‘Every picture tells a story’ – a tribute to Kevin Elyot

Kevin ElyotThe writer Kevin Elyot, best known for his Olivier Award-winning 1994 play My Night With Reg, died last weekend. Here, we pay tribute to Kevin’s life and career, with a look back at Kevin’s early years as a writer, a comment from publisher Nick Hern, and an extract from his most famous play.

Kevin Elyot recalls his Birmingham childhood, his first forays into theatre, and the origins of My Night With Reg.

The choir of St Peter’s in Handsworth, the Birmingham suburb where I spent my early years, consisted of a handful of grownups and myself. On certain Sundays we’d process through the streets with the vicar, carrying a cross, swinging incense and singing hymns. I was quite short at the time. Janet, one of the women, was fairly large. She had a childlike face, curly hair, a kind heart and a simple disposition. She’d regularly plonk herself down next to me in the vestry, both of us in cassock and surplus, and say, ‘Every picture tells a story.’ Then she’d laugh, and I’d smile, but I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.

My parents often took my sister and me to the theatre: variety bills at the Hippodrome, where the number of the act would be displayed at the side of the stage, and pantomimes and plays at the Rep and the Alexandra. We had a family outing to Stratford when I was about ten to see a matinée of Richard the Third with Christopher Plummer and Eric Porter. That was the start of my love affair with the place: I’d do the hour’s journey on top of the 150 from Birmingham, queue for standing tickets and see shows two or three times. I was addicted, but it was St Peter’s that gave me my first fix.

*

For the briefest time I was taken into the confidence of Peggy Ramsay, the revered literary agent. In her office in Goodwin’s Court I perched on the sofa, where I fondly hoped Joe Orton had sat, and listened to the gossip and her occasional barbed opinions, sometimes of her own clients.

Elyot Four Plays cover

The cover to the anthology
Kevin Elyot: Four Plays

She’d taken me on after reading Coming Clean, my first foray into professional writing. From 1976 to 1984 I’d acted in several productions at the Bush Theatre, and Simon Stokes, one of the artistic directors, had casually suggested I try my hand at a play. I presented them with a script entitled Cosy, which was passed on to their literary manager Sebastian Born. He responded favourably and, largely through his support, it finally opened on 3 November 1982 under the title Coming Clean. Cosy had fallen out of favour – a pity, as I’d always liked the pun on the opera which plays such an important part. I came up with the present title as a necessary compromise after what had proved to be quite a bumpy ride from acceptance to premiere.

The Bush was the perfect space for David Hayman’s intensely intimate production, as Tony tried in vain to come to terms with his ‘open’ relationship with Greg. These were hedonistic times, when the worse that might happen, health-wise, was usually sorted by a trip to the clinic, where you’d pretend not to recognise each other, alarmingly aged in the cruel light of day, and when AIDS was a barely credible rumour filtering from across the Atlantic. The play’s final scene has an elegiac quality – in retrospect, almost a sense of foreboding. When Peggy saw it, she was in tears. ‘That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,’ she said, disgorging the contents of her handbag on the floor. From then on, it was downhill.

‘lf you don’t write your next play soon, you’ll never write again,’ she warned. Alarmed, I forced out a piece called A Quick One. ‘Rather than write stuff like this,’ she said, ‘you should take up a hobby, like squash.’ Then I thought I’d try my hand at a radio play, According to Plan, which she insisted she wouldn’t be able to sell. I asked Sebastian Born, by now a literary agent with James Sharkey Associates, if he thought he might be able to sell it, which he did. It was transmitted in 1987 on Radio 4, directed by Pat Trueman, with Sheila Reid, Jean Anderson and Tom Wilkinson. Sebastian became my agent and the manuscript of A Quick One disappeared without trace.

I’ve yet to try my hand at squash.

*

One evening in the summer of 1993, alone in a house outside Todi, I thought, ‘So this is how it ends.’

The malaise had begun during what proved to be my last acting job – ironically, a tour of Molière’s The Hypochondriac. The gloom of fetching up in wintry, wet Worthing, or Swindon, or Poole, week after week in a fairly dismal show, was compounded by private fear as I obsessively weighed myself, wondering why the pounds were slowly shedding. By the summer, still refusing medical advice, I insisted on holidaying with friends in Umbria, where I spent most of the time in bed, high on fever and a diet of paracetamol. I even took some old antibiotics I’d come across, which brought me out in a fearful rash. My friends took me to a dermatologist, who, when he saw it, muttered, ‘Bestiale,’ and told me to take a blood test at the hospital in Todi. This I did with no intention of finding out the result.

The evening in question, I noticed a storm threatening on the horizon. It reached the house, cutting off the electricity, so I went outside to the fuse box, a pointless exercise even if I hadn’t had a fever. Back inside, huddled up on the sofa in the dark, I thought, for the first time in my life, that this was it. It wasn’t, but things would never be quite the same again.

