Paul Caister is the Director of The Poor School established in 1986 which offers short term acting classes to the enthusiastic and long term training to the talented… interview with Wendy Thomson
Wendy Thomson (Fringe Report) attended Poor School’s four day acting course of which Paul Caister is the director. Paul Caister is a charismatic and plain-spoken individual. His interesting manner is matched by his attire – linen jacket and trousers in the height of winter, this is a man blessed with thick skin and warm blood.
Fringe Report (FR, Wendy Thomson): Thank you Paul for sparing the time to talk to Fringe Report and I’d like to say in advance, thank you for your honesty and openness with your answers. I know you’ll be direct, as you were on the course.
Paul Caister: I get myself into trouble speaking with journalists.
FR: I’m not really a journalist.
Paul Caister: I’ve heard that one before.
FR: [laughs]. Do you mind me asking how old you are?
Paul Caister: I’m 54 and I enjoy being older, this is better than being 24.
Paul Caister: Because I’ve found something to do. I’m younger at heart now. At 24 I was a very serious, intense person. I’ve chilled out a bit and done some of the experiences and absurd obsessions that I wanted to and got them out of my system. I’m more relaxed now. I have libertarian sympathies. I think there’s too much officialdom and meddling in personal lives. I’m not a Tory economically. I admire people like George Orwell and George Bernard Shaw who were individually minded. But I’ve also got more realistic.
FR: Can you tell me about your background and where you grew up?
Paul Caister: I was born in North London. My parents were first generation, middle class teachers. My grandparents were working class, one was a miner in South Wales and another was a shopkeeper in Kent. My parents were post war communists, this wasn’t particularly unusual. There was a global landslide in 1945 and Churchill was voted out because of a huge surge of sympathy with communism. There weren’t any opinion polls then. There was a lot of sympathy with Old Labour.
FR: How did this affect your upbringing?
Paul Caister: I wasn’t christened. I went to grammar school, about 20% of kids did then. I didn’t do very well at school and I left at 16 without any qualifications. I assumed I would be an actor.
FR: What were your first jobs?
Paul Caister: They weren’t interesting, whatever I could pick up, mainly office work. I counted cars for Camden council. I went to Bristol Old Vic for a two year training but left after four terms in 1975. I knew I didn’t want to act, I wanted to direct.
FR: What made you change your mind?
Paul Caister: I’d done some directing prior to going to Bristol. On a good day I felt like I knew what I was doing [with directing].
FR: We’ve gotten up to 1975, but The Poor School wasn’t founded until 1986. What happened in these 11 years?
Paul Caister: I found Fringe venues and put on plays in London. I didn’t make any money then.
FR: How did you survive?
Paul Caister: I don’t know – I always ate and had a cigarette when I wanted one – I’m not sure how I managed financially. My parents got divorced. I opened a pub theatre called The Grove in Hammersmith but I overworked and had to give it up. It was an interesting experience but it was too much.
I had a girlfriend from New Zealand so I went to New Zealand for a year, specifically the North Island – Wellington and Auckland – then onto Australia for four years. I directed and acted and got TV jobs there. I wrote a play which I also directed and I put that on. But I became ill and anxious and developed a tranquiliser addiction. There was a great deal of drugs and sex. Not all with the original girlfriend.
FR: [At this point FR interrupts to check that Paul is happy for these personal details to go into the interview and he says yes its fine.]
Paul Caister: The difference with Australian girls is that that would pull the blokes rather than the other way round. They were more forward. Or less reserved. That was a revelation to me.
FR: So why did you come back to Blighty?
Paul Caister: There was a sense that I was playing truant. Also, to get off the drugs. I did some directing and teaching.
FR: You set up the Poor School – why?
Paul Caister: Because I could and I could do it better than other people. I had three staff at the start and I’ve got better teachers now. I’m very happy with the teachers. Some teachers have been with the Poor School for longer than others. Clare Davidson [teaches voice] has been with us for 9 months. Trudi Rees [who teaches Jazz] graduated as a student in 97 and came back later to teach and direct. Grantley Buck [teaches musical theatre] since 2003. Christopher Dunham [directs] has taught at the Poor School for about 9 years. Toby Spearpoint [stage fighting] was a student and has been teaching since 2007. Marcelle Davies [movement] has been with us for over twenty years.
