In the golden age of theatre there were so many highly accomplished actors in the profession that acting was made to look easy, and as a result there was a widely held belief among young aspirants to the stage that the only essential pre-requisite to a successful and glamorous stage career was an introduction in the right quarters. Consequently, the more popular of the established actors and actresses were quite accustomed to receiving letters from hopefuls who had failed in, or grown weary of, other walks of life (and who had no acting experience whatsoever) requesting that they put in a good word for them with some manager or other in the confident expectation that that would get them started on their own careers on the stage. Managers, likewise, were accustomed to receiving letters and even visits from inexperienced newcomers expecting to be given a part. Some even were so confident, or so naive, as to believe they could place restrictions on the types of parts they would deign to accept and/or the salaries they would deem fitting. Actress Irene VanBrugh, for example, spoke of receiving a letter from one such untried hopeful requesting an introduction but stipulating that she only wanted parts in London because she found travel tiresome.
The truth of course was very different. Life certainly could be glamorous for those at the very top of the profession, but that did not mean it was not hard work, and those who acheived that lofty position generally did so as a result of talent, fortitude and great dedication. Furthermore, for every actor or actress enjoying the 'glamorous' life at the top, there were many more 'jobbing' actors and actresses barely eking out a living lower down the ladder of their profession. The brutal reality for newcomers was, therefore, that even if they did manage to 'break in' to the profession, the future held out a far greater likelihood of a life in the latter category rather than the former.
It is true that for young women there was a 'happy time' when entry into the profession was relatively easy. The rapid expansion in the number of theatres at the end of the nineteenth century, allied to the massive popularity of musical comedy, led to such a shortage of chorus girls that any pretty young thing who could dance a few steps would have little difficulty finding work. But this time did not last long and work became increasingly scarce as the enormous influx led to the profession becoming overcrowded. And if they expected a life of glamour then the great majority would be soon be sadly disabused of any such notion. They would be worked till they dropped for pay that, for the majority, would be barely enough to put a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. Some, like George Edwardes famous 'Gaiety Girls', fared much better - but they were cream of their ilk, and even they endured a precarious existence. Those who were not lucky enough to progress to a higher level in the profession or snare a rich husband would find themselves losing favour as their youthful vigour and beauty began to fade.
The simple truth was, then, that entry into, and survival in, the acting profession was by no means as easy as many people at the time imagined. The value of training, and of experience gained over time in small parts, could not therefore be easily overestimated. Training was not by any means any guarantee of success, nor was it an indispensible pre-requisite for it, but it was of immense value in preparing a beginner for the profession and greatly increased their chances of making it.
The (Royal) Academy of Dramatic Art
The Academy of Dramatic Art (the oldest school of drama in England) was established in 1904 by actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree who recognised the need for a training establishment to prepare newcomers for the stage. Initially the Academy was based at Tree's own Haymarket theatre but soon moved to dedicated premises at Gower Street in London's Bloomsbury district where Tree set up a presiding council of other leading actors and producers to oversee the day to day running. Fees, initially, were set at six guineas (six pounds and six shillings) per term but were doubled the following year - a significant sum at the time. In 1909, Kenneth Barnes, a former civil servant and brother of actresses Irene and Violet Vanbrugh, was appointed it's Principal and under his forty-six year tutelage the Academy grew in influence and stature to reign as one of the leading and most-reknowned drama schools in the World. The academy attracted patronage from many of the leading lights of the Edwardian era, including Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, Arthur Wing-Pinero, James Barrie, W.S. Gilbert and George Bernard Shaw, who in 1912 donated the royalties from 'Pygmalion' to the Academy's funds.
In 1920, the Academy was granted a Royal Charter and became the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, or RADA as it is now better known. The Academy is still based at the Gower Street location, although the original buildings have since been replaced by a larger and more modern structure.
Following is a period article discussing the early work of the Academy.
First Steps to the Stage: Training At The Academy Of Dramatic Art
By Penelope Yorke
First published in "Everywoman's Encyclopaedia", Volumes 2 & 3, London S.N. circa 1911.
