Sunday, July 24, 2022

An Eye for Talent - A life at NIDA

Cover design: Katy Wall

An Eye for Talent – A life at NIDA by John Clark.  Coach House Books, Currency Press, Sydney, 2022.  
Foreword by editor Nick Parsons.  

Reviewed by Frank McKone

We critics indulge in our feelings in response to what actors do to entertain us, but how much do we understand about how great actors – so many of whom have been trained at NIDA – create our sense of satisfaction, gain our appreciation and our applause for their work?

John Clark served on the staff of the newly established National Institute of Dramatic Art from 1960 until 1969 when he was appointed director, a position he held until his retirement at the end of 2004.  This record of his forty-four year life at NIDA explains why the way actors are taught there has made NIDA recognised as arguably the best drama school in the world.  This is not boasting like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It’s because NIDA actors are taught how to think their way into creating the feelings we respond to.

I never went to NIDA.  After all, surely my only sensible choice in 1958 was the prestigious University of Sydney; definitely not that upstart technical college now called the University of New South Wales.  Yet, by some kind of osmosis, my thoughts on drama turned out to be much more in tune with what Robert Quentin had in mind as the just-appointed director of a school for actors at UNSW, which became NIDA, than with the only drama activity at Sydney, where the Sydney University Drama Society (SUDS) were focussed on presenting melodramas.  There was no undergraduate course in drama, so I took up politics with the Labour Club instead.

My reviews since retiring from teaching, published here, show my long-abiding interest in George Bernard Shaw from my teenage days and my Masters thesis (1972).  Now John Clark reveals an amazing link to Shaw, Pygmalion and the My Fair Lady movie I saw in 1958, on Page 207-8.  Clark had earlier explained that his approach had long been opposed to the American Method actor training, where actors were to focus their characterisation work on their own experience of feelings.  He had them research their character, and that character’s social and even political world, and then to focus on thinking about how that character would behave – and in this way create that character’s feelings which are communicated to the audience.

This means that the actor-in-training, though learning skills of voice and movement, does not then ‘obey’ her teacher/director but through research and thinking becomes an independent creator of the character.  The teacher is successful when the student no longer needs direction.  Here is Clark’s example:

Acting remained the central course. It set out to teach young artists how to transform their voice, their body, their emotional life and their thinking according to the demands of the character they were playing and the play’s imaginary world – exactly what Professor Henry Higgins tries to achieve in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Shaw knew what acting was all about; a performer himself, he also taught acting at the London Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and bequeathed the rights to his best-known play to his old school. The difference between the ending of the play and the ending of the musical adaptation is striking.

My Fair Lady ends with a blazing row between teacher and student.  Eliza storms out, but not for long. She returns to Professor Higgins and the implication is they will marry and live happily ever after. The play ends differently. Eliza says to Higgins, ‘You can’t take away the knowledge you gave me … ! I’ll go and be a teacher … what you taught me … phonetics’. Higgins is thrilled. This is exactly what he wanted to hear. ‘Five minutes ago, you were like a millstone around my neck.  Now you are a tower of strength.’

Throughout An Eye for Talent, as we find out about what happened to NIDA from its Tin Shed days to Clark’s retirement when “Astonishingly, less than 50 years from its inception, NIDA was included in the International Theatre Institute’s list of the ten best theatre schools in the world”, you will find stories and comments on the process of theatre work which will surely make connections for you – whether as performer, audience member, as teacher, or even as reviewer.

Two Canberra connections, for example, are Karen Vickery, very prominent currently at The Hub, and Ken Healey, one time reviewer for The Canberra Times.  Both were graduates who later taught Theatre History and General Studies at NIDA in John Clark’s time.  

Ken reviewed me – before he taught at NIDA.  He observed one of my group improvisation classes at Hawker College and gave me the title “The Invisible Man” because, once the action was set up and underway, I had disappeared behind the curtain to watch without interfering in the drama being created by the students.  For me, a Professor Henry Higgins moment.

