Double Olivier Award winner, Denise Gough, considers the funding she received to pursue acting at drama school as a crucial turning point in her life.
Denise Gough is a renowned Irish actress. She has made a name for herself in film and television, but the stage remains her true passion. Denise is a double Olivier Award winner, achieving Best Actress for ‘People, Places, Things’ at the National Theatre in 2016, and Best Supporting Actress for ‘Angels in America’ at the National Theatre in 2018.
Gough had some difficult and troubled times as a teenager but describes a major turning point in her life was meeting an improvisation teacher who recognised her talent. This paved the way for a full scholarship to start her course at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA) leading to the Trinity Diploma in Professional Acting.
Without this recognition and financial support, Gough feels that her lifestyle would have sent her down a destructive path, and she would never have achieved the success she is enjoying today as an esteemed actress.
“I got a scholarship to study acting at The Academy of Live and Recorded Arts. Without it I would never have got where I was.”
Denise was born in Ennis, County Clare and is the seventh of eleven siblings. Neither of her parents have a history in the entertainment industry, and Denise is not an actress who discovered her love of acting as a child. She performed in plays at school but really found her passion for acting after leaving school at the age of 15 and pursuing drama for the pure love of it.
She attended a foundation course at Lewisham College, London but it was when she was at improvisation classes in an old night club that her gift was spotted and she was recommended to go to drama school. She recalls receiving the telephone call saying that she has been accepted to the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA) and saying that she wouldn’t be able to go as she couldn’t afford it. To her surprise, she was soon informed that she had been awarded a fully funded Dance and Drama Award (DaDA) scholarship to pursue her acting career.
“When I started performing I felt that I had something that was worth nurturing. There is a direct correlation between doing something that is worthy and feeling worthy. I felt like I was really good at this. Kids need to feel that they are good at something. You can’t underestimate the power of the arts.”
Denise feels that her entire education came from drama school. She explains how acting has taught her a wealth of transferable skills including:
She feels that what you can learn through acting is limitless.
The world of literature has opened up for Denise through reading plays, falling in love with them and acting the parts. She lists Greek literature as well as authors such as Tenessee Williams, Seàn O'Casey, Marina Carrs and Eugene O'Neill as some of her favourites, alongside her love for new writers.
Denise explains that drama school engages you politically and teaches you the importance of social responsibility, as well as the toxic effect of the imbalance of power. She feels strongly about the importance of standing up for others and ensuring that she is an advocate for people who don’t have a voice.
She actively uses the arts to support a charity recently set up by her sister for Ukrainian refugee families, recalling in particular a young 15 year old refugee who is a keen dancer. Denise recounts how the young girl had fled Ukraine in the most traumatic circumstances losing everything and arriving without even a pair of trainers, yet once on stage dancing she transformed and was so happy.
“I look to people out there in the world. For example, the way Zelensky used his artistry for something so profound. He has shown himself to be one of the greatest leaders in history Iand a true authentic artist in a time of great suffering. He speaks from the heart to the heart of his people.”
Denise candidly reiterates that without the DaDA funding for drama school she would be in a dark place by now, from behaviours linked to drugs and alcohol excess. She would never have had the opportunity to achieve so much as well as to help others.
She explains that getting into acting, especially from a working class background, is not a linear process and she has had to work hard and struggle along the way, but she emphasises that she never would have her life journey any differently. If she couldn’t be an actress she would have worked as a drama teacher, helping young people find their way and igniting their fire through the arts.
Her message is one of hope; never give up, never compromise and always strive to be yourself and follow what lights you up.
“The importance of the arts cannot be underestimated. My education never ever stops; all because I got that scholarship to drama school.”