Quadrant Magazine Devine
May 2004 - Volume XLVIII Number 5
Back to contents...
An Interview with John Clark
JOHN CLARK is about to retire after thirty-five years as director of the National
Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA). When he departs it will be from a grand campus
neighbouring, though not part of, the University of New South Wales, Sydney.
When Clark started with NIDA, stepping forth from a promising career as a stage
director, it occupied a jumble of huts on UNSW ground near Randwick racecourse.
One of the principal buildings was a former jockeys' changing room.
NIDA teaches a broad range of theatrical skills and has poured a river of trained
talent into every corner of the performing arts in Australia. Its actors have
landed with the loudest explosions, though - Mel Gibson, Judy Davis, Cate Blanchett,
Colin Friels, Geoffrey Rush (a former faculty member), Hugo Weaving, Wendy Hughes,
Kate Fitzpatrick, John Hargreaves, Baz Luhrmann, Richard Roxburgh. Miranda Otto,
to sample relatively randomly. So this interview is rather peremptorily slanted
towards the teaching of acting at NIDA. As well, Clark's attempted inclusion
of a list of credits for the institute has been arbitrarily knocked back on
the grounds that it's his curtain speech.
May I ask you the question that preoccupies everybody with a serious interest
in the performing arts: What is Mel Gibson really like?
Number one, he's talented. Number two, he's a trained actor. Number three,
he's an excellent director. Number four, he's got the courage to do things nobody
else is game to. Number five, he uses his money well. When he did the film of
Hamlet he donated some of the proceeds for NIDA scholarships.
I forget, but it was generous, several thousand dollars. Another time he gave
$2 million to our building program.
I remember Mel getting a hard time from the Sydney press after Hamlet was released:
"Now look here, Mel, Hamlet's got pretty bad reviews and people don't like
it and a lot of critics are down on your performance. You can't feel too good
about that." Mel said: "I suppose not. [pause] But I'm rich."
Mel's made a packet but he's done things his way. He produced this big movie
Braveheart and also chose to act in it and direct it and shoot it in Ireland,
where it rains every second hour. He had the whole Irish Army involved and a
horde of mad Scotties. I had to ask him why he was doing all this terrible stuff
himself, when he could hire others to do it. He said, well, he learned at NIDA
that that's the way things work.
You obviously know what he meant by that, but I'm not sure
It's built into the NIDA culture that you try to avoid doing too much of what
you already do well. If you're an actor you try to expand your range and have
a go at a lot of characters you normally wouldn't get to play for another twenty
or thirty years. Success is nice and it's very important now and again for the
sake of self-confidence. But you also need to fail while trying something new,
fail gloriously. Don't piss about. Have a go at something extraordinary. I remember
some stunningly bad performances by stunningly good actors. They were gutsy.
They didn't come off, and it doesn't matter.
You can't sidestep challenge at NIDA. You've got three years where you are
working constantly and pushed into every kind of project, from new Australian
plays to classics, to Shakespeare, sometimes musicals, contemporary plays from
all over. At present we are doing a modern Russian play and another straight
from New York. Then this particular group of students go into Much Ado About
I gather it's hard to get into NIDA?
It is, but not if you have talent. The student body is around 180. We're much
more than an acting school. There's a technical course and a craft course and
a directing course. Our design school has produced three Oscar winners. Each
year we have 2500 applicants for sixty-odd new places, almost 2000 of them for
the twenty-five acting places.
How do you decide what actors to take?
We audition everybody. We have very experienced people who conduct auditions
all over the country. Trying to pick people who are not actors now but are going
to be actors is a lot different from casting a play or a movie. Our scouts deal
with applicants in groups, and eliminate. The very best applicants stay with
us for two days. It's all done, as we say, on the floor. They act. By the end
of the second day we know quite a bit about them.
They've all had to prepare hard for their audition. We send them a collection
of speeches from which they must choose two to perform. The third speech can
come from outside the collection, if they like. One speech must be from Shakespeare.
If you don't have a traditional body or voice or appearance, you can always
find something in our collection that suits you. If you are a pretty young juvenile,
then you will twig onto Romeo or something like that.
What announces acting talent?
That's a hard one. When you go to the movies, when you turn on the television
or go to the theatre, there are some actors you look at and say, "My God,
they are so clever - but they don't interest me much." Whereas somebody
walks on stage - this happens in auditions - and right away you want to be part
of the life they are telling you about. It doesn't matter what shape or size
they are or what quality of voice they have. You are interested in them. So
that's one quality we react to. We look for people who enjoy communicating with
their body and their voice. If you don't enjoy it, why do it? We look for people
who passionately want to act. It's a bit like going into the priesthood. If
you are worried, thinking, "Maybe I should do something else" - then
do something else.
So you peer into their souls?
With the very best people we do. In the first round of auditions, it's fairly
easy to identify people who don't have the magical quality.
Yes. Talent is a gift bestowed by God. What we provide is skill. A person can
have a rich imagination and a rich emotional life, but unless there is skill
to transform one's own persona into the thinking and feeling of a created character,
then you haven't got an actor.
I've been prowling your campus and I've been struck by how good-looking everybody
Well, they are nearly all young and fit and conscious of their appearance.
There's big pressure on physical beauty from the television industry. If you
look at television in Australia
Yes, everybody's blonde and the whole drama is about personal relations in
a milk bar. There's an extraordinarily conservative youth culture in television,
so they want NIDA to take in more young-and-pretties. But that doesn't interest
Do you remember a particularly startling audition?
