FACES AND VOICES
From the U.K. to the District: Classical training for the Classical stage
By Hannah Hessel Ratner
You may have heard that the best way to get to Carnegie Hall is practice but no amount of reciting Romeo and Juliet in front of the mirror will get you cast in one of Shakespeare’s plays. In truth there are a number of paths actors take but in most of their resumes you’ll find some type of advanced training in classical theatre.
“Classical theatre is language-driven and larger than life,” Ellen O’Brien shares with me. Ellen works with the actors on stage and at the Academy for Classical Acting (ACA), helping them with the vocal training they need to tackle Shakespeare’s language. The ACA, a partnership between STC and the George Washington University, is Washington, D.C.’s only MFA training for classical theatre. “Classical training,” she continues, “requires actors to become adept with verse, rhetoric and the intricacies of long and complex thoughts.” It’s a training that requires the full body and mind to be engaged.
“I think it is easy to imagine drama school as one long joyous ‘putting on a show’ experience, whereas the truth is much more complex and challenging,” says As You Like It’s Rosalind, Zoë Waites. She trained at the celebrated Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts, where graduates include notable classical actors Vivien Leigh, Peter O’Toole and Alan Rickman. Their three-year program involved physical training (dance, stage combat, Alexander technique), vocal training and special focus on acting for texts from the Greeks to Shakespeare and beyond. Recalling her time there, Zoë reflects “It certainly isn’t for the fainthearted.”
It’s not just bravery that gives actors the opportunity to succeed; it is a special passion for exploring a character. “Nothing else made me feel so alive,” Zoë says. “To be able to explore what it is to be human through the power of imagination [is] an incredibly potent and liberating experience.” The passion needs to be there, since the time studying is challenging emotionally as well as physically: “what was so difficult was feeling so raw and vulnerable all the time, and bearing up under the constant scrutiny.”
Tara Giordano, playing Audrey in As You Like It, is newly out of the ACA and the demands and rewards of the yearlong intensive training feel very fresh. “There’s so much self-evaluation, which is the most challenging and also the most rewarding. There was a point midway through the year where I thought I was a phony…I learned to turn the self-doubt into questions, and that helped me move forward.” Like at RADA, the ACA curriculum is varied with full days divided into physical, scene and text work.
Tara discovered that D.C. became its own resource. While practicing a scene from Cymbeline, she and her scene mates hiked through Rock Creek Park. The scene was set in the woods, and having the physical setting gave them an extra layer to their character discoveries. It is a layer that is frequently a challenge outside of an academic environment. “If only I could find some goats to herd for Audrey research,” she says.
Within graduate school actors have the opportunity to try things they may not have a chance to try on the professional stage. The programs provide a risky yet safe environment to push performers in new directions. For Zoë that push came as she took on the title character in Macbeth. “It was incredibly demanding” she remembers, “but also an immensely formative experience.” She still sees the lessons she learned at RADA as shaping her performances today. For actors interested in performing Shakespeare professionally, Zoë advises, “Be open. Be present. Be humble. Work hard. Say yes to adventure.”
Tara is just starting out her post-graduate school career. It may take a while to see what will shape her performances the most, but she’s certain that she’ll return to the importance of letting go of tension on stage and honoring the text. Her thoughts match up with those of her teacher. Ellen O’Brien’s background is very academic, she holds a PhD in English that gives her “a conviction that actors should know what they are saying as precisely as possible.” But, she adds, “My voice training brought me to a deeper awareness of the physicality of language.”
So, if you are set on practicing your way on to the STC stage, you may want to pursue the type of training you’d find at programs like RADA and the ACA: intense, varied, physical and academic in a rewarding and risky environment.
As You Like It plays the Lansburgh Theatre through December 14.
Hannah Hessel Ratner, STC’s Audience Enrichment Manager, is in her fourth season at STC and holds an MFA in dramaturgy from Columbia University.
FACES & VOICES is a special section of ASIDES and ASIDES Online that takes a look at the people and programs of STC, onstage, offstage, behind the scenes and out in the community.