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How to act in a drama without staging a crisis

In a continuing series on Europe's Year of Lifelong Learning, Lucy Ward meets a would-be actor. For the past year, 34-year-old Paul Gittus has been leading a double life. Four days a week, he crunches numbers as a mild-mannered auditor for the National Health Service.

For the remaining three days, he dons make-up, wig and costume and transforms himself into Paul Gittus, actor.

Playing two roles in repertory has become second nature for Paul following his decision 18 months ago to trade in the accountant's ledger for the thespian's script. As part of a carefully-planned career switch, he has devoted every non-working moment to a four-term acting course. This has meant shuffling an already busy work schedule and using up annual leave to free each Friday, plus weekends, for drama studies. Holidays and social life have been put on hold while he dedicates himself to his craft.

Twelve months on, Paul is on the point of giving up his secure day job and trying his luck in the far riskier world of acting.

The year has been a slog, but worthwhile, he believes, if it helps him to fulfil an ambition he recognised only after embarking on a traditional "safe" career. Leaving university with a degree in economics and accountancy, he joined a firm of accountants before transferring to the NHS and eventually becoming auditor for two large hospitals and a training college.

Throughout his twenties, he acted with various amateur groups, culminating in a two-year training course with the Questers company in Ealing, London. The programme convinced him he could switch to performing full-time.

Paul then considered the options for further training. Drama school, he calculated, would cost an unfeasible Pounds 30,000 over three years. Instead, he chose a new course billing itself as "catering for a very different class of student from the conventional drama schools". The London Centre for Theatre Studies in Hackney, far from the glittering West End lights, was launching a one-year part-time professional training programme. Its students would pick up a full range of performance skills along with knowledge of the workings of professional theatre, before coming together as the Actors' Company to perform four plays in repertory and showcase their talent for agents.

The course, designed to allow students to work during time off to earn the necessary Pounds 3,800 in fees, exactly suited Paul's needs. With the support of an accommodating boss, he rearranged his working hours, enabling him to pursue his acting dream while still meeting mortgage repayments and coming to terms with giving up a regular income. The prospect was alarming at times, he admits, though his lack of dependants removed the main excuse for caution. "I think I have come to a position now where I have either got to carry on down this track and do it, or decide I am not going to be a professional actor and just keep acting as a hobby. I think if didn't try I would regret it."

Though interested agents have still to commit themselves, Paul remains confident about the future. He will always be able to earn during slack periods as a consultant. His high skill level means he can work fewer hours to support himself for relatively long periods.

Friends and family have been generally encouraging, he says, though a few acquaintances wonder how he has coped with no free time. His answer is to remind himself that all his free time is devoted to the craft he loves. "Some people think I am mad, but then they spend all their week working and their Saturdays going round Sainsbury's."

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