BADA Newsletter September 2015
British American Drama Academy Newsletter
"Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore." --Andre Gide
"Oh, the places you'll go!" --Doctor Seuss
All sorts of metaphorical parallels can be drawn between the adventures borne of geographical travel and those to be found by young students venturing into the uncharted, sometimes inner voyages of theater training, but whether they be lofty (Gide) or just plain fun (Seuss) the message as far as Prema Samuel is concerned is the same: Go! As Associate Dean of International Programs at Sarah Lawrence College and a much-esteemed member of the BADA family, Prema has worked closely with BADA's Dean and Director, Ian Wooldridge, for over eighteen years, guiding students toward the London Theater Program. As a veteran traveler herself she knows firsthand the truth of the old adage that people don't take trips, trips take people. Her job, as she sees it, is to make sure that as many students as possible take that first step that leads to London and the journey of discovery that is BADA.
DAVID BYRON: As head of the International Programs department, what is it you do?
PREMA SAMUEL: I oversee the management of all of Sarah Lawrence's Study Abroad programs, but I have to say it's all very much a team effort. Without Chris [Olson, Assistant Director for International Programs] and Cecilia [Weisman, Administrative Assistant for International Programs] nothing would work. We administer ten semester or year programs, three summer programs, and a slew of exchange programs.
|Sarah Lawrence College's International Programs team (left to right): Cecilia Weisman, Prema Samuel, and Chris Olson|
That's a lot, but BADA is far and away your favorite, right?
[laughs] Absolutely. No question.
Good answer. So how long have you worked with Study Abroad Programs at Sarah Lawrence and how long specifically with BADA?
My career started in college admissions in 1985. Then in 1997 I switched to Study Abroad, and Ian and BADA were already aligned with Sarah Lawrence, so I started in with the London Theater Program right from the start.
Since that time have you seen a burgeoning of international programs overall?
Oh, yes. I mean, it's become a business in its own right. Before it used to just be something a college did for their students to give them another curricular option. Now, it's become a part of the college experience for most students. Most students now come to college planning to have a semester or year abroad, at least at private colleges. Almost everyone offers at least one Study Abroad program these days.
Is it also true that the various programs have become a recruitment tool for colleges?
Oh, certainly. The Admissions people at Sarah Lawrence take our Study Abroad materials with them. When they're talking to students they talk to them about the opportunities to spend their junior year abroad as part of the four year experience. And most of us in the private university community have anywhere from 40-70% of our students studying abroad at any given time.
Was there something about International Programs that you were drawn to? You come from an international background yourself.
Yes, I was born in Malaysia, but raised in Australia and the United States (because my dad was an academic), then went to college at SUNY Purchase. And I've been here in the States continuously since 1981. I travel on behalf of the Sarah Lawrence programs and love to travel in general. I mean, this is a great job. I love it because it's got a nice balance of being in the country and out, I'm not bound to a desk. And working with students is really rewarding (most of the time) [laughs] and I like working in an academic environment because there's a constant flow of intellectual and artistic curiosity and growth, which you can feel all around you and that's very invigorating.
So when you go to Study Abroad fairs at colleges around the country -- or when you're speaking to your own students -- what do you tell them to encourage them to study abroad?
The students who attend these fairs are already predisposed to study abroad, so that allows us to have a very specific, in-depth conversation about the benefits of studying in Country A versus Country B. For Sarah Lawrence the conversation always starts with the curriculum, what they want to study, so we try to let the area of study dictate where they go, rather than the geography.
And what about BADA, specifically?
In the case of BADA, if somebody wants to do classical theater training it's a no-brainer. BADA is great because it gives that direct focus. And despite the fact that there are other Study Abroad programs available to theater students, I do believe that BADA is the best at what it does and that it sets a standard that allows students to feel that they're in a competitive environment. You know, we're not taking anybody and everybody. There's a lot to be said for that.
You work closely with all of us at BADA, but especially Ian, with whom you've forged a special relationship. Has that been beneficial overall?
