Gabrielle Cormier

Acting at Uni, Why Not?

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Photo: BBC. From

Photo: BBC. From

As a Canadian living in the UK, there are aspects of British life and culture I took a liking to more quickly than others. British humour ranked among top of that list (marmite and relatively snow-less winters, meanwhile, were nowhere in it). And there were no better ambassadors for the sarcasm, the awkwardness, the wit and the ridiculous that are known to characterise British humour worldwide than actors and comedians such as Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, David Mitchell and Robert Webb.

Thankful to them for broadening my comedic horizons, I became very interested in their careers. To my surprise, I discovered that all these actors and comedians had not studied drama per se straight out of secondary school. Rather, they went to a university and pursued degrees like history. Acting was an extra-curricular activity. Others have since swollen their ranks including Rosamund Pike, the lead of one of this autumn’s box office hits, Gone Girl. Naturally, from this I concluded that my friends Becky Banatvala and Venkat Rao who acted at university while studying Arabic and French and Arabic and Turkish, respectively, were slated to become the next Rosamund Pike and Hugh Laurie.

All kidding aside, during our final year of university, I was impressed that Venkat and Becky balanced academics and performances and I was curious about how they got involved in drama, how they found the challenge of balancing it all and what was next for them.

This week, I had the chance to pose these questions to them and, no matter how similar or different their answers were, I came out thinking that acting at university — no matter your field — is a great way to meet people, to ‘get your creative juices going’ as Venkat puts it and to get a taste for an industry you might have otherwise missed.

‘Missed’ because not everyone who gets involved at university has participated in the high school play. Venkat’s drama experiences in secondary school were few and though Becky was involved in the school play, she enjoyed acting at university much more because of the topics broached. At uni, she acted in plays like for coloured girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange, that expose the audience broadly to the ‘feeling of not fitting in’ and, specifically, to the themes of sexism and racism.

This variety, and at times lack of experience is why Venkat, who only started acting in the 3rd year of a four-year degree, explains that everyone is nervous before that first audition. Even if you’re nervous, ‘take the hit’ because ‘you’d be surprised’, he advises. Some of these auditions can be very informal and you have absolutely nothing to lose. Every university has something to offer.

What’s on offer isn’t perfect either. Some of the process can be repetitive at times. says Becky, but such is life and any job or passion worth pursuing. The good makes it worth it and you gain very transferable skills from something that seems tedious at the time, like dealing with the press. Though in the final weeks of production things get ‘manic’, according to both. On the plus side, a busy schedule takes the option of procrastinating away, says Becky.

Time management and life experience aside, how have their acting experiences impacted on Becky and Venkat’s plans? Becky’s role as Viola in Twelfth Night this year took her all the way to Japan and she is now planning to do a Master’s degree in drama. When asked about the value she felt her BA in French and Arabic added to her career, she explained that it made her a more interesting and interested person. Furthermore, incorporating foreign languages into her acting is something she says she hopes could become a niche for her.

As for Venkat, he plans to enter an amateur theater group in the future and says that acting has helped to give him material for things he wants to write. Though his career path may not be acting per se, it has clearly been a very positive part of his university experience. His only regret is not auditioning in first year.

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