Interview with Mary Doherty, Artistic Director of The Actors Class: ‘Everyone in the room has a right to be there and the slate is wiped clean.’

Anthony Walker-Cook sat down to chat with Mary Doherty about The Actors Class as part of a new interview series about arts education. Mary is the Artistic Director of The Actors Class, which she set up in 2012 to offer regular acting training to anyone looking to build confidence in a supportive environment.

In one sentence, explain what The Actors Class (AC) provides.
It is a flexible, weekly training class to keep you fit and focused as an actor and it facilitates meeting industry professionals to get your foot in the door.

What would you add to this description?
There is a gap in the market for actors who are looking to keep their techniques and muscle memory fresh. We have students at all levels. They may have finished some form of training and are now waitressing and feeling stiff. Our job is to help them act every week even if they are not working.

Can you explain how the AC came about?
I love teaching adults. I was teaching at Arts Ed in Tring, where I went to school from the ages of 11 to 18, and the students were fantastic. I contacted about ten of them, who hadn’t gotten into drama school and offered some classes in London. We began with a 10 Week Course, it wasn’t even called Foundation at that point. 

At what level should a student approach the AC?
As a guide: If they have done something like the National Youth Theatre, they are looking at the foundation course; if they are on spotlight and worked in some fringe theatre, that’s most likely the intermediate; advanced is for those who have graduated and want to top up and meet directors and writers. But I make the decision on which course will suit them best, so they don’t need to focus on that. 

What is the application process?
They e-mail me and I will look over their CV or spotlight with headshot. It also helps if they know someone in the AC so I can ask around and learn about them. If I think they are right for the company, they will go on the waiting list.

Can you explain how the courses offered by the AC are designed and taught?
When I started with the first 14 I simply asked them what they wanted. Some wanted audition technique and others wanted acting through song. When we finished that course we had some drinks and they asked what was next. We had a few weeks off and I knew they could handle a heavier focus. Hence emerged the foundation, intermediate and advanced levels. The courses have come out of the students. The curriculum is set now, but I think if I can tell a student really needs a particular technique, then we’ll do that. 

Can you talk of the importance of a safe room?
It has to be a safe room for all the students and that’s what I’ve focused on since the first 14. They get a script in class but I believe if someone is watching them they believe there is a result for that person. This is for them to achieve something in the class so when they sit down they are better than before. It is about breaking down the barriers.

What does the industry need to do to help young actors get work?
I think there is a real lack of information about the business side of the industry: knowledge is power in this industry and a lot of actors that come to us adore the profession but do not know the processes of it. We have an industry talk on the first day and they are given a package about big, medium and small agents. I would like to see a business session at drama schools, especially in your third year. I give them a database, they fill it out with information about casting directors, artistic directors and individual institutions. The hope is that they are surrounded in the world.

What is the most important aspect when including the arts in education?
It has to be confidence. I have a lot of students who won’t go into it as a career, but they learnt how to work as part of a company. Others were painfully shy and didn’t know how to express themselves. In the arts, people feel a release. Working in a group, it is joyous and a positive atmosphere, which is true of the arts community in general. 

What’s the biggest challenge that faces arts education (other than funding)?
I would think it is to include ethnicity and disabled actors. We also run a showcase and it is difficult because we had 60 students audition last year and the AC does not have many black or disabled actors working through the courses. I am making sure on all forms of social media & any other ways that we can spread the word, that we are trying to make the AC as accessible as possible. We must be held accountable for that.

You’ve mentioned above about students being hesitant about making a career in the theatre industry. Do you think something can change to alter our perception that the arts have few careers?
It is about seeing that so many actors make a career. I am really proud a number of AC students have found opportunities within the industry. It is important that actors have something else. When I was a student I didn’t want a back-up, because it felt weak maybe. The perception is that acting is not all year round. But – Actors are savvy and will make the money they need. It doesn’t mean you can’t pay the rent, it just means you might not act for a year. You need something else. You need to be your own buisness! They’ll also be happier, which is amazing.

Your patrons include Janie Dee and Simon Callow – with institutions like the AC, is it important to have well-known patrons?
When we started it was about raising the profile of a company nobody knows anything about. I had a list of about fifteen actors who inspire me. Simon and Janie really believe in young talent and I worked with both when I was younger. They were exactly what a young actor in the industry needed. They attend the showcases and they love hearing about alumni news.

Mary Doherty at Canada House at the press launch of Come From Away.

Your alumni boast an impressive set of recent productions – can you detail the provision for alumni once they have left the AC?
Once they have completed advanced they get the opportunity to audition for the showcase. That is the only 10 week course that’s left and we’ll choose fourteen Actors for the showcase. We also run the Actors Class Gym, which is open only to alumni, and consists of 1 day workshops with directors, casting directors or myself

How do you balance being a practitioner and artistic director of AC?
Before this year, I had never taught and done a show at the same time. Because Come From Away is on for a year, I didn’t want the AC not to run for a whole year. There were lots of students who had done intermediate and were waiting for advanced. Normally I run four courses, so I just did two advanced courses this year. It is doable but it actually inspired me to be on stage – you are reminded of all the techniques you should be using.

What is the biggest change, good or bad, you have recognised about the industry since becoming an actor?
I think negatively there is less work and the money has gone down: tv commercials used to pay on repeat but now you are bought out. So financially things are harder, especially during this Brexit drama. In a good way, however, I really think when I started there was a divide between being a musical actor and a ‘straight’ actor. If you work in musical theatre you are & should be, of course, still seen as an actor first. It is about having the right skills for the job and you are no longer put in a box. 

What theatre would you like to work in?
The Royal Court.

What show would you like to be in?
I would love to play Nancy in Oliver, and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.

What show do you wish you’d seen?
The Inheritance – I bloody missed it! It sounds like a milestone. 

What would you like people to know about the AC?
I would like them to know that when they come in there is no judgement. If they haven’t gotten into a drama school, it just means they didn’t get in. If they haven’t got their last 10 auditions, it’s ok. Everyone in the room has a right to be there and the slate is wiped clean. The trained actor can learn from the raw actor, and visa versa. It is just a group of actors wanting to get up & play. And improve. 

Mary Doherty can currently be seen starring in Come From Away at the Phoenix Theatre.

For more information about The Actors Class, see their website here:

Follow The Actors Class also on social media: @theactorsclass

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL. @AntWalker_Cook

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