Ian is, I have to say, one of the best directors I've ever worked with. And I work with some damn good directors. Ian's compassion and concern for students is really remarkable. Especially in an industry like theater, where people can sometimes be self-absorbed, Ian's not, especially when it comes to teaching. He's engaged with what the student needs; it's not about promoting himself and he's really looking to bring whatever creativity exists in the students out into the open. I can see it in the way he does a Master Class; it's all about the student. And that's what students love about him.
Have you seen much change in BADA over the years?
I think Ian's taken it to a whole new level. Ian is embracing in every way and he certainly embraces diversity in a way that you don't see very often. I mean, he's really committed to a diverse student body -- socially, economically and racially.
He literally puts his money where his mouth is, especially with all the outreach work he does across the country.
He's very committed to that and people really respect him for it because it's sincere, it's not about posturing.
Why do you think diversity in the student body is important?
The world is getting much more colorful in that respect and you've got to open up. The private, liberal arts communities still aren't integrated enough. So what Ian does, going to the HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities], you know, no one does that.
One thing that I noticed from the moment I started working with BADA and Sarah Lawrence is how much each institution steps up to the plate to make it financially feasible for low-income students to do the London Theater Program.
Well, I think the BADA-Sarah Lawrence relationship is unique. We have a very open relationship, but that's, again, very much because of Ian because people at Sarah Lawrence trust and respect him.
Do you see your students coming back from BADA having been changed?
I can tell you that all of them come back changed. There isn't one of them that doesn't. If anything, they're let down when they return because they're going back to something that feels very ordinary and not challenging in the same way that BADA is challenging. There's also a sense of now they're in a different place, having had the BADA experience, and it's not always easy to come back, which is why the BADA alums bond so tightly once they're home again.
Do you have any special fondness for London itself?
Oh, I love the museums. I always go to the Tate Modern, the British Museum, the V & A. I love the restaurants, I just love walking around London, I love the parks. It's a magnificent city.
All right, so now down to business. Why should someone who's reading this, a student who might be interested in applying to the Spring 2016 London Theater Program, apply now, in advance of the application deadline?
Well, one of the things I can say is that over the years we've become more selective, the quality of the students has become stronger, and, most significantly, there are more students applying to the program overall. So students should try to apply as early as possible. Ian will be viewing recorded auditions earlier in the process than he usually has. The sooner a student applies the sooner we can get an early decision to him or her.
Now, for the conclusion to this interview, I'm trying to figure out a way to tie your having a British husband into your work in International Programs.
What? Are you serious? [laughs]
Well, it seems awfully coincidental! I think there's something karmic in your background that keeps you from being vanilla.
Oh brother. Well, look. Let's just say I'm drawn to diversity in all areas. OK? Next question!
For more information on applying to the Spring 2016 London Theater Program at BADA visit www.sarahlawrence.edu/bada
If you were to wander heedlessly into Mick Barnfather's Modern Physical Theater class one day you could be forgiven for thinking you'd suddenly left this earthly plane and stepped through the looking glass. You might encounter a fantastical underworld peopled with grotesques in outlandish costumes and masks, screeching maniacally at each other and careening about like creatures from a hallucinogenic jungle, a psychedelic nightmare or maybe just a slightly heightened version of the C-11 bus at rush hour. At the still center of it all would be a shockingly normal and unruffled ringmaster leading his charges through their paces, tambourine in hand, eyes like a hawk on the alert for teachable moments. If American students, especially, are steeped in an actorly tradition that is largely naturalistic, Mick is the kindly tour guide who leads them to other worlds and ways of being that leave them reeling, breathless and bigger. A beloved BADA institution, Mick is a one-man monument to possibility -- BADA in a nutty nutshell. He spoke recently with David Byron about what he teaches, how and why, and of the positive feedback loop that develops when a person devotes his life to sharing with others the transformative power of play.
|Mick Barnfather in the classroom.|
DAVID BYRON: The class you teach is called Modern Physical Theater. What is that exactly?
MICK BARNFATHER: I always say to students that the term Physical Theater is a very large umbrella. If we look at Lecoq's school or Philippe Gaulier's school there is a massive discipline that goes into this particular subject. There's Movement, there's Clown, there's Mask, there's Melodrama, there's Tragedy, there's Ensemble, there's Neutral Mask, Character Mask, Commedia, Mime. There is a mass, a mass, a mass that goes into what could be described as a Physical Theater training.