Within days of getting home I was hospitalised with pneumonia. The love of family and friends, and the exceptional skill of Margaret Johnson and her team at the Royal Free, pulled me back from the brink – also, quietly but insistently, My Night with Reg, already scheduled for production the following year. Though I learnt later how close I was to snuffing it, I never once, after diagnosis, believed that I wouldn’t pull through. Since then I’ve clung to projects almost like fetishes to keep together body and soul.

My Night with Reg had been a long time coming. I thought of the title in 1983, but didn’t write it until nearly ten years later. In the meantime it started to emerge: a David Bowie concert I’d been to at Bristol’s Colston Hall in 1973; listening to ‘Every Breath You Take’ on the roof of an apartment block overlooking Central Park; the death of a dear friend and the funeral of another – gradually the pieces began to fall into place. In 1991 it was commissioned by Hampstead Theatre. In 1993 they passed on it and Sebastian submitted it to the Royal Court. He got a swift response, and Stephen Daldry, in the process of taking the reins from Max Stafford-Clark, scheduled it for Easter 1994 in the Theatre Upstairs. He suggested Roger Michell should direct it, and our first meeting took place while I was still in the Royal Free. And so it moved forward, and I was determined to see it through. What seemed at times to be so nearly an ending proved, in fact, a beginning.

[Extract from the Foreword to Kevin Elyot: Four Plays]


Nick Hern, who published Kevin’s play My Night With Reg alongside its 1994 Royal Court premiere, pays tribute to Kevin’s contribution both to British theatre and NHB:

My Night With Reg

The cover to the playtext of My Night With Reg, first published alongside its 1994 Royal Court premiere

‘I’ll always be grateful to Kevin Elyot for two principle reasons. One, as the author of some of the wittiest, most poignantly acerbic plays of the 1990s; and two as the inadvertent saviour of Nick Hern Books, which had not long struggled into independent life when My Night With Reg transferred from the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs to the Criterion in the West End where it ran for seven glorious months before transferring again to the Playhouse. Thanks to the Royal Court, Nick Hern Books was supplying the Criterion with programme/texts, and I remember delivering over 5000 copies a month to the stage door throughout the run, thus generating badly needed income for the fledgling NHB.

‘Kevin in person could be as wittily acerbic as his writing. When I read him the draft blurb for a volume of his collected plays which ended, ‘Kevin lives in London near Hampstead Heath’, with a twinkle in his eye he suggested adding,  ‘But doesn’t go there much anymore.’’


Finally, an extract from the final scene of My Night With Reg, Kevin Elyot’s Olivier Award-winning 1994 play:

DANIEL. I tell you, the Heath was so muddy, it was like an ice rink. I was doing Sonja Henie impersonations all over the shop. And I lost a lens! I walked into at least half-a-dozen trees. Tried to go down on one of them. But you know how you get – sort of cock crazy. It was more like Harrods’ sale. You’ve no idea! Well, maybe more British Home Stores, but who cares? There were plenty of bargains in plenty of basements. And beautiful! Even though it was pissing down. I was moved to do a snatch of Titania at one point until an overweight biker insisted on chewing my nipples off. There was even an encampment of the homeless sitting round a pile of sodden twigs. It was like Act Three of Carmen. [...] But whatever I do, I can’t get rid of him. Not that I want to, in one sense, but trivial reminders are somehow the most melancholic and I don’t want to be sad. Why should I be? We had a great time together.

My Night With Reg is revived at the Donmar Warehouse, London, this summer, opening on 31 July.

 

Michael Palin: Monty Python as it happened

Palin, Michael_photo John SwannellThe inspiring Monty Python at Work is Michael Palin’s intimate, behind-the-scenes account of the conception and making of the legendary group’s shows, films, books and albums, drawn from his published diaries. Here, the author explains what writer-performers can learn from the book – and read further for extracts from the beginning of the Python journey.

Since the publication of my diaries I’ve received reactions from many people in many different areas of life. Some respond to the family material, particularly those entries dealing with illness and loss. Others find particular interest in locations and shared neighbourhoods, others in political asides, still others in my involvement in transport, and trains in particular. In many ways the most surprising and gratifying response has come from writer-performers, often much younger than myself, who see in my descriptions of the agony and ecstasy of creative work, reassuring parallels in their own experience.

As diaries are about work in progress, rather than achievement explained or reputation gained, they have a directness unvarnished by time. The creation of Monty Python, through the pages of a daily diary, is a nagging reminder of the unglamorous process rather than the glamorous result. I can understand why people in the same line of work might find this helpful. I was often lifted from the gloom of elusive inspiration by reading, in her diaries, that Virginia Woolf had bad days too. Similarly, I’ve been told by aspiring young comedy writers and performers how encouraged they are by the travails of Python.

