It was a grey Monday morning - until I sat down with Paul Caister, founder of The Poor School, in King's Cross. The mischievous, witty, actor/director turned teacher, who wears his glasses on the end of his nose, is a true gentleman.
I wanted to know why, in 1986, Paul had set up the school. He looked at me dead straight. "I wanted to be in work", he said.
I was curious about the past. "I trained as an actor at Bristol, but always wanted to direct. I didn't have a great time as a student. When I left I started directing on the fringe - this is the mid-seventies. I started a pub theatre but became exhausted - I had done about 20 plays in two years - and so I fled to the antipodes with my girlfriend, who was from New Zealand. I worked there and in Australia for over five years, acting and directing.Eventually I felt I had been playing truant. I came home. Within a few months The Poor School had been conceived."
I gave Paul the chance to see his school - why would he suggest to people who want to start out in acting to pick it? "I wouldn't advocate picking this or any other school. If someone is determined to train they should audition at different places. If they end up with a choice they should find out as much as possible about the different schools. If they have auditioned or taken a short course they already have an impression of the atmosphere. They have, in however limited a way, experienced the school in action. This puts them is a position to choose. I also suggest they see the graduating shows at a school. It is surprising how many people don't do that. I love comparisons. The Poor School usually comes off well".
What is the success rate of graduates? "Some years ago we researched and found that, five years after leaving, about 50% were still acting".
Aside from the two year training, Paul runs Four Day Courses, One Week Courses, and Summer Courses. How does he advise prospective students on which to take? "I sell our short courses shamlessly because I don't think there is a person earth who wouldn't benefit from taking one. I never persuade anyone to undertake the training; it's a huge commitment and changes your life.
What is it about teaching that Paul loves? "I don't get bored. If something doesn't bore you after 40 years then I guess it's your thing".
During the course I took I saw how passionate Paul was about Shakespeare. He knew every misplaced word. I asked him what his favourite Shakespeare play was. "I've morphed. Thirty years ago I would have said Antony & Cleopatra. Now it's King Lear. What's the best Act 5? MacBeth. The best first three acts? Hamlet. Acts four and five are not so good. Everyone knows it but no-one says it". No-one says it but Paul just did. I love his honesty.
I was intrigued if any full time student had caused Paul to feel horrified at what he had taken on only to be astonished at how good they became? "All the time, but nothing is guaranteed. Some people don't, or won't , change. Great things and dreadful things happen every week."
Paul finds time to see the odd play. "I saw CABARET last weekend, or, rather, the first twenty minutes of CABARET. A thoroughly nasty and cynical production with no insight or aspiration to insight, made worse by the fact that Will Young seems to think he is good. THE SUNSHINE BOYS was the most fun I have had outside of The Poor School this year, and I thought LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT was a loving homage to a proper text. I braved the National once but left, as usual, at half time."
As the students start to arrive I head off and tell Paul I'll keep in touch. I turn around; Paul is already engrossed with students talking about scripts. He is one man I believe was put on this earth to teach and encourage people. He's also a true English gentleman.