Wrestling with Brecht: author David Zoob on why Brecht still matters

Why are Brecht’s theories often so baffling? And are they any use to theatre makers today? David Zoob, author of the newly published Brecht: A Practical Handbook, explains how he was converted to Brecht, and why he still matters.

Sometime in the late 80s, when I was in my mid-twenties, my theatre company was touring a show about the first Palestinian Intifada to schools and colleges. We employed some of Brecht’s ideas without really knowing it. At one sixth form centre, the Head of Drama asked me if I would do a workshop on Brecht. She said that he was part of the A-level Theatre Studies syllabus and was almost impossible to teach. The students either didn’t get him, or they hated him. Maybe they hated him because they didn’t get him. ‘I see… and how much will you pay me?’ When she replied that it would be something like £30 for a couple of hours, I said yes of course I’d do it.

I then tried to remember what Brecht was all about. Two things came to mind: first, in his plays he would introduce a spoiler before each scene, telling the audience what would happen; secondly, in his essays he said that at any moment, an actor should show an audience that it would be equally possible for him or her to turn to the left as turn to the right. Or something like that. I had no idea what that meant.

When I got to the workshop I explored the spoiler idea. I asked a group of about six to improvise a doctor’s waiting-room scene. They loved representing sad, sickly people, but their classmates in the audience sat unimpressed. When I introduced a projection that read, ‘One of these people is about to be murdered’, the audience became slightly more interested. I waited a bit, noticing that I was now watching the audience much more than the improvisation. Then up went another projection, which read, ‘The murderer is on the right’. Now they really were interested. When one of the performers (who happened to be on the right) leaned over to take something from his bag, the audience started laughing nervously. The tension was palpable.

David Zoob leading a workshop on Brecht (source: YouTube)

We had stumbled across several of the ideas at the heart of Brecht’s theatre – ideas that have fascinated me ever since. The viewers knew the ‘ending’, and yet this made them more interested; they didn’t ask themselves ‘what will happen next?’ but ‘how and why?’ They didn’t identify with any particular character, and yet they were completely engaged; they studied individuals, making inferences about their actions and motives. One student commented, ‘We are told that Brecht is didactic, but this isn’t teaching anything.’ We agreed that in this example there was no ‘message’, but the spectators were nevertheless learning a lot about human beings, simply by observing them.

Theatre that encourages audiences to discover things actively without preaching to them? That seemed exciting, and it was quite different from what I vaguely remembered about Brecht from university. I read more, and realised why so many people didn’t like him. Translated by the esteemed John Willett, Brecht on Theatre was a tough read. And what was meant by that business about turning right or left? I realised it was about showing an audience that a decision was being made. Nothing was inevitable: humans could make the opposite choice at each pivotal moment. A bit like Sliding Doors, that film in which the central character’s life goes down two different paths depending on whether or not she catches a particular train ­– but with Brecht, the important thing was that the person would decide whether or not to get on the train. A moment of choice, not a whim of fate. A decision with a political, not a sentimental purpose.

Which leads us to the knotty question of Brecht’s alleged attitudes to emotion and empathy. In the workshops I gave, this was frequently the main issue. Brecht’s detractors complained that he was a killjoy: a severe Marxist insisting that theatre should be an ‘alienating’ experience, where a lack of feeling was supposed to be good for us. It certainly was true that his essays discouraged empathy, but I couldn’t square that with the frequent expressions of deeply felt emotion in his plays: Grusha’s flood of tears at the river in The Caucasian Chalk Circle; Shen Te’s anguish and weeping in The Good Person of Szechuan; Kattrin’s dumb rage and powerfully moving maternal impulses in Mother Courage. All this seemed to suggest that the theories were of limited use – or even a waste of time. It was as if the process of writing plays had made Brecht forget his key theories, as the business of writing and staging his work reminded him that audiences had to care about the characters for the plays to work, proving that emotion is the lifeblood of theatre.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

Do I believe that? Partly. It’s the contradiction that sits at the centre of Brecht’s thoughts, his writing, and his practice. It’s a necessary and deliberate contradiction. I devote a whole chapter to emotion in my book Brecht: A Practical Handbook, and all I will say now is that the representation of emotion is a vital part of Brecht’s understanding of how humans live and behave. The conditions we live in mean that human impulses and emotions are frequently constrained, altered or even distorted, and performers can represent both the feelings and the things that hold them back. Emotion becomes an essential element in a dynamic tension (a dialectic, in fact). In Brecht’s view, emotion should never be portrayed as an end in itself. Never – as it so commonly is in Hollywood films – as a commodity.

When I started directing in the 1990s, I usually found myself concerned with the story and what it meant, rather than with the characters’ feelings. Some actors didn’t seem to mind; they just got on with the job of making personal connections themselves. Others sometimes complained that they weren’t ‘feeling it’, implying that I was supposed to do something about that. While I accept that on such occasions I was probably suffering from emotional illiteracy, I can now see why ‘the story and its meaning’ was so much more important to me. My work in the 1980s involved adapting the extraordinary and moving testimonies of people living in zones of conflict: a woman who had been shot in the eye with a plastic bullet in Northern Ireland; a former Israeli Paratrooper who, after becoming a journalist, had spent a year in Israel and the occupied territories disguised as an Palestinian Arab, daily risking his life in order to understand what life was like as his nation’s enemy; young Palestinian boys and girls who had risked arrest and savage beatings while protesting against the occupation. These people had trusted me with their stories, and when my theatre company performed them, our priority was to tell them accurately and make their meaning clear for our audiences. We wanted viewers to engage with the dilemmas of history. The young people who saw our shows certainly felt the scenes’ emotional power, but how we were feeling as actors wasn’t something we concerned ourselves with.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

So I was struck by Brecht’s insistence that the actor should be re-enacting something that has already happened, rather than pretending it’s actually happening in the moment. This rang true for me. The actor was showing an audience what was significant about a moment in history, and the most important thing was that the audience should grasp that significance, and be provoked by it. My colleagues who taught in drama schools didn’t have much time for this idea. Their view, and one with which I partly sympathise, was that if an actor plays their character’s psychology ‘truthfully’, then the significances will take care of themselves. If they play their characters’ actions within ‘given circumstances’, if they are alive to the way other characters react to them… well then, we don’t need Herr Brecht to explain it all.

This position deserves far more discussion than I can give it here. It poses interesting and difficult questions: what is meant by ‘truthfully’? Which particular ‘given circumstances’ should be privileged over others? Why should psychological ‘reality’ be more important than other realities, be they political, moral, poetic or speculative? I think that including all these perspectives in theatre making allows us to create memorable dramatic events that can address the urgent questions that face us as a species.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

Brecht: A Practical Handbook emerged from debates I had with my friend and colleague Julian Jones, an apparently incurable Stanislavskian who became increasingly interested in Brecht the more we wrestled with him. In fact, I’ve been wrestling with these ideas ever since that first opportunistic workshop I gave. And then, a couple of years ago, I took the step of writing a book. I wanted to write something that would be of use not only to a colleague like Julian, and to the young directors we worked with, but also to actors in training and to A-Level or undergraduate students who might have felt the same bafflement as I had. I included lots of exercises, so that readers could join in the wrestling process too. I hope, if you read the book, you will try the exercises and make them work for yourself. No doubt, if you do, you’ll improve on my ideas. Please let me know.


