Louise Dearman and Mark Evans on their Secrets of Stage Success

LouiseDearman&MarkEvans

Louise Dearman (Wicked, Cats, Evita) and Mark Evans (Ghost, The Book of Mormon) are two of the biggest musical-theatre stars working today. As they launch their new book Secrets of Stage Success – answering all your questions on how to follow in their footsteps – they recall some key moments in their glittering careers…

Mark headshotI remember exactly how I felt the moment I was about to step foot on stage for the first live show of Eurovision: Your Country Needs You back in 2009. This was a reality TV programme on primetime BBC One, in which Andrew Lloyd Webber and the BBC were searching for the UK’s entry for the Eurovision Song Contest to be held in Moscow later that year. I had gone through the audition process, and was offered a place in the final six acts that would perform live on television. Eurovision has a bit of a stigma attached to it, and the UK had experienced many years of doing very badly in the contest, so my agent and I had to consider if performing on the programme would be a wise move for me. We decided that no matter what the outcome, getting the national exposure on TV was a great opportunity – providing I did a good job on every live show.

So I really felt the pressure before the first Saturday night broadcast. I still clearly remember it was 10 January 2009, and a lot of my family had come down to the studio in London to support me. The atmosphere backstage was so tense, it would have been so easy to let the pressure get to me. I was standing with the other five acts backstage, and could hear the floor manager counting down: ‘Going live in 5, 4, 3, 2… here we go.’ Presenter Graham Norton’s voice boomed around the studio with a pre-recorded introduction, whilst the monitors, which showed what was being broadcast to the TV audience across the UK, played a montage of the audition process. The voice-over explained how six acts had been selected and how ‘Tonight is the night that you at home decide who stays and who will be the first act to go.’ Then the show’s opening music and titles were played really loud – and my adrenalin was pumping. Here I was, about to be on TV as myself, which is so different to what I was used to as an actor playing a character, live in front of seven million viewers. The show cut to Graham in the studio, introducing the acts one by one, and about five seconds before he called my name, I caught a glimpse of my family and friends in the audience, each wearing identical ‘Vote for Mark’ T-shirts and holding banners plastered with ‘Good Luck, Mark!’ and photos of my young nieces. In that split second, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of being totally supported, and I filled to the brim with determination. I went out there and had one of the best nights of my life.

Lou headshotMy career has been a gentle but steady climb up the ladder of success. I have been in the ensemble, I have been a swing, I’ve understudied roles, played small roles in large productions, and big roles in small productions – but my ultimate aim was to play a lead role in a big West End musical.

I was playing Cinderella in pantomime in Milton Keynes, and one day between shows I was getting a bite to eat in the shopping centre when my agent called me:

‘Hello, darling. What are you up to?’

‘Just between shows, grabbing food, why?’

‘How would you feel about playing Galinda in Wicked?’

‘Aaaaaaaaaaaargh! You’re joking!!’

Then followed tears of joy, and a lot of screaming. To be offered such a fantastic role in one of the biggest musicals in the world was an overwhelming experience. I skipped onto stage as Cinderella that evening!

Wicked was a career-changing experience for me, and one I’ll always remember and appreciate. Of course, returning to the show, this time playing Elphaba, was equally thrilling and in many ways even more so. Whilst playing Galinda, I would often wonder what it would be like to trade roles and defy gravity just once – but I never in a million years thought it would actually become a reality. Ten months after leaving the show I was at home one evening and received a call from Petra Siniawski, Wicked’s Associate Director in the West End. She told me that they had been auditioning all week and after a long day, the panel were chatting and my name popped up: ‘Why isn’t Lou being seen for Elphaba?’

The Wicked creative team had got to know me very well in the two years I had worked with them; they had seen my numerous concerts outside of the show; and they thought I was more than capable of playing Elphaba. Additionally, it would be an incredibly exciting cast announcement: never before had an actress played the roles of both Galinda and Elphaba. I had a long chat with Petra and agreed to go in the next day to audition. I was terrified as I felt there was such a lot riding on this; the team I respected so much had put their faith in me and I had to deliver!

The audition went very well and a couple of weeks later I got the call from my agent who said, ‘Are you sitting down, Lou? They want you to play the green girl!’ I remember walking out of my front door onto the green outside my house in pure shock! It was happening, I was going to play Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West! That moment will stay with me for ever. I have the creative team of Wicked in London to thank for being so open-minded and thinking outside of the box. The show raised my profile and has opened so many doors. And I have the most wonderful group of fans from doing the show, who support me in everything I do.Galinda white bubbles

What should I do when things go wrong during a performance?

Unfortunately, there is not much advice to give for when things go wrong on stage. It will usually involve involuntary freezing and forgetting the English language or any sense of normal human behaviour at all. Both of us have made numerous mistakes on stage: we’ve made up lines of the script when we blanked, made random sounds that are more like animal cries, completely fallen over on stage and struggled to get back up, which reminds us of a time we worked together in Wicked

Mark headshotI was Fiyero, opposite Louise as Galinda, in the opening scene of Act Two, where pretty much the entire company are on stage as the citizens of Oz, looking to Galinda the Good for reassurances about their safety against Elphaba. Fiyero gets frustrated because none of what is being said about Elphaba is true, so he storms off the podium centre stage, and heads downstage-right for a quiet, emotional scene with Galinda.

So there we are, me and Louise, acting the scene (beautifully, even if we do say so ourselves!), and then I turned to do Fiyero’s dramatic exit, which involved running up some narrow stairs and continuing offstage. Off I went, missed my footing, tripped on a step, and landed in the full splits on the staircase. I struggled to stand up, pulling off bits of the leaves and branches from the scenery to help me, and when I finally managed to get to my feet, I just dropped my head down in shame and continued to run offstage. Two‑thirds of the audience were laughing out loud, and the entire company were trying not to lose it altogether.

Lou headshotI was left at the bottom of the staircase, looking up at where it had happened, desperately trying not to burst into laughter. Then I had to look at the company, who were all grinning at me like lunatics, and finish a very emotional part of the scene. When I got offstage, Mark and I fell about, laughing until our stomachs hurt, and almost missing our next entrance. It remains one of the highlights of my career.

