A spotlight on performance

The successful British theatre producer and former actress, who opened the House – the University's performing arts centre – shares with us a wealth of stage wisdom.

Thelma discusses the benefits of young actors learning their craft with a working theatre, managing the business side of the industry, how to learn from failure, and why studying acting and performance at the Plymouth Conservatoire is such a unique and career-building experience.


What are the unique benefits for students of a university like Plymouth sharing a relationship with a working theatre like the Theatre Royal?

When a university like Plymouth shares a relationship with a theatre as world-famous as Theatre Royal Plymouth, and when that theatre is able to embrace students from the University, the advantages are beyond measure.  

What can young actors learn from working with professional actors?

If the students can sit and watch, which they cannot always do when they are in the depths of their studies, they will learn from observation how to hone their technique.  

In days gone by, understudies were never given sufficient rehearsal (some would maintain that is still the case). Many an inexperienced understudy would learn how to play the role they might never be called upon to perform, by watching their principal from the wings, and inwardly absorbing the skills that were being demonstrated without conversations and discussions having to take place. A process almost of osmosis.

Performing in class and then walking through the stage doors of a professional theatre are very different animals. How does studying at the Plymouth Conservatoire prepare young actors for this experience?

Most young actors do not have the advantage of a university like Plymouth, and they learn the hard way.

A young actor in Plymouth is not going to walk onto the stage there and be consumed by stage fright.

The very nature of the building and the staff working there will have made them comfortable and they will have confidence in what they can do. 

I have spoken on the stages in Plymouth and would willingly do so again.

<p><b></b>Acting&nbsp;students performing The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning</p>
<p>Students performing in the House.</p>
<p>Students rehearshing.</p>

You have always been a great supporter of bringing fringe theatre to wider audiences. How important are places like The House and opportunities like the Plymouth Conservatoire to the South West for performers and audiences?

Fringe theatre has opened the door for many an artist who needed to fine-tune their skills before they are exposed to large-scale venues and the inevitable adjustments that requires in scale of performance and vocal projection.

The House is welcoming to actors, as indeed it is to the paying public, and in my view it is worth its weight in gold.

Acoustically it is very fine indeed, which is praise indeed from a girl who vowed nobody could build an auditorium that was sympathetic to the actor’s voice after Frank Matcham! 

For those of us who like to avoid microphones when addressing an audience, it is a pleasure, as well as an opportunity to show off.

I would be delighted to answer more questions about the lovely small theatre, but you should ask Michael Sheen, who directed The Dresser (Plymouth Theatre Royal, 1995) and then had to take over playing when we lost an actor, just before we opened. 

This was a challenge that Michael rose to immediately, and I like to think that the comfort of the building and the people working there were enormous bonuses for him.

<p>Josh Slater taking a class.</p>
<p>Students performing in the house.</p>
<p>Students performing in the House.</p>

With your exhaustive experience of producing theatre productions, how do you manage to balance the art of performance with the business of performance? How can young actors prepare themselves for the business of the industry?

Balancing the creative process with the business side of what we do in the theatre can be a considerable challenge. It is one that is perhaps easier handled with age and experience.

Vanessa Redgrave has produced as well as playing leading roles on stage, but this is a rare example. I can also remember Nigel Hawthorne, playing the leading role in The Clandestine Marriage, which we produced on Shaftesbury Avenue, also directing the play.

I remember quite clearly that at one point in rehearsal we had to say to him that the business side of what he was doing in directing the piece was going very well, but where was his own performance. Needless to say, that peerless performance was there from the opening night onwards, and he was quite magical.

You once said, “failure is not a bad things, you get better at it.” What are some of the techniques, or lesson learned that young actors could look towards to help push them through any initial fear of failure in their craft?

Young actors do have an initial fear of failure in their craft. The more they do, theoretically, the easier it should get, although that is not always the case.

When they are in their 70s, and I have just been working with someone of that age, you can see them as scared as they were when 20. They just know how to hide it better. They never really learn to deal with the fear of failure, and I suspect some part of that is what drives them on.

“For me, this is a marriage made in heaven and as a student, if you can work with a theatre while you are still studying it gives you a great advantage in your professional career.”

– Thelma Holt CBE talking at the launch of The House

Thelma talking at the opening of The House