The Necessity of Training for a Successful Career on the Stage - Opinions of Miss Ellen Terry and Miss Winifred Emery - The Working of a School of Acting - Entrance Examination - Fees
"I want to go on the stage!"
How often one hears that cry, but usually she who utters it has no idea how to set about it. She is anxious to enter Theatre-land, but cannot find the door thereto.
It is generally conceded nowadays that in no profession, be it commercial or artistic, can anyone succeed without some special training or apprenticeship. Even a heaven-sent genius - and they are rare enough - must learn the technique of his trade. And the stage is no different from any other profession, though often stage-struck girls think they have only to walk on to the boards of a theatre and they will be able to act. Per-haps they have had little amateur experience - often this has all to be unlearnt - and kind friends in the front rows have beamed and applauded, and hailed the tyro as a budding Sarah Bernhardt. But the theatrical manager is made of very different stuff from those well-meaning friends.
At the opening of the Academy of Dramatic Art, Miss Ellen Terry, who was herself "a child of the stage," said: "Those who are gifted with the power to act can, and must, be taught. We claim for acting that it is an art . . . but our art, like any other,cannot be practised without a training." Miss Winifred Emery recently said: "To the girl who has dramatic capabilities and intends to adopt the stage, not as an amusement, but as a serious career, I say, go in for a proper training." An axiom of the profession often quoted is "acting cannot be taught," but this, contradictory as it may seem, only means that the inspiration, the spirit, the genius of acting cannot be taught, and this applies to any art. The divine spark cannot be implanted by any number of teachers.
A school such as the Academy of Dramatic Art, situated at 62, Gower Street, W.c., right in the heart of London, does not claim to be anything more than a sort of turnstile through which an aspirant after stage honours would do well to pass. To have graduated in such an academy and won a certificate of merit, awarded for general industry and distinguished merit by the examiners, proclaims that she has at least learnt the technique of her art. And, says a well-known critic, "the value of even the most highly developed intuitive acting must be enhanced by the addition of technical skill."
Let us enter the doors of No. 62, and examine the workings of this school of acting. There we meet its very able and genial administrator, Mr. Kenneth Barnes, a brother of those two distinguished actresses, the Misses Violet and Irene Vanbrugh. One cannot but be struck from the outset by the common-sense and business-like way he talks of the stage as a profession. There are no alluring and vague prospects offered to intending pupils. In novelettes, the beautiful heroine has only to step in front of the footlights after having recited a little in private, and her fame and fortune are made! But Mr. Barnes soon disperses any of these wonderful dreams. He says: "Work, work," and yet again, "work."
Before a girl can enter the academy, she must first pass an entrance examination, which is held before the beginning of each term. The examination consists of the recitation by the candidate of one of several passages chosen by the examiners, which is given her to study beforehand. Although this test is not a mountain of difficulty, it demands a certain amount of aptitude for stage work on the part of the candidate, and the passages are chosen from, say, Shakespeare and such a play as "Caste" (Polly Eccles was recently given - 1910) in order that she may have the opportunity for the display of some emotional power. The examiners are quick to detect latent ability and promise, and, provided they are there, the candidate finds herself enrolled as a student. If there is promise, if there are possibilities, the academy undertakes to bring them to fruition. The entrance fee for this examination is one guinea. The year is divided into three terms of eleven weeks each, the first term from about January 15 to March 31; the second, May 1 to July 15; the third, October 1 to December 15; and students can enter at the beginning of any one of these terms.
The fees for the full course are twelve guineas a term, payable at the commencement of each term. But provision is now being made for those with exceptional talent who are not well blessed with this world's goods. So long as the council shall order, a scholarship is awarded at the end of each term to the student who, during his or her first term, shall be considered to have shown the most marked ability and general industry in all the branches of work. This scholarship provides for free tuition for three terms. To be continued.
The following is a good firm for supplying materials, etc., mentioned in this Section: The Imperial Fine Art Corporation, Ltd. A trying ordeal
Age of Students - Staff of Instructors - Public Performances - Engagements
Whatage are the students at the academy? Some are as young as eleven, but it is best for a girl to start under the age of twenty, preferably, says Mr. Barnes-between the age of sixteen and seventeen. Those past their 'teens need not think themselves beyond the pale, especially if they have special talent, but in all professions it is as well to get the drudgery over as soon as possible.