This whole idea of Physical Theater has grown out of the interest in mime in the '60s and '70s. It's come a long way since then, really, and a lot of people now would call it Total Theater, but I think that would be weird for students if you were to say, "Here's a class in total theater."
So when I teach the BADA students I do a number of things. I've taught Mask work, I've done some Clown work, I've done a lot of stuff with Ensemble. My belief is that theater, whether it's conventional or naturalistic or stylized is always about ensemble and imagination. I look at the presence of the performer, communication between performers on stage so that we really are playing in relationship with each other and not just playing with blinkers on. Everything is based on ensemble and the plaisir du play.
I don't feel that when I teach Mask or Clown or anything it's necessarily teaching that subject, although in effect it is. But it is, very much, for the greater good, if you like, where it serves that particular person as a performer. For example, with mask work it's very much about intensity and imagination, finding your own physicality that matches the mask, which can be different for everyone. It's about finding a character's voice. And it's very much about playing at a very large, intense level and letting go and going further than you think you can. It's the same with Clown, which is very much about the comedian and a sense of the ridiculous, which again serves the greater good and serves you as a performer. I never think of them as styles, necessarily, I always think of them as more of an aid to help students find different sides of themselves to help them find their performer.
When I sat in on your classes I immediately noticed that some of the students who were very comfortable and fluid in, say, a Shakespeare scene study class, which is obviously very language-oriented, sometimes would struggle in your class -- or students who struggled in Shakespeare might be very free in your class. My sense was that the Physical helps address certain issues a student might have even if they're very comfortable with language.
Yes, yes, students often say to me that the physical work has helped them in other classes as well -- because much of what I do is about communication and playing in relationship and going beyond what you think you can do, taking a risk. Yes, indeed, sometimes someone who's struggling in one class can do very well in mine and visa versa.
I really do believe that all these trainings -- the movement, the physical theater, stage fighting, absolutely everything -- it's about opening out and trying to broaden your possibilities as a performer, as an actor. You know, people in the business -- agents -- want to button-hole. "What can this person do? Oh, this person does comedy or this person does tragedy." It's so wonderful if you can break out of that box and be someone who is more versatile as an emerging artist and performer.
One of the words that's associated with your class -- and you've already used it -- is "play". But when I sat in on your class, while everyone was having great fun, it was also, clearly, extremely hard work.
Yes, people always say that my classes are extremely challenging. I always take that as a compliment. I hope to challenge people. But, yes, everything in class starts with that playfulness because that's what I look for: intuitive, playful, spontaneous. When people are playing you see them very much alive, very much in the moment, not thinking about making "mistakes." There's often a wonderful tension between people and to my mind it's not far to take that into a theatrical context, whether it be comedy or tragedy or anything else.
A lot of what I do has to do with comedy. You need to find something in the moment that's potentially funny. So Clown is very much about being in that "flop" moment, of being caught out. The trouble is, we're programmed to not being caught out, we're programmed to go through life seeming to know what we're doing or at least convincing other people that we do. That's what we're programmed for. We're not built to make mistakes, yet the paradox is that all our best stories are the ones where we are caught out, where we're in an embarrassing situation. Those things are the stories that we enjoy telling with great relish. So there's a real paradox there. If we don't have those embarrassing moments, then really we don't have any interesting stories.
Can anyone learn to be funny?
Not anyone, no. I do think great clowns are born, not made. That said, students will sometimes say to me, "I'm not funny." And I ask, "How old are you?" and they say, "Nineteen," and I say, "You cannot say at that age that you are funny or not funny without giving yourself the chance." I push and pull them and I've had a number of students like that who find that they actually are funny.
Also, there are a lot of people who are funny in life who really struggle when you put them in front of an audience -- and visa versa. You often can have someone who's very introverted, but when you put them on stage they're complete lunatics. When I first walk into a class -- as a human being you can't help it, I do it all the time -- I look at someone and think, "I bet that person is funny (or not funny)" and I am constantly wrong! I should know better by now and I'm constantly very pleased to be wrong. That's one of the wonderful things of it, really.
