Bret and I were marching resolutely towards our Holy Grail, waiting for us only a couple of hundred meters or so away, though still out of sight. But that could be because both of us were in animated conversation. We had just got acquainted though and were about to mingle with what was probably going to be a whole bunch of strangers in a huge and quite unfamiliar city. I had been to London before on a couple of brief stopovers on way to Boston, USA, but my hours there then were spent on doing the “touristy” rounds, which are pleasant to while away ones time and getting to know a place superficially, but not enough to knowing its warts and all, which could be far more interesting and satisfying as an experience.
Remember Bret? I had introduced him in my last piece, both of us having been members of the Boston-based theater group Harrison Project, who had found ourselves staring at each other across the divide of a self-operating photography kiosk on Tottenham Court Road in London. We had discovered that our destination was the same: the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) where we were enrolled in the Summer School 1996 program—our Holy Grail! RADA was located on Gower Street, but, before you stepped on to its black asphalt, you had to traverse the short distance of Chenies Street. Actually, unless you were taking a leisurely stroll down Chenies and taking in the surroundings, you might well have missed the concrete-and-glass premise of RADA, which houses the John Gielgud room. Gielgud, like many great actors, actresses, technical personnel, and directors, was a RADA alum, though now long dead; he is regarded by many theater literati as one of the all-time greats in acting Shakespeare, just about equal in stature to the incomparable Laurence Olivier.
RADA has not only contributed immensely to British culture, but through its alums manifold works, in a variety of performing arts, and to global culture, too. Suffice here to say that, almost immediately following World War I, and even more aggressively and pervasively, with the end of World War II, American (or Hollywood) films, where British directors, actors, actresses, and technicians, including RADA alums, have had significant input, being in the vanguard of spreading American culture everlastingly throughout the world. It is not really much of a surprise that George Bernard Shaw bequeathed much of his literary works to that venerable institution. Indeed, RADA's basement houses the George Bernard Shaw theatre, used both for actor training and staged performances. And Bret and I were heading towards the original building of the Academy!
We didn't have to wait long before stopping, and looking to our right across the street. The Academy was staring right back at us. Or, rather, the two sculpted figures, looking grimy after decades of being out in the open, come rain, sun, or snow, perched solidly on two ledges at the entrance door of the venerable building and flanking the engraved stone announcing “ROYAL ACADEMY OF DRAMATIC ART,” stared down at us. Losing no time, and in a hurry in our eagerness, we crossed the street rapidly and walked through the open sturdy wooden entrance door of that hallowed institution. The first thing that struck me as I entered the vestibule was the very high ceiling I was under, and the massive oil paintings that adorned the walls. I can't recall now the subjects of the portraits, but I think I can safely say that they represented luminaries of the artistic fraternity. Oil portraits of celebrated actors adorned the walls of several rooms inside the building.
Gielgud had once been the RADA Council chair. When I was admitted to the Summer program, another alum, Richard Attenborough, more known for directing the Oscar Award-winning film Gandhi than for his numerous screen acting roles, was holding the position of Chair. RADA was founded by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in 1904 and, since then, has provided comprehensive training to successive groups of actors and stage technicians. Among its notable alumni is the director Mike Leigh, whose film Secrets and Lies, won the Palme D'Or at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival. And just how many celebrated actors? A small sampling: Glenda Jackson, Albert Finney, Anthony Hopkins, Julie Christie, Maggie Smith, Alan Bates, Peter O'Toole, Jonathan Pryce, Tom Courtney, John Hunt, Kenneth Branagh, Ralph Fiennes, Susannah York, Charles Laughton (an idol of the English actor Sir Daniel Day Lewis, winner of the maximum number of Oscars for best actor in a leading role—three to date!) among others.
The main theatre of the Academy, the Vanbrugh, which stages plays for a good part of each year, is usually and more conveniently reached from Malet Street, parallel to Gower; but is also accessible from within the new building. All the theatres are fully equipped and provide familiarity with the proscenium, open stage, and in-the-round productions. Obviously, with the twenty-plus years passage of time since I was there, RADA and its structural configurations might well have undergone changes, but, given the British peoples' admirable penchant for the preservation and exhibition of its numerous heritage sites (and RADA is emphatically one of them), one can safely assume that any renovation would have been carried out around its core/central edifice. The two-year students are prepared for the professional world while they are undergoing training. Selected students and stage technician trainees work in productions directed by one of the RADA instructors, or invited directors. They are mostly staged in Vanbrugh over a period of several evenings. Spectators pay for watching the performances. They are usually top notch productions, and I had the great pleasure of watching one, Ghost Train (I had to pay for the ticket, although at a reduced rate, on account of having been a student).
The Academy trains students in acting. And, yes, it lays a special emphasis on teaching Shakespearean acting. Each year it offers short-duration intensive courses that are devoted to performing in the Bard's plays. After all, he is universally admired, and the Japanese have an impressive theme park that is devoted exclusively to him. And each year they send a group of actors to train at RADA in short-duration workshops. Many do not understand English and rely on the course interpreter, but they eagerly take in the instructions in “classical” acting so that they can go back to their country to perform in the Bard's plays in Japanese translation. The Englishman's works have a particular appeal in that country of high culture, and Akira Kurosawa presented a few on celluloid in his own manner, the first as far back as in 1957, when he adapted Macbeth to create the outstanding Throne of Blood, and then in 1985, when he adapted King Lear to make Ran.
Bret and I were about to be introduced to the world of acting in a few weeks by RADA instructors. After having gone through the admission preliminaries in the crowded lobby we were directed to an appointed room. We entered, and were greeted by what appeared to be an ocean of faces. There were many of us there, men and women, crowding and sitting on the floor of a cavernous room. We were among the very last of the Summer 1996 session to have come in.
The author is a thespian, professor and Head, Department of Media and Communications, IUB