BADA Newsletter January 2015
British American Drama Academy Newsletter
Christopher Cook is one of our most distinguished faculty members; he has taught for BADA since 1998. He has taught on the London Theatre Program, The Shakespeare Program and also been Dean of the Midsummer Conservatory Program since 2006. In addition to his work as a teacher, Christopher is also a broadcaster and journalist who has written, presented and produced many arts, feature and documentary programmes for Radios 2,3,4. Below, Christopher shares his thoughts on the 2014 program.
|Christopher Cook in the classroom with the 2014 Shakespeare Program|
For some years now the big idea in Study Abroad programmes has been 'Experiential Education'. So it's been 'hello' to internships and field trips and less time spent in the classroom. It's an appealing idea. Who wouldn't rather walk though London's new East End with a curry lunch in Banglatown at the end of the morning? And daydreaming in a little known museum may well be preferable to watching a professor show images of paintings on a Powerpoint presentation. It's a question of balance I suppose. If you do leave the classroom and take your students for a walk, then make sure it's a walk with an academic spring in its step. And it needs to be fun as well as pedagogical.
Big fun comes in the second half of the semester on BADA's Shakespeare Programme. After the class has spent a week in Stratford and had a mid-term break, we always make a field trip. It's more about Englishness than Theatre, part of understanding the 'difference' of being 'there' in Europe and not 'here' in the US if you see what I mean. But we do try to choose theatrical locations, though that may not always be apparent as the bus departs or the guard whistles off the train.
We once went to Brighton in November and I had to persuade one student not to throw caution to the winds, and her clothes too and dive into the very grey and very cold English Channel. She paddled. And then we all rubbed her feet to restore her circulation. Things like that happen in this most theatrical of seaside towns, where Laurence Olivier spent his final years and of which it's been said that if you call the half in a loud voice on the Promenade then you'll be deafened by the sound of opening windows and slamming doors from theatre veterans who've retired here.
|The Shakespeare Program trip at Kenwood House.
We've sometimes visited the Banqueting Hall which is just down Whitehall from Trafalgar Square and all that remains of a great Tudor and Stuart Royal Palace. There is a kind of double theatrical reason for being here. In this hall James 1 and his son Charles enjoyed elaborate court masques created from texts by Ben Jonson and designed by England's first Neo-classical architect Inigo Jones, that is until the two men quarrelled. (Ben Jonson was a terrible quarreller!) And here on a cold January morning in 1649 the victorious Parliamentarians staged a moment of high history on a balcony built out from the last window in the hall to face Whitehall. They beheaded Charles I, the only English sovereign to be publicly executed - so far. The Rubens ceiling is pretty dramatic too. The apotheosis of James I, a homage to the Divine Right of Kings commissioned by a dutiful son. Charles again.
The best way to see the ceiling is to lie on your back on the floor and gaze upwards. There's something comical about seeing all the Shakespeareans on the floor. More dutiful than they ever choose to be in class I sometimes feel.
This year we went to Kenwood House on the edge of Hampstead Heath, a stately home redesigned for the Earl of Mansfield by that greatest of eighteenth century English architects Robert Adam. Adam knew all about 'staging' the Whig aristocracy who accumulated unimaginable power and wealth in the Georgian period. And while Kenwood pretends to be his Lordship's modest country home, it's really about his power as a patron, his exquisite taste and his rightness to be a figure in public life. So there in the beautifully restored library that Adam added to the house is a bust of Homer and above it a portrait of Mansfield with Homer painted beside him - the bust that is. His Lordship condescending to the supposed author of those founding texts of Western literature, The Iliad and The Odyssey.
I applauded the student who wanted his photograph taken with the bust but who insisted they be shown side by side. Modest and nicely democratic too. As Mansfield might have said Americans 'have no side'. Except he wouldn't have. He was Lord Chief Justice in the reign of George III who got his comeuppance at Yorktown in 1781. So American history seeps into Kenwood to provide a good example of experiential education. And a treat of a visit on a crisp November day.
