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The play's the thing: Shakespeare Prize & working with Ian McKellen

'I am more than grateful for a chance to share our love of drama with the next generation of professional actors,' said Ian McKellen after spending two days working with our second year acting students.

Olivier, Tony and Golden Globe winning actor of screen and stage over the last 70 years, champion of LGBTQ+ social movements across the world, and all-round legend in his own lifetime, Sir Ian McKellen was in College to judge our new Shakespeare Prize.

The new award celebrates the actors’ technical ability with verse, and their connection with character and situation.

Ian, with head of voice Alice, working with the students

Ian spent the first day auditioning and working with the students before giving individual masterclasses during the next day to the five finalists, Nathan Kirby, Alyson Handley, Mya Pennicott, Saskia West and James Mace.

Highly commended were Aoise Meaney, Chris Odulele and Joshua Gordon.

Huge congratulations to them all. The finalists will head to London early next year where they'll meet with Ian again when he judges the final.

Studying Shakespeare with Ian McKellen: a transference of knowledge

Working with a national treasure and renowned Shakespearian actor as the culmination of their immersion in the Bard, could have been a little bit awe-inspiring. However, the actors were put at ease as soon as they met him:

'It was brilliant hearing him talk, and how he came to life when he was reciting different lines. He was constantly bringing it back to Shakespeare, showing its relevance today and his humanity.

It was fabulous to see Ian McKellen geeking over Shakespeare with the rest of us.'
Alyson Handley

Ian commented on how lucky the students were to have the time during their training to work on the bricks and mortar of performing Shakespeare, really getting to know it, to play with it, without the pressure of delivering a performance until their final year.

All of the students performed a speech and a sonnet in front of Ian, Jonathan Munby, Director of Drama performance, and lecturer in voice, Alice White, performing to a third year actor to give their words context.

An introduction to the day, before the students audition one at a time in front of Ian McKellen

Ian talked about the high standard of the performances, and both he and Jonathan both lauded the actors' clarity of language, and the way they brought together the historical material and authentic, clear speech, embracing what was there on the page and presenting it as rooted in a believeable reality.

'It was a real transference of knowledge.

Every time you work on Shakespeare you unlock a new familiarity with it. Our job as actors is to discover what Shakespeare has given us. As Ian said to us, everything you need to know is on the page. And that's where the work begins.'
Nathan Kirby

Mya agreed: 'It was really cool to have worked on this project ourselves-we usually work on things with our tutors-and then to get his feedback directly and in person to us, was incredible.’

Working actor to actor: it's all tied to the text

'We've been used to working with directors, and of course, Ian's approach was that of an actor,' said Saskia. 'He reads it, he plays around with it, he connects with it creatively - and he's unshackled by a sense of process. His love of words, giving us different scenarios, opened up my brain and gave me the freedom to play, which is so important with Shakespeare.'

'It was great to work actor to actor, building it up line by line, patiently and methodically. He gave me insights into the story of my character, explored it with us,' said Nathan.

'It really requires you to ground everything you say in an imagined reality, in your breath, in your thoughts and in a clear sense of character,' added James. 'It's all tied to the text - and then the magic happens.'

'He gave us very down to earth advice,' said Alyson. 'What really struck me was to be prepared for luck. Don't be too controlled - be brave and have fun. Let go. He was very hot on the subtext as there's so much going on there. It's reaffirming what it is to be human, even though it's in this other language. It's our job to convey that with clearness, clarity and truth.'

The plays the thing...

So what did our students take from working with one of the world’s leading Shakespearian actors?

So many things, but Nathan said, ‘it was a real lesson in treasuring your role, no matter how small. We had to create a character around the sonnet and it really brought it home that if you only have that amount of lines in a film or a play, you still have that fully rounded character: a sonnet’s worth of life.’

One of the challenges Saskia took away is to apply this same level of analysis to any other character that she’s performing, using the same insights to create fully rounded people across her work.

For Mya it was hearing that Ian still genuinely loved what he did as a day job:

‘He really brought it down to earth – we’re so used to actors talking about the glamour and the lifestyle.

To him, it’s a career and he’s doing it because he loves to act. Just like we do. He talked about how he sustains working in a production when you’re on night after night- being in the moment and adapting each night to keep it fresh.’
Mya Pennicott

James agreed: ‘I’ll be taking this work with me into the rest of our training. It’s given us a clearer appreciation of ourselves, and working with Sir Ian, there’s a real awareness of a community of actors, passing on knowledge and enriching the acting community.’

We look forward to the final in London. Watch this space!

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