We were out in the park, frolicking—all sixteen of us. Well, sort of! We were gamboling all right, but this was a part of the Alexander Technique exercise, something any casual observer in the park might not have understood. But we were having fun alright, while engaged earnestly in fine tuning our body for the rigorous demands of acting. Ilan Reichel, our instructor, had the responsibility of guiding us through the various exercise routines. The entire batch of 100-plus trainees were required to undergo them, and, trust me, having fun then helped in easing us through the rigors of some of the routines. This truth was brought home to us when we had to go to the roof of the RADA building and had to do slow stretch-ups from a squatting position with the help of a fellow trainee.
Well, Bret had been placed in the second group of trainees since he had some professional acting experience. Since we were in different groups and living in separate hostels, we would meet each other only occasionally as the course progressed at a fast and furious pace. I was given a room in the John Astor building, which was located a bit farther away from RADA. Bonham Carter house, where Bret was lodged, was on Gower Street, only a very short distance from the Academy. The majority of the trainees were accommodated in Bonham Carter, a few in John Astor, while others had found their own lodgings in different parts of London.
The name Bonham Carter intrigued me. Being something of a history buff, I thought it might have had something to do with Howard Carter, the celebrated English Egyptologist who was a member of Lord Carnarvon's expedition that discovered King Tutankhamen's tomb. Also being an acting aficionado, I thought it could have something to do with English actress Helena Bonham Carter, then a young thespian, but already making a name for herself.
In fact, I had thought that Howard Carter and Helena Bonham Carter were related, and had continued to do so, until, while composing this piece I found by googling nothing to prove myself right. I found nothing in my search to connect that family to the Bonham Carter house. However, some at RADA had assured me that there was, and I cannot resist telling this story regarding Helena Bonham Carter. During a coffee break between classes, I was at a table with a few people that included a female instructor and leader of one of the groups (whose name escapes me). When the topic turned to the young promising versatile English actress, the instructor stopped that conversation with a dismissive, “But who says Bonham Carter can act?” before going back to her coffee. That was in 1996. In 1997, Helena Bonham Carter was nominated for an Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Actress for her acting in The Wings of the Dove! Subsequently, she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy award, and won a BAFTA award for Best Supporting Role. Wonder what the instructor was making of all this!
Those coffee breaks were very enjoyable. RADA also gave us a healthy breakfast, when the trainees were in a half-asleep mode and only a short time away from the opening class. RADA also provided a wholesome lunch, when we were engaged more in talking about the classes just taken. The afternoon tea there, however, many avoided. One had to make one's own arrangement for dinner though. Quite frequently, during coffee, trainees would talk about their experiences in Ilan Reichel's classes, which everyone seemed to be enjoying and looking forward to. I benefited immensely from the different exercises he made us do, which improved my posture and stamina and steadied my breathing. That is what the Alexander Technique is supposed to achieve and Ilan was good in its administration. Basically, the Technique, the brainchild of an Australian actor, is aimed at releasing unnecessary tension in the body so that efficiency in movement and good posture may be attained. What also made the classes a blast was that they were often held in the small park a short distance away from RADA. It was also reasonably close to the famed Regent's Park, which I would be visiting during, and following, my RADA stint to watch open-air theater.
The casual visitors to the small pleasant space would invariably stop for a while to watch us as we went through our routines. Because one or two of us would be sporting a RADA T-shirt or sweatshirt, they would sense that we were future thespians (when that would become true of all of us only the future would determine). At least some of us, including myself, felt an exaggerated sense of importance then. We were thereby galvanized into exerting ourselves throughout the hour-long class as we sprinted around in circles or threw a large rubber ball in the direction of whomever in the group that we pleased. We were constantly alert in receiving it and were all the time on the move. There were other exhilarating exercises too. How soon the hour would pass! Exhausted at the end, we would trudge back to the main building. Ilan, invariably in shorts and a T-shirt, would lead the way, and we, in various attires, would follow.
Those were great days in a splendid high summer. The trees were lush green and the flowers were blooming profusely in the park. All manners of birds and butterflies flitted about. Mercifully, the rain stayed away for the most part.
Any training program at RADA, of whatever duration, is holistic. I will leave our lead instructor and group leader, Peter Oyston, and his methods and contribution now. Training for acting, after all, is really a composite of several parts. If Ilan's Movement class fine tuned the body to face the multifarious rigors of acting, particularly for the stage, getting to master Speech was vital for diction and taught us to speak clearly and enunciate properly. Attending the Voice classes helped me in being able to “throw” my voice and in enunciation.
I was soon to experience the combined importance of all these rituals. RADA organized special sessions relating to various relevant topics for the trainees. Attending them was optional. One that almost all of us attended was a talk on “Acting in Shakespeare” by two distinguished RADA alums, Richard Johnson and Sheila Allen. Both had successful stage careers. They spoke for a long time and answered several questions from us without seeming to tire. I was struck by their clarity of speech, and their ability to effortlessly “throw” their voices in every corner of a large room. They were both getting on in years, but completed the session with aplomb and without any visible signs of fatigue. Ah, the hours they must have spent in rehearsing for plays, and then performing them countless times for the major part of a year, for years at end!
The holistic training of RADA us trainees underwent has stood the test of time for them, and the world of performing arts is surely the better for it. The short intensive summer program had much to give us trainees and spurred our dreams.
Shahid Alam is a thespian and Professor, Department of Media & Communications, IUB