Michael Palin as a Gumby, during Monty Python filming

When my friend and scrupulous editor, Geoffrey Strachan, asked me if he could extract my Monty Python experiences from the diary into a single compact volume he made much of the fact that this could almost be an educational tool. I wasn’t so sure about that. There’s little point in a Do-It-Yourself Python. Monty Python is what it is and can never be recreated by following steps one, two and three. And Python is a product of its time. The way we did things will never be possible again. But the important thing is that the will to do them and the spirit that created Python is timeless. If this account of the hoops we went through to turn that spirit into reality is instructive and inspirational today then I think it will indeed have proved itself to be some sort of educational tool, albeit in a very silly syllabus.


Below are some extracts from Monty Python at Work. Dating from August 1969 to December 1970, they give a fascinating glimpse into the group’s early days, starting with the filming of the first series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The book as a whole covers the period up to the release of their final film, The Meaning of Life, in 1983.

Thursday, August 31st 1969, Southwold

Out to Covehithe, where we filmed for most of the day. The cliffs are steep and crumbling there and the constant movement of BBC personnel up and down probably speeded coastal erosion by a good few years.

Mother and Father turned up during the morning and appeared as crowd in one of the shots.

In the afternoon heavy dark clouds came up and made filming a little slower. We ended up pushing a dummy newsreader off the harbour wall, and I had to swim out and rescue this drifting newsreader, so it could be used for another shot.

∼ ∼ ∼

Monday, February 16th 1970

Somehow, since Monty Python, it has become difficult to write comedy material for more conventional shows. Monty Python spoilt us in so far as mad flights of fancy, ludicrous changes of direction, absurd premises and the complete illogicality of writing were the rule rather than the exception. The compilation of all the last series, plus new links, into the film script And Now for Something Completely Different has been completed, and the script should be with Roger Hancock. No further news from Victor Lownes III, under whose patronage the work was done.

I am about to start writing Monty Python II, for, as Eric reminded me on the phone today, there are only eleven weeks until we go filming in May, and we are seriously intending to have eleven shows written by then.

∼ ∼ ∼

Sunday, March 8th

We watched David Frost ‘hosting’ the Institute of Television and Film Arts Awards at the London Palladium. Monty Python was nominated for four awards and won two. A special award for the writing, production and performance of the show, and a Craft Guild Award to Terry Gilliam for graphics. But somehow the brusqueness of the programme, and its complete shifting of emphasis away from television and towards Frost and film stars, made the winning of the award quite unexciting.

None of us was invited to the awards ceremony, as the girl who was organising it ‘didn’t know the names of the writers’ of Monty Python.

 ∼ ∼ ∼

Thursday, April 16th

At 10.00, cars arrived to take us to the Lyceum Ballroom off the Strand to be presented with our Weekend TV awards. We were rushed into the stage door, where a few girls with autograph books obviously thought we were somebody, but none of them was quite sure who.

A dinner-jacketed young man with a vacant expression and an autograph book asked me if I was famous. I said no, I wasn’t, but Terry Gilliam was. Gilliam signed Michael Mills’* name, the twit then gave the book to me saying, ‘Well, could I have yours anyway?’

So I signed ‘Michael Mills’ as well. We all signed ‘Michael Mills’ throughout the evening.

[* Michael Mills, Head of Comedy at the BBC, was the man who green-lighted Python in the summer of 1969. Despite a disastrous meeting at which we could give no satisfactory answers to any of his questions, he came out with the memorable words: ‘All right, I’ll give you thirteen shows, but that’s all.’]

∼ ∼ ∼

Monday, May 11th, Torquay

Set out for Torquay and our first two-week filming stretch away from home.

Our hotel, the Gleneagles, was a little out of Torquay, overlooking a beautiful little cove with plenty of trees around. However, Mr Sinclair, the proprietor, seemed to view us from the start as a colossal inconvenience, and when we arrived back from Brixham, at 12.30, having watched the night filming, he just stood and looked at us with a look of self-righteous resentment, of tacit accusation, that I had not seen since my father waited up for me fifteen years ago. Graham tentatively asked for a brandy – the idea was dismissed, and that night, our first in Torquay, we decided to move out of the Gleneagles.*

[* Eric and John decided to stay. In John’s case a lucrative decision as he later based Fawlty Towers on Gleneagles.]

∼ ∼ ∼

Thursday, June 18th

To Camberwell. The morning’s work interrupted by the delivery of a large amount of dung. We were sitting writing at Terry’s marble-topped table under a tree sheltering us from the sun. All rather Mediterranean. Suddenly the dung-carriers appeared. Fat, ruddy-faced, highly conversational and relentlessly cheerful, they carried their steaming goodies and deposited them at the far end of Terry’s garden. After about twenty-five tubfuls they were gone, but at least they left a sketch behind.*

 [* ‘Book of the Month Club Dung’, which found its way into Show 6 of the second series.]

∼ ∼ ∼

Sunday, November 8th

After washing my hair and shaving at 7.00 in the morning, I am driven to work and immediately my hair is caked down with grease and my face given a week’s growth of beard.