The thing is, mistakes happen and that’s the joy of live theatre. It’s not like performing brain surgery where every single thing you do is a life-or-death situation. If you forget your lyrics or make a mistake, keep calm. It will somehow resolve itself, usually by trusting your instincts and getting yourself out of it – but at the end of the day, it’s just a show. The audience are unlikely to notice, and if they do (like in the case of Mark’s impromptu splits) then they love the fact they’ve seen something totally live, utterly unplanned and unique.

Wicked Funny

Mark headshotIt was such a big deal for me to head over to North America to perform in the touring production of The Book of Mormon – not just getting the role (though that was a big deal, of course), but the fact of living and working on the other side of the world, away from my entire support system: my family, friends, flatmate, agent, manager, doctor, osteopath, accountant, postman, window cleaner, bin man and the cat next door… It really did seem like I was kissing goodbye to so many things in my life, which was heightened because I was going to be in a touring show. A tour of that scale is like living in a bubble, and I’d be performing one of the most demanding roles in musical theatre, surrounded by a group of strangers I’d never met, for seven months. Little did I know that I’d end up being in the show for eighteen months, having an amazing time and visiting some incredible places.

I spent four weeks in San Francisco, rehearsing two or three afternoons a week, in advance of joining the existing company for the final five shows in that glorious city. The rest of the time I spent feeling anxious about whether I’d be able to survive the gruelling task ahead of me. I had many panic attacks and suffered really badly with anxiety and loneliness, to the point where I made myself sick with worry and developed a viral infection which left me in bed for seven days, completely helpless and feeling sorry for myself. I was in such a low place late one night that I called my agent, saying that if I didn’t feel better in a few days’ time I wanted him to get me out of the job and have me sent home. It was that extreme! Of course he calmed me down and helped me to deal with the pressure, as he’s such an incredible agent and friend.

Elder Price white bitsOur first performance was three days after Christmas Day 2012. We had our final rehearsal earlier that day with Trey Parker, one of the writers and directors of the show (and of course co-creator of the hugely successful animated TV show, South Park), and that night was my American debut, as Elder Price. The first Broadway show I ever saw was Next to Normal at the Booth Theatre, New York, in February 2010, and I remember promising myself that one day I’d be in a Playbill (the free theatre programmes given away at productions in the US). Now here I was, just two years later, leading a company of extremely talented performers. I felt so proud that all my anxiety disappeared and I was left with a healthy amount of nerves and excitement, ready to get on that stage and enjoy every second of a very special night.

Lou headshotSometimes something exciting comes along at exactly the right moment. One afternoon, when I was feeling pretty low because my tour had been postponed for reasons beyond my control, my manager telephoned.

‘Do you know the National Anthem?’ she asked.

‘Yes, of course. Why?!’

She explained that I had been invited to sing it before the Capitol One Cup Final – at Wembley Stadium, in front of 90,000 football fans, and millions more watching at home on TV! I thought she was joking at first, but she wasn’t.

On match day, I had a short rehearsal in the afternoon and then had to go to my dressing room and wait to be collected and taken to the pitch. I don’t remember feeling nervous as I was getting ready, just very excited, but when it was my time to go and sing, and I walked towards the pitch, I heard the immense wall of sound coming from the football supporters. I’ve never heard anything like it; it was almost primal and the sound literally went through me, my heart was racing!

What if I got the words wrong? What if I couldn’t hear the backing track I was singing along to? What if I passed out?! I’ve never been so irrationally nervous. I was taken by the arm and led to the edge of the hallowed turf, I waited for a nod from the woman looking after me and off I went. The fans cheered, the music started and everyone sang along.

It was the most thrilling, terrifying, overwhelming experience of my life – and something I’d love to do again one day.


FormattedSecrets of Stage Success by Louise Dearman and Mark Evans is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

Get a free, exclusive A3 poster when you buy the book from the Nick Hern Books website, while stocks last.

Watch Louise and Mark introduce their book on YouTube.

Illustrations by Mark Manley, www.markmanley.co.uk. Authors photo by Mark Yeoman.

Girls centre stage: Lucy Kerbel on building a new canon of writing for young actors

Good roles for young female actors are in short supply, so Tonic Theatre set out to change that by commissioning a series of new plays with mainly or entirely female casts for schools and youth theatre groups to perform. As the first three plays in the Platform series are published by Nick Hern Books and made available for performance, Tonic’s Lucy Kerbel explains why things have to change, and how you can get involved…

Commissioning and publishing a range of new plays for young actors which put girls and their stories centre stage is something I have wanted to do for a long time and, since Tonic Theatre was formed in 2011, it is an idea I have been looking to get off the ground. Tonic exists to support UK theatre to achieve greater gender equality in its workforces and its repertoires; essentially our mission is to catalyse a culture-shift in how theatre thinks and works, so that talented women are given the same levels of support and opportunity as talented men.

While it has pretty big aspirations, Tonic is a tiny organisation; we have one-and-a-bit members of staff, no core funding, and a very modest financial turnover. Because we have such limited funds and capacity, we have to use these wisely and consequently are extremely strategic about where we target our efforts. I spend much time looking to identify ‘pressure points’ – places where, with a bit of work, a far bigger ripple effect can be achieved. For this reason, much of our work to date has been focused on partnerships with some of the largest organisations in the country, because if they change, others will follow. But youth drama has always been clear to me as one of the greatest pressure points of all. It is the engine room of the theatre industry; tomorrow’s theatre-makers (not to mention audience members) are to be found today in youth-theatre groups, university drama societies and school drama clubs all over the country.

The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan

The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan

If we can challenge their assumptions about the role of women’s stories, voices, and ideas in drama, then change in the profession – in time – will be immeasurably easier to achieve.

