gloria Dawn Foundations which enabled him to travel to Europe for 3 months to work with Barrie Kosky: “To be immersed in a process and to see so many different kinds of work was as valuable as 3 whole years at NIDA.”


In terms of skills, Katherine Tonkin says there isn’t any one single thing that she keeps using: “All the aspects of the training are inside me, and have been absolutely instrumental in building an autonomous process.” She quotes a teacher who told her: “Technique is only something you fall back on if your instincts fail you.” She enjoyed the diversity of approaches at WAAPA: “I have had the good fortune of being able to do a range of different things since graduating—from working with the MTC to doing a show in a 40 foot shipping container [Gilgamesh, Next Wave]—and I feel grateful for the openness of my training in preparing me for these experiences.”

Lucy Taylor draws heavily on the physical training she received at VCA: “Even though the classes nearly drove me demented at the time, the skills I learnt with Valeria di Campo in Commedia dell’Arte in first year have proved invaluable...Precision, timing and the ability to find freedom and high energy within a strict frame have been really useful.”

The actor as director

Benjamin Winspear alternated between performing and directing in his first years out of drama school. The directing helped illuminate the acting. Soon after graduating he was working in the MTC production of Great Expectations: “If I hadn’t the directing experience I wouldn’t have understood why all the technical requirements were necessary—it was a very technically demanding show.” He also found that as an actor, the directing experience made him much more accepting of the role of the director.” He now thinks it should be “mandatory for all actors in drama school to direct something so that they understand what a difference it makes to have actors who say ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’.”

Making bad text sing

Lucy Taylor is aware that there is debate about the very particular approach to text that is currently taught at VCA: “Unless you happen to work with a director who employs this method, it’s rare to use the technique in all its stages and detail. I suppose that might lead many to question its usefulness...I may use aspects of it in preparation for a role, or if I am stuck with a piece of text I can’t make move. But then I always did think that, as with any aspect of my training, it could be interpreted and accessed as required.”

The luxury of delving into great texts, which is so intrinsic to the actor training experience, can create another set of challenges once the acting graduate is released into the world. Katherine Tonkin notes: “Whereas at drama school you get to sink your teeth into really great roles from complex and well-crafted texts, you soon realise that the reality in the industry—especially for actors my age—is that these types of roles are really few and far between.”

Taylor also speaks about a similar problem: “It’s a strange thing to say but one thing I wasn’t taught at VCA is how to deal with really bad text. I haven’t breathed a word of Shakespeare since I left 5 years ago, but I’ve had to deliver some really rotten dialogue, mostly for television and I’ve found it a challenge to make text like that sing. This is critical, especially when newly trained actors find themselves in an audition and this ability means the difference between getting the job or not. In hindsight, perhaps some different approaches to text, other than the core method employed might have been to my advantage.”


Benjamin Winspear was able to revisit and perhaps resolve some of the difficulties he experienced in his actor training when NIDA employed him 2 years after he graduated to direct a third year production. “I remembered vividly the difficulties of the process of working on a show, and I tried to guide the students past the sticking points I had found in myself when I was a student there.” He acknowledges he is in a privileged position and is grateful to Robyn Nevin, Artistic Director of the STC where he is currently directing Seneca’s Thyestes: “She has a great capacity for picking people up and offering them impossible opportunities. She’s acutely aware that larger companies should be offering opportunities to new and emerging artists.”

Lucy Taylor’s hopes and wishes for work in the industry have changed relatively little: “When I graduated I was really clear about the work I wanted to do and the people and companies I hoped to work with.” In the past 3 years she has realised many of her goals, working with Jenny Kemp, Neil Armfield and Michael Kantor. However, she has had to learn to diversify as well: “I’ve learnt that to do the work I love, I have to do a lot of work I don’t. Like a lot of grads I came out of VCA thinking I wouldn’t do bad television or be in an ad. Five years on and several ads later I’d advise any young graduate to take the money and run.”

“I always knew it was a competitive industry”, says Katherine Tonkin “but it’s been a hard road discovering just how little work there is out there, and yet I count myself as having been very fortunate.” Lucy Taylor believes the training institutions “shouldn’t be in the business of preparing the actor not to be employed, but instead providing the tools and inspiration to remain active in the craft when paid work or work that is artistically gratifying is scarce.” This challenge is central to the theatre practitioner’s working life. Says Lucy: “You are never as busy out of school as you were in. This can be hard when you are committing yourself to a career you feel passionate about, and your working week consists of an audition for a washing machine commercial. It’s a challenge sometimes to stay creatively charged and engaged."

Jane Woollard is a Melbourne-based theatre director and writer.

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 4

© Jane Woollard; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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