Simon Callow: The purpose of theatre is to melt the ice within

From a speech by the actor and director at the launch of London's University of the Arts, in the Banqueting Hall
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The Independent Online

Nearly 35 years ago, I arrived at the Drama Centre, then a tiny fledgling independent school, now part of Central Saint Martins and thus the new University of the Arts London. One of the many challenges flung at us new students was the question: "Why? Why did we want to be actors?" What was the point of the theatre? Of film? Of any art?

Nearly 35 years ago, I arrived at the Drama Centre, then a tiny fledgling independent school, now part of Central Saint Martins and thus the new University of the Arts London. One of the many challenges flung at us new students was the question: "Why? Why did we want to be actors?" What was the point of the theatre? Of film? Of any art?

Most of us had only thought of the idea of becoming actors from our own point of view - what we could get out of the theatre, why we needed to be actors, what kind of actors we'd like to be. If we thought of the audience at all, it was in terms of making them cry, or making them laugh, being released somehow and then applauding us a great deal afterwards.

This view of the theatre as a sort of relief massage did not go down well with those two terrifying and brilliant firebrands, Christopher Fettes and Yat Malmgren, co-founders of the Drama Centre. To them, theatre was a crucial mechanism within human society. A ritual re-enactment of the lessons mankind had learnt about itself, a way of restoring the spectators to their full human experience after the routine alienations of daily life, and a celebration of desire.

Of course, art can be many things - playful, challenging, funny, frightening, romantic, classical, for five minutes' amusement or a lifetime's enrichment. But it seems to me that all the disciplines that now form University of the Arts London have within them the possibility of unlocking the closed chambers of our hearts, in Kafka's wonderful phrase, of "Melting the ice within, of awakening dormant cells, of making us more fully alive, more fully human, at once more individual and more connected to each other".

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