Ken Shabby* was especially revolting, with an awful open sore just below the nose. But Terry J (who has seen the rushes) is worried that it was shot with too much emphasis on Shabby and not enough wide shots to create the joke – which is the relationship of this ghastly suppurating apparition to the elegant and tasteful surroundings.

[* Shabby, a disgusting man with a pet goat, who appeals to the father of a beautiful upper-class girl (Connie Booth) for her hand in marriage, but spoils his chances by, among other things, gobbing on the carpet.]

∼ ∼ ∼

Thursday, December 31st

Apart from some dubbing still to do on the film, Monty Python is finished – we spent almost a year on one thirteen-week series and six weeks making a film – now it remains to be discussed as to whether or when we do another series…


Formatted

Monty Python at Work, £9.99

Nick Hern Books are thrilled to publish Monty Python at Work, Michael Palin’s intimate and inspiring behind-the-scenes account of the conception and making of the shows, films, books and albums.

Drawn from his published diaries, it will delight Python fans everywhere, and be a source of instruction and inspiration to students and those who seek to follow in the group’s footsteps.

To order your copy at a 20% discount, no voucher code required, click here.

Michael Palin will be discussing the book at a National Theatre Platform on Monday 2 June, at 6pm – click here to book tickets.

Author photo by John Swannell

 

The Goodale Brothers: the road to Jeeves and Wooster in ‘Perfect Nonsense’

GB1-1A huge success since opening in the West End last year, Jeeves & Wooster in ‘Perfect Nonsense’, the Goodale Brothers’ ingenious play featuring P.G. Wodehouse’s iconic double act, was recently named Best New Comedy at the 2014 Olivier Awards. Here, co-writer Robert Goodale explains how the idea to adapt Wodehouse’s books came about, and the process by which the play came to the stage.

My first taste of P.G. Wodehouse came in my early twenties when my twin brother and a mutual friend of ours used to quote PGW phrases, sentences and extracts back and forth at each other during late night drinking sessions. I was never sure whether it was the whisky, the Wodehouse or a combination of the two that was making me laugh hysterically, but for years my experience of the great man was confined to the blurry hours of the night.

It was only when looking for material for a one-man show that I picked up a Jeeves and Wooster book in the cold light of day and realised what a comic genius Wodehouse really was. I also discovered that some of his best material was being filtered through the mouthpiece of Bertie Wooster. Here was a storyteller, raconteur and Vaudevillian performer who was capable of charming any group of people into submission. Not only was he a perfect front man, but the characters who peopled his world were gloriously eccentric, mad and passionate, all with their bizarre and peculiar obsessions. Twenty pages into Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves and I knew that I had my one-man show.

The idea of indulging in a world where the loss of an objet d’art from your silver collection was perceived as being a matter of life and death could not have been more appealing. So I went ahead and performed a couple of one-man shows based on this material at the Edinburgh Festival and roped in my brother David to direct The Code of The Woosters.

Jeeves and Wooster

The current West End pairing:  Mark Heap as Jeeves and Robert Webb as Wooster

Twenty years later, the two of us were approached by producer Mark Goucher to create another Wodehouse show, but on a larger scale. It dawned on us that if we wanted to keep Bertie as the raconteur we should write a play in which, encouraged by his drinking pals, he would take over a West End theatre and attempt to tell one of his stories in the form of a one-man show. As his loyal valet, Jeeves would naturally accompany Bertie to the theatre and, in the certain knowledge that the show was destined to go horribly wrong, he would have made certain contingency plans. The script almost wrote itself, and we revelled in the idea that the inscrutable and dignified Jeeves might draw on some hidden talents to play a number of the other characters.

We passed ‘Perfect Nonsense’ on to Mark Goucher, did a reading of it for him and in turn the Wodehouse Estate, who gave it their blessing. The wonderfully inventive comedy director Sean Foley was then brought on board, and his inspired suggestions, combined with Alice Power’s brilliant ideas for the set design, helped raise the script to another level.

Although I had absolutely nothing to do with original cast members Stephen Mangan’s or Matthew Macfadyen’s involvement, I was thrilled when they came on board. Having worked with them both at the Royal Shakespeare Company, witnessed their extraordinary comic abilities and observed how well they got on together, there was no question in my mind as to how perfect a pairing they could be.

What was most gratifying about the whole process was that all of the above – along with Mark Hadfield (as Seppings) – were completely in tune with the conceit of the show and a lot of what was discovered in the rehearsal room found its way into the script. A true process of evolution, we like to think.

Jeeves & Wooster cover

Jeeves & Wooster in ‘Perfect Nonsense’, £9.99

Nick Hern Books is proud to publish the hilariously inventive script of Jeeves & Wooster in ‘Perfect Nonsense’, winner of the 2014 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.

