‘The actors are come hither, my lord.’
(Hamlet, Act 2, Scene2)
The only moment Shakespeare’s Hamlet appears genuinely happy is when a troupe of actors arrive at the gates of Elsinore. Wracked with guilt over his failure to avenge his murdered father, betrayed by both his girlfriend and adulterous mother, Hamlet’s spirits rise as he greets a genuine band of brothers on stage. “You are welcome masters, welcome all. I am glad to see thee well. Welcome good friends.”
Among these friends, we find no producer or director. We learn that these actors are in need of a writer, a role which Hamlet is ready to take on for the performance of The Mousetrap the following night. But for the first time in the play, Hamlet has no doubts. When it comes to great drama, actors are the key to success.
Things have changed quite a bit since the seventeenth century. A shift took place with the rise of directors’ theatre in the early twentieth century. But it is the increasing dominance of film and television drama today that has changed the rule book for actors. Today the process is becoming the focus of attention, rather than the play.
Having taken on the job of Head of Short Courses at the National Film and Television School in January, I’m increasingly struck by the absence of actors when drama courses are discussed or devised. Every one of the short courses I inherited are geared towards the director, producer, and technician. This is also true of the fulltime M.A. courses at the school. Directors tend to shake the hand of an actor only on the first morning of shooting their graduate fiction films. Rehearsal is often regarded as a luxury easily dispensed with when budgets are tight.
Increasingly, this is true of film and television in the real world. When I first joined the BBC as a script editor and producer in the drama department during the 1970s, the majority of plays and series were shot multi-camera in the studio. Rehearsals – often over ten days – were vital to the technical demands of a shoot. Even more so in earlier days, when TV Drama went out live to the audience. Rehearsals were also crucial to the Plays For Today shot on 16 mm film at the BBC during the late-1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Curiously, in those days, it was the actors who were trained rather than the director or producer. Films schools barely existed, but drama schools did. Directors and producers often had to learn on the job.
The difference being that in those days, directors began their career in theatre. Stephen Frears, Alan Clark, Ken Loach, Mike Newell, Mike Leigh, and David Hare all started out working with actors in theatres like the Royal Court, the RSC, and National. Today, the majority of young directors who get a break in TV and Film are trained at films schools. Quite frequently, they are graduates of the NFTS. Actors can often be an unfamiliar species to them.
To the redress the balance, we’ve come up with two new ideas at NFTS Short Courses.
1. Casting The Actors is a three day course, the first in the UK, aimed at setting you on the right path to become a casting director. It’s run by Jane Frisby, one of the country’s leading casting directors. Her discoveries for their very first feature films include Jude Law, John Simm, James Nesbitt, Tara Fitzgerald, and Marc Warren.
2. Acting For The Screen is a two-week course for actors devised and run by Bafta-award winning director Tony Smith. It’s designed to help professional actors make the transition from stage work to screen work by tackling the substantial difference between the two mediums. This will be achieved by a series of workshops, rehearsals, and shooting sessions based around screenplays from established writers, and supported by a film crew and an editor. Tony’s career spans films for television, plays, dramas, and comedies ranging all the way from Plays For Today to the Maureen Lipman BT commercials. He won a Bafta for Tutti Frutti starring Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, and Richard Wilson.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet might have been up for one of these courses after the gloom of Elsinore. After all, didn’t he come up with one of the greatest carrion calls ever for the importance of drama? It remains true today:
“The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of King.”
‘Casting The Actors’ runs from 28 Sept-30 Sept at NFTS, Beaconsfield.
‘Acting For The Screen’ runs from 10 Oct-21 Oct 2016.
For further info: ShortCourses@nfts.co.uk
Peter Ansorge is ex-Head of Drama at Channel 4 and is currently Head of Short Courses at the NFTS.