Brecht: A Practical Handbook by David Zoob is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £10.39 (20% off the RRP), visit the Nick Hern Books website.

To contact David Zoob, please use the Contact Us form here, and include ‘FAO author David Zoob’ at the top of your comments.

Author photo by Michael O’Reilly.

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Howard Brenton (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Howard Brenton’s career as a playwright encompasses an extraordinary variety of subjects and many glittering successes, from Pravda and The Romans in Britain to Paul and Never So Good. But, as he tells theatre journalist Al Senter, there have been tricky times too, and he owes the revival of his career to a stint on TV’s Spooks

As a playwright, Howard Brenton has long been associated with a certain kind of politicised, radical and uncompromising sensibility. It’s a view epitomised by his state-of-the-nation collaborations with David Hare (Brassneck and Pravda), his work with Joint Stock (Epsom Downs) and his succès de scandale, The Romans in Britain, which Mary Whitehouse tried – and failed – to close down by launching a criminal prosecution.

So it comes as a shock to discover that, in person, Brenton has a genial charm that belies his reputation and his formidable oeuvre. He has an extensive fund of stories, which he plunders with many a gleeful chuckle. And what is more, he credits his survival as a writer to his work on the television espionage series Spooks.

‘The 1990s were not a good time for me,’ he recalls. ‘There were new people running the Royal Court [which had staged several of his plays, including Magnificence, Greenland, and Berlin Bertie], and I was out of fashion at the National [where Pravda and Romans in Britain had been staged].

‘I’d written a version of Goethe’s Faust for Michael Bogdanov and the RSC, but there was nothing else being offered, and I could see that I was really in trouble. I taught for a while in America and then I wrote a play for RADA [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art], and it was at a performance of this play at RADA that I met the producer Jane Featherstone, who was putting together a team for what turned out to be Spooks. There was a scene in the play that satirised spies, and Jane asked me if I’d be interested in writing a trial episode – which I did.’

Brenton went on to become a lead writer on the BBC One drama series, penning thirteen episodes between 2002 and 2005, and winning a BAFTA for Best Drama Series in 2003.

‘In a sense Spooks was my rebirth, and it was a tremendous source of discipline for me. Because I was so much older than everybody else on the show, nobody knew me and it meant that I didn’t bring any baggage to the party. There were no pre-conceptions.

‘Then I got a call from Nick Hytner at the National, who’d seen one of my Spooks episodes. He asked me why I wasn’t writing for the theatre, and commissioned a play from me that became Paul.’

That play, staged at the National Theatre in 2005, was a stunning return to form. A provocative inquiry into the life of the apostle Paul, it questions the whole basis of Christianity by presenting Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus as a trick, and even overturning the received facts about Jesus’s death on the cross.

Adam Godley in Howard Brenton’s Paul at the National Theatre, 2005 (photo by Catherine Ashmore)

In the thirteen years since Paul was premiered, Brenton has enjoyed a remarkable period of sustained creativity, averaging a play a year – no mean feat for a playwright, especially one whose imaginative scope and historical subject matter make you think he must have permanent residence at the British Library. Amongst those plays are major achievements such as Never So Good (National Theatre, 2008), about Harold Macmillan and the decline of British imperial power; Anne Boleyn (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2010), about Henry VIII’s second wife and her reckless, passionate espousal of the Protestant Reformation; 55 Days (Hampstead Theatre, 2012), about Oliver Cromwell and the momentous decision to execute King Charles I; Drawing the Line (Hampstead Theatre, 2013), about the partition of India; and Lawrence After Arabia (Hampstead Theatre, 2013), about T.E. Lawrence and his struggle to divest himself of the mythology surrounding him.

There are also such glittering gems as In Extremis (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2006, later revived as Eternal Love), about the 12th-century love affair between Abelard and Heloise; #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei (Hampstead Theatre, 2013), about the imprisonment of the Chinese artist by state authorities; The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Liverpool Everyman, 2010), an adaptation of Robert Tressell’s classic and very funny novel about the working lives of a group of housepainters; and The Blinding Light (Jermyn Street Theatre, 2017), about Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s so-called ‘Inferno’ period, when he took leave of his senses and devoted himself to the practise of alchemy.

Iranian Nights by Tariq Ali and Howard Brenton, the first of Brenton’s plays to be published by Nick Hern Books

All of those plays and more have been published by Nick Hern Books. Brenton has had a working relationship with Nick Hern since Hern was drama editor at Methuen Drama, which published Brenton’s early plays. When Hern, increasingly dismayed at the way Methuen was being handled by a series of consortia, broke away in 1988 to form his own imprint, Brenton went with him, one of a quartet of writers that also included Caryl Churchill, David Edgar and Nicholas Wright. It was a vote of confidence in his editor, and without it, Nick Hern Books might well not have survived. One of the first titles published by the fledgling imprint was Brenton’s Iranian Nights, written with Tariq Ali and premiered at the Royal Court in 1989. ‘I remember going to see Nick when he was part of Random House,’ recalls Brenton. ‘I have a vivid memory of walking down an endless corridor in a building on the Vauxhall Bridge Road, and then finding Nick in a corner at the end of it.’ Small beginnings, but Brenton has stuck with his editor, praising his habit of plain-speaking whenever they are discussing one of his plays.

Howard Brenton (left) with Nick Hern (centre) and Nicholas Wright (right) at the Nick Hern Books 30th anniversary party in July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

Brenton is charmingly vague about the number of plays he’s actually written – he’ll leave that to the theatre historians. Meanwhile, it’s the real business of history, the stuff that changes people’s lives, that interests him.

Anne Boleyn by Howard Brenton, published by Nick Hern Books

‘I like setting my plays at times of crisis, at times of great social change,’ he says. ‘I’m also a great believer in the “Schiller Manoeuvre”. In his play Maria Stuart, Friedrich Schiller brings together Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots in a pivotal scene, despite the fact that in real life they never met. I did the same in my play Anne Boleyn, bringing together Anne and William Tyndale, although they too never met.’

As a dramatist, Brenton is clearly drawn to characters who, grappling with the big ideas of their day, find their idealism compromised by the messy business of reality: Oliver Cromwell  in 55 Days, trying to reconcile revolutionary fervour with constitutional necessity, and finding himself having to compromise with a king who will do no such thing; Cyril Radcliffe, the lawyer who, in Drawing the Line, is given six weeks to draw the border that will divide the Indian sub-continent in two and determine the fate of millions of people; Harold Macmillan, who, in Never So Good, finds himself woefully out of his depth as an empire begins to crumble around him; and Paul, the erstwhile scourge of Christians who becomes one of Christ’s most devout disciples. ‘I call them “dirty saints”,’ says Brenton: those who reach for the stars, despite having feet of clay.