Though I had not gone to NIDA I had been to World Education Fellowship summer schools in movement and improvisation with the indomitable Margaret Barr in my early years of teaching (English, of course, before Drama became a separate subject). Clark writes

Margaret Barr reminded me of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, charging through life with a single-minded, ruthless determination to survive…. What mattered to her was the human body and its capacity for supple, expressive and dynamically energetic movement.  She despised prettiness, elegance, lightness and grace. The body had weight and substance and, unlike in classical ballet, the floor was the actor’s best friend. Her morning exercises would have exhausted the Australian rugby football team. Miss Barr also taught Improvisation: acting exercises without a script that encouraged young actors to create directly from their own experience; to think, imagine and feel from the heart, rather than ‘having plays thrust upon them’, presumably by directors and teachers of Theatre History [ie John Clark at that time]. So much of what she taught was fundamental to good acting: truthfulness, honesty, simplicity and clarity. She detested pretence, emotional demonstration and generalized acting. Everything the actor did had to come from an inner impulse: what she called ‘the inward motivation of the outward gesture’.

Apart from personal lucky links of this kind, An Eye for Talent is hugely informative about the experiences, backgrounds and future lives of hundreds of the actors, production students and directors who ‘got into NIDA’ – so often against the wishes of their parents, as Clark recalls:

Perth-born Jason Chan wanted to become an actor after leaving school, but his parents were opposed, so he studied medicine and became a doctor like his father. Only then, having fulfilled his parents’ wishes, did he audition successfully for NIDA, paying his way by doing locums each weekend. His first acting job was in Spain with Playhouse Disney presenting children’s television programs for Asia. He then became the Green Power Ranger and now has his own film production company in Singapore.

Stories like this provide us with an understanding of the changing times not just in Australian theatre but in Australia, from White Australia to Multicultural Australia, and at last to the increasing acceptance and appreciation of Indigenous Australia.

The 14th Chapter is titled with a quote from Twelfth Night: Foolery Doth Walk About The Orb.  Like all good drama the through-line has to reach some kind of climactic point.  Clark had announced his intended departure as Director some years before 2004 to allow for finding a suitable replacement, but he remained a Member of the NIDA company.  What can only be called the NIDA Tragedy of Governance following his retirement is dramatic reading indeed.

Of course, the drama e non finita.  A takeover of the Board by business and academic interests, rather than experienced theatre practitioners operating as an arts-centred organisation, may be working to a dénoument after catastrophe, as NIDA reported on 4th May 2020:

NIDA has been ranked in the top 5 of The Hollywood Reporter’s world’s best drama schools for an undergraduate degree. The Reporter’s international ranking of acting schools places NIDA in the top echelons, along with Carnegie Mellon and New York’s Juilliard School.

The Hollywood Reporter canvassed alumni, instructors and top theatre and Hollywood pros to arrive at its list. The stringent ranking took into account management and staff, guest mentors and visiting artists, recent graduates’ notable film, TV and theatre credits, and buildings and facilities.

For The Hollywood Reporter, NIDA was proud to list its achievements. These include Director of Acting, John Bashford, the former Head of Acting and Vice Principal at London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). Iconic Australian actor Sigrid Thornton and NIDA alumnus and Sydney Theatre Company Artistic Director, Kip Williams have been appointed to NIDA’s Board of Directors to help shape the future of the institute.

Hope is eternal, and so is my fascination with John Clark’s story not merely of having an eye for talent, but for giving NIDA the life it, and the theatre world, deserved.  It is important also to understand the remarkable professional relationship Clark had throughout with his General Manager, Elizabeth Butcher.  During the period of crisis a figure of doom stated that a company cannot be run by two bosses.  However true that may be for a private business, for an arts institution based on the educational principle of learning through group cooperation, because that kind of teamwork produces the best art, the cooperative leadership over four decades by Clark and Butcher is an outstanding example of good in the world.

And finally, Clark demonstrates this approach in the creation of the book itself, when he writes in Acknowledgements:

"Many thanks, too, to Nick Parsons [son of Currency Press founder, Katharine Brisbane, and NIDA Graduate] whose extensive edits were probably made in revenge for my bold cuts and re-arrangement of scenes in at least two of his plays. I have to admit, Nick’s advice has invariably been spot on."

An Eye for Talent – A life at NIDA is essential reading for any theatre critic – and isn’t that everyone?


John Clark