A conversation with DSL alumna, Helen Schlesinger


ELH:  Helen, you trained at DSL.  What was your journey to drama school? Prior to that you were at Oxford University.

HS: Yes. I did a degree in English.  There weren’t opportunities really to do drama degrees then.  Although I did lots of acting at university, I wanted to train in a drama school because I really had no idea how to become a professional actor.  There was a one-year course at DSL and I got a grant from my local authority to attend.

ELH: What did you enjoy most about DSL?

HS: Being able to act all day every day with an emphasis on performance.  I’m sure that’s the same appeal today.

ELH: Have you remained friends with any of your fellow students?

HS: Absolutely.  I still see them.

ELH: Any particularly happy memory of a performance you took part in at DSL?

HS: Yes, Marion in Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular.  It allowed me to really let my hair down and enjoy the audience reactions to the comedy.

ELH: What were the early years out of drama school like?

I did lots of London Fringe and Rep theatre and I joined a company called Compass – a touring company.  I did two ten-month tours with them – which I loved – and we travelled extensively.  And I got to play the role of Hamlet.  And it was that part which got me an agent.

ELH: Subsequently you’ve continued to have some phenomenal roles.  You played Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible for the RSC, winning a Best Supporting Actress Award.

HS: Yes, directed by Dominic Cooke.  It was arduous because it really takes it out of you, but the audience loved it. And for that generation it became their production of that iconic play.  It felt special.

ELH: And what about Shared Experience?  What were they like to work with?

HS: I loved it.  I suppose coming originally from a university background I was probably a rather ‘head centred’ actors, so I needed to work more through the body.  I found it liberating because they were all about expressing the inner life of the character physically. And they used various physical exercises which really freed you up.  We went on tour to places like India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh which were great life experiences too.

ELH: What would be your advice to current acting students?

HS: Training your body and training your voice are really concrete things you can do whilst you are here to prepare you for the demands of different theatre spaces.  A flexible body and flexible voice can make all the difference to your career.

Part of the discipline of being an actor is not to be too hard on yourself.  Something might not land on stage one night quite as you hoped, but you have a go the next night.  You keep interested.  You keep curious.  You keep it alive.

ELH: Your current job is in Straight Line Crazy where you have been playing the role of Jane Jacobs at The Bridge Theatre.  What has been the challenge here?

HS: I suppose the fun thing is that she’s a real person, she really existed.  So, there’s lots of material.  You can really get immersed in the audio footage since she’s characterful.  I still listen to it.  At the same time, you need to be aware you are also creating David Hare’s Jane Jacobs and your own Jane Jacobs. You have to allow yourself that freedom whilst using the research material as an imaginative source.  It’s great that as a character she gets to talk directly to the audience which I find really fascinating.  I’ve worked at the Globe quite a lot so that helped with that aspect of the role.

ELH: And next you are off to The Shed in New York with the production.

HS: Yes, it has a flexible performing space so we will be able to change the stage into a thrust configuration as we are used to here in London.  It’s all new.  I’ve never got to perform in a New York Theatre before.

ELH: Exciting times.

HS: Very exciting.

ELH: You have been working with some of the current DSL acting students today.

HS: Yes,  I’ve been working on creating character and encouraging them to explore transformation.  I do think it’s one of the most pleasurable aspects of acting – to play characters distanced from yourself. It’s fun.

Straight Line Crazy runs 18 October to 18 December 2022 presented by The Shed and the London Theatre Company.