It also strikes me that you really ask the students to put themselves on the line in a very big way and really risk making fools of themselves -- and yet, once the class is underway, all the definitions of what is considered failure fall by the way. It's not so much about, "Did someone pull this off, do this well," it's: "Did they attempt it and where did the attempt bring them."
I would say you've observed my class very well, David! [laughs] The thing is you've got to give yourself a chance. Sometimes I feel that a student hasn't given himself a chance. They've shortchanged themselves. Or sometimes you see someone much later in a semester and you think, "Aha! Now they're relaxing." And, yes, I do ask people to go a long way and take big risks because I prefer to start off at a certain level and then tell people to take it down, rather than the other way around. The natural thing is that people want to play safe, and I always say, "If you play safe you end up with what you already know." The great thing is when you surprise yourself and discover something wonderful. There are times I watch someone on stage and think, "My God, I could never do that" and the person on stage has thought the very same thing of himself.
|Mick Barnfather's class on Open Day during Midsummer in Oxford.|
I would think that that has benefit even if you never decide to pursue acting. It stretches you, not just as an actor, but as a human being and you're not quite the same person afterward.
Absolutely. I mean, I came to theater quite late in life. As a teenager I was very shy and inhibited, and performance forced me to step out of myself -- or perhaps I should say, step into myself. Certainly actor training was very important for me in terms of finding myself as a person. The whole thing is very self-building if you like.
How did you find your way into all of this?
I came into it through the back door, really. I started in my late twenties when I saw some mimes in the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris, where they do a lot of street theater. This would have been in the late seventies. I liked how the performers were the center of focus and attention and I thought, "I want to do that and be the center of that attention." That kind of mime was very cool at that time, though now everyone just takes the piss out of it.
So I found some mime classes here, one with Desmond Jones, which was very inspiring, but I began to think that maybe it wasn't my thing. Then a teacher came in named John Wright and he did a class on mask work and I absolutely loved it. I absolutely exploded in those wonderful half-masks. I completely went out of my safety zone.
Then I was asked to be in a kids' theater company and I did some bits and pieces of cabaret or whatever. And then, by accident I saw this Lecoq group called Theatre de Complicite in Oxford Fire Station about 1982. It was their first-ever show and I was totally blown away and ended up doing a couple of workshops with them and then actually worked with them, first with a youth group in Greenwich. Then Simon [McBurney, founder of the company] asked me to do a real show and it was a little intimidating because I hadn't really done that much. I mean, here I was, suddenly working with my heroes.
I felt I lacked certain references, so I went to Philippe Gaulier's school, some of it in Paris and some in London, then returned to Complicite. And after working with Complicite, you know, everyone wants to work with you, so I did a run of TV stuff because everyone comes to see the shows. It opened many, many doors for me and it's how I came to BADA, as well. So it was a little bit, as I say, through the back door and a whirlwind and absolutely wonderful. I was just incredibly fortunate to be at the right place at the right time.
I was very lucky to have seen you in one of those Complicite productions when you brought the Ionesco play, The Chairs, to New York with Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan. It was one of the most memorable productions I've ever seen.
I was very lucky again because Simon had been working on that production for some time before he asked me to join them. He hadn't worked out what he wanted to do with the character called The Orator who comes on at the end. He was thinking of using a robot or an animal, but in the end he decided to have me instead. [laughs]
That's quite a compliment. You beat them out for the part!
To this day, I'm not quite sure how to take that... So I sat in on rehearsals and observed a lot and helped with the chairs and a few bits, but time was running out and I finally thought, "What am I going to do with this?" Because while it's only a nine minute part, you are the big full stop on the piece. And I read a review of the original production, which said that the Old Man and Woman were absolutely wonderful, but the show took a turn for the worse when the Orator came on. So I didn't know if it was a great opportunity or a poison chalice!
It wasn't until the last week of rehearsal that I finally did it and fortunately Simon liked what I did. He had a rather wonderful costume idea, when I came on as a '70s game show host with a 'tache and a curly wig and the idea was that at some point at the end all of these clothes and fake hair would just suddenly disappear and I would be left standing there, bald and with sunken eyes, as a sort of Grim Reaper. And we worked on the stage up to about an hour before the first show, trying to figure out how to make this costume disappear. It worked brilliantly in the end.
