Head of Acting, drama school

 4 February 2011

Geoff Colman has been Head of Acting at Central School of Speech and Drama in London for eleven years. He has taught in both higher education and conservatoire contexts, and has worked as a freelance director in theatre and opera.

Geoff Colman is Head of Acting at Central School of Speech and Drama.
Geoff Colman is Head of Acting at Central School of Speech and Drama.

Central School of Speech and Drama

“If you come to Central, you get a three-year professional training that is accredited by the National Council of Drama Training. We are housed in a very well-equipped building, and have very high-calibre staff and kit.

“The school itself has about 850 full-time students, of which only a small proportion are acting students, so the ecology here is very rich, because we have PhD students, MA students, and other undergraduates studying design, lighting, stage management, dramaturgy, costume and so on.

“Each of those crafts brings with it the staffing and equipment required to achieve the professional level that we aspire to. In coming to Central you would also be joining is a history of more than 100 years’ worth of making actors. Actors that have included Vanessa Redgrave, Harold Pinter, Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft, or more recently Gael Garcia Bernal and Zoe Tapper. We have a long catalogue of success.”

Becoming part of the performing industry

“The important thing for us is placing people in the industry. To that end, a lot of the industry teach on our course.

“We have award-winning staff, industry-acknowledged staff who continue their practice. There are about 4,500 people applying to our course, so the statistical chance of getting a place are tough. Our third-years completed recently with over 75 percent of them signed [with agents] which, in this ever-collapsing landscape, is quite remarkable.

Getting a place at Central

“You don’t get inspiration from training. It doesn’t give you talent, and it doesn’t give you luck. What you do get is a framework, a coping mechanism."

“I can teach anybody to act, but it’s what you do with it. We require incredible autonomy from our undergraduates. They must be able to process what we give them and apply it at a very high level.

“I can teach the processes of Stanislavski to anybody, but that doesn’t mean that, having learned those processes, they will be applied to the highest level. So the requirement is that, having received this teaching, the students are enabled to embody it, and own it, to a very, very high level. I can’t teach talent.

“The criteria is not ‘tingle factor’ and doesn’t fall into the mythic ‘we take a blonde one, a tall one, a small one, a fat one, a thin one…’. It’s much more about us identifying  highly-trainable people. Being porous as an artist rather than having an excellent veneer.

“So sometimes in an audition we turn away very good candidates who are very polished and really seem to nail it. It’s an almost-confusing signal to their peers in the audition room: ‘My God, why hasn’t she got in? She was amazing!’.

"She may well be amazing, but she doesn’t have that kind of yielding, porous vulnerability and potential in a training context, so we would let her go. And she undoubtedly would be snapped up somewhere else, but we’re interested in taking people who will surrender all additional baggage and just get on with the task of becoming an actor.”

Learning drama at Central

“I’m not interested in our drama students becoming ‘like us’, I want to enable them to become ‘them’. I want them to be shape-changers, not stars. I’m not interested in making celebrity, I’m not interested in putting people in West End shows for fame and fortune. I’m interested in facilitating long-term careers that are not vacuous and devoid of connection to the world headline of the day.

“I want people to be aware of the communities that their plays are coming from, as opposed to being satellites to them. There are caravans of actors who can weep on stage about the poverty of mankind, but are not aware of third world debt. I’m not interested in that sort of actor. To that end when parents ask me on open days: ‘what should my child be doing?’ I’m saying charity work, getting involved in community-based projects, reading the papers. Oh and go to the theatre occasionally…

“Students turn up wanting to be in films and West End shows. That’s all well and good, but what we’re trying to do is open their horizons. So with the fluidity of the EU, I also want people to work in Berlin or Barcelona or Finland.

“When they come in, they’ve never trained five days a week, every day for three years. They’re probably done it on Tuesday nights and it’s the fun bit of the week. About three weeks in what happens is they suddenly don’t like it, it’s not fun. It’s rigour, it’s repetitive, it’s about a muscularity of both body and mind and that takes time. There is no glamorous project at the end, so the routine of learning becomes difficult.

“And also the TV culture of those fame shows where the candidate is told, ‘Sort your voice out’ and the candidate says, ‘I’ll do that for next week’. You can’t sort your voice out for next week, it will take you three years. There is nothing instant about it. I think, in that first term, there is quite a crushing realisation that this is a long haul."

The importance of drama training

“You don’t get inspiration from training. It doesn’t give you talent, and it doesn’t give you luck. But what you do get is a rigorous architecture, a framework within which you can cope. A process is a coping mechanism. People can act without a process, but they may not be able to do on a Thursday evening what they did on a Wednesday evening.

“There are so many notable examples of people who haven’t trained, and many of them are my favourite actors – I’m not against non-training. But in a market that commodifies (you are a product and you will be required to do this for eighteen months, night after night, seven times a week) you can’t rely on inspiration.

“On a film set, it is certainly very difficult without training because they want it now. And they’ve got 45 technicians wanting to do it now – and then do it again. It’s about equipping students with the agency of coping.

“I hope along the way there are really inspired moments, the encountering of great works of art. To encounter the Greek tragedies or to encounter The Tempest or something is truly sacred, but we’re actually not about that, we’re about something else.”

The reason to be an artist

“I think many people underestimate the social responsibility of being an artist. If you want to be an artist because of applause, if you want to be an artist because of fame, you actually don’t want to be an artist. You want to be something else – you want to be approved of by your peers.

"That suggests there is something broken in you that needs fixing. And maybe becoming an actor or a pop singer or whatever is not the best thing to do. The best thing to do would be to go and get fixed and then decide whether you want to be an artist.

"I’m not interested in making celebrities. I want them to be shape-changers, not stars."

“An artist is about signing a contract with your community, saying: ‘I will go to those dark places for you. I will be your representative in this story, and I will experience these things for you, so that you may learn’.

“It is not the other way round, it is not signing a contract to say: ‘I will get all the money for you and have a great life. I will be on every billboard’. That’s a different kind of contract for me.

“Any artist – not just the performing artist – does sign that contract saying ‘I will go there for you’. And if you sign that, you have to sign with utter piety and utter strength, knowing that it is life-long, often very tough, but the reward is the license to go there.

“Not everybody can go to these places, not everybody has the skill or the bravery or the intellect or the body. And you are saying that you will do it for them. But that carries responsibility.”

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