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Geoffrey Colman: The real reasons you want to act

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A group of young men and women enter a rehearsal room; barefoot, dressed in simple, black, loose clothes, some anxious, some elated. Their sense of excitement and fear is palpable. And so another year of actor training begins. A year of hope and possibility.

Like any momentous occasion, the first few weeks of drama school are very memorable – indelible, in fact – for to become an actor is to become part of an ancient tradition. In ancient times, performers in the tragic chorus were not just selected for their incredible physical and vocal skills, but also, crucially, they were chosen to represent the thoughts and prayers of an entire community – the actor being in some way the essential spiritual conduit to the gods.

I am mindful of this extraordinary idea each year, as I welcome the new crop of debutant actors to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and remind them that although theatres and cinemas are often described as places of amusement, the process of becoming an actor must never be considered an insignificant endeavour. That is not to say that becoming an actor cannot be great fun, of course it can, but as the training sector once more opens its doors to its chosen few, we, the teachers of the next generation, must reflect on our own creative lives, and be alert to the huge responsibility before us. What better way to inspire and provoke than by thinking of the greatness and beauty of acting?

Becoming an actor is about signing a lifelong and extraordinary contract

Each of us has our own idea of beauty – however vague – and we may think that we know what great acting is, but such knowledge will always be the result of a very personal judgment. The common unifying quality, the greatness I hope to encounter with each new intake of students, is actually very simple – honest, full commitment to a craft that lies beyond the scope of apparent ambition or easy-won fame. In my long experience of training actors, I think that it is this single quality that distinguishes the real acting elite.

To train to become an actor is to actually acknowledge or accept a sort of calling and need for vocation. Many new students underestimate the fact that becoming an actor is about signing a lifelong and extraordinary contract that contains the most incredible clause, one that requires the actor metaphorically to go to places dark and light, to represent, live and die for us.

Vocation is also a sacred word, presupposing a giving of oneself to something that is larger or more profound. Priests and holy people, nurses, doctors and even lawyers are in some way called to give. Speaking to Central’s new young actors a week or so ago, I described this need to surrender, to give of themselves, for I believe that to enter the world of training is not to become part of something casual or meaningless, but to journey to something fundamental and utterly essential.

Alas, many outside the training sector underestimate the phenomenal personal responsibility of such an undertaking. This is not something that everybody can or wants to do. Not everybody has the skill, or is prepared to dedicate the years of preparation required. And so, I ask my students at Central, ‘why do you want to become an actor?’ This is the question all drama schools must ask, for our students will need to align all future coordinates to the answer they find.

As teachers in the contemporary drama school sector, we must also continually question our own understanding of what vocational ideals mean for us, affected in our age as we have been by complex neoliberal agendas that ask its artists – and teachers of artists – to be productive, responsible, enterprising, accountable, and measurable.

The actors who have recently entered our sacred rehearsal rooms for the first time are in danger of being torn away by the popular phone-vote from a craft that has bestowed such meaning and continuity. For all is instant, all is now. The cult of the untrained reigns supreme. Why wait three years, or even one – why make the effort to be trained at all?

But the cultivation of knowledge is worth the risk; worth pursuing for nothing more than its own sake. The vocation of knowledge and the vocation of training are old terms that identify a set of standards and assumptions not immediately associated with the click-and-download generation of today – and therefore are terms and ideals that we must fight for and protect.

To surrender to the vocation of acting is a very tough choice, one that is now informed as much by economics as by skill or devotion. And so we in the training sector must be alert, and seek ways to prevent the gradual disappearance of those essential hearts and minds, voices that would have been, in former times, chosen to represent our thoughts and prayers – our entire community. The vocation of training is worth the risk.

Contact Geoffrey Colman on Twitter @geoffreycolman

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