To mention only a few of the staff of instructors is to inspire confidence. Such names as Mr. Ben Webster, Mr. J. Fisher White, Mr. A. E. George, Miss Gertrude Burnett, Miss Elsie Chester, Mr. Louis d'egville (dancing), M. Felix Bertrand (fencing) are so well known that they speak for themselves. The number of pupils averages a little under a hundred, and they are divided into seven classes of twelve or fourteen each, so that large, unwieldy classes are avoided, and it is possible for everyone to get individual attention and care. The students are divided into sections, called A, B, C, and the Final School, and they are classed according to their progress. The course of study includes voice production, the art of expression-delsarte system (a series of exercises whereby the body is trained to express adequately the emotions of the mind), acting class, dancing, deportment, and fencing. A student who shows a marked preference for musical comedy or comic opera would receive special tuition in dancing, but no musical training is given.
The Final School may be reached in a student's fourth term (in special cases she may arrive in her third term), and there are such very exceptional advantages attached to it that a student would be very ill-advised to leave before she had passed through it. The Final School classes are held on the stage of a regular theatre, and several performances are given during the term. The advantages of this are obvious. The actress is able " to let herself go," and has every opportunity of displaying talent.
In addition, certain specially chosen students periodically take part in a public performance at some West End theatre.
What sort of plays are studied? Every kind and description, from wordless pantomime to Greek tragedy. For example, in the term beginning on May 30, 1910, and ending July 15, the Final School rehearsed and performed the following plays-viz., "The Dove Uncaged," "A Doll's House," "Barbara," "The Case of Rebellious Susan," "Strife" (Act 2), "The Worth of a Man," "Caste" (Act 3), "Case for Eviction," and "The Death of Tintagiles and Hippolytus." The student in her final stages often does an eight hours' work-day and more, so that she is well qualified to stand the strain of regular rehearsals for a public production.
Besides the regular staff of instructors, the pupils are often visited and rehearsed by some of the very distinguished associates who take a personal interest in the welfare of the school. Such men as Sir Arthur Pinero, Dion Boucicault, Granville Barker, Sir John Hare, and Lyall Swete, have rehearsed the students several times.
The management of the school is now vested in a council comprising Sir Squire Bancroft (president), Sir John Hare, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (who originally founded it), Mr. George Alexander, Mr. Forbes Robertson, Mr. Cyril Maude, Mr. Arthur Bourchier, Sir Arthur Pinero, Mr. J. M. Barrie, Sir William S. Gilbert, Mr. Edward Terry, and Mr. E. S. Willard.
There are also numerous prizes offered to incite and encourage the students. The most coveted is the gold medal which is annually awarded to the most distinguished pupil. Several of its recipients in the past have already made a name for themselves on the stage, such as Mr. Reginald Owen, Mr. Charles Maude, Miss Mary Barton, Miss Athene Seyler, Miss Laura Cowie, etc.
Included in the course of instruction are special lectures on the history of the drama, Shakespeare, the art of the stage, etc., by well-known authorities, and there are also classes for the study of French plays.
The Academy does not guarantee an engagement after the full course of tuition has been taken, but it gives its pupils every assistance, and in many cases is instrumental in finding them openings. Managers are quick to recognise the value of such a school, and requisition Mr. Barnes to send them his pupils for small parts, understudies, or " walk-ons."
Other advantages are enjoyed by the students, such as the use of a theatrical library, and, owing to the kindness of the honorary physicians to the academy, students are able, by means of a letter of introduction from the administrator, to consult them without the payment of a professional fee. To the struggling would-be actress this is a boon. Light luncheons, teas, etc., are supplied at as nearly as possible cost price by the housekeeper, but no arrangement is made for the lodging of students.
As all roads lead to Rome, so there are several ways of approaching the stage, but the Academy of Dramatic Art seems to be one of the most direct. In some way or another, the girl who wants to go on the stage must be trained. At the Academy she is spurred on by competition, and is taught the value of co-operation, without which her talent is not marketable, for an actress does not stand by herself alone-she is only one of a company.