Jeremy Irons as Harold Macmillan in Howard Brenton’s Never So Good at the National Theatre, 2008 (photo by Catherine Ashmore)

He is responsible for one of the most charismatic figures in modern drama, the monstrous media tycoon Lambert Le Roux in Pravda, co-written with David Hare. The mesmerising performance by Anthony Hopkins in the 1985 National Theatre production  became, in retrospect, a dry run for Hopkins’ portrayal of another monster: Hannibal Lecter in the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs.

‘With Pravda, something happened that can occur with writers and their characters. We had intended to do a version of Faust, with Andrew the newspaper editor tempted by Le Roux as Mephistopheles; but we fell in love with Lambert in the way that Shakespeare makes audiences complicit with Richard III or Macbeth.’

Brenton recalls, too, how the play was steered towards its eventual form through the intervention of Peter Hall, who was then running the National Theatre. ‘David [Hare] and I rented a flat in Brighton, and every Monday I’d take the train to Brighton and David would drive down and we’d start by telling each other our favourite jokes. Yet at the dress rehearsal the play barely got a laugh. So then Peter Hall gave us a very useful note. He advised us to “meet the Monster plot”. In other words, the play had a tremendous appetite for plot, so we should feed it accordingly.’

Anthony Hopkins (left) in Howard Brenton and David Hare’s Pravda at the National Theatre, 1985 (photo by Nobby Clark)

Perhaps this ability to handle the complexities of plot – not always a component of the modern playwright’s skill set – is one of the reasons Brenton succeeded in the plot-hungry environment of the television drama series.

‘I firmly believe that a television audience will accept complex ideas if the quality of the writing is good enough,’ he argues. ‘After Spooks, I was something of a Golden Boy. I was commissioned to tour all over China for one project, and there was also a Hollywood movie and a four-part television series that never got made. I recently spoke to one of our most successful writers in theatre, films and television, and he estimates that only one in three of his projects ever gets made.’ This must be one of the most maddening aspect of Brenton’s trade, and yet he dismisses it with a shrug. Perhaps, for a writer of his prolific qualities, it poses no real problem. More likely, he’s learned how to cope with the exigencies of the business and is happiest when he’s hard at work on a new play. He jokingly refers to himself when he’s at work as ‘The Man in the Bunker’. He insists, however, that he’s no workaholic.

‘I remember Shaw’s biographer, Michael Holroyd, remarking that Shaw, for all his massive output, was actually comparatively lazy, and would prefer to waste his time on some minor pursuit rather that getting on with the job in hand. We writers refer to this phenomenon as “Teach Yourself Spanish” syndrome. I’m certainly very lazy: work for me comes in spasms.’

Brenton is currently writing a new play for Hampstead Theatre, and there will be a revival next year of his most recent play, The Shadow Factory, about the wartime Government’s requisitioning of local businesses in Southampton to use as covert factories for the production of Spitfires. The play was commissioned to open Southampton’s new theatre, NST City, where it premiered in February 2018.

Spasmodic or otherwise, let’s hope that Brenton won’t have cause to venture far from the Bunker in future.

Howard Brenton’s The Shadow Factory at NST City, Southampton, 2018 (photo by Manuel Harlan)


Many of Howard Brenton’s plays are published by Nick Hern Books, including his most recent play, The Shadow Factory, which will be revived at NST City, Southampton, in January 2019.

For a full list of Brenton’s plays published by Nick Hern Books, visit our website here, where they are available in paperback or ebook formats with at least a 20% discount.

Nick Hern Books is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2018 – visit our website to stay up to date with everything that’s happening throughout the year.

Other Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviewees include Harriet Walter, Rona Munro, Lucy Kirkwood and Jack Thorne. Catch up with them all here.

Author photo by Dan Wooller.

Remembering Stephen Jeffreys

This week saw the tragic passing of playwright and NHB author Stephen Jeffreys. Known for works including hit historical romp The Libertine, he was also a caring and supportive mentor to an entire generation of writers. In this edited introduction from a recently published collection of Stephen’s plays, his wife, Annabel Arden, pays tribute to the life and career of a much-loved figure. Plus, publisher Nick Hern shares a few words on a man he was proud to not only call an author, but a friend

Stephen Jeffreys was born on April 22 1950 and spent his childhood in Crouch End, North London. His father’s family ran a business making billiard tables, where he himself spent a short time working after university and which he immortalised in his play A Going Concern. According to family legend his great-grandfather taught the Pankhurst sisters how to play billiards. His mother’s family were originally from Ireland. The house Stephen grew up in, 45 Weston Park, had been acquired by his paternal grandfather in 1936, and three generations as well as many lodgers lived there in a very particular post-war austerity. It was a childhood full of eccentric characters, English humour and stoicism. His monologue Finsbury Park (commissioned by Paines Plough for their 2016 series of Come to Where I’m From, and performed by Stephen himself) captures the essence of this. The house remained inhabited by his sister, the writer and journalist Susan Jeffreys, and Stephen later returned to share it with her, bringing myself and his two sons Jack and Ralph to this almost mythical extended family home. It was known to all as ‘The Chateau’.

Finsbury Park by Stephen Jeffreys was part of Paines Plough’s Come to Where I’m From project

Stephen was educated in Crouch End, at Rokesly Primary School, and then at a boys’ grammar, the Stationers’ Company’s School in Hornsey, before going to read English at Southampton University. While there he revitalised the student theatre scene and took a company to the Minack Theatre in Cornwall, directing Indians, in which he cast all the Indians as women – an idea ahead of its time and setting the trend by which he gave great parts to women in all his plays. After his short spell in the family business and work as a supply teacher, he wrote Like Dolls or Angels, taking it to 1977 National Student Drama Festival, where it won the Sunday Times Playwriting Award. Later he would join the board of the NSDF, which he served on for many years.

A part-time job teaching theatre in an art college in Carlisle gave him time and solitude to write, as well as the experience of putting on enormous community plays combining street theatre with carefully staged disruption and spectacle, such as The Garden of Eden (1986) about nationalised beer performed by the people of Carlisle. While living in Carlisle he also spent time at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, where he met Gerry Mulgrew, Alison Peebles and Robert Pickavance, who would go on to found Communicado. Together with Stephen they formed Pocket Theatre Cumbria, which toured the north.

Round this time, Stephen decided to devote his talents to writing plays. His first big success came in 1989 when Valued Friends (with Martin Clunes, Peter Capaldi and Jane Horrocks in the cast at Hampstead Theatre) won the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Awards for Most Promising Playwright. There followed The Clink (1990) for Paines Plough, for whom he was Arts Council Writer-in-Residence from 1987–89; A Going Concern (Hampstead, 1993); and The Libertine, a considerable success at the Royal Court Theatre in 1994, where he began an eleven-year stint as Literary Associate, which brought him into contact with a whole generation of emerging writers. He also began giving writing workshops at the Court, which were attended by then little-known playwrights such as Simon Stephens, Roy Williams and April De Angelis.

