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Continuing with our series of introductory Q&A sessions with course leaders, we got to know the Course Leaders of the Foundation Acting Diploma, Elen Benfield (ALRA North) and Aiden Crawford (ALRA South).

Tell us about the other work you have done and what led you to this point at ALRA. Can you share some of the highlights?

Elen: Since graduating from ALRA North's BA Acting course in 2018, I have worked as an actor across different mediums including stage, screen and commercial audio. One of my definite highlights has been doing voice-over work with the BBC - the first time I walked into the building in Media City to record, I felt like I was dreaming! In my final year at ALRA, I explored the role of the movement director and instantly discovered my love for directing, which I have thankfully had the opportunity to keep discovering ever since. Highlights include working with fellow ALRA North grad Sorcha McCaffrey, providing movement support ahead of Sorcha taking her brilliant show Ladybones to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, directing East Riding Theatre's family Christmas musical The Fairy Who Fell Out Of The Christmas Tree and directing Lexi-Electra Retold, a specially commissioned lockdown version of Laura Turner's play. I am currently directing the R&D of actor/writer and fellow ALRA grad Daneka Etchells's brand new play Sappho, which is also a definite highlight. I feel very lucky to be a part of an incredible creative team collaborating on this special piece. Alongside my acting and directing work, I have also done lots of teaching and community work with students of all ages and abilities, both in acting and in musical theatre/singing, which I love. When the opportunity to lead the Foundation course at ALRA North came up last summer, it felt like the perfect way to combine all my different areas of creative work in an exciting and meaningful way.

Aiden: I had a varied background before coming to ALRA. I originally worked as a performer in various worlds including musical theatre, Shakespeare, theatre in education and physical theatre. I then moved into movement direction and teaching which steered me towards my work within actor training and ALRA. My favourite experiences have always been when I’ve had a chance to create something. Working with Outbox Theatre company was a particular highlight. I felt lucky to get to work with such a great team and create something that was close to my heart.


How has your own acting experience informed your teaching?

Elen: 

Hugely. Whatever role I am undertaking, whether as an actor, director, tutor or movement director, the golden thread that runs through my work is fundamentally the same. I am a creative whose job it is to be open, generous, giving and collaborative, and to listen (to myself, others, the room, the environment and the text), receive the information this gives me and respond authentically to it in the moment. I never promise to have the answers in any of the work that I do, but I do promise to turn up with some ideas about where I think we should start looking for them and in a state of readiness to explore, research, listen and collaborate with the team around me to figure them out together. As an actor, you can never do your work alone. Even in a one-person show, you have to collaborate with your creative team through the process and then with the audience each time you get on stage. You have to listen to what those audience members are bringing with them, let it affect you and inform the way you tell the story that time around. For any actor's performance to be moving and affecting, we must collaborate with others, and I feel that teaching is exactly the same. I come to class prepared with questions, provocations, offers and suggestions to lead my students through, in the same way that as an actor I arrive to work having learnt my lines and knowing the story I am going to lead the audience through. When I get to work, I then have to listen to and collaborate with the others there, utilising the incredible wealth of knowledge, suggestions and provocations we all bring into the space and allowing these to collectively shape the work. The only way I believe truly transformational acting, directing or teaching can happen is through collaboration.

Aiden: I have always enjoyed working collaboratively. I believe creating should always be a team effort and this goes for teaching too. Teaching should be a conversation and working this way gives every single person a voice in the room.


Do you remember a specific teacher from your own training who inspired you?

Elen: I remember lots rather than just one, and I feel incredibly lucky to be working alongside many of them now, albeit in a different capacity! I will mention two tutors specifically though, as I feel their impact on me has shaped the work I am doing today most demonstrably. One is Kieran Sheehan, the now Vice Principal of ALRA. Kieran was the Head of Movement at ALRA North and was instrumental in helping me discover movement as being an integral cornerstone within my creative process as an actor (and subsequently as a director and teacher). Some of the biggest lessons I have learnt about myself, my creative process and what it is to be an actor/director/teacher stem directly from Kieran and I know I would not be doing the work I am doing today in the way I am doing it without his influence. I also have to mention Chris Hill, ALRA's Dean. Chris directed me in my second and third years at ALRA and was instrumental in helping me work through some of my biggest development areas as an actor, and also in helping me realise, understand and pursue my passion for directing. Since graduating, Chris has continued to help me learn and make sense of all that I am discovering. Chris and I have worked together multiple times on third year BA shows and it is an immense privilege every time. I am really excited to get back in a room with Chris and the rest of the team to make some magic! 

Aiden: The biggest influence on me was my Youth Theatre leader from when I was a teenager. He treated us like actors and pushed us to be better. This was the first time I ever took acting seriously and I can honestly say I would not be where I am now without him.


What is your vision for the ALRA Foundation Acting Diploma?

Elen: I was an ALRA Foundation student myself, so the course is incredibly important to me. My foundation year gave me the time and space to grow, learn, develop and discover, as well as the confidence to know that I was good enough to go onto further BA study and have a career in the creative arts. As such, I know how transformative a course like the foundation can be for students. My vision is for the course to be an inclusive, encouraging, welcoming, open and safe environment for every single student under my leadership; a space for them to safely grow, develop, discover and learn by taking risks, being brave and trying out new things. I also want it to be a fun, dynamic, agile and responsive course, bespoke to the wants, needs and passions of the cohort, producing well-rounded artists who are ready to embark on the next exciting stage of their creative journeys when they leave. My wonderful group this year are all really keen writers, so I am already working to pepper their year with opportunities for them to explore that side of their creativity too. I see my role as Course Leader as a facilitator of learning in whatever way is useful for the my students, offering them a myriad of different experiences, choices, options and provocations for each of them to discover their individual relationships to.

Aiden: I would like to create a safe and playful environment in which students can come to gain the confidence, skills and clarity to help them take the next step on their journeys.