What a performance

14th January 2005 at 00:00
All the world's a stage. Gail Robinson finds out why actors are abandoning the boards and turning to teaching

Teaching, let's face it, is a form of performance art. Like an actor, you're expected to stand up in front of an audience, to hold their attention for at least an hour and to send them away with a greater understanding of the world. And all this without the benefit of a 20-minute interval.

So it should come as no surprise that many actors turn to teaching when the stage work dries up. And they do surprisingly well in the classroom. Their acting and performance skills can give them a head start when it comes to commanding the attention of 30 schoolchildren who would rather be elsewhere.

David Puttnam, the Oscar-winning film producer (his credits include Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields, The Mission and Midnight Express ) who was an education adviser to Tony Blair, recognises the value of a background treading the boards. He believes "most of the great teachers draw on acting skills to put across their message".

Puttnam was the man behind a plan to send unemployed actors into schools to give teachers lessons on how to project and protect their voices. And with one in five teachers missing work because of throat problems, an actor's voice training can come in very useful.

Keith Neill, a supply teacher in Scotland, knows all about using his voice effectively. Keith studied acting at the Royal Scottish academy and spent eight years as an actor - career highlights include appearing in panto with Frank Carson and starring in an episode of Taggart - before abandoning the spotlight to take up teaching.

"Even now I still do voice warm-ups before I go into a classroom, usually on the way into work in the car," he says. "Teachers use their voices all day long and often shout and strain them. If they knew how to use their voice properly that wouldn't happen."

And how you use your voice is important. Ask Kathryn Martin, a former actress who is now working as a newly qualified teacher at Heathfield, a 3 to 18 independent school in Pinner, Middlesex. "Acting teaches you how to use your voice to command attention and with variety and expression and that's very useful in the classroom," explains Kathryn who admits to using different accents to keep her pupils entertained.

Actors are also schooled in the importance of body language. "Teachers are often not aware of the status play (power game) in the classroom," says Keith Neill. "They can walk in and, because they're standing slightly knock-kneed, they're not getting the class's attention. If they were standing more assertively - straight up with feet facing forward - the kids would know they mean business."

Keith recalls one headteacher who really did know how to work an audience.

"It was my first school, and at assembly the deputy head would get all the pupils to sit down quietly. The head would then make a grand entrance at the back of the hall. He'd walk straight down the aisle, go up onto the dais, make his speech and then leave the room. He really understood the use of status, and that's something actors tend to know about."

When it came to facing her first few classes, Kathryn Martin found her acting skills invaluable. "I was teaching religious studies as well as drama when I first started and then it really was my acting skills that got me through those classes," she admits. "I got nervous about auditions, but I never felt so nervous in my whole life as I did taking Year 13 religious studies."

The Bigfoot Theatre company in south London has 150 jobbing actors on their books doing supply work in London, Brighton, Birmingham and Bristol.

Bigfoot also runs in-service courses where actors are sent into schools to work with staff on how they can make the best use of their voices and bodies in the classroom. Tel 0870 0114 307; www.bigfoot-theatre.co.ukinset.html


Most teachers project a somewhat larger than life persona and that may come more easily to actors. On the downside, if you're expecting applause, forget it."

Andrea Browne, gave up acting to teach English literature at a sixth form college in London dahling!!

"Actors have a good understanding of the human condition, they empathise because they're used to taking on different roles and characters. Acting is a vulnerable medium and that can help in schools."

Karl Wozny, founder and artistic director of Bigfoot Theatre company in south London, which has 150 jobbing actors on its books doing supply teaching luvvie!!!

The skills I've learnt as an actor that stand me in the best stead are the voice control and strength and the resilience and tenacity that you gain from the rejection you inevitably encounter as an actor."

Jenny Alborough former actress now a graduate teacher programme at PeaceHaven community school

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today