One of the best things that ever happened to me was winning a Fulbright Grant to study at LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art).
When I was a junior in college, a fellow student a year ahead of me won a science Fulbright, and I guess that is what put it in my mind to apply for one. I filled out the application form and had to write an essay about why I wanted to go there to study acting. I had gotten a firm foundation in the Stanislavski Method in the Theatre Dept at Rollins College, but knew I wanted and needed technical training in voice and body work. In 1963 there were not many conservatory programs in the U.S. I thought the only and best place for this training was England. I actually applied to RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art ) because that was the only English drama school I’d ever heard of.
I had to submit a tape of two monologues — this was the days before video. Happily, I worked at the Rollins College radio station WPRK, and had the help of the man who ran it to make the audio tape. I sent in the application in the fall term. I heard by letter sometime late in the fall that I had been selected to move to the next round, which was a live audition in New York, and would take place during the Christmas break. Most of what I got for Christmas that year was money to pay for the train trip to New York from my home in Atlanta, GA. I went a few days after Christmas and stayed with a friend of the family who lived in Manhattan.
I remember the audition very well. I did a speech of the Nurse from Romeo and Juliet. I don’t remember why I chose it, but I had played a lot of character roles in college, and it was a good self-contained speech, though I had never played the part in a production. The audition was held at a Broadway theatre, and I was up on a big empty stage with a dark auditorium and out there somewhere were three or four people adjudicating my performance. I was doing well in the speech when I suddenly dried. I remember turning in a slow circle till I finally remembered the next line, and I plowed on. I was mortified. After that, I went down into the house and sat with the judges while they asked me some questions, one of which was, “If you don’t get this grant, what will you do?” I had already had a meeting at the headquarters of the Red Cross in Atlanta, and I replied immediately, “I’ll join the Red Cross and go to Korea” That was actually what one of my college friends did back then.
I left that theatre quite broken and depressed. I figured I had screwed up my chances at the grant by my stupid dry in the middle of the speech and by being prepared to go to Korea instead of planning some other way to be in the theatre. I called my Mother and told her I was taking the next train home, instead of staying for a few days to see shows in New York. After I thought about it on the long ride home, I realized that if I was going to dry anywhere in the speech, I had dried at the right place, because it is just before the Nurse has to remember something that happened a long time ago. But it didn’t make me feel better about my chances. When, in the Spring, I got a letter in my campus mailbox with a return address of the Fulbright Commission, I was hesitant to open the envelope. But it was joyous good news. Everyone in the campus student center heard my scream of surprise and delight that I had been accepted for a Fulbright Grant to study for one year at LAMDA (the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art). I wondered why it wasn’t RADA, and found out later that LAMDA had a one year course that had been specifically set up with the Fulbright program, and that it was especially designed for people from outside Britain who had a degree in theatre and/or some professional experience. So that’s why it was LAMDA with the Fulbright, and not RADA. It was a perfect fit for me. And the start to a seminal year in my career.
I learned SO MUCH at LAMDA. I am eternally grateful for that year of training. I went to school five days a week from 9 to 5, learning in depth how to do the one thing I cared most about in the world. And at night I went to the London theatre and saw everything — an education in itself. I learned as much from the bad plays as from the good ones. I was a sponge in London, soaking up the culture as well as the theatre, and in the process became an Anglophile with a great love for tea and classical theatre.