The American premiere of The Libertine, directed by Terry Johnson at Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago, in 1996 with John Malkovich as Rochester, led to an ongoing association both with Malkovich and with Steppenwolf, where Lost Land, about Hungary at the end of World War One, was premiered in 2005, again with Malkovich in the lead. When The Libertine was made into a movie (released in 2005) starring Johnny Depp, it was Malkovich’s company that produced it.

Rosamund Pike (Elizabeth Malet) and Johnny Depp (Rochester) in the 2004 film adaptation of Stephen Jeffreys’ play The Libertine, for which he also wrote the screenplay

Meanwhile, Stephen wrote I Just Stopped By to See the Man (directed by Richard Wilson at the Royal Court in 2000), a tribute to the old-time blues singers of the Mississippi Delta, which was also staged by Steppenwolf and many other American theatres; and Interruptions (written while resident at the University of California, Davis, and staged there in 2001), which sprang from his fascination with the Japanese aesthetic principle of Jo-ha-kyu and his desire to create a particular narrative form to express our struggles with democracy and leadership. The Art of War (Sydney Theatre Company, 2007) was inspired both by the ancient Chinese military treatise by Sun Tzu and by Stephen’s own response to the Gulf War. In 2009 he contributed the first play (Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad) in the series The Great Game: Afghanistan at the Tricycle Theatre, London. This landmark series toured to the US and was performed to senior military personnel at the Pentagon.

Throughout his career, Stephen kept up a steady stream of adaptations. One of the earliest, in 1982, was of Dickens’s Hard Times for Pocket Theatre Cumbria. Two years later came Carmen 1936 for Communicado, which won a Fringe First and played in London at the Tricycle Theatre. He adapted Richard Brome’s seventeenth-century comedy, A Jovial Crew (RSC, 1992), and, in 2000, The Convict’s Opera (premiered in Australia at Sydney Theatre Company and in the UK by Out of Joint), based on The Beggar’s Opera but set on a convict ship heading for Australia. In 2011 his stage adaptation of Backbeat, Iain Softley’s film about The Beatles, opened in the West End, while his characteristically witty and erudite translation in 2013 of the libretto of The Magic Flute in Simon McBurney’s radical production has been performed all over Europe. And for the RSC he helped adapt their 2016 production of The Alchemist.

The Sydney Theatre Company and Out of Joint production of The Convict’s Opera by Stephen Jeffreys

As well as the one for The Libertine, Stephen’s other screenplays include Ten Point Bold, a love story set against the tumultuous political background of the Regency period, written in 2003 but so far unfilmed, and the biopic Diana, released in 2013, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and starring Naomi Watts as the Princess of Wales.

Ever since his experience as a selector for the annual NSDF, which involved him in mentoring and launching many careers, Stephen was steeped in the practicalities of theatre and relished collaborative creative relationships with young companies and young playwrights. He was also the ‘go to’ person for short celebratory plays for leaving dos, birthdays, weddings, etc., all of which made him a hugely popular and enormously well-liked figure in the theatre community.


Publisher Nick Hern pays tribute to Stephen Jeffreys…

My relationship with Stephen dates back thirty years, initially as his publisher, latterly as a friend. A nicer man and all-round gent you couldn’t hope to meet. Also a brilliant and inspiring teacher.

Having sat in on one of his famous writing workshops at the Royal Court, I immediately commissioned him to write a book. That was twenty years ago, but whenever we met in the intervening years – usually at Royal Court press nights with him in his trademark hat – he would assure me that progress was being made. When he got ill, progress suddenly became a matter of urgency.

The book was still incomplete – though in its final stages – when he died, and his friends and colleagues and above all his widow Annabel Arden are striving to complete it. Playwriting – Structure; Character; How and What to Write will be published in the next few months to sit alongside a volume of collected plays which came out in July.

Dear Stephen: he will be much missed by this country’s playwriting community as well as, of course, by audiences of the brilliant plays he wrote, and those – tragically – he never got to write.


All of us at Nick Hern Books are greatly saddened by the loss of Stephen Jeffreys. We’re incredibly proud to publish his work, and our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time.

Photograph of Stephen Jeffreys by Martin Argles.

Jack Thorne (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Jack Thorne is the playwright behind Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and a five-times BAFTA-winning screenwriter. He talked to theatre journalist Al Senter about his abiding love for theatre, while, below, we publish his speech at the Nick Hern Books thirtieth anniversary party at the Royal Court Theatre in July…

Jack Thorne is a writer in demand right now. The winner of no fewer than five BAFTA awards for his TV work (including for his original drama series The Fades, his work on Shane Meadows’ This Is England series, and his 2017 mini-series National Treasure starring Robbie Coltrane), he is also the playwright behind J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which has played to packed houses and won Best Play awards on both sides of the Atlantic. As if this wasn’t remarkable enough, he’s even bringing King Kong to Broadway later this year in the form of a live show featuring ‘animatronics, puppetry, music and stagecraft… and a 20-foot high gorilla’. All this and he’s not yet reached the age of forty.

Yet despite this conspicuous success and the acclaim which his work has attracted, he remains wary of fame, and almost reflexively self-critical. ‘I’m still surprised by the fact that people are interested in listening to what I have to say,’ he observes when we meet up for this interview. ‘That’s the arrogance of the writer, I suppose. I still love writing but I also feel that it’s important not to grow too dependent on it. Ultimately I’d say that I use my writing to try to make sense of the world, and I only do stuff when I think that there is a really interesting story to be told.’

Jack took to writing plays, as he says in the extraordinarily revealing Introduction to the first volume of his Collected Plays, ‘as a means of expressing things which I couldn’t say.’ He laments in those pages that ‘I’m a constant idiot in conversation. I always seem to sound either smug or stupid.’ There’s a self-lacerating streak to Jack’s conversation still, even if that period of ‘utter self-hatred and destruction’ now lies in the past. You get the sense that, for him, writing has always been something of a displacement activity.

Once he found his voice as a writer – partly through the support and patronage of Mike Bradwell, former artistic director of the Bush Theatre in London, where his first professional play, When You Cure Me, was staged in 2005 – Jack seemed to stumble on the realisation that he was a born writer. In the years since, he has become a prolific one. Despite all his work for TV and film, he has continued to get plays onto the stage at an impressive rate: 2nd May 1997, about Labour’s landslide victory, at the Bush in 2009; Mydidae, written for Phoebe Waller-Bridge prior to her breakout success with Fleabag; an adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, a coming-of-age vampire love story that was directed for the National Theatre of Scotland by John Tiffany, with whom Jack was later to collaborate on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; a National Theatre Connections play for young people, Burying Your Brother in the Pavement; Hope, about the intolerable pressures placed on a local council, staged at the Royal Court in 2014; The Solid Life of Sugar Water for Graeae Theatre Company; Junkyard, a play with music by Stephen Warbeck about the creation of a community playground by a group of disaffected youngsters; and, most recently, two high-profile adaptations for the Old Vic in London, of Büchner’s Woyzeck and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Jack Thorne’s stage version of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, in a 2017 production by the National Theatre of Scotland (photo by Lawrence Peart)

