Theatre: Brush up your Shakespeare

Actors need on-the-job training like everyone else. So where can they find it? For the past 21 years, at the Actors Centre.
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IN MOST professions it's a given: no matter how well-qualified and experienced they may be, employees can always benefit from further training. Lawyers and accountants can be found holed up in country house hotels every week, acquiring new skills. State school teachers must undergo five days of "in service" tuition a year. But professional training for actors?

For many, this seems an oxymoron. Surely, performers leave drama school and acting work alone keeps their skills tuned to a fine pitch. That's how it works for some, but what of those with no formal training, plucked from obscurity or a modelling career? Or those established performers who are conscious that, say, verse-speaking remains their Achilles heel? Not to mention the 65 per cent of Equity members who are in work for fewer than six months in a year, and are therefore denied constant on-the-job training?

For the past 21 years the Actors Centre in London has provided the answer, running workshops and master classes for members of the profession. Recent classes have been given by the likes of Mike Newell and Fiona Shaw, but it was born in February 1978, when a small group of actors, including Sheila Hancock, decided they must try to counter the incipient demise of regional rep, which had served as the de facto post-drama school apprenticeship for generations of actors.

With Laurence Olivier as founding patron, they established a base in Covent Garden and discovered a considerable demand. Now in new premises in Tower Street (tucked away between The Mousetrap and Les Mis) the Centre currently has 1,400 members (possession of an Equity card is the only condition for entry) aged between 21 and 86, who pay a pounds 50 annual subscription, plus about pounds 15-pounds 60 a day for courses with titles like "Take the Dread out of Auditions" and "Sitcoms from Scratch".

In all, more than 10,000 actors have used the Centre - equivalent to almost half the membership of Equity in London and the South-east. More tellingly, about three out of every four Centre members are in work at any given time, proving that it is not just some refuge for the hopeless.

Emphatically, this is not London's answer to New York's Actors Studio, home of The Method. Instead of a single, prescriptive approach, says Mark Wing-Davey, the Centre's artistic director, actors take advantage of three broad areas: practical advice on how to boost their employability, detailed technical work (movement, voice etc) and experimental sessions to provide the freedom that is often denied in the rehearsal room.

Apart from affiliated centres in Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle (each of which operates for about three weeks a year), opportunities for this kind of work are in short supply, although last December the RSC started to tackle what Adrian Noble calls "the huge gap in post-drama school training" by launching a pounds 1m appeal for its new Acting Fund, designed to pay for verse, movement and stage fighting classes.

According to Richard Eyre, who recently taught a class at the Centre on the transition from theatre to film acting, these sessions "give teacher and class an opportunity to think about what it is that we do and why we do it. Acting is by definition a completely empirical process, but you can gather some precepts and rationalise what you do instinctively. That will help you in your next role."

For two decades, the Centre has operated without a penny of public funding, relying heavily on individual benefactors. The 80-seat Tristan Bates Theatre, for example, which has become part of the London fringe, was endowed by one of the Centre's patrons, Alan Bates, in memory of his late son. But the key to its survival is support from the television industry, with the terrestrial networks and BSkyB providing around pounds 200,000 a year.

Beyond pointing to those individuals whose careers have picked up after attending workshops, it is impossible to quantify the Centre's work. However, the suits at Carlton and BSkyB are not renowned for hurling money at undeserving institutions, so the fact that Channel 4 has doubled its grant and ITV has recently trebled theirs is the most persuasive endorsement for this kind of training. If these bodies are confident that the Centre can enhance the quality of performance in prime-time dramas or soaps, then its value is surely beyond doubt.