Beyond this strategic interest in youth drama, I was convinced that girls were getting a raw deal and I found that troubling. Having worked previously as a youth-theatre director, I was familiar with the regular challenge of trying to find scripts that had adequate numbers of female roles for all the committed and talented girls that wanted to take part. In nearly all the various youth-drama groups I worked in across a five-year period, there were significantly more girls than boys. However, when it came to finding big-cast, age-appropriate plays for them to work on, I was constantly frustrated by how few there seemed to be that provided enough opportunity for the girls, its most loyal and committed participants. When looking at contemporary new writing for young actors to perform, one could be mistaken for thinking that youth drama was a predominantly male pursuit, rather than the other way round.

Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy

Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy

Aside from the practicalities of matching the number of roles to the number of girls in any one drama group, the nature of writing for female characters was something I struggled to get excited about. While there were some notable examples, often the writing for female characters seemed somewhat lacklustre. They tended to be characters at the periphery of the action rather than its heart, with far less to say and do than their male counterparts, and with a tendency towards being one‑dimensional, rather than complex or vibrant, funny or surprising. Why was it that in the twenty-first century the quality as well as the quantity of roles being written for girls still seemed to lag behind those for boys so demonstrably?

Keen to check I wasn’t just imagining this imbalance, Tonic conducted a nationwide research study looking into opportunities for girls in youth drama, focusing on the quantity and quality of roles available to them. The research was written up into a report, Swimming in the shallow end, and is published on the Tonic Theatre website. Not only did the research confirm my worst fears – more depressingly, it exceeded them. While many of the research participants were vocal about the social, artistic and emotional benefits that participation in youth-drama productions can have on a young person’s life, so too were they – to quote the report – on ‘the erosion to self-esteem, confidence and aspiration when these opportunities are repeatedly held out of reach… [and] for too many girls, this is the case’.

But despite the doom and gloom of the research findings, there remained an exciting proposition; to write stories that weren’t currently being put on stage, and to foreground – rather than ignore – the experiences, achievements and world-view of young women, perhaps the group above all others in British society whose situation has altered so dramatically and excitingly over the past hundred or so years. Tonic commissioned writers I was most fascinated to see respond to the brief set to them: a large-cast play written specifically for performance by young actors, with mainly or entirely female casts and in which the female characters should be no less complex or challenging than the male characters. I asked them to write in such a way that these plays could be performed by young people anywhere in the country, and that there should be scope for every school, college and youth-theatre group performing the play to make a production their own.

This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood

This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood

At Tonic our hope is that the first Platform plays – The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan, Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy and This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood – will be just the beginning of a longer trajectory of work for us. Although it entails further fundraising mountains to climb, we plan to commission and publish more plays over future years. Our aspiration is that over time Platform will become a new canon of writing for young actors and one that puts girls and their lives centre stage. I dearly hope that they will be taken up by groups all over the country and performed for many years to come.

‘Drama is an important tool for building confidence and empowering young people. Platform will give girls opportunity to access these benefits as much as their male counterparts.’ – Moira Buffini

A few words from NHB’s Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

Tamara von Werthern

We’re incredibly proud and excited to be supporting Tonic Theatre’s important work in addressing gender inequality in the theatre. I’m sure these plays will be picked up and performed by youth theatres, schools and drama clubs across the country, as they really do address an urgent need for more good parts for young women. I’ve been asked so many times to recommend plays that offer young women strong roles, and it’s wonderful that now we can start licensing three new plays that fit the bill exactly. I urge everyone who works with youth theatre or teaches drama at a school to pick up these plays and give them a go!”


All three Platform plays – The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan, Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy and This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood – are published on 11 June 2015 by Nick Hern Books.

Buying from an educational institution or youth group? You can get all three Platform plays at a special discount price – head to the Platform website for more information.

The plays are all available immediately for amateur performance. To apply for performing rights, visit the Nick Hern Books Plays to Perform website or contact our Performing Rights Department.

For more information about Tonic Theatre, visit www.tonictheatre.co.uk.

Lucy Kerbel photograph by Slav Kirichok

With a little help from my friends: Amelia Bullmore on her play Di and Viv and Rose

Actress and playwright Amelia Bullmore had a West End hit earlier this year with Di and Viv and Rose, a warm and funny play about three women and their enduring friendship. As the play is made available for amateur performance, she recalls the moment that inspired her to write it, and explains why, for her, it’s a story that can only work on stage.

I decided to write Di and Viv and Rose in 2009 when I saw a woman’s calves that were just like the calves of a friend, Anne, who I hadn’t seen for months. The lurch of longing to see her (prompted by the calves) was so strong that, later, I thought: I’d like to try and catch that in a play.

I was acting in a production of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests that transferred from London to Broadway. I’d agonised about going (could I possibly abandon ship for four months?) and made a hash of deciding – telling my family that I definitely wouldn’t go and then realising I definitely had to. I made a calendar showing when they could visit me, in half terms and holidays, and when I’d visit home (all the actors in the production had young children so the performances were cannily scheduled to allow us two mini-trips back). It was an unforgettably good adventure.

Tamzin Outhwaite, Samantha Spiro and Jenna Russell in the West End production of Di and Viv and Rose, 2015

Tamzin Outhwaite, Samantha Spiro and Jenna Russell in the West End production of Di and Viv and Rose, 2015

The calves I saw that were like Anne’s were in New York. They didn’t even belong to a stranger. Their owner was a woman I was working with and had arranged to meet. Regardless of this, my brain dream-ishly converted her into Anne and my chest duly lurched. I’d been braced for missing my family while I was away but hadn’t bargained on just how powerfully I’d miss friends.

I began to think about trying to catch the ardour of female friendship and also to wonder how I might catch the quality of enduring friendship. Thirty-odd years in two hours. When the thing you want to say is so obvious – Friendship is a Good Idea – you’d better say it entertainingly. The good news is, entertainment sits naturally in every friendship worth its salt.

I went to visit a friend in Liverpool not long ago. She said she’d meet me off the train at Lime Street station but I couldn’t see her in the crowd on the concourse. I skated my eyes past a couple locked in a passionate embrace – give the lovers some privacy – but then stole another look and realised it was my friend hungrily kissing a life-sized statue of Ken Dodd. For a joke. For my delight. I laughed my head off. I laugh now when I think about it. Sometimes, on my way to see a friend, I’m close to laughing in anticipation of the laughing I know we’re going to do. (Before I go on I want to say that I sometimes recognise the person I’ve arranged to meet more or less instantly. I should also say that my eyesight’s not great).

