I have always been grateful for any feedback after a production, whether critique, criticism or complimentary. Over recent years, prior to and during my higher education experience, I have received a fair few compliments in regard to my vocal qualities. Yet it was entirely fortuitous that a friend forwarded me a link to apply to the BBC Norman Beaton Fellowship.
Norman Beaton, I soon learnt, led a really inspiring career as an actor. Most will know him from his title character in the sitcom Desmond’s, but he originally made a name for himself performing in London’s West End, particularly Shakespeare.
The Fellowship, founded by BBC Radio Drama, is an homage to Beaton’s legacy, designed to “broaden the range of actors available to Radio Drama producers across the UK by encouraging applicants from non-traditional training backgrounds.” i.e. actors trained at an accredited drama school are not eligible, but this was a perfect opportunity for someone like myself who had done a Drama & Performance course at university, and who had a great love for radio drama and comedy!
Towards finishing my degree I had begun to seriously consider what work might be available in an audible position… Growing up adoring the audiobooks and plays I had on cassette and CD (and then later on radio), my ambition became greater and I was encouraged to get involved with a local community radio station, Radio Winchcombe, to begin recording reviews that would then be aired and also put online.
Performing Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story back in May last year was a big incentive to work with my voice, as the character of Jerry rarely breaks his stride with each monologue following monologue. Collaborating on that piece together with a close friend of mine had us then continue to work together as commentators on the Limbo installation with Chandelier Horse Theatre Company in a performance at the university, and then taking it up to Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This rather avant-garde piece give me ample opportunity to play around with my voice and interact with a microphone.
When completing my application to the NBF I spent some time trawling through a large selection of plays, most of which I had acquired through my three years at Worcester, trying to find two pieces that would last (or could be adapted to) ninety seconds each. Part of the incentive to apply was that in the initial audition the ten successful applicants would be taken through a short workshop on radio performance. I have no knowledge how many others applied to the Bristol auditions, but my application was accepted along with nine others, and six weeks later I am stood in the Tobacco Factory’s Brewery Theatre in Bristol! Simon Day from Theatre Bristol had organised the auditions with the BBC and radio producer Mark Smalley, who took us through the morning workshop.
Mark described to us the vintage 1970s workplace that BBC Radio 4 still use in Bristol, going on to discuss how ‘space’ is such a vital component in recording for radio, as your environment has a great impact on the quality and style of a piece. I had assumed that with today’s editing technology, most audio recordings would be performed in a studio and then sound editors would work their magic to create ambient noise appropriate to the setting of a piece. This is of course the case, but even in today’s scenes set in exterior environments the producers will actually locate a suitable exterior location to record in naturally, rather than layering a studio recorded voice on separately captured ambient noise. Essentially it is the producer’s choice in how a radio piece is recorded, determined by the content. We were privileged to learn of Mark’s passion for poetry reading on the radio, and his adoration for Italo Calvino’s retelling of Grimm’s fairytales!
In small groups we were given the script to a BBC radio play (Mark Smalley’s production) based on Helen Mirren’s Russian ancestry; letters and memoirs that were sent between her great-aunts and grandfather (which made for fascinating reading). Each group was assigned a selection of scenes for us to then interpret and perform, allowing many to reveal their talent or attempt to impersonate a Russian accent!
The waiting game began that afternoon; allocated an audition time when we would present our two monologues and perform a piece of sightreading. My audition was not until late that afternoon, which gave me time to actually re-read both plays from which I had extracted my monologues: Nick Dear’s adaptation of Frankenstein, and Zach Braff’s play All New People. Both incredibly contrasting productions, and I was pleased with my presentation overall… The sightreading we were given was from Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera, and although we were provided with brief synopsis of the prose, reading something out of context like that engages your brain into considering how to interpret the way it should or could be read. Simon and Mark’s friendly faces and genuinely encouraging demeanour from over the table was helpful in calming my nerves, but the difficulty I discovered in the audition was stepping away from theatricality… I do wonder whether it would have made a difference performing to a microphone, even as a prop.
It proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable day of learning and making new connections. The other candidates were from a great variety in age and ethnicity, and speaking with a few of them about their backgrounds and interests added to an enlightening day of experience.
UPDATE: Alas, unsuccessful. I am disappointed that I didn’t get further than the initial audition (although that in itself is an achievement), but the workshop was enough to have made it worth the application! Mark and Simon’s feedback is extremely compelling and inspiring, encouraging me to continue pursuing a radio drama career.