Was it fun to be on Broadway?
It was absolutely wonderful! A lot of big people came to the production and we were wined and dined and I went to the Mayor's Salute to Broadway gala and the Actors Club and it was great. I adore New York.
[Editor's Note: The New York Times theater critic wrote, "The role of the Orator is embodied with wonderful creepiness by Mick Barnfather."]
So, looking down the line, do you see yourself continuing to do pretty much what you're doing now -- teaching, acting and directing?
I don't act any more, haven't done for fifteen years because of chronic back problems. So the majority of my work now is teaching. I just direct a bit to challenge myself, but it's not something I want to do all the time because it just overtakes me, it keeps me awake and everything. I like teaching, I have to say. I like working with young people who have a dream. Everyday, when I'm teaching, I laugh. That can't be bad.
Well, you're one of the most open, joyous, unguarded men I know. I'm sure a lot of that is just you, but I have to assume that a lot of it also comes from the particular work you steep yourself in on a daily basis.
I guess if you're teaching openness you can't be a grumpy old so-and-so, really. And, yes, I have a good time in class. That's how I do it, hopefully by setting an example.
How did your work at BADA come about?
Via Complicite. [BADA co-founder] Tony Branch invited me to devise and teach a class for the summer program based on what we were doing in the company. I started there twenty-two years ago at the same time as Ian [Wooldridge]. We were both new boys and when he became Dean he asked me to teach on the London program, as well.
And you and BADA have lived happily ever after.
I love BADA! I really do. In February I'm already looking forward to the summer session. And I'm not just saying that because this is for the BADA Newsletter! [laughs] It's my favorite job of all the jobs I do in the year. When you go into the building you go right into the office and sit down and have a chat and you're treated incredibly well.
And the students themselves are fabulous. All the students are there for the first time together, they're all sharing that same experience. So you don't get the clique-y thing at BADA. It really adds to the atmosphere. They're enjoying what they're doing, it's challenging, and so you enter into that as well. The students are a massive part of why I enjoy working at BADA.
It's just been a joy, really. And after twenty-two years it still is.
To learn more about Mick Barnfather and his work visit www.mickbarnfather.com
BADA Sonnet Slam Los Angeles
BADA Sonnet Slam New York
Join the American Friends of BADA for two nights of sonnets, scenes, monologues and merriment to raise scholarship funds to support students attending BADA's programs.
Join the American Friends of BADA on October 28th at 7:30 PM for
The Elephant in Every Room I Enter
starring and co-created by Gardiner Comfort (SHX '01) at La MaMA Experimental Theatre Club in New York City.
Tickets for the show are available through La MaMa's website.
Be sure to use the special Discount Code BADA to get a special friends of BADA rate of $15 per ticket.
We put together two new promotional videos during our just-completed summer sessions! Please share these with anyone who might be interested in attending our summer programs in Oxford.
|Midsummer in Oxford||Midsummer Conservatory Program|
Our thanks to all the students who agreed to be interviewed for the videos!
Recently: Brandon Victor Dixon (MIO ’98) appeared in The Wild Party, part of New York City Center’s Encores! Off-Centre series. Chris Myers (MIO ’09) appeared in Whorl Inside a Loop at Second Stage Theatre in New York City. Paul Rudd (MIO ’93) starred in the new Marvel blockbuster Ant-Man. Carolyn Michelle Smith (MIO ’11) appeared in the world-premiere of Trans Scripts at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Liz Wisan (LTP ’01) appeared in Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery at the Old Globe in San Diego. Max Wolkowitz (MIO ’05) appeared as Asher Lev in the Penguin Rep Theatre’s production of My Name is Asher Lev by Aaron Posner.
Keep us Updated: Thanks to everyone for sending us all your updates - wherever possible, we will post upcoming shows and events on our Facebook page, where you can also see exclusive pictures of our latest productions. Please remember to let us know if your e-mail address changes (when your college e-mail expires etc), so that we can keep you informed about upcoming events and other information.