Dear Sir Laurence Olivier
Updated: Aug 5
Disclaimer: I know – he’s a dead, white man. I wrote this letter when I graduated from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, which he founded in 1946. It feels strange to write something personal like this to someone who will never read it, and who certainly hasn’t been an integral figure in my growth as an actor and feminist. Indeed I continue to be reminded of the horrifying discrepancies concerning gender in the acting industry, residual from the prime of actors such as Sir Olivier. But that subject deserves another whole series of letters, and he did say a couple of useful things. And, more importantly, he opened the school where, in this day and age, students are constantly combatting these discrepancies in the name of equality and freedom of creative expression. So think of this as a letter to that cause and culture:
Dear Sir Laurence Olivier,
You once said: “Have a very good reason for everything you do.”
My acting pursuits have been repeatedly questioned. How can you be prepared to stake a place for yourself in an industry with such tough odds for consistent employment, for artistic recognition, for success? Why are you willing to endure the emotional intensity, the competitiveness, and the ruthless exposure to a critiquing audience, the risk of embarrassment or failure? Why are you taking this profession seriously?
Various people have posed these inquiries to me, but they also stem from my own sense of curiosity, uneasiness and doubt. In all instances, the questions have been loaded with expectations of a sufficiently strong response – a “very good reason”.
My answer to these questions is quite well summed up by a fellow countryman of yours, Sir Olivier. In the sage words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “Never give up on something that you can’t go a day without thinking about.”
I’m at the end of a journey, having just graduated from the school you created. And I’ve learned an awful lot. Sometimes the course delivered me with newfound, wonderful, whimsically life-affirming, eye-popping, lemon-squeezing knowledge. And sometimes it brought me frightening, mind-crippling discoveries. But I think that both ends of the spectrum have contributed to the person I see myself as at the end of it all.
When I first applied to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, I was in no doubt that I wanted to be an actor, the best actor I could possibly be. The difficulty was, I had no certain idea about how to be that actor – what was the correct way to approach the craft of acting, the method that would set me on the road to professional success and artistic fulfilment? But on my very first day of school, seated amongst classmates and staff members I barely knew, and feeling my nerves and anticipation build to breaking point, our Head of Acting told us to “Let this year happen to you.”
I realise now that his words were the beginning of an answer to my queries. In the world of acting, where there is no step-by-step guide, no singular definitive authority on how to be good, or successful, I realised that perhaps the best approach is to possess an air of curiosity, a willingness to learn, and a relinquishment of the need to control or analyse one’s acting with a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ vocabulary. By trying to become a more ‘curious’ actor this year, I found that I have relieved myself of a lot of pressure to perform ‘well’, to impress, or to prove myself to an invisible hierarchy. Often, there was a hell of a lot of tension standing in my way. But when I could look past it, and become my most curious and light-minded, it was fittingly then that I produced my best quality of performance.
Your school also enabled me with an important discovery, Sir Olivier. After performing a scene as Helena from Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well at a previous acting studio, my tutor responded with, “You enjoy being this character more than yourself. I think if you could, you would spend all your time being someone else.” I received these words as a compliment at the time, but it was only after beginning this BOVTS training that I came to associate my passion for acting, at least some of the time, as a refuge from my own insecurities. It was an idea that pressed on me for quite a time – if I so enjoyed abandoning my sense of self and investing fully in the thoughts and actions of another, often fictional being, what was I without it? An empty shell?
It’s a frightening prospect that I think a lot of performers encounter – finding one’s self-worth beneath the performance. By trying to confront the parts of myself that I was most self-critical or unsteady about, and living these truths within a character’s shoes, I actually discovered that the performance had the potential to become more enriched. Injecting more of myself, in all its vulnerability and imperfection, made my acting more truthful. It’s by no means something I feel comfortable with or skilled at right now. It’s bloody messy. But my growing willingness to be an actor who “lives truthfully in imaginary circumstances” (Sanford Meisner) became something to love about myself. In short, this year taught me how to see vulnerability as a strength in my acting.
But then again, I must catch myself. Your words are echoing through my mind: “Acting is a masochistic form of exhibitionism. It is not quite the occupation of an adult.”
You make me laugh, Sir Olivier – this may be one of the truest statements about acting I have encountered this year – for if nothing, being an actor is embracing one’s inner child, and allowing one’s sense of play to infiltrate the work. There is a wonderful freedom in owning up to the fact that as an actor, one is openly admitting their desire to be seen, to amuse others, to be the object of other people’s attention and admiration. Actors are truly stimulated by this. Prior to BOVTS training, I wasn’t comfortable with acknowledging this. But by learning to laugh at it, I have found a new lightness of being in my approach to performance, and treating every opportunity to train and perform as an equal opportunity to have fun with the process has brought me enormous happiness.
In a world where we must grow up, and childhood must become a thing of the past – my BOVTS teachers and colleagues taught me to defy that world, and allow my inner child (which never really left me) to come out and explore. Moreover, I was encouraged to enjoy the very childishness of drama school – taking the limelight, enjoying the time on stage, seeking to entertain people, developing a crafted awareness of comic timing, and relishing in the laughs my performances generated.
It is an experience that I will truly cherish from this year.
I am so grateful to have been able to grab on to this adventure, and pursue something I love at such a school, with such a nurturing community. And no matter where life takes me, I will carry the memory of my experiences this year like treasure. Acting fulfils my life, and I love it.
With smiles and tears,