With other companies what the drama student gets at the end is a piece of paper.
[FR note: The Poor School does not offer an academic qualification].
Drama training is a practical training. It includes those who aren’t academically as bright, as those who are. The important factor is how committed and imaginative is that individual. The aim of The Poor School is to do our best to train an actor and bring them as close to their potential in a short period of time.
FR: The Poor School has been running for 25 years. How has it changed or developed in that time?
Paul Caister: There’s not been a fundamental change in what the school tries to do. I’m wiser and better at it, having been through various ordeals and crises. I still make mistakes. That’s the nature of doing things. I’ve got less energy than when the school started. Last Wednesday I taught 9 classes in a day but I got through on adrenaline. I’m delighted to have something to do. The Poor School has a good reputation now. We have a few hundred graduates.
FR: You mentioned crises; does any particular one stand out?
Paul Caister: No one particular crisis – every day is a battle. If you do anything worth doing you’re going to make enemies. It can be vulnerable in this business if you receive negative word of mouth or press. In running anything: to make a decent omelette you break some eggs. Regarding the acting classes, you cannot get more out of it than what you put in. Some people drop out, those people tend to have flabby temperaments.
FR: How do you juggle running the school with the demands of personal life?
Paul Caister: I don’t cook or do housework. I’m old fashioned that way. I let my woman do all the work. When I have to do things I do them, like looking after kids. I’m no good at multi-tasking.
FR: How many children do you have?
Paul Caister: I have six children. The eldest is 21 and they’re at Sheffield Uni, my 18 year old daughter is about to go to university. I have 15 and 12 year old daughters who live with their mum in Brighton. A boy and girl of 6 and 2 with Trudi.
I was 34 when I started a family. I never had a plan.
FR: The classes on the 4 day course were a mixture of stage fighting, voice, movement, Shakespeare, musicals, jazz, rehearsal of pieces – are there any different classes in the full time course? Is the full time course a higher standard?
Paul Caister: The four days are not a dumbed down version of the full course, it includes the same classes. There is a different atmosphere on the two year course. Students have made a commitment to go through the six terms. There is a difference between playing football at the weekend and being signed to a premiership team. The Poor School is taught in the evenings on the two year course. This enables students to work during the day and act in the evenings.
FR: Who are your heroes?
Paul Caister: That’s a good question. I saw Alec Guinness on stage twice, both were modern plays. He’s the only actor I’ve ever seen that can speak quietly and intimately but also reach the back of the theatre. He is astonishing on stage.
FR: What does Shakespeare mean to you?
Paul Caister: Shakespeare is a very good playwright. It’s depressing when people make a dogma of him or do it badly. There are people who don’t have an insight into him and some teachers don’t understand Shakespeare. I think there is a diminishing importance of words particularly expressive words. Brevity is popular. Texting. I love words. In the last 450 years our heritage has developed. In all that time except the last 30 years words have developed. Language sets you free and the use of it feeds the soul. It’s very sad that so few people have love for it or use it. It’s partly me being an old fart. It was different in my day.
FR: How do you choose which students should be offered a place on the full time course?
Paul Caister: I’m looking for evidence of an imagination which manifests dramatically. It’s tangible but hard to define. It exists in impressions and attitudes. When most people act they look ill at ease, they look like a fish out of water. Some people look at home.
FR: How can someone learn to act?
Paul Caister: Can acting be learnt? Anyone who works hard at anything will get better at it but you need a natural aptitude as well e.g. you could run 100 metres but not get a great time. Is it worth someone committing themselves to acting if they have no natural ability? No.
FR: What if people enjoy acting but don’t have natural ability are you saying they should they give it up? What about amateur dramatics?
Paul Caister: Acting can be enjoyed as a hobby and there is the whole social side to amateur dramatics.
FR: For students and auditionees who aren’t chosen for the two year Poor School training, what advice would you give to them?
Paul Caister: Try. Prove us wrong. Plenty of people do careers they don’t want to. Most people come round to it in their own way. They’re a square peg in a round hole. If someone is convinced they can act they’ll have the motivation and drive to prove people wrong.
(c)Wendy Thomson 2010