Featuring P.G. Wodehouse’s iconic double act, and written for a cast of three (who play multiple roles), this adaptation will suit any theatre company or drama group looking for a comic play to perform.

To get your copy of the script at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Sexting in Parliament: insights from the writer and director of Girls Like That

Girls Like That2.inddBack in January, members of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Youth Theatre travelled to Westminster to perform an extract from the play Girls Like That in Parliament as part of the launch of YoungMinds Vs, a new children’s mental health campaign.

An urgent and explosive play that explores the pressures on young people today in the wake of advancing technology, Girls Like That tells the story of Scarlett, a secondary school pupil. When a naked photograph of her goes viral, she becomes the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons. But while rumours run wild and everyone forms an opinion, Scarlett just stays silent…

Here, Evan Placey, writer of the play, and Gemma Woffinden, Youth Theatre Director at West Yorkshire Playhouse, offer insights into how the play was developed, the positive impact it has had on both performers and audiences, and what it was like performing Girls Like That to an audience of MPs and celebrities in Parliament.


Evan Placey

Evan Placey

EVAN PLACEY, writer of Girls Like That

And why doesn’t someone do something? Why won’t someone do something?

Why won’t Russell say something, stop this?!

Why does he just.

Stand there.

So say the Girls in Girls Like That as they watch as Scarlett is physically attacked, none of them brave enough to be the one to take action. And later having to contemplate how complicit they are for their inaction.

As scenes from the play were performed in Parliament as part of the YoungMinds Vs campaign, I was reminded of this. What are we doing to combat the pressures young people currently face and how are we taking action?

Any time we write a script, we’re hoping in some way people will listen, that our words might have an effect, that they might shake people. So the opportunity to see parts of my play performed in Parliament was a rare chance: to really get politicians to listen and to shake the people in charge. It’s one thing for those making policy to say they’re doing it in the best interests of young people, but it’s quite another to give those young people a voice – to let them tell the adults what it is that needs to change, the obstacles they’re facing, and the realities of being a young person in the UK at the moment.

The campaign seeks to highlight pressures on young people and the effects on their mental health, and so the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Youth Theatre who performed Girls Like That last year were invited because of the play’s exploration of those same themes. The play explores the fallout when a naked photo is circulated of a teenage girl named Scarlett. But the play also explores her past and that of her group of classmates as we encounter the girls at 5 years old, 8, 11, and 12, piecing together the messages that have been built up in the heads of these young women since they were children and their resulting (lack of) self-esteem. It’s about feminism and empowering young women. It’s about the conversations we’re not having with young people. But ultimately, it’s about collective inaction. The play is told from the perspectives of all the girls around Scarlett. And watching the play in Parliament, the parallel became starkly clear: we, the adults, the politicians, are all as guilty as those girls for what happens to Scarlett.

Watching those young women perform brought home the power of theatre to engage young people. In a time of cuts to the arts, where often work for young people is first to go, I hope it also showed the politicians present the importance of having creative arts for young people’s expression, to ask the questions no one else is asking. And the young people demonstrated such passion and charisma in their performance that I thought we’ll only be so lucky if they turn out to be our future politicians!

It also made me smile that I was responsible for the (first?) discussion of pubic hair in Parliament.

YoungMinds Vs is an important campaign and I’m glad to have played a part in it. And hopefully, in some small way, enabled action.


Gemma Woffinden

Gemma Woffinden

GEMMA WOFFINDEN, Youth Theatre Director at West Yorkshire Playhouse

Formed in September 2012, the West Yorkshire Playhouse Youth Theatre aims to provide a platform for new performance work that responds to the lives of young people and explores the diversity of their experiences, making high-quality work that gives young people a voice and recognises their creative potential and talent.

Combining our commitment to new writing and our desire to respond to the lives of young people, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, in collaboration with the Theatre Royal Plymouth and Birmingham Rep, commissioned Evan Placey to write a new play, a process that consisted of workshops, discussions and improvisation with young people aged 13-16 led by Evan across the three Youth Theatres. Working in this way gave the young casts a real sense of ownership over the play, building a strong working relationship with Evan whilst teasing out universal themes that led to the writing of a relevant and authentic play titled Girls Like That.

I found Girls Like That a gift to direct: lots of roles for female performers, great moments of truth, real tension and clever use of humour. The project allowed Evan to attend several rehearsals and this was a big support to me – as a director it’s so helpful to be able to turn to the playwright and say, ‘do you think the character believes she is doing the right thing?’

Chris Thornton Photography (www.christhorntonphotography.com)

Girls Like That performed by members of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Youth Theatre
Photo by Chris Thornton

The young people involved in the production engaged with the themes of the play in a way that affected their lives beyond rehearsals. One cast member told me that though she saw the problems that the characters experience in the play all around her, she had never understood that these were issues; she felt that it portrayed ‘normal life and I didn’t believe it could be different’. The play helped her to shape her own opinions about pressures on young women and she believed performing the play would help other people think about the themes too. We had a great response from a range of audience members. Teachers wanted to see the play tour to schools to prompt discussion amongst their students and parents talked to me about how the play had opened up some very important discussions in the car on the way home from the theatre.

YoungMindsElizabeth Neil, from leading UK charity YoungMinds, had been to see Girls Like That with her teenage daughter back in July 2013. YoungMinds is driven by the needs of young people and aims to support their emotional well-being, putting young people at the forefront of leading and delivering campaign objectives to address sexual pressures, bullying, stress at school, unemployment and the lack of access to counselling. Impressed by the quality of the work and moved by the subject matter, Elizabeth contacted Alex Chisholm (WYP’s Literary Director) to discuss how the Youth Theatre could support the charity’s new campaign, YoungMinds Vs, scheduled to be launched on Monday 20th January 2014 at a national parliamentary event in Portcullis House. Elizabeth invited the Youth Theatre to perform at the event and we accepted with great excitement!

It was a challenge to select scenes from the play that best supported the YoungMinds campaign whilst creating a performance that still reflected the full production and presented a true account of Evan’s original narrative. Girls Like That explores a range of pressures felt by young people in today’s society but for the purpose of the campaign launch we focussed on how the play explores the very real sexual pressures felt by young women. I felt a big responsibility, but also felt very proud to be part of this event. It was exciting that the high quality performance work of our Youth Theatre was to be celebrated in such a way that we could support a valuable campaign that acknowledges the challenges faced by young people today.

castonthetrain

Two Girls Like That cast members en route to London

On 20th January our Artistic Director James Brining, Alex Chisholm, Elizabeth Neil, six of the cast members from Girls Like That and I caught the train from Leeds to London. That morning the Fight the Pressure campaign launch was national news, which only added to our excitement and nerves. Once we arrived at Portcullis House that excitement grew further as we spotted a range of celebrities and MPs who were also attending the event, amongst them Ed Miliband (Leader of the Labour Party), Nick Hurd (a Government Minister responsible for Youth Affairs), Sarah Brennan (CEO of YoungMinds), members of Chickenshed Theatre and Frankie Sanford from pop group The Saturdays.

We were last to present and the young people performed with such confidence, pride and professionalism. I was inspired by their ability to stand out amongst so many adults who regularly address big audiences. After the event, I watched the cast talk with passion about their love for making theatre and at one point I overheard some very sophisticated negotiations around a Girls Like That tour (which is unfortunately not realistic without funding). Staff from YoungMinds praised the cast for their enthusiasm for the campaign and described their performance as one of the highlights of the campaign launch.

One of the young people who performed at the event said ‘I think it’s great to have teens share their opinions at Parliament – not only so we can feel heard and listened to, but also because everyone can hear what we have to say about a world which belongs to us just as much as it belongs to adults and politicians’. Taking Girls Like That to a new audience was so rewarding. This thought-provoking play for young people is important on many levels – as well as being a great piece of theatre, it has a gripping story that speaks to today’s generation and forces audiences to sit up and consider the messages that are presented.

Playwright Evan Placey with members of the Girls Like That cast

Nearly a year after its premiere, Girls Like That‘s influence continues to be felt.  I have heard from Youth Theatre members that monologues from the play are being performed at current Drama School auditions and I am still supporting teachers who are keen to use extracts for GCSE and A level exams with their students. We’ve also kept up our link with Evan Placey: last week the Youth Theatre performed his new play Pronoun as part of the National Theatre Connections Festival. Some staff and young activists from YoungMinds came to see the show, so who knows what next…

YoungMinds and the West Yorkshire Playhouse are committed to giving young people a voice, and what better way than through theatre?


Pronoun, £9.99

Nick Hern Books is proud to publish Evan Placey’s urgent and explosive play Girls Like That, as well as his latest play, Pronoun, a moving, funny and unforgettable story about two teenagers dealing with the issue of transgenderism.

To order both of Evan Placey’s plays at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – visit our website here.

YoungMinds is the UK’s leading charity committed to improving the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people. To learn more about their work, visit their website.

Max Stafford-Clark in Conversation at the Royal Court

On Friday 17 January, renowned theatre director and founder of Out of Joint Max Stafford-Clark appeared at the Royal Court Theatre, London, for a talk and Q&A to launch his new book, Journal of the Plague Year, a personal exploration of the state of arts funding in the UK today.

Appearing on the main stage at the Royal Court Theatre, where he used to be Artistic Director, Max spoke about a range of topics, including dealing with Arts Council England, the ecology of UK theatre, and the climate for young directors trying to break through today.

Listen to the event below in full, via our new SoundCloud page. The recording includes a reading from the book by actor Danny Webb, a discussion between Max Stafford-Clark and the Royal Court’s Literary Manager Christopher Campbell, and an audience Q&A.

