My Inspirational Teacher: by actor Michael Sheen

In a new regular series, we talk to people about the teacher who inspired them. Here we meet the Welsh stage and screen actor Michael Sheen, best known for his film and TV portrayals of Tony Blair and David Frost.

At the BAFTA ceremony in London in February, Dame Helen Mirren saluted one of her old teachers, Alys Welding, and invited  audience members to acknowledge if they too had benefited from an inspirational teacher. Who did you raise your hand for?

I had a lots of great teachers but the teacher who had the biggest effect on me was a man called Godfrey Evans. He taught drama at the comprehensive school in the Sandfields Estate, which was in South Wales where I grew up. It was one of the toughest areas in the county, a very depressed area – not a lot going on for young people.

But he built up a really progressive, positive, healthy arts scene in the school and the effect of it spread across the whole county.

Richard Burton came from the same town as me (Port Talbot) and he had a very particular mentor in Philip Burton (his English teacher) but that was very much a one-on-one situation. The thing that impressed me most about Godfrey Evans was he set up a structure and ethos that managed to have a huge effect on many generations of young people.

He eventually became a county adviser and set up the West Glamorgan Youth Theatre, which had an extraordinary structure – a strong sense of discipline and a real mixture of backgrounds. Every school was encouraged to put forward students to audition. Godfrey made sure no one was excluded because of their financial situation.

Young people from the age of about 13 to 21 would all work together at Christmas and during the summer on productions like Shakespeare, Brecht, T.S. Eliot, the Greek plays, as well as improvised things.

Godfrey always said the important thing wasn’t whether someone went on to work as an actor but the things they learnt from working together as a community and how they could take that on into their lives.

Can you paint us a picture of him?

He was a very dignified man, quite slight. He was very well-dressed and quite reserved in lots of ways but he had a definite sense of mischief about him, a sparkle in his eye. He was never one to show that off even though he had a real sense of intelligence. He knew how to hold back. If he gave you a positive comment that meant a huge amount.

As a teenager exploring drama, did you have a pivotal moment where he gave you the confidence to go forward?

The thing that had a huge effect on me was the first Youth Theatre summer course I got to be on. I’d done the Christmas course as a 14-year-old but the summer course was a more grown-up affair as some of the older students returned from college to do it.

I didn’t actually get approved as an actor for the first course. I was on it as a stage management student. I remember sitting at the back of the drama hall for the first run-through. It was a repeat performance from the previous year of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. The actors weren’t even in costume. All they had was taped marks on the stage floor. But I remember watching this play and my whole world changing.

Godfrey Evans was sitting at his desk, which he always sat at, taking notes. I’d seen a few musicals before – amateur musicals that my parents had been involved in. But nothing like this. To have the power of this play, The Crucible, right in front of me absolutely changed the way I saw everything. A hugely powerful experience.

Have you seen him since?

I see him fairly regularly because I go back to Wales quite a lot. Our youth theatre has had a lot of its funding cut – a lot of the  drama departments have been cut from the schools– so the path that led me to where I am now has disappeared in lots of ways.

I’ve made sure to stay involved with the arts scene in the area, specifically with the youth theatre, so I bump into him at the youth theatre shows. They’re just about to go to South Africa to do a production of the Passion Play with local people on a farm.

You appeared in the Passion Play in 2011, back in Port Talbot, playing the part of the Teacher, so it all comes full circle.

It does. The local paper runs a community awards every year and one of the awards is given to an inspirational teacher or mentor. They asked me to nominate someone and I nominated him. I even got to be there and give him the award, which was nice.

You do a lot of work for UNICEF, visiting schools, and you recently visited Lebanon, where getting education to the displaced children from Syria is crucial. What did you find?

Last year I went on two trips for UNICEF. Firstly to Chad and then to the Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon. I was struck by the mobile schools which have been set up for these children, who’ve come through such incredible upheaval and gone through such trauma.

There they are with their backpacks on, singing these songs about their homeland. They don’t want to take the backpacks off. They were given to them by UNICEF.

They’re not yet able to concentrate on schoolwork because they’ve gone through so much. Sitting down and doing lessons is probably too much for them. So they just sing songs at first with a safe area to play in.

I remember one little girl about eight years old. I said: 'Who’s the best singer here?' and they all pointed to her. I was kind of joking but clearly she was the best singer. And she was.

Up she came in front of the whole group with her little backpack on – well, big backpack actually – and she sang this song with such passion and animation. It was all about how we are children and we have the right to be happy.

Someone told me afterwards that she had lost her sister on the journey out of Syria to the camps. And yet, to see her singing with such dignity and strength, it was both exhilarating and heartbreaking at the same time.

In fact, to see all these children and teachers, who are also refugees –  to see them all working together, surviving and getting through it – and the support for them through UNICEF, it had a huge effect on me.

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