If the expression “An Actor’s Actor” was invented for any one person it would likely be Peter Francis James who, at the age of 58, has already performed (seen and unseen) in just about every venue imaginable since he graduated from RADA in 1977. A voiceover artist across several arenas, including video games and recorded books, he’s appeared in everything from soap operas, commercials and episodic television to Shakespeare at the New York Shakespeare Festival and on Broadway (“I’m in the Witness Protection Program known as American Classical Theater!”), as well as at the RSC, and classical and contemporary plays on and off-Broadway and in the West End. His co-stars and colleagues have included Maggie Smith, Peter Hall, Al Pacino, Vanessa Redgrave, David Hare, James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman, and he himself has won two Obies, a Drama Desk Award, and a Lucille Lortel Award. That he has taught acting at the Yale School of Drama for fifteen years and at BADA since 2006 only further enriches his craft as an actor, as he’s the first to admit. Currently in rehearsals as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale at the Pearl Theatre in New York, he recently shared with BADA’s David Byron his thoughts on the relationship between teaching and acting, his specific experience as an actor of mixed race and the advice he gives to students of color, and his strange, ongoing connectedness to President Barack Obama.
DAVID BYRON: You studied at RADA under the legendary Hugh Cruttwell from 1975 through 1977. What made you decide to become an actor and why did you choose a British drama school?
PETER FRANCIS JAMES: Actually, I was on my way to a political career. I was involved in student government in high school, was a good public speaker. Everyone was expecting me to go Obama’s route; I was from Chicago, South Side, mixed race, progressive family, parents were two activist lawyers. I had people say to me, “When you’ve finished law school and are ready for your congressional race, let us know.”
You could have been president by now!
Believe me, it would have made my mother very happy, but I think the world is better off with Obama where he is and me where I am [laughs].
I went to Hampshire College, didn’t do any acting (though I had done in high school) and found I missed it horribly. I’d gone to New Trier High School, which had an enormously effective performing arts program and took four years of acting classes; it was insane. During that era there were so many resources being poured into those suburban high schools.
Anyway, I really wanted to be studying at a place that had a little more kick and knew I wanted to do Shakespeare, so did a little research, set my sights on one school, RADA, and was accepted. I subsequently found out there were forces lined up to allow me to work in England if I wanted that because there were people who wanted that. There were no black actors in either the RSC or the National, not one, and that was on Hugh Cruttwell’s radar. But I returned to the States and within a year was working at the New York Shakespeare Festival.
As a teacher yourself and as an alum of a drama school, do you think that kind of training is useful or necessary for everyone?
It is not essential, certainly, but it has become more useful, for two reasons. The first is that an actor used to learn his craft by being brought into a company of actors. And that has changed radically. Almost all the work is free-lance, so the chance to do a lot of work in a year’s time, to watch other actors, the same actors again and again so you can see what it is they’re doing right and what it is they’re doing wrong – that is the greatest incubator you can have. That opportunity is less and less available. The closest thing to it is drama school, where you have the blind leading the blind with some shepherds [laughs]. Watching great veterans knock it out, eight times a week – I mean, if you’re in a company holding a spear, but you’re watching Judi Dench, you’re learning a hell of a lot.
The second is that training at a recognized drama school gets you in the door. It doesn’t get you a chair and it doesn’t get you a contract, but it does get you a look.
So for those two reasons I think drama schools have become more important. Neither of which I particularly like, but it’s the world we live in. I would much rather be a member of a company and learn and teach that way, through performance -- simultaneously is ideal -- but this is the way I can transfer the knowledge I’ve got.
Do you have any regrets about having attended a British drama school rather than an American one?
I do, yeah, politically. I’m part of a RADA alum group because of the difficulty of coming back into the void after having been away. The training I had was all designed for work in the British theater, all of that set-up was there.
I came back and there were mixed reactions, you know: “Whoa, you’re a black actor that came out of RADA from America? Wow!” And equally I would run into, because it was basically the classical theater I was auditioning for, resentment: “Why did you go to England? You could have gone to Juilliard or Yale!” I was right on time for that somewhat divisive period between British and American theater and theater training. I hadn’t even opened my mouth in auditions and there was this feeling of, “You wasted three years, didn’t you?” It was a curious time. I think there was a sense of American classical actors and training not getting their due, there was an anglophobic prejudice generally in the public, which was fed by the critics of the major papers at the time. They weren’t devouring British theater regularly so they didn’t really know it.