On the face of it then, there seems little to unite his disparate work. Yet themes do emerge. There’s Jack’s ability to get inside the minds and hearts of young people – especially young people struggling with the confusing complexities of the modern world – apparent in his early TV work on Skins and on This Is England, and there too in his National Theatre Connections play, and in Junkyard, inspired by his own father’s work on a pioneering social scheme in Bristol. It must have been a consideration, too, when J.K. Rowling was looking for a collaborator for Cursed Child: Jack had already shown an extraordinary empathy for embattled or bullied children thrown into fantastical or supernatural situations, with Let the Right One In and his TV series The Fades. It’s there, too, in the apparently odd coupling of Woyzeck and A Christmas Carol for the Old Vic: for who is Woyzeck if not a traumatised child, infantilised by the military hierarchy that bullies and abuses him, and strips him of his self-belief; and who is Ebenezer Scrooge, if not a man whose ability to experience joy went missing at a precise and demonstrable time in his childhood, and whose redemption lies in reclaiming it, through the ministry of Dickens’ supernatural agents? The casting of the ageless Rhys Ifans as an unusually youthful Scrooge for the Old Vic production seemed designed to underline the point.

Jack’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol also demonstrated his innate understanding of how people are shaped by social realities, and how the gap between prosperity and penury is a narrow one. It’s a recurring theme, there in his depiction of the night New Labour came to power in 2nd May 1997, in the playground politics of Junkyard, and in his analysis of local council politics in Hope.

Jack Thorne’s Junkyard, at Bristol Old Vic in 2017 (photo by Manuel Harlan)

In a way, it’s remarkable that Jack continues to return to work in the theatre, after such success in the golden worlds of TV and film. Yet it’s the more democratic nature of working in the theatre that appeals to him. ‘It’s the one area where you feel you are part of the creative team. You come in to rehearsals, you chat to the Music Supervisor, you sense you are part of something bigger.’ That sense of belonging, of wanting to belong, that weaves its way through his work.

He must have faced huge pressures, though, having to deliver for J.K. Rowling on the stage?

‘The pressure before Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opened was enormous,’ agrees Jack. ‘But I’d gone through a similar kind of experience when I wrote This Is England and I didn’t want to let Shane [Meadows] down. A lot of it is like being in school and having to hand your homework in on time. And I tend to work best to deadlines.’

Writers are, of course, expendable. There are always plenty of them available for hire. ‘I’ve been fired twice this year already,’ admits Jack. ‘And I get really upset by it. But then, as a writer, you are always expecting failure. There’s always a twist somewhere and people are never satisfied. You feel that you’re constantly exposing yourself. When they give your job to somebody else, it’s brutalising. You might be the first writer on a job and you can sense the other writers queuing up behind you. There are projects with directors attached whom you’d crawl over broken glass to work with again, and there is work that you don’t want anybody else to do but you.’

Jack Thorne (photo by Dan Wooller)

Not long after conducting this interview with Jack, I was at the Royal Court Theatre for an event to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Nick Hern Books. Jack himself gave one of the speeches. His speech was full of his habitual humour and trademark modesty, but also remarkably eloquent and outspoken in its praise for Nick Hern and his publishing team. Jack had dug out something that Nick himself had written, about how he got into play publishing: as a teacher at the University of Hull, Nick hadn’t had immediate access to plays produced in London, and had longed for them to appear in print. He went on to pioneer the ‘programme/text’ at the Royal Court and other theatres, ensuring that those plays being staged in London could be read, in affordable editions, across the UK and beyond. Jack was effusive about ‘a publisher born of the need to see Pinter and his generation as soon as London was lucky enough to see it. A genuine revolutionary. This is a man that values the playwright and the play above all things, and took those values into his own company. As someone who similarly wasn’t born in London and who would order all the Royal Court plays (which I discovered were remarkably cheap) as soon as they came out, I think that democratic intent is extraordinary.’

It was clear from his speech that Jack, for all his worldly success, feels glad to belong to a stable of playwrights published by Nick Hern Books. ‘For thirty years this glorious company has been publishing beautiful plays and making every one of their writers feel like they matter and that people need to read them – and that is a glory.’

I ask Jack if there’s anything he feels he hasn’t yet tackled in his writing. ‘I am still trying to write a defining original stage play that expresses how I feel about politics,’ he says. ‘I have tried, and I’ll go on trying.’

Let’s hope he will soon realise his ambition. There’s no shortage of material, after all.

Most of Jack Thorne’s plays are published by Nick Hern Books, including his Plays: One (which includes the plays When You Cure Me, Stacy, 2nd May 1997, Bunny, Red Car, Blue Car and Mydidae).

All are available from our website in paperback or ebook formats with at least a 20% discount.

Jack Thorne’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol returns to the Old Vic Theatre, London, in November 2018, tickets available here.

 


Here is the text of Jack Thorne’s speech at the Nick Hern Books thirtieth anniversary party at the Royal Court Theatre on 1 July 2018…

When Nick asked me to make this speech, he said – and I quote – ‘It certainly shouldn’t be hagiographic. Maybe just a reminiscence of your early years as a writer and getting published, etc.? Whatever you like really.’ Yup, despite thirty years at Nick Hern Books, and forty-four in publishing, he gave the sort of brief it is extremely dangerous to give a writer – ‘Whatever you like.’

So I started writing a play, because it’s all I can do, but it got a bit weird and tangential and about writers kissing behind shelving units – and I decided to keep things a bit simpler.

When they took me on, three of them took me to lunch at this lovely Italian in Shepherd’s Bush. And I can’t make conversation and I’m not very good at eating spaghetti, and I was quite a lot weirder and lonelier than I am now – and I’m quite weird and lonely now – and they made me feel so important – so cared for. I was going through a stage of being quite into horoscopes at the time – thinking they meant something – which in all probability they might do – and Nick was asking me kindly about this – as he probably regretted even being there – and he said – ‘So was your horoscope today upbeat? Because it probably should be. Because you’re going to be published!’

I remember walking home that day and thinking, ‘I’m going to be published! Who on earth would want to do that? I’m going to have an ISBN!’ And yet they made me feel like they’re the ones who should be grateful. And that’s how the relationship continued. With care, attention and just incredible generosity.

My first colour – spine colours are important in the Nick Hern universe and something that is taken very seriously – was pink, for my first play When You Cure Me. I then had puce, purple and red; I’ve been through blues, greys, greens and whites – and now I’m back at what I think is magenta. Now I know, because I keep them stacked on my shelf, that these colours have been carefully thought about. Nothing ever gets repeated, everything always means something. My first play about the Labour Party,  2nd May 1997, they put in a beautiful red cover. My second play about the Labour Party,  Hope [published in 2014], they put in a greyish black. Not that they were casting aspersions but – you know…

Jack Thorne’s published plays – including When You Cure Me, 2nd May 1997 and Hope

And that is the attention they put into everything – and it is an appalling job when you think about it. The majority of what they publish are live plays – currently in rehearsal: that means the majority of writers they deal with are in the middle of what is essentially an existentialist nightmare. I went back through some emails I’d written to them, looking desperately for anything interesting or funny, and all I found was panic, sheer unadulterated panic, from me – and then calm, brilliant, soothing words from them. Nick reminded me I’d been with them twelve years – during which they’ve published thirteen books of mine. I looked through the emails I sent them and there are hundreds – and the abiding word is ‘Sorry’ – or ‘Dead sorry’. Generally because I’ve missed a deadline, or misunderstood something, or let them down in some way. And the chastisement I deserve as a result never arrives – and I don’t think I’m alone.

