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Why teachers learn as much as their students

A teacher and student at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. Photo: Ant Clausen A teacher and student at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. Photo: Ant Clausen
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Those who can, do and those who can’t, teach. Well, not if you’re an actor, because you can, and many do, run a teaching career in tandem with acting. Of course, teaching is a way of paying the bills between acting jobs and much more congenial than bar or call centre work, and generally better paid – but there are also serious benefits for both teacher and those who are taught.

Katharine Moraz graduated from Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in 2010. She says: “Teaching reinforces your own techniques and keeps you using your skills. Teaching singing, for example, makes you sing a lot, so you’re never out of practice.” With two Avenue Q national tours under her belt and a long National Theatre tour of One Man, Two Guvnors, Moraz has just finished a short run of The Smallest Story Ever Told at King’s Head Theatre in Islington. Between times, she teaches children and adults at, for example, Jigsaw Performing Arts, Runway House in Lambeth and has done workshops for companies such as West End in Schools.

Or take Sam Lupton, a 2011 Manchester School of Theatre graduate. He recently completed a three-year stint playing Boq in Wicked in the West End, and he concurs: “I’m an acting geek. It’s my passion, and teaching means that even when I’m not working as an actor I get to spend my days thinking, talking about, and taking part in what I love.”

Lupton has taught singing on a one-to-one basis for seven years – mostly drama school audition preparation. Like Moraz, he teaches acting at Runway House, a part-time musical theatre programme for over-16s. And he gives workshops in secondary schools, colleges and youth theatres on everything from acting through song, to puppetry.

He agrees with Moraz that teaching is a fine professional development activity. “The biggest advantage of teaching acting and singing is the development I’ve seen in my own work as a result,” he declares, adding that he believes in learning by doing, so he treats every class as a rehearsal and never lectures. “When I’m teaching – especially acting – I might come across a problem with a student that I also recognise in myself. Helping the student to overcome it symbiotically helps me to understand the techniques better too.”

It cuts both ways, of course. The benefits to the student, irrespective of age and level, of access to the first-hand experience of someone who works in the industry now are far-reaching. The teacher can share what has happened to him or her in the industry.

Tilly Vosburgh, 54, (EastEnders, Far from the Madding Crowd and Atonement, currently directing A Better Woman at Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury) is head of acting at the Musical Theatre Academy, which requires all its teaching staff to be currently active in the industry.

“I can pass on first-hand, up-to-date information, and informally I do so all the time,” she says. “For example, I can point out that in the casting for A Better Woman we had several people who were very good indeed – but simply weren’t right for the part. That’s a useful lesson for students about to enter the industry.”

She shares information about what the industry wants in terms of skills because that changes all the time. It’s definitely a two-way process. Vosburgh also chuckles about what she learns from the fierce confidence of many of her students, who are able to “go for it” fearlessly.

Students listen attentively at Oxford School of Drama. Photo: Jessica Forde/DR
Students listen attentively at Oxford School of Drama. Photo: Jessica Forde/DR

David Bridel is another example. Originally from Kent, he graduated from the University of Hull’s English and drama course in 1990. Styling himself as “performer, director, choreographer, educator, writer and clown”, he now holds three senior posts at the School of Dramatic Art at the University of California and runs the Clown School in Los Angeles. His recent touring one-man shows include Sublimity, The Party and War Music. Yes, he is teaching it and doing it, and he and his students are enhanced by that duality.

It seems an ideal way of working, but how easy is to dovetail two concurrent careers? What happens if you’re scheduled to teach and you get a call for an audition? “I’m my own boss as far as private tuition goes, so I’m completely flexible as to when I teach,” explains Lupton. “Working for schools and organisations is less flexible but it’s never been a problem for me so far”.

Drama schools and the franchises that serve mostly children often have a strong team of ‘deps’ they can call on at short notice to cover the actor/teacher who is unexpectedly busy elsewhere. That works as long as every teacher leaves a detailed record of what’s happened in every lesson, which is something the MTA is rigorously particular about. Moraz says: “Most of the companies I’ve worked for have their own system in place that means you can leave without it affecting the kids too much.”

In practice, as Moraz points out, teaching children usually involves evenings and weekends, and that fits well around auditions, although it can be a different story if you get the job. Few shows require Saturday morning, though I’ve met several actors teaching in Saturday schools who dash off to do a matinee afterwards. Sundays are usually easier.

Actors are professional communicators and good teaching relies on strong communication, so perhaps the synergy between the two jobs isn’t that surprising. There are many thousands of enthusiasts of all ages hungry to try out performance skills, and more actors than the performing arts industry can ever employ. Everybody benefits when they get together.

Read more from Susan Elkin

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