Acting on education

British actor and presenter Ben Walden is bringing his performance techniques into the classroom to help students find their path in life

I used to do this sort of thing all the time,” Ben Walden says as he poses for the camera. “When I was younger, I was always being interviewed and photographed, except back then, people mainly wanted to know who I was dating!”

These days, Ben gets phone calls from IB educators and professionals rather than entertainment journalists. After numerous movie and television roles, West End performances and work with Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London, it’s teaching performance exercises and giving talks about drama that get him standing ovations nowadays.

Ben spoke at the IBAEM Conference in Madrid last year to much acclaim, and having learned more about the IB he says he is impressed with the curriculum.

“It’s open-minded and allows students to investigate things for themselves,” he says. He’s excited to work more with IB World Schools and has events and learning exercises booked all over the world this year.

Six years ago, Ben founded Contender Charlie, a company that supports teachers and students using acting techniques and philosophies. His eyes light up as he talks about the project and the effect it’s had on participants.

“We try to find out what inspires the students,” he says. “Only then can we motivate them to go out into the world and do something really valuable.” Ben says that the most rewarding part of the job is the lasting effect his work has on students.

“I’ve had young people writing to me saying that the course has changed their life, and that now, they are inspired to go out and do what they really want with their lives. That’s an amazing feeling.”

Using storytelling, mythology and plays, Mythodrama is an experimental learning practice that can benefit both students and teachers. The technique combines theatre practice, psychology and philosophy, and brings all the participants together to discuss big themes in their own lives.

“Drama is about as close to real life as you can get,” says Ben. “In many ways, people are always playing a role. Marlon Brando once said that everyone is an actor, and I agree with that to a certain extent.”

Ben says Mythodrama is a great way for students to gain a better understanding of their emotions. “It helps [students] understand themselves and learn about who they are as a person,” he says.

He created this experiential theatre learning technique while running acting and performance skills master classes for the Shakespeare’s Globe Education Centre.

Ben then spent time working with friends and colleagues Richard Olivier and Mark Rylance at the newly created Olivier Mythodrama, a company founded by Olivier that runs sessions and workshops around the world and shares the technique with people from different organizations.

“The workshops are all different depending on the play and the themes,” he says. “There is one about inspirational leadership, which we use in businesses, that has been very successful.”

Having seen the positive effect the workshops had on participants, Ben decided to take the techniques into the classroom with his own company, Contender Charlie. Contender Charlie’s Mythodrama courses take place at educational conferences around the world.

Ben says his chief passion is using theatre as a medium to bring meaning, purpose and greater personal expression to the lives of young people. “The difference between teaching children and adults is that children are more honest,” says Ben.

“They can be quite skeptical at first. They think, ‘What’s this got to do with me?’ or even, ‘This is just a sad old luvvie who can’t get any acting work’! But by the end, I hope, they change their minds.” Having failed at becoming a professional footballer, something he jokes that he “never really got over”, Ben first realized he had a gift for acting when he won a competition at school.

“I enjoyed theatre and I soon realized that I felt really at home on the stage,” he says. “I was around friends with the same interests and we watched loads of movies together.”

At school, Ben also enjoyed history and politics, but decided to go to drama school rather than university at the age of 18. It’s something he now regrets. “I should have gone when I had the chance – university is wasted on the young!” he says.

He later dropped out of drama school and went to study in New York City at the HB Studio, which is run by actress Uta Hagen and her director and actor husband Herbert Berghof.

After a childhood that he describes as ‘unusual’ – his parents divorced when he was young and he attended boarding school – Ben was happy to leave England behind.

“I had a good education; in fact I would like all children to have the same kinds of opportunities that I had, but I didn’t like the conformity of school,” he says.

He spent two years studying at the studio in Greenwich Village, and this set him up for a successful career in show business. His first break was a part in The Camomile Lawn, a production for UK television. Out of the thousands who auditioned, he was thrilled to get the part.

“It was a mixed blessing. My character wasn’t very likable!” says Ben, who, despite this infamous role, went on to star in movies, television shows – including the title role in the BBC’s adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit – and plays over the next ten years.

Ben says he doesn’t mind letting his acting career take a back seat. “I don’t miss anything about acting,” he says. “I still had ambitions with it, but I love what I do now. I had a vision, an idea, and I went for it. I decided I wanted to do something that was helpful and beneficial to education.

“Teachers are the heroes and heroines of our society,” he says. “I want to help them and do something to help their students.”

To find out more about Contender Charlie and Mythodrama sessions around the world, visit www.contendercharlie.com.