My First Play, published to celebrate NHB’s 25th anniversary in 2013

But this is the thing – as I understand it – and this should make us all feel a lot better: this is all Nick Hern’s fault. Stemming from, if my sources are correct, the publishing of Stephen Poliakoff’s Hitting Town. To quote from Nick’s introduction to the book My First Play: ‘At that time Methuen was still publishing all its plays in both hardback and paperback and publishing them some months after the premiere. Coming from teaching in the provinces [at the University of Hull] where we needed immediate access to the plays that London was seeing, I was determined to short-circuit this cumbersome publication procedure.’

A publisher born of the need to read Pinter and his generation as soon as London was being lucky enough to see it. A genuine revolutionary. Nick is a man who values the playwright and the play above all things, and took those values into his own company. As someone who similarly wasn’t living in London and who would order all the Royal Court plays (which I discovered were remarkably cheap) as soon as they came out – I think that democratic intent is extraordinary.

Thank you for doing a beautiful job with every play, thank you for always finding something nice to say – even when the play is terrible – thank you for being revolutionaries – and thank you for your extreme generosity in all things.

And I am one of many. In fact, I’m one of hundreds. For thirty years this glorious company has been publishing beautiful plays and making every one of their writers feel like they matter and that people need to read them – and that is a glory.

I tried to work out today how many writers they have on their list. I discovered rather neatly that there are ninety-nine pages of authors – I think that amounts to close to a thousand writers – with everyone from Hassan Abdulrazzak and David Bowie to Tom Wells and Alexis Zegerman on their list. And I bet if you talked to any of those people they’d tell you how valued they felt. And that’s the thing. Yes, they publish Caryl Churchill – but they also publish and treasure many others who do not get the limelight or acclaim and who never will – and I know they make them all feel like they’ve made me feel. Which is like I matter and that my plays matter.

As a writer, I treasure being part of Nick Hern Books. As a reader, I treasure having Nick Hern books. I treasure them because they’re all bloody good – it is a company with, myself excluded, immense taste – and I treasure them because I know they were made with love, with thought and with joy.

All four speakers at NHB’s 30th Birthday Party: (l-r) Jack Thorne, Indhu Rubasingham, Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite (photo by Dan Wooller)

The text of Jack Thorne’s speech has been slightly abridged for its appearance here.

Nick Hern Books is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2018 – visit our website to stay up to date with everything that’s happening throughout the year.

Edinburgh Fringe Report 2018: Tackling the Fringe

Whether you’re taking a show to the Fringe this year, planning on doing so in the future, or just going along for the ride, check out these four talented and intrepid amateur companies as they prepare to take on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Each of them has chosen to perform a play licensed by Nick Hern Books. We asked them what lay behind their choice, and what they’re hoping to get out of The Fringe…

Jumpers Poster

Jumpers for Goalposts by Tom Wells
Kite in the Storm Theatre
theSpace on the Mile, 5-25 August

Viv has a mission: to turn five-a-side LGBT football team, Barely Athletic, into league winners. They’ve started well with a victory over Tranny United (who were playing in stilettos), but with distractions like handsome librarians and a love of pot noodles, things look set to go downhill. Can they pull themselves together in time?

Kite in the Storm Theatre was created to offer an escape to those who need it. We may not be able to stop a nuclear bomb but we can stop you worrying about it for an hour or two. We chose Tom Wells’ play Jumpers for Goalposts for our first production at the Edinburgh Fringe as it’s perfect for the Fringe: it’s blissfully funny and at times deeply affecting. Our company brings together graduate students from Edinburgh Napier and Queen Margaret University, and we’re all so excited to experience the Fringe, and hopefully make a success of it.

We’ve worked exceptionally hard on this play and it’s been incredibly rewarding, both for our own development as actors and in the way we build our characters. We performed a preview show at our university on 25 April, and ever since we’ve been counting down the days to bring this to the Fringe. It’s an LGBT-interest play, and we’ve been getting a huge amount of support from the local community.

Rehearsals 3

Kite in the Storm Theatre performing Jumpers for Goalposts by Tom Wells

We’re now in our final weeks of rehearsals and pleased we finally get to put this fantastic play in front of an audience. At the same time, we’re feeling a little sad as we know it’ll all be over so quickly – we’ve grown so close to these characters in the months we’ve been working on the play, and it’ll be a wrench to leave them behind when it’s all over.

We hope to see as many people as the venue can hold, and we’re excited to meet other creatives and people who care about the theatre and arts.

– Richard Lydecker, General Manager and cast member


FREAK Ed Fringe DIGITAL.jpg (1)Freak by Anna Jordan
Bullet Theatre
theSpace on the Mile, 20-25 August

‘They think I am the most beautiful thing in the world. And I don’t mind being a thing. I don’t want their respect. I want only their animal desire.’

Freak by Anna Jordan explores female sexuality, self-image and sexual exploitation in a comedic, relatable and sometimes shocking manner. We follow Leah, who is fifteen, and Georgie, who is thirty – two women at very different stages of their lives who are both trying to juggle their own sexual desires with the constantly contradicting pressures society places on them. Our production combines physical theatre and devised ensemble work with Anna Jordan’s powerful and provocative text.

Bullet Theatre is a Bristol-based company formed by three women (graduates of the University of Bristol). After a sell-out run of the show in March, we decided to bring Freak to the Fringe to spread its unapologetic message to a wider audience. We are passionate about the play and sharing it with more people because of the way it bravely and hilariously addresses the all-too-common taboos of female sexuality such as waxing, masturbating, or having sexual relations with the same gender.

Having already debuted the show in March, rehearsals are focusing on improving and tightening up movement, as well as delving deeper into character motivations. The ensemble cast acts as a visual projection of the protagonists’ inner thoughts and feelings, yet also symbolise all women, conveying the ongoing desires and struggles all women experience daily.

FREAK Fringe 1 med. res.jpg

Bullet Theatre perform Freak by Anna Jordan

As the director, I have sought to make rehearsals an open, empowering environment where we can comfortably discuss the serious issues tackled in the play and collaboratively choreograph movement. Having worked on this show for many months now, it still never fails to shock us, and make us laugh and cry. We can’t wait for people to see it in Edinburgh!

– Katherine Latimer, Director


HowMyLightIsSpentHow My Light Is Spent by Alan Harris
Aaron Kilercioglu
Greenside @ Nicolson Square, 3-18 August

How My Light Is Spent is a captivating two-hander exploring loneliness, vulnerability and longing in a world of phone sex-workers and drive-through doughnut restaurants.