Gina McKee, Tamzin Outhwaite and Anna Maxwell Martin in the Hampstead Theatre production, 2013

Gina McKee, Tamzin Outhwaite and Anna Maxwell Martin in the Hampstead Theatre production, 2013 (Tristram Kenton)

Delight isn’t the only thing friends exchange, of course: anguish, doubts, bulletins and beefs are traded too. There are some gloriously talkative men about but my hunch is that women are more likely to have grown up being told stories, often by women, about other peoples’ lives – neighbours, relatives, friends of friends – and are more likely to thrive on the continued collecting and sharing of these stories. Given that we’re all cruising or hurtling towards our doom (and we don’t know which) it’s a source of comfort and diversion to be tuned into hundreds of other peoples’ trips, past and present. Small stories, but in aggregate, a vast database of how life can be lived. I know stories about my friends’ cousins. People I’ll never meet. I find that entirely worthwhile.

The recruiting of a friend – that period of enchantment and first exchanging of stories – needed to be in the play I wanted to write, I decided. As did the particular potency of friendships made when you first leave home: ‘second family’ friendships. The first time you rely on people you’ve chosen, rather than people you’ve been dealt and who’ve been dealt you. These intense young friendships are ones in which almost every kind of loving impulse can be played out – worship, protection, guidance and encouragement as well as the darker impulses to quash and control.

Anna Maxwell Martin, Gina McKee and Tamzin Outhwaite in the Hampstead Theatre production

Anna Maxwell Martin, Gina McKee and Tamzin Outhwaite in the Hampstead Theatre production, 2013

Although the play begins with the characters, aged eighteen, at university, sharing a house, I didn’t want the actresses playing them to be eighteen. The actresses are the age their characters are at the end of their story. They report back from middle age to be their young selves. I’ve been asked if I’d like to adapt Di and Viv and Rose for television or to write it as a film but in my mind it’s a play, and a play only, because of this conceit. Not just because in a theatre an audience is likelier to make the leap of belief – that these women are girls – but also because my experience of growing older is that you are the same but different. You are the girl and the woman. You don’t so much shed as keep on adding. If you age at roughly the same rate as your friends, you don’t only feel largely the same, but also (almost) appear to each other as largely the same. The other reason why it’s a play and a play only for me is that what the audience witnesses, live – the feat of joint endeavour – is what it’s about.

Since its original run at Hampstead Theatre, Di and Viv and Rose has since been picked up by A-level drama students – real 18-year-olds – who have to think themselves older as the play unfolds. There’s no time for wigs or latex. Everyone’s too busy running around backstage fetching bicycles and tearing costumes on and off.

Publicity image for the Hampstead Theatre production, 2013

Publicity image for the Hampstead Theatre production, 2013

I couldn’t have written this play without my female friends. I don’t mean that I consulted them. I mean that they run through it. Things they’ve said. Things they’ve shown and taught me. No particular real friend is portrayed in the play. Even if I’d wanted to plug in a real person (which I emphatically didn’t), real people are no use. You have to fashion characters who’ll give you the specific kinks and tussles you need in order to write the story that says what you want to say. It’s the same with real events, although a crumb of partial knowledge (one of those stories heard, maybe) can be what you choose to invent around, according to your design. I don’t mean don’t research facts, by the way. Definitely research facts.

The continuum of mutual, intimate knowledge is a valuable thing. When you ask after an old friend’s mum or dad – a mum or a dad who, long ago, made you up a bed on the family sofa or chatted with you or ran you to the station – that’s an informed enquiry. It has weight for both the asker and the asked because it has context. In mid-life, this continuum’s especially consoling because, glancing either forwards or back, you’re likely to notice people you love heading towards departures of one kind or another. And if you were ever in any doubt about the commonplace brutality of luck and lack of it, enduring friendship lays that bare, too. I’ve got a friend I used to be put in a cot with, fifty years ago. I’ve got friends who didn’t make it to fifty. I’ve got friends who go from strength to strength. I’ve got friends who are terribly ill. That’s life. All I’m saying is, don’t attempt it alone.

Tamara von Werthern

Here are a few words from NHB’s Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

Di and Viv and Rose is a gift for any theatre company looking for a play with substantial roles for women. It’s such a wonderful, heart-warming tale of friendship lasting throughout three women’s lives, great fun to perform and great fun to watch. If you have previously enjoyed performing Ladies’ Day, Be My Baby or Little Gem, then Di and Viv and Rose will be for you. And if there are three wonderful women in their mid-thirties to late forties who happen to be part of your theatre company, they’ll thank you for giving them these wonderful characters to play.”


This article was originally published in The Independent. Di and Viv and Rose by Amelia Bullmore is published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.

To apply for amateur performing rights, visit the Nick Hern Books Plays to Perform website or contact our Performing Rights Manager.

 

‘Leave me my name': Richard Eyre on the importance of Arthur Miller

Richard Eyre directed the first Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. With several major productions of Miller’s work opening in this, his centenary year, it’s a time to reflect on why plays such as Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge and The Crucible speak so urgently to us today. Here, in an article written shortly after the playwright’s death in 2005 and reproduced in What Do I Know? People, Politics and the Arts, Eyre recalls Miller’s wit and humanity… and what happened on the first night of Death of a Salesman.

A large part of my luck over the past twenty years was getting to know Arthur Miller, so when I heard in interviews—or was asked myself—the question ‘Will Arthur Miller be remembered as the man who married Marilyn Monroe?’ I felt a mixture of despair and indignation. The motives of the questioners—a mixture of prurience and envy—were, curiously enough, the same as the House Un-American Activities Committee when they summoned Arthur Miller to appear in front of their committee. I asked Arthur about it some years ago. ‘I knew perfectly well why they had subpoenaed me,’ he said, ‘it was because I was engaged to Marilyn Monroe. Had I not been, they’d never have thought of me. They’d been through the writers long before and they’d never touched me. Once I became famous as her possible husband, this was a great possibility for publicity. When I got to Washington, preparing to appear before that committee, my lawyer received a message from the chairman saying that if it could be arranged that he could have a picture, a photograph taken with Marilyn, he would cancel the whole hearing. I mean, the cynicism of this thing was so total, it was asphyxiating.’

