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Shakespeare play gives Acting students 'amazing' insight into professional production process

Acting student Louise Harper has described how “amazing” it was to mirror the whole process of performing in a professional production on her York College University Centre degree course.

Louise, 23, is in the second year of her BA (Hons) Acting for Stage & Screen in collaboration with York Theatre Royal studies and played Alonsa during this month’s mesmerising performance of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest in our Alan Ayckbourn Theatre.

The play was the culmination of a 10-week rehearsal period for our second-year students, incorporating an audition procedure and call time schedule that deliberately simulated the working practice if they were employed on a West End show.

They were also required to stage a matinee and evening performance on the day and Louise, who previously studied Level 3 Extended Diploma in Performing and Production Arts (Acting) at College from 2017 to 2019, explained how beneficial the assessed project has been in terms of her growth as an actor.

“It felt like the most professional production we have done,” she declared. “We did some in our first year, but the costumes and the set were not on the same scale.

“I also did matinee and evening performances with College at Level 3, but the productions were not as demanding as this one. We performed the play over a day, but it actually felt like a week’s work and you know that, once one show is finished, you have to prepare yourself for the next run and do the best you can again.

“We knew we would be doing The Tempest at the end of our first year and, over the summer, we had to prepare an audition piece for the second Monday back. I actually auditioned for Antonia but, at the end of the week, we received our castings and then began cutting the play, because some of it wasn’t necessary to tell the version we wanted to put out.

“Some stuff was also ad-libbed to a degree, especially the comedy bits and we then went through a Call Time process, which meant we would get called in at different times when we were needed for rehearsals. Otherwise, you’d be doing independent work.”

On the opportunity to perform a production on-site in College’s 100-seater auditorium, Louise added: “It’s amazing to have something on Campus where we can showcase what we can do and get that opportunity to wear the costumes. Nothing prepares you more for the industry.

“It was great to finally have an opportunity to share the story of something we’ve been rehearsing for weeks with an audience, and I think the show demonstrated how far we have progressed as a year group. We really pulled together and I felt we all put our hearts out on the stage.”

Explaining her decision to return to Sim Balk Lane as a Higher Education student, Louise said: “The tutors are amazing and so supportive.

“Our Professional Development tutors Cassie (Vallance) and Niall (Costigan) even worked on the pop-up Rose Theatre Shakespeare productions in York, and I believe the course is one of the best in the North of England. There’s only nine of us, so it’s such a small class and you get that one-to-one training that you wouldn’t benefit from at the bigger drama schools with 20-plus students.”

Describing the challenge of performing Shakespeare – one that Programme Leader James Harvey regards as “the biggest test of any young actor’s skills” – to a degree-level standard, Louise said: “I did the Shakespeare Schools Theatre Festival when I was younger and I also did it in high school. I did a bit before at College, too, when I was on the Level 3 Acting course, but nothing like this.

“I love Shakespeare, though. He has written so many amazing roles that are relatable and timeless.”

Amy Lacey played the jester role of Trinculo in the play, receiving plenty of laughs with her cheeky audience participation scenes and, despite admitting that classical acting represented a significant step outside of her comfort zone, insisted: “I would do Shakespeare again.

“(Voice coach) Yvonne (Morley-Chisholm) has taught us how he is the blueprint for actors and it was a really insightful journey and challenge.”

On the value of the students experiencing the demands of back-to-back performances, former Head of Voice at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art Yvonne pointed out: “Your standard West End contract is six nights and two matiness, which is eight shows a week, so this replicated a matinee day and it’s very important that the students experience that.”

Programme leader James agreed, reasoning: “It’s important that the students have the stamina to sustain their physical and mental focus for two big shows a day. It’s something that they’ll need to do in the industry on a regular basis if they are working in theatre and, if they are working in screen industries, they’ll be working arguably even longer days.”

James added that he was pleased with the manner in which the students demonstrated their growth as actors.

“As a team, we have been impressed by the way everyone embraced the concept behind the production,” he enthused. “We wanted to look at the idea of a post-colonial Tempest and I was really pleased with how the students responded to that and what they brought to rehearsals with that in mind.

“They also really committed to their characters individually and brought the holistic blend of their learning to the rehearsal process. Their movement skills led to some exciting movement scenes and they showed their vocal progress, as they had never encountered classical text work to this level of intensity during a two-and-a-half hour show.

“They have really come a long way, because I think Shakespeare is the biggest test of a young actor’s skills - it takes them to places where they learn so much. Ten weeks ago, we had a number of actors who were intimidated by performing Shakespeare, but now they absolutely love it and it’s so important in terms of learning how to work with language and developing the ability to find variation of thoughts and feelings, especially for a British actor or somebody working in Britain, because of how prevalent opportunities are in the job market.”

The production benefitted, too, from the support of course partners York Theatre Royal, who provided costumes and props.

Molly Cooper, who played Antonia in the show, used her contacts as a drag artist, meanwhile, to persuade some of her fellow performers on the York scene - Bailey Bubbles, Bodie Snatcher, Gayle Force, Robynne Ryske and Wilhelmina Rose - to join the cast as “Visions” during one particularly striking sequence.

The success of the show would not have been possible either without the contributions of our Level 3 Production Arts students with James adding: “They were immense, and it was a real department effort. They stepped into working on a degree-level production seamlessly.

“Mimi Browne was in charge of Lighting Design and it was a really high standard. Grace Copley and Sam Massie also did great jobs making the production look really spectacular as the Deputy Stage Manager and Sound Engineer respectively.

“The whole Stage Management Crew were some of the most professional and organised back-stage Level 3 students I have ever encountered, and some were first years. They also helped create the set and really supported the production well and the actors appreciated them for that.”

The second-year students are now looking forward to two more dates in the course calendar, which will see them perform in the grand surroundings of the York Theatre Royal.

First, they will perform in the Graduate Showcase in May, which represents an opportunity to demonstrate their talents in front of industry agents.

Then, in July, they will stage the Marcelo Dos Santos comedy New Labour – a contemporary play about children who were born during the “Things Can Only Get Better” era of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years and what became of them.

For more information on our her BA (Hons) Acting for Stage & Screen in collaboration with York Theatre Royal course, please click here