The acting talent of Shaftesbury area youngsters has been recognised with impressive exam results. All sixteen students enrolled on a new LAMDA course at Wincombe Business Park-based TLW Dance Academy gained a distinction in their solo acting assessments.
14-year-old Eliza Salisbury performed two monologues for her test. She chose to play Shakespeare’s Ophelia and perform a secondary script, ‘Anaesthesia’. On our podcast, you can hear part of Eliza’s moving and emotional recital of the short piece, written about a family’s response to a relative’s cancer.
Examiners from UCAS-affiliated LAMDA graded each student at 80% or higher, the level for a distinction. Two pupils achieved 100% scores.
Shaftesbury actress and director Helen Watts helped to teach and coach the students. “My job is to make sure that they achieve to the best of their ability. And they have. It’s a massive achievement,” said Helen, as she reflected on two pupils gaining top marks. “It does happen but it’s pretty rare.”
Helen admits that she pushes her pupils. “I like to challenge. My past experience is working with professional children or working with professionals in the industry. Any one of (these students) I feel quite confidently could go and do a short film or a small part in theatre on a professional level,” she said.
Helen knows what is required. She has extensive experience within theatre. “I went to Italia Conti for the acting course. Then I worked as an actress for a while. I played the receptionist in the film Billy Elliot.” She is modest about that part. “I was in the right place at the right time and could wear the costume,” although she admits she has not been recognised following her movie debut. “Absolutely not, because most of the shot was from behind my head!” she laughed.
Helen has set up her own Dorset Corset Theatre Company, which tours across the south west. She also works as a freelance practitioner in drama schools. “Most of my work is with third year drama school students. Last year I wrote a show for Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and in the past, I’ve written for Central School of Speech and Drama. In 2018 I did a show for National Youth Music Theatre, too. I’m working with quite a high level.”
TLW proprietor, Tiffany Longley, is understandably delighted at these first exam results. “Towards the end of last year, we started working on taking those exams. We had our first session in July. We had to become a centre for examinations, and we put in our first set of students. We just had the results back a week ago. It was a really incredible achievement,” said Tiffany.
The drama course groups were divided into junior, intermediate and senior classes. It was a new venture for Tiffany’s business. “We were mainly focusing on dancing before. As a performer now, you really need to be accomplished at dancing, singing and acting,” she said. “Some of our students are really interested in acting and want to do solo acting rather than a ‘triple thread’ course. It gives the dancers an opportunity to do all three, if they wish.”
Helen says that she enjoys nurturing the raw talent she identifies within these local students. “You can be an amazing actor at eight or nine, just the same as you could be at fifty. What we’re doing here is giving them the best possible opportunity, so if they decide to take it on professionally, they are ready,” Helen said.
The students are attending in their own time, during the day in the holidays and in the evening and weekends in school term time. They are also paying for the sessions, so they are committed and determined to do their best. Helen says she is happy to challenge the young performers, and with an outstanding first set of results, says she’ll be even tougher next term. “I will be notching it up from September as well. It’s going to get a bit harder,” she promised.
Helen feels it’s her role to offer a reality check to students wishing to pursue acting professionally. She makes it clear that the sector can be ruthless and lacks job security. “Whenever somebody tells me that they want to go to drama school, I always give them at least an hour-long session where I talk to them first and try to understand exactly why it is they want to go. I’m extremely negative about the industry, because I believe that you have to really want to do it. It is so hard,” she confided. “Many of my friends have given up acting and they had already reached high levels.”
She says that she pulls no punches when discussing theatre employment with her pupils or their parents. “I do make it clear exactly how bad it’s going to be, how hard and how they need to diversify. It is important that you have all the other skills that you can possibly get. We encourage our acting students to take on musical theatre. Even if it’s not a natural skill, it all feeds into the performer that they’re going to be.”
Helen feels obligated to advise students. “When I went to drama school, there was no one I could ask. Now parents ring me and ask, ‘What am I letting my child into?’ I will talk them through it and check that they’re choosing the right drama school because drama schools change considerably.”
Whether students follow acting or an alternative career path, Tiffany says their drama training can help in everyday work or student life. “It does really give a confidence boost definitely for public speaking. In school these days, they have to do more presentations,” said Tiffany.
14-year-old Eliza is considering a drama career, she too recognises that, whatever happens in her future, she has gained personal skills that will be with her for life. “I think it’s a really good experience for confidence,” she said.