Since then there has been a huge flow in both directions of teachers and people and students. I mean, I teach at BADA at Oxford almost every summer now, so the Anglo-American access has really changed and broken down. It’s a much more convivial atmosphere all the way around.
Do you feel there’s much of a difference these days between British and American training?
I think there are bits of cultural difference, which cut each way. The British are still just a lit bit more language oriented, though Americans have become so fascinated by language. And, you know, the British are absolutely inundated with American culture in a way that -- my worry about Britain is that I’m starting to see stuff that’s looking very “television” on stage in the drama schools. I want to say, “You don’t know how to hold a stage.”
Why do you teach? Does it feed your acting and vice versa?
Enormously. When I started teaching my career was flatlining. I felt typecast, unchallenged. Teaching was this re-ignition with what was remarkable and discoverable in acting – about being human as much as anything. That’s what interests me about acting – the investigation of humanity: What is this all about? It’s a great place. And that had kind of gone out of it. I was a working actor, but too often it was just a job. And I found that teaching was never a job. I would not get on a train for Yale for the paycheck. (As a matter of fact, every time I get on that train I lose money…) [laughs]
Also, though it’s extraordinary to work with other actors and with their point of view, as a teacher I assume the student’s point of view. I began to discover acting in a very different way in that I realized how peculiar and intimate it is for every person who acts. You cannot replace an actor. You can get another actor, but the uniqueness of every actor is almost overwhelming. And they act from somewhere absolutely unique within themselves when they’re doing their best. And to tease that out, to say that’s the source, plug in there, to find it with them is extraordinarily exciting.
Why acting? Why have you devoted your life to it?
It answers that fascination: What is being human all about?
You seem to me to have had the kind of career that young actors dream of. You do everything from video games and audio books to Shakespeare on Broadway, Shakespeare at the RSC – I mean, anything and absolutely everything. And I think you have a reputation for being able to do just about anything and with consistent integrity, regardless of what it is you do --
-- God, thank you --
-- Well, when I was a young actor that was very much the career we all dreamt of, especially actors from drama schools.
Well, actors of our generation, anyway. Because I think we came up a little more closely connected to the theatrical tradition. There’s so much implied (and actual) opportunity now in niche media. It used to be that half your class would be flogging away in New York and the other half was in L.A. for pilot season. Now half of them are in Williamsburg (well, maybe not; it’s too expensive now…) and the other half are in L.A. and they’re all trying to put together their own web series. So my career reflects the time I came of age. I think we just had much more a sense of wanting to be journeymen actors, wanting to serve apprenticeships in an artistic way, wanting to work with a certain great director, whether it was Liviu Ciulei or Michael Langham or Peter Hall or whoever it was.
Or with a particular actor. I just want to be in the rehearsal room when great actors work!
That leads me to the next question. You’ve worked with some tremendous people, a long list. Is there something, when you’re in the rehearsal room with those people, is there a common thread that binds them together?
I think it’s what we were talking about before -- that they have, for themselves, ferreted out what is unique in them and the ability to tap that as an endless source of strength. Mind you, you can see some fairly quirky stuff going on and it may not be a comfortable association with that uniqueness, it can be uncomfortable. Maggie Smith is a thoroughbred – utterly brilliant – and like many thoroughbreds, there are days when she's kicking down the stall.
Now, with James Earl – any time he’s around acting he is in the Jacuzzi and the water is great! [Does a James Earl Jones imitation:]“Come on in!” It was the two of us onstage, alone, for fourteen minutes. It was like slipping into the Jacuzzi.
Is there any advice you give your African-American students in your get togethers outside of class at BADA about being actors of color in an already challenging profession?
I tell them that the industry is a conservative institution (although it’s thought to be liberal). The American Army had a black man as its head in 1990. There’s no equivalent in theater, television or film. We’re still waiting on that.