The play centres on Jimmy, a 34-year-old employee at a doughnut restaurant, and Kitty, an adult chat-line operator, who Jimmy calls every Wednesday evening. Trying to come to terms with his recent redundancy, his estrangement from his daughter and also the fact he is becoming literally invisible, Jimmy turns to Kitty. Before long, a friendship blossoms between them, until Jimmy realises that he has fallen deeply in love with Kitty.

Whilst Kitty tries to advise Jimmy on his encroaching invisibility, she tackles similar feelings of being out-of-place, pinning her hopes of finding purpose on the psychology course she’s always dreamed of doing. Together, this unlikely duo succeed in turning each other’s world upside down and find in each other a sense of purpose and belonging.

We are a group of Cambridge students bringing Alan Harris’ play to Edinburgh for its Fringe debut, which were really excited about, especially as this will be our first time performing there! Our company chose the play as it explores important contemporary issues, from the injustice of zero-hour contracts to the way in which sex work is viewed, in a thought-provoking yet light-hearted manner. It delves into the solitude and isolation of modern life in an engaging and comic way, making it a must-see for all. Participating in the Fringe gives us the chance to perform at a fantastic venue in front of large and varied audiences each day, which are really unique opportunities.

Aside from a few read-throughs in Cambridge, rehearsals for the play have just begun but our performance already seems promising. We’ve done quite a lot in terms of preparations, such as building our minimalist set and working on our publicity campaign, but of course there still remains a lot to do in these last two weeks before the festival.

We’re feeling really enthusiastic about the festival, if a little nervous, and can’t wait to begin our performances soon!

– Olivia Kumar, Producer


posters_newAntigone by Sophocles, adapted by Owen McCafferty
Amplify Time Productions
theSpace on the Mile, 5-25 August

All eyes are on the city of Thebes. In defying the powerful Creon, Antigone takes civil disobedience to a very dark place. What is she? In the eyes of Creon, she’s a terrorist. Or is she a moral crusader? A loving sister? A freedom fighter? Or a death-driven woman who sacrifices all for a principle?

Amplify Time Productions is a collective of students and graduates from both Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University. Our focus is to produce classical plays in exciting and unique settings, highlighting issues in the modern day. We also strive to showcase upcoming Scottish talent.

We formed last year with our debut production Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. Following its success, this is our second performance as a company and our Edinburgh Fringe debut. We’ve also received the QMU Student Development Award for the second year in a row.

Antigone Rehearsal Photo 1

Amplify Time Productions rehearsing Owen McCafferty’s version of Sophocles’ Antigone

The rehearsal room has been an incredibly fun and exciting place for us all. We get to take on Owen McCafferty’s great contemporary adaptation of Sophocles’ iconic Greek tragedy, Antigone. Developing the unique characters of Creon, Antigone and Ismene, as well as exploring the identity of the chorus as a whole, has given us all great ideas and allowed us to develop the way we present our telling of this story.

It’s a very exciting time for us all as new, upcoming talent and we are really eager to get to the Fringe and have our very first experiences of it as a company.

– Harry Jackson, Director


Good luck and break a leg to all the brilliant amateur companies taking NHB-licensed shows to the Edinburgh Fringe this year!

Are you looking for a show to take to the Fringe next year? Take a look at our dedicated Plays to Perform site, where you can search for plays by genre, theme and/or cast size, and sign up for our Plays to Perform newsletter.

Or get in touch with our Performing Rights team – we’re always happy to help you find the perfect play to perform. Call us on 020 8749 4953, or email PerformingRights@nickhernbooks.co.uk.

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, @NHBPerforming.

Our previous Edinburgh Fringe Reports are still available here:

Edinburgh Fringe Report 2017
Edinburgh Fringe Report 2016 Part 1: Final Preparations
Edinburgh Fringe Report 2016 Part 2: The Reckoning
Edinburgh Fringe Report 2015 Part 1: Cutting it at the Fringe
Edinburgh Fringe Report 2015 Part 2: The Final Reckoning

‘Theatre in its purest form’: Cheryl Henson on the power of puppetry in an increasingly digital world

Puppetry is an artform with ancient roots, but contemporary applications – and the international success of shows like National Theatre hit War Horse proves that it has lost none of its magic.

Here, Cheryl Henson, President of the Jim Henson Foundation, reflects on how that ‘magic’ happens, and pays tribute to director and puppeteer Mervyn Millar, author of a new book, Puppetry: How to Do It

The magic of bringing a puppet to life fascinates me. The precision of gesture that conveys a puppet’s inner life can be breathtaking, immediately taking me out of everyday reality and into a world where anything is possible.

As the President of the Jim Henson Foundation, a grant-making organisation that supports puppetry, I have had the opportunity to meet a wide range of artists. In addition to supporting American puppeteers, our foundation produced an International Festival of Puppet Theater for a decade, presenting more than 120 shows from almost thirty countries in five festivals. We were the first in the United States to present Handspring Puppet Company, as well as many other extraordinary troupes.

A number of years later, I had the pleasure of meeting Mervyn Millar when he worked with Handspring on the National Theatre’s production of War Horse. The puppeteers in this show brought full-size horse puppets to life and interacted as real horses with human actors. The horses were extraordinarily lifelike. Although the puppeteers were in full view, the audience readily accepted the puppets as horses. With the success of War Horse, Mervyn travelled internationally to train new performers to do these roles. He worked with actors, dancers and movement performers to give them the skills they would need to be good puppeteers.

The cast of War Horse in rehearsals

‘The horses were extraordinarily lifelike’ – the cast of War Horse in rehearsals

Puppetry is an ancient theatre form rooted in various cultures throughout the globe. Yet, it is also a contemporary art form embraced by innovative theatre artists creating new styles and techniques. That combination of old and new brings a particular dynamism to puppetry.

A simple puppet can be surprisingly appealing in today’s technologically complex culture. The prevalence of digital media and the easy manipulation of perceived reality is commonplace these days. When what is real in our everyday world becomes questionable, ‘realism’ can feel untrustworthy. In contrast, puppetry can be very straightforward. The magic feels real because you can see exactly how it is done and still choose to believe in it.

Puppetry invites the audience to participate in the theatrical experience. The puppet is not alive. No matter how well it is manipulated, everyone knows that it is not alive. It is an object that appears to breathe, to see, to think, to react – to be an emotionally whole being with an unknowable inner life, just like us. But we understand that a puppet is doing none of these things. It is an illusion that the audience agrees to go along with. It is theatre in its purest form. The puppeteer cannot force the audience to believe. The puppeteer must cajole, convince and carry the audience into the shared illusion of believing in the life of the puppet. As Mervyn puts it in his new book, Puppetry: How to Do It:

‘Something is happening when the audience believes in the puppet, and invests in it emotionally, that they recognise as being close to religious or ritual action. But we should remember that it also has the opposite energy – of playfulness and irreverence. The puppet is like a little god, or a little miracle, but also “just” a toy. It reminds us of being a child – when we imagine our toys into vivid life. I hope that the emphasis in this book on the active part the audience play in imagining the character helps to reveal how it is they who are making this connection…’

Of course, this connection to the audience does not happen if the puppet is not believably performed. The manipulation of the puppet is everything. How one trains to manipulate a puppet can vary immensely, but the fundamental principles remain the same.

