Great actors need great foundations

Chester Lenihan is living proof that pursuing a dream can lead to great things if you're willing to work.

Banish the thought that a foundation course in any area will give you just the basics – especially when it comes to the 20-week Foundation Program at Actors Centre Australia (ACA), which has audition-based intakes every January and July.

When Chester Lenihan started in the Program in early 2021, aged 27, he knew he wanted to be an actor but, by his own admission, didn’t have much to go on. ‘I’d never acted before other than at high school,’ he says, ‘but I knew I really wanted to give it a shot, and thought, after failing a couple of auditions, “OK, I need some serious help here”.’

That help came in the form of Melbourne-born actor Pip Edwards, a coach Lenihan’s mother found online and who also tutors at ACA. ‘When Pip saw me, she said, “There’s a little something there, but boy, you’re green, you’re really green”,’ Lenihan recalls. ‘If it wasn’t for Pip, I wouldn’t have got into the Foundation Program because she got me connecting on a very simple level to various texts, and I used one of those for the Foundation Program interview.’

If he felt lucky to get in (he did!), he says he was also up for the commitment and workload the program requires. ‘The Foundation Program is jam-packed,’ he says. ‘It’s 20 hours a week for 20 weeks. We were doing Monday to Thursday nights, and then Saturdays from about 9am to 6pm. It takes some of the most crucial elements that you learn in the first year of the degree program and condenses them to give you the absolute fundamentals, as well as a taste of all sorts of other things.’

Such as?

‘We did clowning, acrobatics, and stage combat,’ he says. ‘We worked on Shakespeare sonnets and had voice and movement classes throughout. We learned all sorts of self-care procedures, including yoga, so we could physically get in touch with our bodies before moving into a character.’

‘And then, obviously, a lot of acting, and monologue classes, audition classes. There’s a really wide range, which was massively helpful as it gave me an idea of where my strengths and weaknesses were as an actor, and kind of set me up for the future.’

The teachers and mentors, he says, were another clear highlight. ‘The quality of the tutors is exactly the same as on the full degree program. We had Donald Woodburn, who’s an incredible voice coach. He absolutely changed my whole perspective on how to use my voice and the techniques underlying that. We had Jenny West, who’s fantastic and has been in the industry for many years. The intensity of the training lets you know for sure whether you want to continue with acting.’

The fact Lenihan is currently completing his second year in ACA’s Bachelor of Performing Arts (Stage and Screen) degree should give some idea of how inspired he felt. At the moment, he’s preparing for roles as Theseus and Oberon in an upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Lizzie Schebesta, rehearsing to sing duets in an end-of-year show (Lenihan says he never considered himself a singer but has benefitted from intensive singing lessons as part of the degree), taking ongoing classes in accent and voice work, and studying the ins and outs of Restoration theatre. 

While he knows finding stable work in the profession is a perennial challenge, he says he has no doubt that acting is the path he will continue to follow, thanks in no small part to the level of training he’s received, the advice for students on creating their own work after graduation, and the fact his cohort of fellow actors-in-training has him feeling he’s not alone but in a ‘25 person ensemble’.

‘The culture and community at ACA is something that’s really like no other,’ he says. ‘I just can’t speak highly enough of it.’  

In celebration of 30 years of its public programs, ACA has announced a $1,000 grant for every student joining its Foundation Program, meaning, from 1 January, the Foundation Program, previously priced at $7,999, will be adjusted to $6,999.

ACA is also running an Early Bird Offer for all prospective students, meaning those who audition and secure a position in the course before 20 December 20th will enjoy an additional $500 savings, bringing the total course price down further, to $6,499. 

Applications for the January 2024 Foundation Program at Actors Centre Australia are open now. Find out more.

Paul Dalgarno is author of the novels A Country of Eternal Light (2023) and Poly (2020); the memoir And You May Find Yourself (2015); and the creative non-fiction book Prudish Nation (2023). He was formerly Deputy Editor of The Conversation and joined ScreenHub as Managing Editor in 2022. X: @pauldalgarno. Insta: @dalgarnowrites