Larry, dear Larry! In Olivier's footsteps

A bursary set up in the great actor's name leads the way in helping young talent
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The Independent Culture

The names Edwin Thomas and Michaela Coel do not roll off the tongues of theatregoers or feature in the showbiz columns. Nevertheless, they are among the young actors tipped as Britain's future stars of stage and screen.

On Thursday, the Society of London Theatre (Solt) will present 17 budding actors with money from the various bursary schemes it administers, namely the Laurence Olivier Bursary, Mary Selway Bursary, Carmen Silvera Bursary and Behrens Foundation Bursary. Industry insiders say the annual awards, which total about £60,000, are more important than ever.

Now in its 25th year, the first of these, the Laurence Olivier Bursary, was established in 1987 in honour of the actor's 80th birthday, to support talented students starting their final year of drama school and facing financial difficulties. There is little time for students to do paid work – the contact time at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada), for example, is in excess of 36 hours a week.

Previous recipients of Olivier bursaries include Ewan McGregor and Michael Sheen.

"They [the bursaries] are more important than ever because if you take everything that's happening in the world, it's getting harder and harder for students and people in further and higher education to support themselves in achieving what they want to achieve," said Bafta winner Daniel Rigby, 28, who received a £500 bursary when studying at Rada in 2003.

Ian Kellgren, director of the National Council for Drama Training, said the maintenance bursaries would be particularly important from next September, with the introduction of "offputting" higher tuition fees.

Each year, Solt invites about 20 drama schools each to nominate two students for financial support.

The West End producer Lee Menzies, chair of the judging panel, said there were some "horror stories", including parents remortgaging their homes to raise money. He said the scheme was vital in training the next generation of actors.

1. Michaela Coel, 23

Guildhall School of Music and Drama£7,500 Laurence Olivier Bursary

"The first time I got into acting I was performing poetry and Nickelodeon producer Shabazz L Graham saw me perform and asked me to audition for the short film Malachi... I admire Nikki Amuka-Bird. What I think happens with a lot of black British actors, we kind of type-cast ourselves into a young London urban role but with Nikki Amuka-Bird, she manages to do both; she speaks really good RP and does a lot of theatre and classical theatre. Paterson Joseph similarly doesn't typecast himself as a thug or a gangster; he's got a really good range of roles... I am training my mind to think I can be anything and do anything. I think not enough is written for women, especially black women, and I think [for] Asian women [it] is even worse."

2. Jennifer Greenwood, 24

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School£5,000 Carmen Silvera Bursary

"I worked as a teaching assistant for two years between university and drama school and as a Stagecoach drama teacher... I managed to make my way through this year, but the final year was always going to be a bit of a push... It [the bursary] just gives me a bit of financial freedom... I'm a big baker, so I did a charity bake sale and baked dozens of cakes and had a lot of people come over and managed to raise a bit of money, On top of my teaching, I've also been doing a lot of cabarets because I'm a singer as well. I've been singing with the Three Little Maids. We're a cabaret group that do sort of vintage Andrews Sisters-esque kind of tunes, so I was in quite a few fundraising events with them too, to help pay fees and my living expenses as well."

3. Chris Leask, 21

Lamda £7,500 Laurence Olivier Bursary

"I am dyslexic and I've always found it quite a challenge to learn lines... When I looked at this experience for the Olivier, I thought it's going to be really hard to do. I didn't walk in there thinking I was going to get it. I just walked in there thinking, I'm at a West End theatre, there's going to be people looking at me and my acting ability and my finances... I thought why don't I chuck myself in at the deep end and give myself a massive challenge. I did one song, which had a lot of words in, and my two monologues, which were quite fast-paced and quite a lot of words, so I kind of more went for the experience to try and challenge myself."

4. Jason Callender, 21

Manchester Metropolitan University£2,500 Laurence Olivier Bursary

"My dad recently retired, so now we've only got one income coming in, so that's really like a strain on them and I really don't like asking for money... It was nice being on an actual stage [at the audition] and being above an audience... It was really nice to be on a West End stage. It's something I'd love to feel again. It kind of cemented why I chose this career. It was a dream feeling... I think stage life is so much different from anything else. We've done TV work at school, but stage, it seems, is always alive and [I like] the way you have that connection with the audience and your fellow cast members. I love that kind of energy and that feeling that you get and I really love the journey, and people listen to your every word."

5. Edwin Thomas, 24

Guildhall School of Music and Drama£5,000 Laurence Olivier Bursary and £2,000 Mary Selway Bursary

"I actually got run over on the way [to the audition] on my bike so all my skills were tested to the limit to try and get all my breath back... I wasn't hurt, my bike was hurt... It's great to have won this because theatre is what I adore and I'd love one day to try and play the great Shakespearian roles, but with generosity and humour and no ego. Sometimes it infuriates me the way people do Shakespeare... I can't rule out film and TV – I love them as well – but my great passion is stage and classical work alongside new writing; doing the classics brilliantly and then trying to work out how to get new writing on and get theatre back on the social map."

Bursary beneficiaries: 'I didn't know how I was going to go on until I got my award'

Michael Sheen, 42

Rada, 1990

"I remember one of the first speeches I did [at the audition] was from Peer Gynt, which I ended up playing a few years later. I was supposed to be hunting a stag over a mountain and describing it. I thought, well, I'll clear a bit of space, because there was all this drawing-room Agatha Christie furniture on the stage, so I went to pick up one of the chairs and it was nailed to the floor. I stood there sort of panicking... trying to lift the chair, until a voice from the darkened auditorium went, 'It's nailed down'."

Vinette Robinson, 30

Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, 2002

"I know that it made a big difference to me at the time because even though I had my fees covered, my living expenses were hard to raise then. I had always worked up to that point but my workload, when I was finishing, got so much that it was impossible and so, by default, I would have had to stop doing that and work if I hadn't got my award. So it really made a big difference. I just didn't know how I was going to continue."

Daniel Rigby, 28

Rada, 2003

"It was nice to get a nod even though I didn't win the full bursary... It was incredibly difficult to support myself and I couldn't rely on my family, so any amount of money was a massive boon... Confidence is so important when you are coming out of drama school and meeting all these big scary casting directors and agents for the first time, who seem incredibly imposing. If you're green to it, it's nice to take with you a little bit of encouragement from people who know what they're talking about."

Paterson Joseph, 47

Lamda, specially commended, 1987

"I seem to remember telling them that I thought somebody else might be more worthy of the prize than I was, because I was still living at home with my mum and so I wasn't that desperate for the cash. It was very nice; but now I think of it, very stupid and naive!... Even if you don't get the actual award, just that you can be with a group of your peers and audition while you are still at drama school I think is a great bit of learning."

Bryony Hannah, 27

Rada, 2007

"They [the bursaries] are so important. Everything comes down to money and it's so hard. It's the worst thing when actors have to work in order to work. They are working all hours of the day in order to have enough money to do their profession. There's no other way. There's joy in that, I suppose, but it was so, so good just to have that weight lifted a little bit and a great honour as well. It was the last thing I expected, I just couldn't believe it."