Oh, yes. There was Judy Davis in Perth. She was about nineteen, rather beautiful
in an unusual kind of way and she wore black lipstick. In those days - sensational.
She was very much her own person and did what she wanted, what she believed
in as an actor. She was very self-possessed and very confident.
But I've known people who gave sensationally good auditions, got into NIDA
and just moved on a little bit over the three years. Then there are people who
just squeeze in. You think, "Oh, my God, this person is such a gamble."
We always take a few risks. Some get better and better and better over the three
I think Mel - since you seem concerned for him - was one of these. I don't
remember his audition. But I remember his work as a student. He had terrific
comic talent. He had a tiny part in Brendan Behan's The Hostage, Second Guard
or something, very few lines. But he played it with his eyebrows joined together
across the middle and with an IQ of minus 20. Hilarious. But I did have to ask
him not to pick his nose while the main characters were talking.
Do you make any bad misses with auditions?
Regrettably, yes. Our most notorious is Rachel Griffiths, a fine actress. Our
alibi is that we overlooked her because she auditioned in Melbourne the same
day as Cate Blanchett. But it's to our shame and discredit. Rachel's generous
about it and says, "Possibly I didn't audition terribly well that day."
Nice of her.
We're also accused of turning down Anthony LaPaglia. But we didn't exactly.
He was just out of school and we suggested he should take a year or so off,
get a job, travel a bit, apply again next year. So Anthony travelled to America
and we never saw him again - until he became a star.
What's special about NIDA as a teacher of acting? Is it a matter of style?
In the early days, we debated the concept of a house style of acting but decided
no. What's come about is a common belief that good acting has to do with sincerity
and truth and inspiration. It's not something you put on externally like an
overcoat. The very best actors have an element of spontaneity and we try to
encourage that. We favour a relaxed and, if you like, a sensitive approach.
Sir Ian McKellen was in Australia recently in Strindberg's The Dance of Death.
Watching his work is enthralling. He is so meticulous and careful. Every gesture,
everything that he does on stage, is done with clarity and precision. It is
measured, you know, a bit like T.S. Eliot's verse.
NIDA discourages English studiedness?
Not discourage. But I think we are a different sort of people. We don't have
tradition sitting on our back that says this is the way to do it. There's greater
spontaneity and freshness about Australian actors. Acting is a national form
of expression. You need to be Australian to understand how to teach Australian
actors. It's not a matter of telling them how to act, but of creating the conditions
that free them to do it. We give them permission to play.
Acting training is like a sport. You have to get your body into shape. Otherwise
it won't do what you want it to do. Same thing with your voice. It's not a matter
of teaching somebody to speak nice or talk with a good accent or even to talk
loudly and clearly. It's providing vocal flexibility, so they are able consciously
to select the voice they need to reveal a character. It's train, train, train.
Things never stop happening at NIDA.
One of our great events is the first-year students' sonnet fest. All the boys
and girls act one of Shakespeare's sonnets. Every one is actable. After all,
they are addressed to a lover, be it male or female. Then each student has to
act a sonnet of their own composition.
Do you look for high intelligence in your students?
It's desirable but not essential. Sometimes people come here after academic
work in other universities and they tend to lead excessively with their heads.
Another sports analogy: acting is like batting against a fast bowler. There's
no time to analyse the stroke. You've got to play intuitively, opportunistically.
With trained body and trained voice working together, actors have to seize the
moment. They can't hang about.
Actors need education, though. We teach theatre history. Sternly academic.
Read plays, we tell them. Read plays. Then read some more. But when our students
read Sophocles, we want them to be excited by his plays, want to act them, to
connect with them emotionally and physically and intellectually.
We also have a course called General Studies, where we teach people things
they should have learned at school. If you don't understand the rudiments of
grammar you won't be able to deal with Shakespeare. If you can't use a dictionary
to puzzle things out in a script, you are in trouble as an actor. We also provide
basic education in Christianity. You won't be able to act Shakespeare or any
plays in the classic Western tradition without this knowledge.
So what NIDA turns out is educated actors, able to explore theatre in the fullest
sense. Theatre will change them and they will change the theatre.
If they get work.
Even God can't promise that! But about ten years ago we did a survey that we
are now updating. We discovered that something like 84 per cent of our graduates
continue to make careers either in the profession of theatre or connected with
theatre or in teaching drama. And we also found that one in five graduates have
either been nominated for or won an industry award. One in five, brother. And
that means Oscars, British Oscars, AFI awards, Melbourne Green Room Awards.
Alas, we let LaPaglia escape with his Tony!
What's the special thing about your spectacularly successful graduates?
Oh, no, you just can't ask that question. Quite often I think at the end of
three years, "My God, that person is a wonderful actor." Of somebody
else I'll think, "That person is not a great actor. He or she is serviceable,
even good, but no world beater." Then suddenly the person you believed
to be the lesser of the two gets a role that they click in. Their career accelerates
and you see them do things you never believed they could do in a hundred years.
That must be gratifying.
Very. But at the same time you see good actors who don't get the break they
deserve, for year after year, and that's disheartening.
Why do some miss out?
Luck. Their number doesn't come up. Australia - multi-racial Australia - narrows
the chances, too. Last year, at the National Theatre in London, a black English
actor played Henry V. Nobody turned a hair. I can't see it happening here. Or
Asian-Australian actors playing Aussie Aussies. We have a long way to go before
the industry accepts colourblind casting.
Pity. I've often thought Ernie Dingo might be good in Cary Grant parts
Yeah. A great man and a fine performer.
Well, you're going back to directing after NIDA. Maybe you can do some creative
Recent issues available on-line: