Lisa Benson and Phil Barley

Professional Actors and Owners of Theatre Digs Booker
Lisa Benson and Phil Barley

BA Performing Arts - Drama, 2002

Why did you choose Middlesex University for your degree?

At the time of studying at Middlesex University it had a great reputation for being one of the most sought-after performance art courses in the country with over 350 applications a year for just 50 places. The campus facilities and setting in the beautiful Trent Park, as well as being close to central London, made attendance at an already much-favoured institution into an unmissable opportunity.

What course did you take and what did you enjoy most about it?

We both studied Performing Arts (majoring in Drama), graduating in 2002 (2:1). A major plus was that the course leaned heavily towards practical modules (70/30 theory) allowing each student to tailor their own course from elective modules as well as the opportunity to work with world-renowned visiting practitioners.

Phil was a mature student, having previously started a career in mechanics. Joining the local Operatic Society soon led to the discovery that performance was where his heart really lay and so the die was cast...

Where did you live when you were at University?

We both lived at the Tottenham campus in our first year before moving into shared accommodation in the local area.

What is your fondest memory of your time at Middlesex?

Phil - In my second year, I went on an exchange program to Suny New Paltz, New York for one semester where I had a great teacher who taught jazz. For my final performance in May 2002, I put on a Big Band concert for which I learned how to transcribe music and supplied all of the musical arrangements to the band.

Lisa - I focused on drama and physical theatre and attended classes with esteemed tutors John Wright (internationally-renowned teacher and director as well as co-founder of Told by an Idiot) and Sam Butler (co-founder of Fevered Sleep and a fellow Middlesex graduate). I also worked with students on the Theatre Arts course to set up Tangled Feet Theatre Co. (now a theatre ensemble and charity). My stand out performance was playing Phoebe in Fassbinder's 'Blood on a Cat's Neck' where I was suspended on a rope from the ceiling of the Harvey Theatre for the first half of the production (a first for the Harvey Theatre at that time, we believe!).

We were the penultimate cohort of students on this course as it was closed to make way for Theatre Arts. We're both still in touch with Program Leader and Principal Music Lecturer David Peacock - he even came to our wedding – which goes to show how far-reaching the support that we received at Middlesex was in terms of influencing our later lives.

How did your course help you get where you are today?

Learning about different techniques, styles and practitioners really helped me to grow as a performer and my confidence grew as a result. I never knew there were so many strands to a career in Performing Arts, the course was a real eye opener.

What was your first big break and how did you get it?

Lisa - My early ambition was to tour the UK with a professional touring company so when I got a role straight out of University, after my first audition I was thrilled!

Phil - I landed the role of Entertainment Director onboard MV Discovery which gave me a chance to visit lots of amazing countries from Greenland to Jordan.

What has been your defining career break or highlight to date?

Phil - Performing the role of Dean Martin in The Rat Pack Live from Las Vegas on UK, European and U.S. National tours and at The Strand, Savoy and Palladium Theatres in London’s West End.

Why did you decide to forego performing in favour of a more behind-the-scenes role?

Having experienced the pitfalls of outdated paper lists and grotty digs for ourselves, we saw the need for an alternative and realised that there could be a viable online alternative thanks to advances in technology. Because of our personal experience, we know exactly what touring performers are looking for, and our close relationship with many hosts ensures we provide a great service to them too.

All registered ‘guest’ users have to be members of a professional body such as Spotlight, and they can then see plenty of photos and read reviews from previous guests before deciding whether to book, so the whole system is very transparent.

Many hosts are real arts and theatre lovers themselves so it’s a far more friendly set up than other booking platforms such as AirBnB, and the TDB support team at head office in Matlock go out of their way to encourage that caring and friendly ethos.

Which do you prefer and why - life on stage or behind the scenes?

Lisa - The feeling one has when performing live on stage is like no other; great script, good acting, excellent set and a live theatre audience combine to make true alchemy. That said, we have created something special for touring theatre professionals to enhance and improve their touring life which we’re very proud of and it’s very satisfying to know that we’re making a difference.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself at graduation?

Lisa - I think I would take heed of Will Smith’s wise words when he said: “Failure is a massive part of being able to be successful. Fail early, fail often, fail forward."

Phil - I would say to try find the one thing that gives you most joy and focus on getting as good as you can at that one thing until you get to do what you love for a living.

What one piece of advice would you give to a prospective student interested in studying at Middlesex?

Lisa - Go for it! It’s a wonderful, supportive environment to be in.

Phil - Try everything and get involved!

How did your course and time at Middlesex help you to get where you are professionally today?

Lisa - Middlesex was a great foundation to start from, providing me with a wealth of skills from discipline to performing techniques as well as making great future contacts.

What does the future hold for you?

Lisa - I’m very proud to be a part of TheatreDigsBooker and I’m very excited about the new features that we’re planning to launch in the future. Watch this space!

Phil - All of that plus a time when we can share our love of theatre with our daughters (who are just a bit too young at the moment).

What are the top three career tips you would give to current students and recent graduates?

Lisa

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions - there’s a wealth of support at Middlesex with lots of people willing/wanting to help you.
  2. Believe in yourself
  3. Enjoy what you do everyday - life’s too short!

What one piece of advice would you give to the 17/18 year old you?

Lisa - I put off going to University straight from school as I lacked the confidence at that time to do it. Now, I’d say feel the fear and do it anyway!

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