The question that lurked then—and lurks now—is this: why would the world’s most attractive woman want to go out with a writer? There are at least four good reasons I can think of:

By 1956, when he married Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller had written four of the best plays in the English language, two of them indelible classics that will be performed in a hundred years’ time.

He was a figure of great moral and intellectual stature, who was unafraid of taking a stand on political issues and enduring obloquy for doing so.

Antony Sher rehearsing Death of a Salesman for the RSC's production opening this week. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Antony Sher rehearsing Death of a Salesman for the RSC’s current production. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

He was wonderful company—a great, a glorious, raconteur. I asked him once what happened on the first night of Death of a Salesman when it opened on the road in Philadelphia. He must have told the story a thousand times but he repeated it, pausing, seeming to search for half-buried details, as if it was the first time: ‘The play ended and there was a dead silence and I remember being in the back of the house with Kazan and nothing happened. The people didn’t get up either. Then one or two got up and picked up their coats. Some of them sat down again. It was chaos. Then somebody clapped and then the house fell apart and they kept applauding for God knows how long and… I remember an old man being helped up the aisle, who turned out to be Bernard Gimbel, who ran one of the biggest department-store chains in the United States who was literally unable really to navigate, they were helping him up the aisle. And it turned out that he had been swept away by the play and the next day he issued an order that no one in his stores—I don’t know, eight or ten stores all over the United States—was to be fired for being overage!’ And with this he laughed, a deep husky bass chortle, shaking his head as if the memory were as fresh as last week.

He was a deeply attractive man: tall, almost hulking, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, with the most beautiful large, strong but tender hands. There was nothing evasive or small-minded about him.

As he aged he became both more monumental but more approachable, his great body not so much bent as folded over. And if you were lucky enough to spend time with him and Inge Morath (the Magnum photographer to whom he was married for forty years after his divorce from Marilyn Monroe), you would be capsized by the warmth, wit and humanity of the pair of them.

It’s been surprising for me—and sometimes shocking—to discover that my high opinion of Arthur Miller was often not held by those who consider themselves the curators of American theatre. I read a discussion in the New York Times a few years ago between three theatre critics about the differences between British and American theatre:

first critic. Arthur Miller is celebrated there.

second critic. It’s Death of a Salesman, for crying out loud. He’s so cynical about American culture and American politics. The English love that.

first critic. Though Death of a Salesman was not a smash when it first opened in London.

third critic. It’s also his earnestness.

If we continue to admire Arthur Miller, it’s because we have the virtuous habit of treating his plays as contemporaneous and find that they speak to us today not because of their ‘earnestness’ but because they are serious—that’s to say they’re about something. They have energy and poetry and wit and an ambition to make theatre matter. What’s more, they use sinewy and passionate language with unembarrassed enthusiasm, which is always attractive to British actors and audiences weaned on Shakespeare.

In 1950, at a time when British theatre was toying with a phoney poetic drama—the plays of T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry—there was real poetry on the American stage in the plays of Arthur Miller (and Tennessee Williams), or, to be exact, the poetry of reality: plays about life lived on the streets of Brooklyn and New Orleans by working-class people foundering on the edges of gentility and resonating with metaphors of the American Dream and the American Nightmare.

The Depression of the late twenties provided Arthur’s sentimental education: the family business was destroyed, and the family was reduced to relative poverty. I talked to him once about it as we walked in the shadow of the pillars of the Brooklyn Bridge looking out over the East River. ‘America,’ he said, ‘was promises, and the Crash was a broken promise in the deepest sense. I think the Americans in general live on the edge of a cliff, they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. I don’t care who they are. It’s part of the vitality of the country, maybe. That they’re always working against this disaster that’s about to happen.’

He wrote with heat and heart and his work was felt in Britain like a distant and disturbing forest fire—a fire that did much to ignite British writers who followed, like John Osborne, Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker; and later Edward Bond, David Storey and Trevor Griffiths; and later still David Edgar, Mike Leigh, David Hare. What they found in Miller was a visceral power, an appeal to the senses beyond and below rational thought and an ambition to deal with big subjects.

A View from the Bridge: Phoebe Fox (Catherine), Mark Strong (Eddie) and Nicola Walker (Beatrice). Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Phoebe Fox, Mark Strong and Nicola Walker in Ivo van Hove’s production of A View from the Bridge, currently in the West End. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

His plays are about the difficulty and the possibility of people—usually men—taking control of their own lives, ‘that moment when, in my eyes, a man differentiates himself from every other man, that moment when out of a sky full of stars he fixes on one star.’ His heroes—salesmen, dockers, policemen, farmers—all seek a sort of salvation in asserting their singularity, their self, their ‘name’. They redeem their dignity, even if it’s by suicide. Willy Loman cries out ‘I am not a dime a dozen, I am Willy Loman…!’, Eddie Carbone in A View from the Bridge, broken and destroyed by sexual guilt and public shame, bellows: ‘I want my name’, and John Proctor in The Crucible, in refusing the calumny of condemning his fellow citizens, declaims ‘How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!’ In nothing does Miller show his Americanism more than in the assertion of the right and necessity of the individual to own his own life—and, beyond that, how you reconcile the individual with society. In short, how you live your life.

If there was a touch of the evangelist in his writing, his message was this: there is such a thing as society, and art ought to be used to change it. Though it’s hard to argue that art saves lives, feeds the hungry or sways votes, Death of a Salesman comes as close as any writer can get to art as a balm for social concern. When I saw the New York revival five or six years ago [the 1999 Broadway revival starring Brian Dennehy], I came out of the theatre behind a young girl and her dad, and she said to him ‘It was like looking at the Grand Canyon.’

