"Just try reading it as it's written. All the sounds are there."
I chew Hotspur's lines around my mouth, this time ignoring how I think the words should sound, but taking each syllable from the strangely spelt First Folio copy in front of me. Slowly, an accent starts to take hold – not quite Durham, not quite Cumbria, but something in between, something quite strange. And suddenly, for the first time, Hotspur seems real and apparent to me – eccentric, isolated, unusual, bold, a little rough, distinctly not from a southern court, his own man through and through.
"Wow. So, I should try it with a Durham accent?"
"No. Just do what you just did. Shakespeare's given you a person, not a type. It's all there on the page."
The classical text training at DSL is second to none. I've spent much of my first year since leaving working with Shakespeare – either with The Reversed Shakespeare Company, which I set up with two graduates from Bristol Old Vic, or the acclaimed Factory Theatre, whom I've recently been lucky enough to join – and nowhere have I seen actors more passionate, technically accomplished and full of what Chris Pickles would call 'bravura with the text' than those with whom I left DSL.
Chris teaches a lot of verse work himself, largely following John Barton's methodology. Central to this is the idea of Shakespeare as director – he's giving you clues every step of the way, just as he gave them to his original actors because they wouldn't have the luxury of rehearsal.
That feels like it's designed to release the actor's ego; Barton (and Pickles) both ask you to ride the text, to find its rhythms and sounds without imposing ideas or plans on them, and this seems to be central to much of DSL's core message. Perhaps it's why we create such good ensemble actors – actors who are happy to give up some of their own control and see where spontaneity and the text can take them. Actors who are happy to be surprised.
Chris challenges us to be forensic detectives, mining the text for every last detail – why is that line-break there, why that change in rhythm, why 'thee' and not 'you'? He'll help you find clues you never knew existed – 'suit the action to the word' and you'll find that Shakespeare's actually telling you to stand next to three soldiers, pat them on the bellies, display a scar on your left arm and sit down at the end. Sitting with a piece of Shakespearean text and applying Chris' techniques to it gives you the gift of a secret conversation with a long-dead genius, who's always happy to help.
Our year (2012-2014) fell very deeply in love with this new Shakespeare. It started with 'Shakespeare Unseens' an exercise that mimics 16th century practice. We're each assigned our character, but have only our own lines and our cues, with no idea who's playing our scene partner, or what they're going to be saying, until they're up on stage playing the scene with us. Never have you seen actors listening harder or using the text better – because there's no room to impose ideas or show off.
We enjoyed this terrifying experience so much that we did it again a year later in our own time, assisted by Chris – and the freedom that we'd all found after training created a crackle of energy and creativity that comes only when you take risks and throw your ego out the door.
It's the same freedom that created three of the most unusual and different versions of Leontes you could wish for in our Winter's Tale, and that meant when we auditioned new actors for The Reversed Shakespeare Company, in a room filled with graduates from Guildhall, LAMDA, Bristol, Central and Drama Centre, the people who stood out time and again, and now form the backbone of the company, are almost all from DSL.
All of us come to Shakespeare with different assumptions, and different ideas of how he should be played; DSL asks you to put those aside and just see how the Barton/Pickles combination works for you. It's terrifying because you're giving up so much control – the difference between putting on a Durham accent and just making each of the weird individual sounds that Shakespeare's given you is enormous – but making yourself a vessel for the text and your own spontaneity is easily the most exciting way to do it.
It's no coincidence that our year's gone on to work with Shakespeare a lot over the last twelve months; for many of us, it's our point of difference, the area in which we really excel, because DSL gave us the best teaching that a drama school could. More importantly, the school infused in all of us a deep love and understanding of the text – in people who had always hated Shakespeare, in people who had thought they'd never understand him, the school grew a real passion for his work.
Olivia Vinall wrote a few years ago that she still gets out Chris Pickles' sheets every time she starts work on a new piece of classical text; she has that in common with everyone I know who left DSL. When you see a DSL actor playing consecutive leads in Shakespeare shows at the National, matching Simon Russell Beale, Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester moment-for-moment, line-for-line, you know the school's doing something right.