I've wanted to train as an actor in the U.K. for about as long as I've known I was an actor.... Being offered a place at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (one of only three world-renowned British Conservatoires for Acting in Conservatoire for Dance and Drama) feels like it's been a long time coming, and at the same time—almost impossible to believe.
When I was about eight or nine I discovered my love for the theatre in a synonymous discovery with my love for Shakespeare.
About four years later I had the privilege of touring with the Berkshire Children's Chorus to Paris, Canterbury, and London. Rivaling the typical new-found interest in pre-teen flirtations and amateur photo shoots, was a budding passion for the theatre, Shakespeare, and the history of theatre in the U.K.
From that point on I was determined to study acting in England. While I was certainly beyond blessed to have the Shakespeare-haven of Shakespeare and Company (Lenox, MA) down the road from my childhood home and, every Fall, in my high-school auditorium, I was ever eager to find my way back to the U.K.
At the age of 16, I studied Shakespeare in Italy through the University of Dallas on their Rome campus, and traveling to Venice as well. It was an academic investigation of the text, but I found a way to bring drama into the picture:
In 2008, I started training at Boston University's incredible College of Fine Arts as an actor, always with an eye on their Junior Year semester abroad at LAMDA. When I got there, I once again felt an instant connection. Everything about the experience connected with me on a deeper level. I experienced the training as a student in a very different way—playing some of my all-time favorite roles as Queen Elizabeth (Richard 3), Lady Landsworth (The Beau Defeated), and Iago (Othello). I noticed a difference within myself as a theatre goer and also in the community of London attending the theatre. The was stories were being told in the theatre felt different to me. I resonated more deeply with the creative community. I felt like I belonged.
Leaving LAMDA was bittersweet. I had found a place that made me start to come alive in a way that I never had before as an actor, and a person. Before I went back to finish up at BU, I got cast in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Tour production of The Dick and The Rose with Outcast Cafe. The theatre I saw in Edinburgh (and made) was some of the most innovative, exciting, boundary-pushing, and in-touch that I'd ever experienced. The community of the Festival was the most open and encouraging- going by the motto that "if you could make it to Edinburgh, you could play in Edinburgh". And I discovered puppets... both as a puppeteer and as a theatre goer.
So I went home, got my BFA, moved to New York (did a fabulous "Best of the British" workshop with the Old Vic New Voices program), moved to Boston, and kept making theatre. All the while suppressing a deep need to go back to the U.K. and figure out what it was that made such a difference in my experience with the theatre both here and there.
Then last spring I started looking into a way to answer this deep calling and return to the U.K. for an extended period of training and study. I discovered that many of the best schools in Scotland and England (not to mention the world) offered one-year Masters courses, training actors in the tradition of the classic British conservatoire. I decided some research was in order.
I did a lot of reading, had some meetings with alumni of the courses I was researching, and decided to attend a couple short courses at Mountview Academy (started by the great Dame Judi Dench and run by one of my favorite acting teachers of all time from LAMDA, Stephen Jameson) and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (started by Sir Laurence Olivier, boasting an impressive alumni list including some of my all-time favorite actors, and highly recommended by a trusted colleague).
In London I saw the most amazing theatre on a cheap pence. My inaugural experience at The Globe was Emma Rice's fierce, brave, fun, vibrant, daring Midsummer. I saw the sharp, witty, brilliant, and on-the-nose Unreachable at The Royal Court. I saw Derek Jacobi slay, and make every pound of my ticket worth it, as an unexpected Mercutio in Kenneth Branagh's less than impressive Romeo & Juliet. I saw the poignant, artistic, articulate, and innovative Incident of the Dog in the Nightime. I also had an unbelievable weekend at wonderful Mountview Academy- learning major lessons and taking humungous risks in only two days, as well as making some life-long friends.
While every moment of my two weeks in England last summer were AMAZING, it was my week-long intensive at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School that sealed the deal. The city of Bristol, if you've never been, is absolutely incredible - a beast of it's own. There is so much character, vibrant art, and integrated creativity in every corner of beautiful, historical city. The energy of the people who live there is welcoming, kind, bright, soft, and celebratory. There is a great contemporary art scene, amazing food, wonderful pubs, music, and theatre. Although it's not as bustling in the summer as London, I could tell that this could be the perfect haven for a year of intensive study.
And my time IN class was life changing. Guys, if you are an actor at any stage in your career, or a teacher, or even an accountant like my friend Christian (on my right), take Pam Rudge's Sing Out! Course.
I found a new confidence and purpose in musical theatre that I had long been missing. On the first day of class, Pam sat us down and told us her ultimate rule of musical theatre: Tell a story well through song. That was it. That was the bottom line. As it should be... perhaps a "duh" moment, but it was very liberating. Then she proceeded to spend the next 4 and a half days drilling us in a Musical Theatre, acting-through-song, celebratory boot camp with plenty of exposure to music new and old, tricks of the trade, individualized attention, and even a final performance at the end of the course. Mind you, she got every last soul that was in the building (summer it's scarce) to come to our final day and support us.
Also, on the first day, she asked us why we were there and upon hearing I was interested in the MA course, marched me straight up to Program Head Kim Durham's office and let me have a meeting that must have lasted near an hour, asking him any and all question I may have about the course. Kim, by the way—also amazing.
On my last day in Bristol I knew... if I was coming back to get a Masters, it was going to be at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
Which brings me to a rainy day in January when I met with BOVTS MA alumna Jessica Giannone and lamented the fact that I'd found such a perfect home in BOVTS, but as an American student, I didn't think I could afford it. There is no financial aid available for Americans via the school nor the government except for the coveted Fulbright Scholarship of which I intended to apply for the 2018-2019 school year.
Jess encouraged me to meet with Kim when he was in town for 2017-18 auditions and just say hello, remind him of our meeting, have a chat, and maybe even bring some monologues in case he had extra time to give me some advice.
Low and behold, three weeks later when I met with Kim, partial funding had become available to me and a very unexpected opportunity presented itself to audition for the upcoming year of the MA course starting Fall 2017.
It all felt more than meant to be, and so I did. I've never had a better audition, nor a more immediate response to an acting teacher. Kim must have felt similarly, as he "unofficially short-listed" me in the room and off I went, on cloud nine, hardly believing it wasn't a dream.
The International MA course has a very drawn out audition process, making stops all around the world from Toronto, to San Francisco, to Sydney, to their home in Bristol.
The wait for official news felt long and painful. Every day preparing myself for either scenario, while trying to crack the funding puzzle potentially ahead of me.
But news came, and I'm overjoyed to say that I will be earning my MA in Acting at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School this September. I'm still about $12k short of my goal, but am determined to get there... and if you have the time please check out the short video I made about what a remarkable opportunity I have and consider donating to my Generosity fundraising campaign "Bring Gail to Bristol"! (Even $10 or a share with a wealthier friend can help make my dream become a reality):
As this journey continues I'm going to update you here (in shorter tidbits than this epic introduction) but you can also follow my journey on instagram and twitter (@grshalan) and be sure to let me know if you've ever dreamed of Bristol, been to Bristol, trained with BOVTS, love theatre, good stories, travel, or just feel connected to my story!
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