A few years ago I directed the first production of The Crucible on Broadway since its opening nearly fifty years previously [Eyre’s production opened at the Virginia Theatre on 7 March 2002]. He loved our production and was closely involved with rehearsals. I never got over the joy and pride of sitting beside Arthur as this great play unfolded in front of us while he beamed and muttered: ‘It’s damned good stuff, this.’ We performed it shortly after the Patriot Act had been introduced. Everyone who saw it said it was ‘timely’. What did they mean exactly? That it was timeless.

‘There are things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth,’ is what Huckleberry Finn said of the author of Tom Sawyer. And the same could be said of Arthur Miller, which is perhaps why it’s not a coincidence that my enthusiasm for his writing came at the same time as my discovery of the genius of Mark Twain. And it’s not a surprise that what Arthur Miller said of Mark Twain could just has well have been said about him:

‘He somehow managed—despite a steady underlying seriousness which few writers have matched—to step round the pit of self-importance and to keep his membership of the ordinary human race in the front of his mind and his writing.’


This article is published in What Do I Know? People Politics and the Arts by Richard Eyre, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Photograph of Richard Eyre by John Haynes.

Antony Sher appears as Willy Loman in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Death of a Salesman. His book, Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries, is published by Nick Hern Books on 30 April 2015 – to buy your copy at a 20% discount, click here.

John Hollingworth on writing – and rewriting – his first play, Multitudes

John HollingworthWhen actor John Hollingworth started writing his first full-length play, he had little idea it would take so long to reach the stage. No bad thing, though, when the result is Multitudes, currently at the Tricycle Theatre – and ‘as urgent and immediate as the morning headlines’ (Guardian). How did he do it? In this interview, first published by IdeasTap, he explains how plays can benefit from the development process without losing any of their impact or relevance…

How did the commissioning process work with Multitudes?

I’ve been lucky. The process started at the National Theatre Studio in 2010 when the ever-generous Purni Morell [then head of the NT Studio, now Artistic Director of the Unicorn Theatre] offered me some space. I fashioned a very early draft from this writing time, tried it out on some friends and was rewarded by Purni with a two-day workshop slot. I approached Indhu Rubasingham [theatre director, now Artistic Theatre of the Tricycle Theatre] to direct it, having worked with her as an actor on Women, Power and Politics [a season of short plays staged at the Tricycle in 2010].

The script turned out to be mortifyingly underwritten and she released the actors for the first afternoon while she and I talked through the structure and what wasn’t working. I went home, drank a silly amount of coffee and stayed up until I had two new opening scenes.

When Indhu later took over at the Tricycle she said she wanted to support the project. A seed commission – where a few hundred pounds is paid to a writer as gesture of professional interest – led to a full commission – where an amount you can live off for a few months is advanced – and then confirmation of full production. All in all I’d say that the process took four years.

Do you have any advice for writers on getting their first full-length play commissioned?

Get your writing out there. I was fortunate: some of my short plays were performed at Miniaturists at the Arcola, a shorts night at Soho Theatre and at a Midnight Matinee at The Tristan Bates Theatre. None of these experiences led directly to a commission but the experience of testing and improving work through rehearsal and performance improved my writing. I sent plays to the Bush and the Royal Court and received rejections that spurred me on to better my work.

Multitudes is a play about a clash of values in multicultural Britain, focussing on a Muslim family in Bradford. How did you research the play?

Multitudes

Multitudes at the Tricycle Theatre – photo by Mark Douet

I was working with David Hare when I started writing the play. I was inspired by his wrought verbatim method of taking things people have said and bending, hammering and bettering them into a sculpture that was definitively his.

I went back to Bradford, where I was at school, toting my dictaphone and door-stopped people. I had some interesting conversations but I was mostly just daunted and cold. Hunting down real things that people say was great ear-tuning for characters but I realised that I wanted to write a piece of fiction.

I began interviewing friends who are Muslim. The first person I sat down with was Asif Khan who has ended up being in the show. I got all my stupid questions out of the way and graduated from this to speaking to a couple of imams on increasingly-frequent trips back to Bradford.

I then went on to the tricky process of tracking down women who had accepted Islam. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this proved difficult. I met with two women in person and spoke with a third on the phone but many women were suspicious of my motives – what I might say about them and their personal, private decision.

Perhaps the best resource was Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives [a report published by the Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge in May 2013]. It’s brilliantly readable and can be downloaded for free. That and other books – the Qur’an most obviously – helped me to further understand the journey these female converts had been on. This understanding was deepened further by spending a day with new Muslims at the Islamic Cultural Centre at London Central Mosque.

Were you ever worried about writing about a non-white family?

Multitudes at the Tricycle Theatre

Multitudes at the Tricycle Theatre – photo by Mark Douet

I was anxious to begin with and I think that is entirely appropriate – if you’re putting words in people’s mouths then you have a duty of care that they are believable. The long development time on the play has allowed five workshops with different sets of actors – six including the cast – and each one provided a frank and invaluable forum to interrogate the play and identify what wasn’t credible or accurate. I’m grateful to the British Asian actors in those workshops – they corrected what was wrong and shared personal stories that went on to influence the play.

If writers like me – pink-white, middle class, university educated – write about pink-white people doing pink-white things then the dominant discourse of the last few hundred years inches inexorably onwards. It’s time to change that discourse.

Multitudes is set on the eve of a Tory Party Conference. Why?

The conference gives high stakes and a short, defined timeframe, which is useful. My brother-in-law has been a political advisor to various Conservative MPs for the past few years and that has afforded me a valuable insight into that world. Given that the Tories are the Establishment party and the play looks at notions of Britishness, there was a natural fit there too and I wanted to make Natalie – the female convert at the heart of the play – the daughter of the local Tory party chairman.

What was the hardest scene in the play to write? Why? And how did you overcome those challenges?

Technically the hardest scene to write has been the one right before the interval. It’s long and involved and combative and riddled with interruption points and I feel spoilt to have a fantastically-capable cast who have reacted so enthusiastically to my changes. There were a lot of rewrites, late nights and cold coffee at midnight, but to see the play come to life in the hands of such a great bunch of actors has been a gift well worth losing sleep for.


