Stars in their eyes

These new graduates of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts are the stars or spear carriers of tomorrow. Mark them well as they prepare for the heights of Shakespeare on the gentler slopes of The Bill. By Rosie Millard. Photographs by Colin McKillop

Pictured page by page in the shiny, end-of-year portfolio which does the rounds of casting directors and agents, they have an almost absurd confidence, particularly when one remembers the showbiz unemployment rate of 80 per cent

Tanya Munday "What I enjoy about acting is turning fantasy into reality and then keeping it fantastical." Favourite actors: Alun Armstrong and Judi Dench. "They combine detailed work with a lightness of touch."

Mark Denham "An actor in my year calmly informed a stage manager he'd left a lit cigarette lying on the bed on stage. Talk about conquering stage fright!" Favourite actor: Marlon Brando. "He knew how to have fun."

Alison Garland "If I can't make it my way, this could lose its appeal, but at the moment it's just such fun." Favourite actor: Desmond Barritt. "I once saw him handle an 11-year-old heckler with absolute charm."

Stephen Gilmour "You might not work for two years. I'd have to get work in a grocer's shop or an office in order to survive. I've got two kids to support. But that's just part and parcel." Favourite actor: Stephen Rea

Carli Norris "I prefer boisterous parts. I love strong, comic roles or complete bitch-baddies. Lollipop-sucking, sweet-smelling goodies are not my cup of tea." Favourite actors: "There are so many."

Dylan Thomas (Woods) "I think I'll do my best work when I leave RADA. Then I'll come into my own." Favourite actor: Ian Holm. "He is a pleasure to watch and learn from."

Joanna Bending "I was going to be a doctor, like my father, but when I got in RADA, that was it. My parents have come round now." Favourite actress: Julie Walters, "because she makes me laugh and cry."

David Fine "RADA has taught me the importance of not inhibiting yourself before doing something." Favourite actors: Ben Kingsley, Antony Sher, Alun Armstrong, "all actors who seem utterly different in every role."

Ingri Damon "I came from Norway three years ago. I'm confident but, because I'm foreign, I feel one step behind. I have an accent, but I can also speak Received Pronunciation." Favourite actress: Ingrid Bergman

Martin Jenkins "I'm up for the role of Claudio in `Measure for Measure'. I have to touch something solid to remind me that this is reality." Favourite actor: Richard Burton. "He can make the hair on your neck stand on end."

Diane Beck "My ambition is to be in a Mike Leigh film. I've already written to him. I write a lot of letters." Favourite actor: Alec Guinness. "I loved him in those Ealing comedies. Brilliant!" Next Monday, the builders will move into RADA's grey-and-white building on Gower Street in central London for two-and-a-half years of refurbishment. The large, cream boards above the main stairway which proudly announce recipients of the RADA bronze medal (Jane Horrocks, 1985, Cieran Hinds, 1975), the silver (Ronald Pickup, 1964) and the Bancroft gold medal (Mark Rylance, 1980, Sian Phillips, 1957) will be unscrewed and put into storage, the furniture in the dusty rehearsal rooms moved out, and the archaic Armitage Shanks basins in the student lavatories demolished.

Funded largely courtesy of pounds 22.7 million pounds of lottery cash, it's the largest refit in RADA's history. The main Vanbrugh Theatre will be re-built, and there will be a new studio theatre, rehearsal rooms and a television studio. Until the re-building is completed in 2000, RADA's students and staff will inhabit two temporary sites in central London and across the river in Kensington.

"It's a challenge," admits the principal, Nicholas Barter. Has the displacement deterred people from coming to RADA? Mr Barter permits a smile. "Hardly. This year, we had 1,500 applicants trying for 32 places."

Auditions have now finished and the lucky individuals notified. Each one is auditioned twice. "We question their motivation," he says. "We take them through a 10-hour workshop. We ask them who their icons are, can they recognise good acting when they see it? That sort of thing." Robert De Niro is the favourite role-model, apparently. Kenneth Branagh is also popular.

"Some come with their own agenda. They know what they want and pursue it throughout the course. Others come in rather like a blank page; they can be moulded. Alan Rickman came to RADA with a very clear sense of himself as an actor. Jonathan Pryce turned up with no agenda at all. He'd been a teacher in Manchester, I recall, and had no concept of what he was capable."

Of course, Nicholas Barter can afford to be slightly smug about the calibre of his alumni. RADA represents the cream of a profession whose motivation depends on a competitive pyramidal structure stretching from spear carrier to leading actor. This year's graduates leave a building founded by Beerbohm Tree in 1904. .

"It'll take guts and determination," agrees 23-year-old Dylan Thomas ("My parents didn't think when they christened me; my stage name is Dylan Woods."). "But I've already signed with an agent and, once you sign, well, bang! You're in there. All those contacts. They push you - and pigeon-hole you. I'm seen as a blond, blue-eyed, broad- shouldered, London's Burning hunk. You have to believe in yourself. Slight modesty with an air of confidence, that's me."

Joanna Bending, 21, is listed in her portfolio as having "blonde hair, brown eyes" and, mysteriously, "experience in piano". "I think I'll be one of the lucky 20 per cent," she says. "You have to be optimistic. This is my life's work, and I don't care how long it takes until I make it. I'm living with my parents right now. It's nice having a place with food and where your washing gets done."

Even those with no job lined up think life will be wonderful. "I can't help thinking I'll get a marvellous job," insists Alison Garland, 22. "A couple of days work on an advert could give you money to live on for half a year. That's what keeps you going. My dad hated his job as a commodities broker. I feel so lucky that I found out what I wanted to do now and not when I was in my fifties."

But what happens if nothing does happen? "We teach all our students about the reality of the profession," says the principal. But how can you train someone to live by rules which are at best flighty? "It is frightening, the luck aspect," admits Martin Jenkins, 24. "But one shut door opens up another. Even if I get a part-time job as a switchboard operator until something turns up, I might learn a lot. I never turn down an opportunity. You might meet someone, and four years later they could contact you for an audition. It's a kind of spiritual insurance policy."

One graduate already familiar with the vagaries of show business is Stephen Gilmour, who, at 37, has already tried to make it big. "I was in a band. We had a publishing deal and a management deal in the States, but we never cracked it. I gave it 10 years. You can't get bitter about failure. The experience of not making it pushes your desire to go forward. And things can happen overnight. They can."

I flicked through the portfolio of graduates. The carefully arranged, powdered faces come at you with a Micawberish optimism. Every day for the last three years, these students have walked past boards listing the premature successes of those who really did make it. The class of '97 will be just as lucky. And, should they ever doubt it, at least they know, lying awake in the small hours, that they've already beaten thousands of others just to gain access to RADA. One hopes their faith endures until their dreams come true. Which they will.

Rosie Millard is the BBC's arts correspondent

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