I just go, Look, it’s part of a whole world and it’s certainly changing and don’t wait for other people and it’s tougher if you’re a woman, so if you happen to be a black woman it’s really tougher. And the other thing I say is, You are already culturally equipped to deal with forces that would dissuade you. You come from somewhere because you are here, in this room, where you don’t take “No” for an answer and you don’t blow things up on the way to getting here. You’ve figured something out; you’re already culturally equipped. I say, There are a bunch of people who come from privilege and the majoritarian culture who don’t understand “No” and so sometimes they’re utterly confused when they’re suddenly not wanted, when their effort, however admirable, isn’t enough. So, I tell them: It’s obvious you can already hear “No” and say, “Yeah, OK, I know all about ‘No’ – and now I keep my eyes on the prize” (to use a civil rights expression). Don’t let anyone turn you around.
And you’ve played a hell of a lot of roles that are not specifically black or white. Who would ever have guessed you’d be in a production of “On Golden Pond”?
That’s right. And, as far as I know, the only African-American production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
I also tell them: When the opportunity comes be ready, that’s the big one. Be equipped, be better than anyone else in the room. If they say, “We’re not looking for an African-American in this production,” say, “Watch me. Give me the script and thirty seconds.” Or: “Can you read this other role? Would you like to step out?” You say, “I don’t need to step out. Let’s just go. I’ve got it.”
I wonder if Shakespeare, too, uniquely, is much more flexible for African-American actors.
Well, I think this is the great legacy of Joe Papp. It was me seeing James Earl Jones as King Lear. I was in high school, and I remember literally thinking, “Wow, so we can do that.” In that collective “we.” (And it was great to tell him, years later, “You know, when I was young and thinking of what I might like to do, I had that to lean on. I had seen someone who did it.” That’s huge.)
And I would imagine there are students who see you in the same way.
I know one – Ty Jones from the Classical Theater of Harlem -- who said, “I was in high school and saw you as Othello in Baltimore and you made Othello recognizable to me.”
Talk about passing the baton on, from James Earl to you and, now, to your students and audience members.
It’s a craft guild. Actors hand it down.
OK, now the most important question: How many times have you been asked to play Obama?
[laughs] Too many to count.
Peter will be appearing as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale at The Pearl Theatre in New York from February 10 to March 15, 2015.
Thanks to the generous contributions of alumni, friends, and supporters, AFBADA reached its 2014 fundraising goal and will be able to double the amount of scholarship funding it provides to students attending BADA programs in 2015. Our most sincere thanks to everyone who donated last year!!
We are pleased to announce that part of the scholarship funding for this coming summer's programs has been provided by donations made in honor of Justin Stevens (MIO'12), generously given by his fellow Midsummer alumni in memory of his wonderful personality and the profound impact he had on everyone who knew him.
BADA is pleased to announce that Christina Ibironke is the new Programs Manager. Welcome Christina!
Be sure to mark your calendars and join us for:
March 12th - AFBADA will be going to see The Winter's Tale at The Pearl Theatre in New York City. The production stars BADA Faculty member Peter Francis James as Leontes.
March 14th - AFBADA will be going to see The Royale, starring Jerod Haynes (MIO '12), at the American Theater Company in Chicago.
October 15th - BADA Sonnet Slam reunion event and fundraiser in Los Angeles. Stay tuned for more information in the Spring.
Recently: Chadwick Boseman (MIO '98) was cast as the Black Panther in the Marvel films and will be featured in at least 5 movies, including starring in his own Black Panther film. Jerod Haynes (MIO '12) was listed as one the 10 Great Performances of the year for his portrayal of Bigger Thomas in Native Son by the Chicago Tribune. Alessdandro Nivola (MIO ' 92) is appearing in The Elephant Man on Broadway alongside Bradley Cooper. Kelly McCreary (LTP '01) joined the cast of Grey's Anatomy and was promoted from guest star to series regular. Colby Minifie (MIO ' 14) starred in the New York Times Critic's Pick Punk Rock at the Lucille Lortel.
Stay in touch: If you haven't already, become a fan of BADA on Facebook to hear the news from London, learn what your fellow alumni are doing, and check out photos of BADA and AFBADA events!
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