MultitudesThis interview was first published by IdeasTap.

Multitudes by John Hollingworth is out now from Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

The play is at the Tricycle Theatre, London, until 21 March.

Author photo by Mark Douet.

West End Producer: ‘Traditions and superstitions’

WEP_6717_mattcrockettThough they’re perfectly sensible, sane and rational in every other possible way, theatre folk are a rather superstitious lot. So to mark this Friday 13th, theatre impresario and masked Twitter phenomenon West End Producer – who was himself born onstage during a performance of Titus Andronicus – delves into the murky, sometimes confusing world of theatrical traditions and superstitions, and tells you everything you should (and shouldn’t) do…

 

The Green Room
The green room is the place where actors and stage management sit, bitch and drink. It is a place of sanctity that offers a change of scenery from the stage and dressing rooms. Of course, most green rooms carry a ‘public health warning’ as they are never cleaned. But they are very important places and usually have a TV, microwave and kettle. Indeed, some green rooms even have a selection of magazines to keep people occupied. Magazines that comprise mostly of porn. Which is a sure way of keeping actors quiet during the interval.

GreenRoom

‘The green room – where actors and stage management sit, bitch and drink.’

There are many thoughts and theories about where the term ‘green room’ originated, but here is my favourite. In Restoration theatre – in the late seventeenth century – costumes were elaborate and very expensive. And they were never washed. So actors had to be extremely diligent in keeping their costumes clean. This is why Restoration plays are traditionally performed in specific poses and stances – with the arms outstretched and legs apart – so that costumes do not touch and rub, and get dirty. However, theatres are filthy places, and the very nature of performing in them resulted in costumes and actors getting dirty and sweaty. The task of keeping costumes clean was particularly difficult when a character was expected to ‘die’ on stage. The thought of having an elaborate ‘writhing around on the floor death’ used to terrify Restoration actors as it was a sure way of getting their costumes dirty. This is where the green room came in. The green room was used to store a lot of green material (rather like the baize on a snooker table) – and at the precise moment an actor had to die, someone would run on stage and lay down a piece of this material so the death could happen without the costume getting filthy. Because lots of these strips of green material were left in a room near the stage it became known as the ‘green room’.

The other reason it is called the green room is because if you are an actor who spends a lot of time in there you will be ‘green with envy’ that you aren’t spending more time on stage playing a bigger part, dear.

No Whistling On Stage
You should avoid whistling on stage – or indeed offstage – for fear of things being dropped on your head. This dates back to when the people who used to build sets and help with rigging were hired from ships and boats in port. And as anyone who has worked backstage will know, crew members delight in showing off all the different knots they know – knots which were passed down and learnt from sailors.

On ships, the sailors would communicate by whistling certain calls and tunes which meant particular things (like ‘drop the sail’) – and this is how sailors also communicated in theatres. So if an actor whistled on stage he could accidentally be instructing a sailor/crew member to drop in a piece of scenery.

However, there are times when this tradition can be rather useful – particularly if you are understudying someone and fancy a go at the role. Simply do a lot of whistling at the appropriate moment and hope that a sailor drops a nice bit of heavy scenery onto their head. Naughty, dear.

Macbeth
The play Macbeth is apparently cursed, and if anyone says the name aloud in a theatre it is thought to bring bad luck. To get around this, people call it ‘The Scottish Play’.

450px-FirstFolioMacbeth

Don’t say it!

It is cursed because apparently the witches’ spells are actual spells that Shakespeare copied down and used in the play. I find this rather hard to believe, and haven’t seen any actual evidence – unless, of course, the spell is to make the actors playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have an affair. In which case the spell definitely works, dear.

Another reason for this superstition is that Macbeth contains more sword fights than any other Shakespearean play – so there is more chance of an accident. It is also believed that shortly after the first production of the play, the actor playing Macbeth died. I have subsequently seen many actors playing Macbeth who looked like they were dying on stage night after night. Bless them.

Traditionally, if an actor says ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre they have to leave the building, do a 10K run, down two pints of cider, sing ‘The Circle of Life’ backwards, rub a copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare all over their naughty region, and defecate on a recently graduated drama student.

Pantomime Superstitions
In a pantomime it is considered bad luck to perform the whole piece without an audience – which means that it should never be fully performed before opening night. This can be something of a problem during dress rehearsals – when it is vital to do a full run. The way superstitious directors get around this is by not allowing the actors to say the final two lines of the show (which are traditionally rhyming couplets) until the opening night. This is fine if those two lines are easy, but a bloody nightmare if they’re not.

There is also the belief that the ‘good’ characters (Fairy Godmother/Genie) should only enter stage-right, and the ‘bad’ characters (Abanazar/King Rat) should enter stage-left. This is because in old theatres the baddie would make their first entrance rising from a trapdoor that was always on the left side of the stage. Also, in folklore, the ‘good’ side is always the right side – which explains why Ant is always on the left, and Dec is on the right, dear.

The Dress Rehearsal
There is a silly superstition that if you have a bad dress rehearsal you will have an excellent opening night. I understand the idea – that if the dress is a complete failure then nerves, energy and a desire to make it work will empower you to have a marvellous first show. Personally, though, I much prefer it if the dress rehearsal is a success. For one thing there is usually a photographer present, taking photos for front-of-house and marketing purposes – and we don’t want bad photos going front-of-house, otherwise what will the box office staff think? And secondly, I often invite industry friends to see the dress rehearsal – or ‘open dress’ as it is known – alongside colleagues, friends and theatre staff. It is a marvellous way of getting a true audience reaction – which is invaluable for the actors. It also provides the perfect opportunity for me to show off in front of all my friends, dear.

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Did you know ‘break a leg’ means ‘take a bow’?

‘Break a Leg’
The term ‘break a leg’ is said to actors so that people can avoid saying ‘good luck’ (which is considered bad luck).

The term itself refers to bowing, because when you bow you bend at the knees and ‘break’ the line of your leg. Hence ‘break a leg’ means ‘take a bow’.

