Bret and I entered a cavernous RADA room, and not a moment too soon! What seemed like a thousand pairs of eyes stared at us as we walked in through enormous doors; only a smattering of people would straggle in after us. We really were in the nick of time, for out of the corner of my right eye I glimpsed Nick Barter at the podium, ready to deliver his welcoming address to the 1996 batch of summer school students. Nick, the Principal of the Academy, is of medium height, has reddish wavy hair brushed back, a lean bony face sporting a trim moustache and a beard. In fact, he looked rather like the scholarly chief of an educational institution—quiet, unruffled and courteous—and not the head of an organization like RADA. I had met him a few months back in New York, where he had auditioned me (and a whole lot of others) for a place at RADA. His demeanor then as now was standoffish; it was as if he would confine himself to the principal's room and rather look after administrative matters, leaving day-to-day management and student training activities to the staff and the instructors. He was, in other words, the very epitome of the head of an educational institution.
Bret and I sat down on the floor in what effectively was the front row and I quickly looked around me. Nick's opening words made me look at the podium and take in his speech. He said the usual things that a principal says when welcoming a new batch of trainees/students, but also talked about matters particularly pertinent to those enrolled in a short, intensive course and how to get the maximum from it. Most of us must have realized by this time that we were in for an intense but interesting time over the next few weeks. At the end of the speech though, everyone seemed much more relaxed. Only every now and then would (understandably!) someone betray some bewilderment, caused no doubt by trying to figure out the activities that were to follow.
After a short break, I did a quick appraisal of my course mates. I was in the midst of an ocean of white faces, seemingly equally divided between men and women (actually the males slightly outnumbered their female counterparts), with the occasional non-white face breaking the norm. Soon I found out that, except for two or three British ones, most trainees were Americans; they were followed in number by the Canadians. The rest were from Australia, Greece, Belgium, Japan, Bangladesh (yours truly!); there were a few Europeans as well. In the next few paragraphs I will rely on both my memory (not as green now as it was in 1996!) and the RADA handouts that I still have with me.
There were 108 trainees in all (one or two would drop out as the course progressed) Since I had been studying and living in the US for over a dozen years by then, I quickly became friends with the North American contingent, who ranged in age from being just out of high school to early middle age. These 108 trainees were divided into 7 groups of approximately 15 trainees each on the basis of their acting experiences; the novices were put in 5 groups, while the other two were made up of people who had at least previous professional theater, TV, or film (or a combination from the three) acting experience. Since I fell in the latter category I was placed in Group 3, which had 16 trainees.
One of my group mates was Joely Collins, by then familiar to Canadian TV audiences because of the title role he had played in the series titled “Madison”. She had already been adorned with the title of Canada's Best Leading Actress BEFORE she had enrolled in the RADA program. Following it, she would act in several episodes of the serial “Cold Squad”. She was also the adopted daughter of the legendary British rock musician Phil Collins.
Another group mate was Antonia Bogdanovich, who, I suspect, had landed a few on-camera roles courtesy of a good word put in the right places by her father, the well-known Hollywood director Peter Bogdanovich, the director of the much-acclaimed movies, The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. Her acting abilities, nevertheless, were strictly limited. I got along well with her though, as did most of the male trainees, but she made her aversion for the women quite clear, believing they were out to make friends with her for getting a beeline to her dad. Which could well have been the case, given that in the cutthroat world of showbiz actors are on the lookout for whatever little advantage they can get! The women were quickly put off by her attitude though.
Each group was headed by an instructor. We were lucky to have been placed under the charge of Peter Oyston. Peter was an Australian who had directed a number of West End productions, as well as some fringe theater plays; he was quite an accomplished teacher. He specialized in teaching acting Shakespeare. He put all 16 of us through our paces. In the end almost everyone in the group benefited immensely from his knowledge, patience, insight, and teaching skills. Most of my group members were North Americans, with only Mina Ikuechi, Japanese, and me being the exceptions. Mina was a Japanese-English, or English-Japanese (I forget which!) but she spoke both languages with equal flair. She also was the interpreter for the large group of Japanese actors and actresses who would come to RADA each summer to learn about acting in Shakespearean plays.
As we were beginning our course, we overlapped by two weeks another earlier short course in acting Shakespeare. There, too, most of the trainees were North Americans. One of them was Maggie Gyllenhaal, who has now become an accomplished Hollywood actress. She has been nominated for Best Supporting Actress in “Crazy Heart” in the 2009 Oscar Award gala, and for the prestigious Screen Actors Guild Award. She has also received a Primetime Emmy Award and had won the Golden Globe Award as Best Actress in 2005 for Sherrybaby. I watched her, then only in her late teens, acting in that group's closing performance (probably Antony and Cleopatra). She was good in that role but an even better performer that evening.
Our instructors included Sue Leslie for Voice, Ilan Reichel for Movement, Anna Perry for Speech, Ben Benison for Action, Terry King for Tumbling, and Tim Deenihan (a third year student), standing in for the regular Richard Ryan, for Stage Fights. Ilan's classes were a blast, and I will talk about them in another piece. But that day we were about to embark on an intense period of training, one in which time flew by like there was going to be no tomorrow.
Shahid Alam is a thespian and Professor, Department of Media and Communications, IUB. He is also an occasional writer in The Daily Star Literature and Review Pages.