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Quadrant Magazine Devine May 2004 - Volume XLVIII Number 5

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An Interview with John Clark
Frank Devine

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.

How much?

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 Nothing.

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 is.

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 …

Everybody's blonde …

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 us much.

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 years.

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 casting.

Let's see.

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