It also refers to when audience members used to throw money onto the stage during the curtain call – causing actors to break the line of their leg by kneeling to pick up the money. I always think it such a shame that this tradition no longer happens – as most actors I know love getting on their knees for money.

It is also bad luck for actors to bow if they feel they haven’t performed well and don’t ‘deserve’ it. However, if this rule was followed properly there would be a lot of actors out there who would never bow at all. You know who you are…

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Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting – £10.99

The above is an edited extract from West End Producer’s hilarious 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 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Dymphna Callery: we need a more playful approach to staging plays

Dymphna CalleryDymphna Callery’s Through the Body: A practical guide to physical theatre is beloved of a generation of drama students. But have we ghetto-ised ‘physical theatre’ in an unhelpful way? In her new book published today, The Active Text, she looks at how physical theatre techniques can be used to unlock scripted plays, and inject new life into even the most familiar of texts…

 

Recently, several productions drawing rave reviews have challenged notions of naturalism, or at least received ideas about naturalistic plays. The Flemish director Ivo van Hove’s extraordinary staging of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge is a case in point – it transfers to the West End this spring after a sell-out run at the Young Vic. In this production barefoot actors move within a minimalist black box set, perch on its edges rather than on chairs round a table in the Carbone apartment; the action is virtually underscored by Fauré’s Requiem with tension ratcheted up during family dinners by the ticks of a metronome. Van Hove has turned the play inside out; his streamlined aesthetic makes the words spoken more vibrant, the action more vital, the acting more resonant.

Luke Norris, Emun Elliott, Phoebe Fox and Mark Strong in A View from the Bridge. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Luke Norris, Emun Elliott, Phoebe Fox and Mark Strong in A View from the Bridge. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

It would be perverse to refer to van Hove’s production as ‘physical theatre’, yet it is clearly non-naturalistic. Or rather, is not naturalism as we tend to think of it. All the trappings of our received ideas about naturalistic style have been stripped away. Miller’s stage directions for the design that seem so integral to the play in reading do not feature; costumes do not reflect the 1950s when the play is set. And the tragic story and its brutal outcome are all the more powerful and poignant.

So is there a label to suit such a production style? Labels, rather like comparisons, can be odious – though attaching labels to distinguish styles is often considered important. They provide some kind of certainty, a sort of comfort blanket that tells us what kind of play we are considering. Uncertainty makes us feel uncomfortable. But methods of judging and defining style can be problematic, the criteria used debateable. And labels can certainly outlive their currency. Frantic Assembly get frustrated at being labelled physical theatre, for example. They prefer to describe their work as ‘exciting contemporary theatre for new audiences’.

A View from the Bridge: Phoebe Fox (Catherine), Mark Strong (Eddie) and Nicola Walker (Beatrice). Photo by Jan Versweyveld

A View from the Bridge: Phoebe Fox (Catherine), Mark Strong (Eddie) and Nicola Walker (Beatrice). Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Physical theatre is frequently considered distinct from text-based theatre. Yet many companies bracketed as physical theatre produce plays. Frantic Assembly, Kneehigh and Complicite are examples of companies who work with playwrights, use scripted texts and create work that tests the boundaries of stylistic conventions. However, their process depends on working collaboratively using strategies associated with devising rather than following the traditional routes associated with text work. And it is this way of working that underpins my new book The Active Text, an approach more akin to collective storytelling, rooted in an imaginative use of space and the kind of physical listening between players that means their attention is focused outwards.

We meet a play on the page largely through dialogue, and performance seems to rest on how we flesh out the words. Those words are often the starting point – picked over at a desk or sitting on chairs round a table. Character behaviour is analysed and conclusions drawn about them. Then the words they speak get fleshed out by adding actions once everyone pushes back their chair. Yet dialogue is what David Mamet calls ‘sprinkles on the ice-cone’. It is the dynamic and kinaesthetic signals embedded in the text that bring it to life, its image structure in performance is as powerful as the words spoken. A play should be an experience for the senses and the minds of an audience. Unearthing the fabric of actions and images that determine what happens – and what an audience will see – is where it begins. And in my experience that doesn’t start with a read-through or sitting in a chair.

A traditional read-through is not the automatic recourse of early rehearsals for many directors, and even when it happens, actors don’t necessarily read the part they’ve been cast. Many contemporary directors start with anything but the text. Actors who have developed a capacity for play thrive in this context. And ‘play’ is at the heart of the improvisatory channels to discovering the style of a play, one which may challenge received ideas about what a play is supposed to look like in performance.

When teaching acting and directing for scripted texts I find applying principles of ‘play’ produces far more energised and vital results than following the conventional path of studying characters and what they say. Using improvisation and games to dig into a play before dealing with dialogue, and searching out physical means of expressing any subtext takes players to a more vital level and elicits more energised performances. And everyone feels they are having fun even when the text under scrutiny is serious.

Through the Body: A practical guide to physical theatre

Through the Body: A practical guide to physical theatre

How do you start using the approach I’m talking about? The notion of unlocking text via playful means is what underpins the approaches to working with text that form the body of The Active Text. Those familiar with my previous book Through the Body will find the exercises framed in similar terms, addressing a group rather than an individual actor or director, with an open stage/spectator relationship in operation which both prepares actors for an eventual audience and provides opportunities for learning through watching.

There are thirteen plays referred to throughout for illustration purposes, including A View from the Bridge, Woyzeck and Antigone – plays readers may already be familiar with. They are all plays I’ve used in studio or workshop contexts, or directed, so the exercises have been tested out. There are references to productions that embody some of the ideas behind or have influenced the approaches suggested, and also references to playwrights, practitioners, directors and actors whose words offer valuable insights into the rehearsal process. Putting their ideas into practice has invigorated my rehearsals and workshops – and there’s nothing more rewarding than the surprise of discovering something new or different about a play you thought you knew.


FormattedThe Active Text: Unlocking Plays Through Physical Theatre by Dymphna Callery is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Visit www.dymphnacallery.co.uk for more details about her work.