It’s hardly surprising that, in a career as varied as that of an actor, we meet many different people who can change and shape us a performers. The tragedy is that we don’t often fully realise their influence until after they have gone.
Last week many of my fellow graduates of the Birmingham School of Acting and I were shocked by the sudden passing of a truly inspirational figure, David Vann.
I have always been intensely proud of my drama school and the supportive and nurturing environment for actor training that it continues to provide. The staff are a close knit team who have a huge personal stake in the development of every young actor that passes through its doors, and I strongly believe I couldn’t have found a more suitable place to spend three very significant years of my professional life.
I realise now, four years into my career, the profound effect my tutors had on me, and none more so than David.
It goes without saying that David was passionate about his work at the school, sympathetic and kind as well as supportive of young actors to the hilt. To me though, his truly inspiring quality was his deep, deep love of the theatre and the simple joy he experienced in passing on his wisdom, accrued from many years of performing and teaching.
David took us for a class in the first year called Theatre in Context. On paper this looked a rather dry lesson on the timetable, a lecture-based class where we made up for the rest of the time we spent being trees and prancing around in footless leggings, by sitting down and actually doing something to enrich our knowledge in a more academic setting.
What it actually consisted of was David sitting on a table and regaling us for an hour at a time with his own eccentric and hilarious history of the theatre, starting with the Greeks and eventually bringing us up to the present day, with the odd fascinating sojourn along the way. Naturally, he delivered this unprepared, epic monologue with all of the wit and eloquence of a man who has spent a lifetime on the stage, shifting from wise and worldly narration one moment, to wide eyed reverence of truly great art (he always said that the three pillars of theatre were Shakespeare, Chekhov and Sondheim) the next, then pausing to take on the role of a salacious gossip the next as he recounted tales of debauchery at the Royal Court in the 60s. It was, in a word, captivating.
David could slip fluidly into quoting huge swathes of text to elegantly illustrate any point, whether it was Webster, Keats or Kenneth Williams, tasting and savouring the language as if it was fresh minted in his mouth every time he spoke it. On a whim one rainy afternoon, he recited the entirety of John Donne’s ‘The Flea’ to us in this spellbinding fashion, allowing a reverential silence to follow (only broken by my involuntary and pathetic sigh of appreciation) to then succinctly conclude: “We’ve all been bitten by a fly, so we might as well shag.”
He was the embodiment of a fountain of knowledge, and he made me want to soak up as much of what he could teach me as humanly possible in the short time I had at BSA. So much so that he was always my first port of call for any theatrical query. Just last year I phoned him up with a “Vannesque” question: “David, hi, Tristan here, I need a fourteenth-century clown monologue for an audition, perhaps from a morality or mystery play…?” to which he replied without a moment’s pause: “What’s your email address again?”
Within minutes a list of comprehensive and obscure suggestions appeared, and I was off. It’s sad to think he won’t be on the end of a phone in this way again.
The great comfort to everyone who met and worked with David though, was that we was never precious or guarded with his expertise – he revelled in passing on his limitless enthusiasm to actors year after year. This has been more than evident from the vast amount of tributes that have flooded Facebook in the past few days. Whenever I meet another actor from Birmingham, we are always connected by a shared David Vann anecdote and I know this will continue for years to come. In the meantime my thoughts and sympathies go out to Stephen, Daniele, Lou, Alex, Simon, Lise, Keith and all of the other staff and inspiring tutors at my wonderful school. And David, thank you, immeasurably.