Tag Archives: ARTTS International

The truth about drama school

IN THE SPOTLIGHT Drama school can be an isolating, confusing experience.

Make a good first impression

The stakes are always very high at drama school. Don’t go into any project half cooked. Every meeting, audition, opportunity and job prospect across your career will see you judged and appraised in the first 10 seconds. Learn that at drama school and you won’t need to pick up any other skill.

There is no such thing as a learning process

You are on display all the time – rehearsing, work-shopping, preparing, performing – never assume you’ll be given a break because you’re a student. You’re an adult, so take it seriously. There is only success or failure. The audience either likes the show, or it doesn’t.

At one point, they’ll try to get rid of you

It might be a case of the kind of reverse psychology that went out of fashion in 1980, but if a drama school wants to make you work harder they’ll threaten you with expulsion. Get used to surviving such stratagems, they’re an integral part of the performing arts. If you feel you’re about to be expelled, go down fighting, otherwise years of processing ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ awaits you. There are plenty of successful people who were thrown out of drama school before graduating.

They’ll constantly tell you how precarious the industry is

It’s probably to cover themselves in case you try to sue them later, when you end-up one of the 99 per cent unemployed in the performing arts, but you’ll hear plenty of statistics about your chances. Don’t listen to them, because like all ‘odds’, there is no perfect tipster to predict what will happen in your career.

Someone you know will become famous

One or two might even become very, very famous. Plenty of others will give up the industry and you’ll never hear of them again. If you can maintain a career somewhere between these two extremes (with everyone else), you’ll be a resounding success in the performing arts.

You won’t learn everything at any one drama school

Despite what many schools offer, not one of them can teach you everything you need. The rest you must pick up along the way.

Once the show starts, it can’t be stopped

The greatest gift to the drama school student is that all performances are in the hands of the artist, not the teacher. Go for it, it’s your time to fearlessly shine.

Don’t fool yourself about your education

You could do honours, masters, bachelors and graduate diplomas, but as soon as you enter the industry, you’ll still have to make the coffee. Hint: don’t wave your certificates around, no-one cares.

Some people never go to drama school at all

They just get a job in the industry in their teens and work their way up.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved. 

Performing in a pig farm

PIGS IN MUCK The ARTTS Advanced Course class of March 1993.

A Young Playwright’s next theatre.

The cluster of red-brick farm buildings showed itself on the horizon from a great distance, as a small bus full of students traversed the flat farming country of the East Riding of Yorkshire, me amongst them.

For someone whose first theatrical fantasies were hatched in a shearing shed, this place felt a little like coming home. I’d gotten myself to the middle of nowhere on the other side of the world to be transformed, and that long-winded process really began in the pig farm that had been converted into an international media training centre.

ARTTS International (‘The Advanced Residential Theatre & Television Skillcentre’) was the vision of John Sichel, (a television and theatre producer-director) and Elfie Sichel, a couple who struck-out on their own in 1990 with a vision to train young people in the skills they needed to survive in the entertainment industry.

John was immediately engaging, larger-than-life, in-your-face and over-the-top. He was like a beacon that you could not easily hide from. His greatest attribute, I believe, was his ability to train anyone who was even partially open to being trained.

My class hit the ground running. There was no time to think. Thinking was a creative killer. We were at there to learn by doing.

Within days we were crewing and presenting in the ARTTS television studio, rehearsing plays and other performances. The nuts and bolts of industry processes were learnt through continually putting pieces of television, theatre, radio and film together, very often under pressure.

Living and working with the same people 24/7 also meant that learning to get along with others was an essential part of the training. On Saturday afternoons, the bus took us into the city of York for shopping, cafes, and a brief experience of the outside world, before we made our own fun back at the pig farm.

No side of the performing or recorded arts was off limits – everyone took formal voice, dance, singing and acting classes. The latter was my big fear. I was attracted to acting, but totally afraid it would reveal all my secrets.

But I fell in love with it, and also the writing. Almost every week there was some original project to create, in every genre imaginable. No sooner was it on paper than we were shooting it or rehearsing it. The repetition of the process made us courageous and competitive, reliant on everyone chipping-in.

The landscape around the tiny village of Bubwith revealed itself slowly to me. Another Australian student and I used the centre’s bikes to pedal our way to the four winds, literally. The flat landscape was blasted by cold air coming off the North Sea as we pushed our way to tiny local pub lunches.

Gradually I learnt the history and heritage of the region – which trees had 16th century Catholic martyrs hanged from their branches, and the tiny stone church up the road where their graves were hidden under the floor; and the local castle with its nearby abbey … it all seemed like undiscovered country.

Eventually we started making use of these places as locations for our short film and television projects. The immediacy of making pictures in the open-air vibrancy of a landscape became my favourite part of the filmmaking process, and remains that way to the present day.