By turns funny, alarming and deeply personal, Max Stafford-Clark’s book  Journal of the Plague Year, which recounts his struggles with Arts Council England’s decision to slash his theatre company Out of Joint’s funding, offers a fascinating exposé of the often Kafkaesque workings of arts subsidy in England, and the financial and artistic manoeuvrings which are a fact of life for every arts organisation today.

The book also often takes on an autobiographical flavour, including the unexpectedly moving story of his two fathers, his surreal encounter with the New York theatre world, and the shocking details of what it is to suffer a massively debilitating stroke. It is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the state of our arts, from students to theatregoers, and from struggling arts workers right up to the Secretary of State for Culture.

An extract from the book is available to read on the Guardian website.

Formatted

Journal of the Plague Year, £10.99

Nick Hern Books is delighted to publish Journal of the Plague Year, Max Stafford-Clark’s truthful, personal and insightful exploration of the state of arts funding and carrying on in the face of adversity.

To order your copy at a 20% discount, no voucher code required, visit our website here.

Be sure to follow NHB on SoundCloud to be among the first to receive future audio content from the UK’s leading performing arts publisher.

West End Producer: ‘The secret to first-night presents’

WEP_6717_mattcrockettIn this second extract from his new book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting, theatre impresario and Twitter phenomenon West End Producer lifts the lid on the thing that can make or break any actor’s career: the first-night present. 

Many people in the industry get their priorities all wrong. As soon as they get offered a job they spend the next few months preparing for the role, doing research and learning their lines. Whilst this effort is not completely wasted, it is certainly a shame that they don’t spend more time concentrating on the real priority. Namely, the first-night present.

The first-night present is a tradition that dates back many, many years – to one of the most memorable and theatrical nights ever. That first Nativity performance when Jesus was born in a stable was a monumental piece of theatre. It was lit so beautifully by the Star of Bethlehem, and had a wonderful set designed by shepherds. And when the Three Wise Men presented Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh, it marked the beginning of the ‘first-night present’ tradition.

A first-night present can change everything. People are judged on many things – the most important being the size, value and originality of the present. Of course, now that times are hard and some actors are forced to take work that pays as little as £0 a week (or minus figures if it’s a ‘profit share’), it may become necessary to remortgage your house to participate in this touching and important discipline. And I think, in time, you will realise it is money well spent.

When choosing a present it is essential you consider what is expected. There is no point buying someone a bra and panties as this could be deemed inappropriate. However, if the bra and panties are branded with the show’s logo then you could become the most popular person in your company. There was a time when all that was expected was a card. And in some companies this is still okay. But there will always be an air of disappointment and bitterness if everyone else goes to the trouble and expense of buying a gift and you do not. It can take years of buying drinks in the pub to make up for this error of judgement.

You don’t have to buy everyone a different present – and often this is a wise decision, as favouritism will then be judged on the expense of the gift. In fact, it can be very sweet and thoughtful if you get everyone the same thing. However, if you do this, you must make the cards personal.

IMG_9390

WEP with his Miss Saigon blow-up doll – apparently it’s been ‘surprisingly useful’…

No one likes a card that reads ‘It’s been great working with you.’ This smacks of insincerity and lacks any sense of personality – indeed, you could be writing the card to someone you’ve only just met. It is essential you remember something funny that happened in rehearsals, or if that fails, just make something up.

If you are extra keen on the present and card tradition you could take the ‘stalking’ route and find as much information about every cast member as possible by asking their friends and ex-partners, or by reading their diaries. Of course, this will take up a lot of time – and may result in you getting a restraining order, but you will be very well-respected for your ‘first-night initiative’.

Some of the most bizarre first-night presents I have received over the years include:

  • A full-body massage by six members of the male ensemble.
  • A pet snake called Cameron.
  • Fifteen signed copies of Craig Revel Horwood’s autobiography.
  • A year’s membership to the Fiddler on the Roof Appreciation Society.
  • A signed sculpture of John Barrowman’s willy.
  • The greatest hits of Marti Pellow.
  • A Miss Saigon blow-up doll (which has been surprisingly useful).

Never make the mistake of only buying for the cast. This is highly inappropriate and will get you a bad reputation with everybody else involved in the show. There are so many people to buy for – backstage crew, wardrobe, dressers, stage-door keepers, lighting designers, resident directors, musical directors, cleaners, wig-makers, writers, second cousins of the director, the director’s children, the musical director’s wife and, most importantly, the producer. Be certain that no one is left out. Obviously it is most important to buy for the director, casting director and producer – as they are the ones who will be hiring you again. This is essential to remember – always be thinking of your next job, dear.

WEP book

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting – £10.99

NHB are thrilled to publish West End Producer’s book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting (But Were Afraid To Ask, Dear). Packed with wit and marvellous indiscretion, full of gossip and insider knowledge, and with enough savvy advice to kickstart a career, it’s a practical – and sometimes deliciously impractical! – guide to everything you need to know about showbusiness.

