11 December 2020
Poel Workshop Director’s Christmas Present (plus Past and Future)
The Poel Workshop is an annual FREE two day intensive workshop run by leading industry professionals for newer entrants to the acting profession. It focuses on the speaking and delivery of classical texts, in particular those of William Shakespeare.
“These unique workshops inspire and develop a practical love of Shakespeare. I wish every young actor could attend them.”
Following the order in March for theatres to close because of the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of actors were thrown out of work or denied the prospect of finding work in the foreseeable future. The Society suffered collateral damage in that the 2020 Poel Workshop, which relied heavily on ensemble work and the use of the Olivier stage at the National Theatre, was postponed. When in July it became clear that it would have to be cancelled altogether, we wondered what those 40 actors who had applied for places on the Workshop had been doing to help keep theatre – and themselves – alive for those five months. So we invited them, and Poel Workshop alumni from earlier years, to tell us, in about 500 words, about their experience of the Great Theatre Shutdown.
Below we publish the most recent of the articles received. If you missed earlier posts you can read them here and if you are a theatre practitioner – actor, director, stage manager, designer…. – who has a tale to tell, we’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
William Poel – originally Pole but presumably Poel worked better as a nom de theatre, particularly as his family disapproved of his choice of career – was a producer and actor whose career spanned the years from the rise of Victorian actor-manager Henry Irving to the establishment of such twentieth century figures as John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. Born 22nd July 1852, he died on 13th December 1934. Probably best remembered today as the founder of the Elizabethan Stage Society [1894-1905], he was also a founder and leading figure in the movements at the end of the nineteenth century campaigning for such things as the restoration of Shakespeare’s texts, a simpler, faster-moving staging of the plays, the rediscovery of early English drama, a Shakespeare memorial theatre, and a National Theatre. His influence on the production of early English, Elizabethan and Jacobean drama is still evident today.
Many of those actors who worked with him recalled his emphasis on speech and an apparently eccentric vocal approach but if Poel ever worked out a system for speaking Elizabethan texts, he never wrote about his methods. And there is a lack of consistency in the reported details, so we must conclude that, like many theatre directors, while he may have had a consistency of purpose, when working he suited his approach to the individual performer. He did, however, write often of the vocal results he desired: speed, lightness, musicality and the effect of true speech. There is a sense that his way of giving his actors the means to improve their approach to speaking these texts was informal, personal and practical.
“William Poel insisted that Shakespearian production should be driven and fashioned solely by the text. The purpose of the Poel Workshop is to instil in our students a confidence and ease with Shakespearian verse and language, and provides them with an exciting opportunity to meet and work closely, with leading professional actors and directors.” Timothy West
In 1952 the Society for Theatre Research staged a presentation in commemoration of William Poel – a special matinee at the Old Vic theatre organised by leading theatre figures of the time who had worked with Poel. They included Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike, Robert Atkins, Lewis Casson, Nugent Monck and Donald Wolfit. From this developed a series of annual competitions between two established drama schools with a prize for a best speech or Shakespeare duologue. The aim was to develop ‘good stage speech’.
From private verse-speaking recitals within a few drama schools, the competition developed into an event in which nearly all the leading drama schools participated. Whilst still retaining its competitive core and its emphasis on verse speaking, this one day event became known as the Poel Festival. From 1983 it was staged annually in the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre until, in the year 2000, it moved to Shakespeare’s Globe. There the competitive element was finally abandoned and the Festival quickly became more of a performance showcase for the drama schools than the engine for the fostering of ‘good stage speech’ it had started out as.
After a final outing for the Festival in 2005 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, the STR re-thought the project and it returned to the National Theatre as the Poel Event, a non-competitive, private training opportunity for professional actors between two and ten years out of drama school with leading professionals willing to share their experience with the next generation. [The Poel Festival (retitled the Sam Wanamaker Festival and promoted by Globe Education) continued at The Globe.] In 2013 The Poel Event teamed up with The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and expanded again, providing two days of training, the first at Central and the second at the National Theatre.
Cicely Berry leads a Poel Workshop session, 2008
After nearly seven decades, and now known as the Poel Workshops, the event continues to evolve, responding to the times but keeping to its aims: the promotion of a text-centric and verse-faithful performance of the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
“You only have to look at the list of names associated with the Poel Workshops to see what a valuable function it performs, connecting people with the very best our profession has to offer”. Tim Pigott-Smith
The 2019 Poel Workshop took place on 8 March at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and at the Royal National Theatre on 22March. It was organised by director Richard Williams with support from Howard Loxton and Warren Hearnden, and with administrative help from Molly Leigh-Moy. Over the course of three whole days in London about fifty candidates were auditioned, thanks to the generosity of Spotlight in making a room available in their premises. From these, nine were selected to take part in the Workshops. Further auditions were held in Sheffield, a new development this year, to enable actors based in the North to take part. This resulted in three more participants, with the resulting group of twelve divided evenly male/female.
The Poel 2019 participants with Director Richard Williams sixth from left and STR’s Howard Loxton far right.
Read Reports and Comments on earlier Workshops
The Poel Workshop requires all participants to have been working professionally for at least 2 years and no more than 10.
The event is FREE and is funded by the Society for Theatre Research. 12 places are on offer each year to help actors continue their professional training. STR prides itself on promoting the value and importance of classical training and the continuing development of Shakespearean theatre.
Participants are selected via written application and invited audition.
We have extended the catchment area for future Workshops so as to include participants from outside London and the Home Counties. Since 2019, with the co-operation of a regional theatre, two places are reserved specifically for actors from the North. Thanks to support from The Garrick Club, small bursaries are available to assist those participants with travel and accommodation costs; holders need to fund any shortfall themselves, just as those from London and the Home Counties fund their own expenses.
The venue for regional auditions for 2021 will be announced in due course.
Details of arrangements for 2021 will be posted here as soon as they are available.