On the stage I got to play some great roles, including one of Thorton Wilder’s wonderful stage managers, and Shakespeare’s Malvolio. We also co-wrote original plays, and an entire musical. When I think about it now I can’t believe the amount of work we go through in only 42 weeks.

SKILL CENTRE The cluster of red-brick farm buildings that was ARTTS International.

ARTTS was not a college or a university. It was a skillcentre, and I certainly came away with skills I could use immediately to get employed in the industry.

But there are some life skills that cannot be taught, they have to be lived, and though I managed to transform as much as I possibly could in my year at ARTTS, there were still layers yet to come off. I needed to go out into the real world and learn the rest by doing.

As remote as the place is, one of the pleasures of ARTTS in its heyday was the support the Yorkshire locals gave to students, particularly as the audiences for our many stage productions. I can imagine that the village of Bubwith lost much when it lost John Sichel in 2005, and soon after ARTTS closed down.

John was a high-stakes, high-drama kind of man. That he turned those energies to education was a great gift to an entire generation of international media practitioners who passed through the barn doors.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Overdosing on community spirit

WHERE NOW? Life after the death of a loved one does not always go as planned.

A Writer’s send-off.

THE morning of Mum’s death dawned like a new world, or at least a world in which the gloss that Pat Burge put on things was now gone.

Our home, which had been a hospice bustling with carers and visitors, became, almost overnight, a wasteland. Jen and I now lived in a museum, dedicated to our Mother.

It was to be open barely three months – I was booked on a flight to England to take up my one-year directing course, and Jen was to move around the corner to live with friends who’d generously agreed to Mum’s request to accommodate her.

The night before her funeral, one of our school teachers telephoned, as the light of the day was disappearing. Shocked that Jen and I were home alone, he decided to come over, indignant that we were facing that evening by ourselves. It was a generous action of support that prefaced a series of shocks that the world now held for us.

Because the gloss that Mum put on things had softened the realities of money and the shortcomings of people, and it was fading fast.

Money hit me across the face when I went to the school which had been an integral part of our lives for a decade, to get Mum’s funeral program photocopied. Naively, I didn’t ask anyone’s permission, and subsequently got the kind man who completed the job for us in trouble.

Remembering Mum’s upfront approach, I duly arrived at the Bursar’s office to ensure that the photocopying staff member was only acting on my request. Perhaps this man didn’t realise the hundreds of voluntary hours Pat Burge had given to the school?

With an awkward curtness, he informed me that the copying would have to be paid for. I looked him in the eye, and said: “Fine … send me the bill,” before politely excusing myself. It never came.

It is understandable that people rarely know what to do for the grieving, but amongst our community there were a few risk-takers who broke through their own grief to help us.

Sometimes it’s just the small things – the couple who told me to call, even in the small hours of the morning, if we needed them, and who arrived within 15 minutes when we did; the friend who sat with us and folded those funeral programs, not trying to ‘fix’ anything, but joining us in our quiet grief; and the florist who created glorious bouquets for Mum’s funeral at cost.

A common theme emerged amongst those that went into action for us – these were people who’d been touched by death and loss, and understood that there was almost nothing to say, but plenty to be done.

Another family friend really pulled out the stops for me in particular. Knowing that I didn’t really have enough money to get through the whole year of my course, since I’d been running our ‘home hospice’ for two months and not been able to work, Mary rallied our community to a fundraiser.

DINNER THEATRE The Clarendon Guest House Katoomba, donated for one night to raise funds for a local theatre practitioner.

Our local dinner theatre hosted the event, local chefs fed everyone sumptuously, and almost 100 people came along for a night to raise money for me.

It was quite overwhelming for a young man who really knew himself very little, and who still avoided the spotlight if he could. The issue of having enough money had been a burning little secret for me. The course notes underlined that nobody was going to have time to work during the year – it was going to be intensive.

My community certainly ensured I didn’t have to work for money that year. They gave me the chance to tilt at a dream, and I became determined to eventually find a way to pay them back for their generosity.

But the event also gave people a focus for their grief at losing one of their foundations. I recognised this right in the midst of proceedings, as a ‘celebrity auction’ added to the funds raised – people were having fun, letting off steam, and sending off one of their own in the best way they knew how.

Considering the way that year went, for Jen in particular, I would have given all the money back in exchange for just staying at home and keeping the home fires burning for another 12 months. I think we all needed that.

But things didn’t go that way. I packed-away the museum and said my goodbyes, staving off the inevitable moment when Jen was moved out of her home.

Turns out Mum had asked some of her friends to ensure I got on the plane, so I was assisted in leaving my sister in the hands of our community, and used my one way ticket to London. Our family was scattered to the four winds across two hemispheres. Nobody discussed how any of us were going to cope, we just went through with it.

On the other side of the departure gate, a wall of loneliness hit me. The numbing reality of being on my own, really on my own, for the first time ever.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.