To get your copy at a 25% discount – no voucher code required – click here (discount valid until 31 December 2013). Copies of the book ordered through our website will come with a free exclusive poster, available while stocks last. 

To read the first extract from the book, where WEP reveals how casting actually works, click here.

West End Producer: ‘Auditioning from my side of the table’

WEP_6717_mattcrockettWith his striking good looks, sharp wit and genuine love of the industry, theatrical impresario and anonymous Twitter phenomenon West End Producer has taken the theatre world by storm, amassing a devoted following. As his book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting is published, here’s an extract to whet your appetite, dears.

The casting process is a long, arduous and exhausting business, particularly for the people doing the casting! I equate it to building a rocket out of chocolate – it’s hard to do, but when completed is very tasty. Casting directors and directors feel immense pressure to make sure they find the right actors for the job, and in some cases feel just as nervous as the people they are auditioning. So how do we go about casting a show?

One of the most important things we have to remember is what show we are casting. It’s no good casting Othello if the show is actually Annie. This is a vital thing to remember, and one which I often have to remind my casting director about. I knew a director in the eighties who once assembled a fine cast of young actors, only to realise that he actually needed dancers as he was casting a ballet. What a silly prat.

So, after we’ve decided on the show, we have a few other decisions to make before the casting begins – we have to book a venue, book a lighting designer, have a set designed, assemble a front-of-house team, taste the ice-cream flavours, market the show, drink some Dom, go on a team-building weekend, read Craig Revel Horwood’s autobiography, and meditate. Basically we do everything we can to put off the chore of casting until Equity get in touch, slap our wrists and threaten to take our diaries off us unless we start. So, apprehensively, we do.

The next step is in the hands of the casting director. Casting directors are usually very nice people who like drinking far too much alcohol, and mostly during the day. The ones that don’t drink usually have other habits, which can’t be discussed here – but often end in them being discovered on a bench outside Waterloo Station at 5 a.m.

Jean Valjean teddy

WEP’s Jean Valjean teddy – “he ensures I am never ‘On My Own'”

The first thing the casting director does is to release a ‘breakdown’. This doesn’t mean he sends out photos of himself in tears, screaming in despair, and taking Prozac. It means he sends out an email of what roles are available. This is usually done through the Spotlight Link – and sent to most agents. Sometimes certain agents will be kept off the list, but only in extreme cases (if they haven’t bought me gifts for a long time).

For those that don’t know, the Spotlight Link is an online service that allows casting directors to email all agents about castings, and receive submissions in response. It is also widely used by actors who have managed to steal a casting director’s password – who use it to stalk and stare at other actors’ CVs.

Once the breakdown has been received, your agent will decide which of their clients are right for the part. This involves reading the breakdown – which can be tricky for illiterate agents (an alarmingly high number of them). Luckily these agents are very clever and have assistants or interns. These assistants only have one role: to read out loud to the agents. This avoids embarrassment, and proves invaluable experience.

When the agent has digested the information they will spend a few hours drinking tea, coffee or gin. Then suddenly they’ll get inspired and mix some vodka with Red Bull – and away they go! They look at photos of all their clients, and remind themselves whom they represent. Some people think it’s easy being an agent, but sometimes they have over twenty actors’ names to remember (and sometimes they have an Equity name and a real name, which confuses things even more). Once they’ve reminded themselves of their clients, the agents make honest, considered and well-informed decisions about which actors to put forward to the casting director.

Things they must consider are: Do they look right? Are they the right age? Can they do the accent? Can they walk in a straight line? Can they speak loudly? Can they tie their shoelaces? It is tough. And sometimes an agent gets incredibly upset and doesn’t know what to do – so decides by using the ‘Eeny meeny miny moe, pick an actor for the show’ technique.

Once this important decision is made, the casting director will receive an influx of actors suitable for the role. It is not unusual for a casting director to receive more than a thousand suggestions for one role: a huge amount. So the casting director then has to sift through all the submissions and decide which actors to invite for an audition. This is where it gets difficult. Do they bring in new actors who are unknown to them? Do they bring in actors they have employed before? Or do they bring in actors they fancy? Invariably it’ll be a mix of all three, with emphasis on the latter.

Then your agent is called and you get offered an audition. You are told an audition time, what to prepare, what role you are up for, and, if you are lucky, the venue for the audition. And then it’s all down to you.

WEP book

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting – £10.99

NHB are thrilled to publish West End Producer’s book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting (But Were Afraid To Ask, Dear). Packed with wit and marvellous indiscretion, full of gossip and insider knowledge, and with enough savvy advice to kickstart a career, it’s a practical – and sometimes deliciously impractical! – guide to everything you need to know about showbusiness.

To get your copy at a 25% discount – no voucher code required – click here. Copies of the book ordered through our website will come with a free exclusive poster, available while stocks last.