The Poel Workshop is an annual FREE two day intensive workshop run by leading industry professionals for newer entrants to the acting profession. It focuses on the speaking and delivery of classical texts, in particular those of William Shakespeare.
“These unique workshops inspire and develop a practical love of Shakespeare. I wish every young actor could attend them.”
William Poel – originally Pole but presumably Poel worked better as a nom de theatre, particularly as his family disapproved of his choice of career – was a producer and actor whose career spanned the years from the rise of Victorian actor-manager Henry Irving to the establishment of such twentieth century figures as John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. Born 22nd July 1852, he died on 13th December 1934.
Probably best remembered today as the founder of the Elizabethan Stage Society [1894-1905], he was also a founder and leading figure in the movements at the end of the nineteenth century campaigning for such things as the restoration of Shakespeare’s texts, a simpler, faster-moving staging of the plays, the rediscovery of early English drama, a Shakespeare memorial theatre, and a National Theatre. His influence on the production of early English, Elizabethan and Jacobean drama is still evident today.
Many of those actors who worked with him recalled his emphasis on speech and an apparently eccentric vocal approach but if Poel ever worked out a system for speaking Elizabethan texts, he never wrote about his methods. And there is a lack of consistency in the reported details, so we must conclude that, like many theatre directors, while he may have had a consistency of purpose, when working he suited his approach to the individual performer. He did, however, write often of the vocal results he desired: speed, lightness, musicality and the effect of true speech. There is a sense that his way of giving his actors the means to improve their approach to speaking these texts was informal, personal and practical.
“William Poel insisted that Shakespearian production should be driven and fashioned solely by the text. The purpose of the Poel Workshops is to instil in our students a confidence and ease with Shakespearian verse and language, and provides them with an exciting opportunity to meet and work closely, with leading professional actors and directors.” Timothy West
The story so far
In 1952 the Society for Theatre Research staged a presentation in commemoration of William Poel – a special matinee at the Old Vic theatre organised by leading theatre figures of the time who had worked with Poel. They included Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike, Robert Atkins, Lewis Casson, Nugent Monck and Donald Wolfit. From this developed a series of annual competitions between two established drama schools with a prize for a best speech or Shakespeare duologue. The aim was to develop ‘good stage speech’.
From private verse-speaking recitals within a few drama schools, the competition developed into an event in which nearly all the leading drama schools participated. Whilst still retaining its competitive core and its emphasis on verse speaking, this one day event became known as the Poel Festival. From 1983 it was staged annually in the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre until, in the year 2000, it moved to Shakespeare’s Globe. There the competitive element was finally abandoned and the Festival quickly became more of a performance showcase for the drama schools than the engine for the fostering of ‘good stage speech’ it had started out as.
After a final outing for the Festival in 2005 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, the STR re-thought the project and it returned to the National Theatre as the Poel Event, a non-competitive, private training opportunity for professional actors between two and ten years out of drama school with leading professionals willing to share their experience with the next generation. [The Poel Festival (retitled the Sam Wanamaker Festival and promoted by Globe Education) continued at The Globe.] In 2013 The Poel Event teamed up with The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and expanded again, providing two days of training, the first at Central and the second at the National Theatre.
Cicely Berry leads a Poel Workshop session, 2008
After nearly seven decades, and now known as the Poel Workshops, the event continues to evolve, responding to the times but keeping to its aims: the promotion of a text-centric and verse-faithful performance of the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
“You only have to look at the list of names associated with the Poel Workshops to see what a valuable function it performs, connecting people with the very best our profession has to offer”. Tim Pigott-Smith
The 2018 Poel Workshop took place on 11 April at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and at the Royal National Theatre on 29 April.It was organised by new director Richard Williams with support from Howard Loxton and Warren Hearnden, and with administrative help from Molly Leigh-Moy.
Over the course of three whole days about fifty candidates were auditioned, thanks to the generosity of Spotlight in making a room available in their premises. From these, ten were selected to take part in the Workshops. Two actors from the National Theatre have traditionally been awarded places in consideration of that organisation’s generous participation. The resulting group of twelve was divided evenly male/female.
Day One at Central School consisted of a warm-up run by Georgina Sowerby from Dirty Market Theatre Company followed by a vocal workshop run by Daron Oram, voice teacher at Central.
The remainder of the morning was led by Peter Knapp, Professor of Voice at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire, teaching the group a series of exercises to improve and strengthen their breathing and consequently their delivery of text.
In the afternoon David Thacker, ex Artistic Director of the Young Vic, Resident Director at the RSC and Professor of Drama at Bolton University worked with each student on their monologues. He took a broadly Stanislavskian approach to text, emphasising both the emotional and rational aspects of the speeches.
“Brilliant workshop! It was enjoyable, informative and perfectly tailored for the actor. I definitely will be using new techniques and it was also just great to have old techniques reinforced and refreshed”. Cai Dale
At the end of the day the group was divided into five pairs and allocated a duologue to perform at the National Theatre in addition to their individual monologues.
Day Two started in one of the National Theatre’s rehearsal rooms with a warm-up again given by Georgina.
This was followed by a session led by Nona Shepphard, director and currently consultant to the Lir drama school in Dublin and senior lecturer at RADA. Her workshop focused on the clues for performance given in Shakespeare’s text. This was followed by work on stage in the Olivier Theatre on the monologues, when Jeannette Nelson, Head of Voice at the NT, took each actor in turn through their monologue giving invaluable expert help in terms of meaning, delivery and staging. Jeannette continued in the afternoon with work on the duologue scenes, giving the students the benefit of her long experience and knowledge of the challenges of a large stage like the Olivier.
The day ended with a session from Barrie Rutter, founder of Northern Broadsides Company, who spoke inspiringly about his work with Shakespeare and classical text, illustrating his ideas with exercises using the opening Chorus speech from Henry V.
“Thank you, it was a delight to be part of it. I have definitely gained some fantastic techniques. The only thing I would say was that I wish there were more days!” Gabrielle Sheppard
The Poel Workshops team and the Committee of the Society for Theatre Research wish to convey their warmest thanks to all the workshop leaders, and to The Spotlight, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and The Royal National Theatre for making this year’s Poel Workshops such a success.
“It was perfect” Carrie Rock
Read Reports and Comments on earlier Workshops
The Poel Workshops will often be referred to as
The Poel Event. While the name may have changed, the aims, format and nature of the event remain the same.
Who can participate?
The Poel Workshop requires all participants to have been working professionally for at least 2 years and no more than 10.
The event is FREE and is funded by the Society for Theatre Research. 12 places are on offer each year to help actors continue their professional training. STR prides itself on promoting the value and importance of classical training and the continuing development of Shakespearean theatre.
The 2019 Workshop
Day One took place on Friday 8th March at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama
with Day Two on Friday 22nd March at the National Theatre.
Leaders included Ben Crystal, Barrie Rutter and David Thacker.
The Poel 2019 participants with Director Richard Williams sixth from left and STR’s Howard Loxton far right.
A Full Report on Poel 2019 will be posted here shortly
How do I apply for 2020?
Participants are selected via written application and invited audition.
We are extending the catchment area for future Workshops so as to include participants from outside London and the Home Counties. This year, with the co-operation of Sheffield Theatres, two places were reserved specifically for actors from the Sheffield region. Thanks to support from The Garrick Club, small bursaries were available to assist those participants with travel and accommodation costs; holders needed to fund any shortfall themselves, just as those from London and the Home Counties fund their own expenses. The area for 2020 is yet to be decided.
You can register your interest in participation in 2020 now at email@example.com
We will contact you as soon as details are known and the application process is open