I had the pleasure of observing Mervyn Millar teach puppet manipulation using the techniques in the book when he came to the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, an annual gathering of international puppeteers that brings professionals and trainees together for an intense ten-day period of creative development. At this conference, I watched as Mervyn encouraged and inspired the participants to experiment with their choices, to pick up odd objects and combine them to create characters and give them movement: an old watering can and a wrench, a piece of hose and a bucket, a brass bell and some paper. All of them came to life before our eyes in new and unexpected ways. The atmosphere was calm and supportive, and the participants worked together to create unique characters.

Based on the workshops he developed for training performers for War Horse, as well as workshops like the one at the National Puppetry Conference, Mervyn has written his book to share his craft. With care and dexterity, he takes us through a basic training technique that uses simple materials like sticks and brown paper to focus attention on the movement that gives these objects the appearance of life. The exercises in the book are clear and easily reproducible for many different types of participants.

‘Giving these objects the appearance of life’ – one of Mervyn Millar’s workshops covered in his book
Puppetry: How to Do It (photo by Nick Arthur Daniel)

Although Mervyn’s book is aimed at training performers for live theatre, creating the illusion of life is a skill that can be used in the digital world as well. Digital media – video games, virtual reality, television, film, even social media – all contain manufactured reality in varying degrees. Creatures and characters within those realities can be brought to life by defined gesture and movement, just as puppets are. Whether through digital puppetry or motion capture, the human body and the human hand is still better at conveying movement that reads as life than any computer algorithm. Not only is the training outlined in this book beneficial for a range of performers, it could provide important skills for all sorts of jobs not yet invented in the creation of believable life in alternate realities.

By writing Puppetry: How to Do It and sharing the teaching techniques that he has mastered over many years, Mervyn has offered a wonderful gift to the field of puppetry. I hope that it will be used widely to introduce adventurous spirits to this dynamic art form.

The above is taken from the Foreword to Puppetry: How to Do It by Mervyn Millar.  Written by an experienced theatre and puppetry director, the book is a practical, accessible and inspiring guide to using puppetry in theatre – the perfect entry point for anyone looking to use puppets in their productions, to explore what puppets can do, or to develop their puppetry skills.

Get your copy of Puppetry: How to Do It for just £11.24 (that’s 25% off) – enter code PUPPETRYBLOG25 when ordering online here.

Cheryl Henson is the President of The Jim Henson Foundation and a member of the Board of Directors of The Jim Henson Company. The Jim Henson Foundation supports the creation of innovation contemporary puppet theater through grants to puppet artists and presenters. The foundation has given over 800 grants to over 350 artists.

Photograph of Cheryl Henson by Richard Termine.

Lucy Kirkwood (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Lucy Kirkwood is a leading playwright whose plays include the hugely acclaimed Chimerica. She spoke to theatre journalist Al Senter as part of our interview series celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of Nick Hern Books in 2018

Lucy Kirkwood has come a great distance in a remarkably short period of time. In the ten years since her debut play Tinderbox, a dystopian farce in which England is quite literally disappearing beneath the waves, premiered at the Bush Theatre, she has established herself as one of the leading voices of her generation. Her major breakthrough came in 2013 with Chimerica, her extraordinarily bold and gripping dissection of global geopolitics and Chinese-American relations, which transferred directly from the Almeida Theatre to the West End, with a major four-part TV series now on the way from Channel 4. And then two plays focussing, in quite different ways, on the moral responsibilities of contemporary scientists: The Children,  which premiered at the Royal Court in 2016; and Mosquitoes, at the National Theatre in 2017, starring Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams as rival sisters who have followed very different paths in life.

Lucy Kirkwood’s Tinderbox, published by Nick Hern Books in 2008

As a playwright, she has never backed away from tackling the most pressing issues of our times, and her work has been garlanded with awards. Yet she is wary of the slippery concept of success. Before turning to writing, she had done a smidgeon of acting and tried her hand at directing, but found neither fitted her particular talents. She credits her agent, Mel Kenyon at Casarotto Ramsay & Associates, with giving her the confidence to start writing. ‘She invited me in for a cup of tea and when she offered to take me on as a client, I felt galvanised,’ explains Lucy. ‘I’d always written and I’d always been attracted to the theatre. I love the medium – there’s something about the liveness of it which excites me. And I love the process, which you don’t get in any other medium. Here is a group of people gathered together in a room – in a rehearsal room – to interrogate, to ask questions of the play, of the director, of each other, until something unexpected emerges. And I find that very sustaining and often very beautiful.’

Francesca Annis and Deborah Findlay in Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children at the Royal Court Theatre in 2016 (photo by Johan Persson)

She draws a pointed contrast with the world of TV and film, where she also has considerable experience: she was a lead writer on Skins, created fire-fighting drama series The Smoke for Sky 1, and is exec-producing Channel 4’s Chimerica. ‘When you are working on a film or a television drama, the time I need as a writer is at a premium. Television people may pay you more money, but getting an agreement or a green light out of them is very hard, mainly because they won’t take the risk of getting it wrong and ending everybody’s career.’

Is the screen more competitive than theatre – or more hostile, perhaps, to writers?

‘I tend to pick my battles at the right time and in the right area. Since I am the person who mostly sits on a chair, having relatively little to do by that stage, they’ll tend to agree with me when I point out something to the team. It may only be a tiny detail but they’ll agree to do whatever it is with an “of course”.’

In her plays, she writes unsparingly about the tensions between women, either as workplace competitors (NSFW, at the Royal Court in 2012), or as rival siblings (Mosquitoes). Lucy is patently not afraid of breaching female solidarity, pointing out that ‘if they are not in conflict with one another, where’s the play? That’s the whole point.’

Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams in Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitoes at the National Theatre in 2017 (photo by Brinkhoff Mogenburg)

Lucy is careful not to sound triumphalist when her ‘success’ is discussed. She prefers to reference Samuel Beckett: ‘I feel very lucky that with every bit of work I do, I think that I fail better. My one ambition is to write a play as good as Far Away by Caryl Churchill, and I don’t have a lot of confidence about whether or not I’ll be good enough. I tend to write my plays at night; there’s something almost clandestine about it. And seeing my plays in performance is very nerve-wracking. I always sit at the back of the auditorium, ready to make a quick getaway if necessary. I find the audience very strange. It’s as if here is a group of people who have been invited to watch me peel away layers of my own skin. And I find it impossible to predict how an audience will take to a play: which lines get laughs one night, and which are greeted with silence the next. Yet the moment you think you can predict how an audience will react, the work begins to suffer.’

Success, then, she defines as ‘just writing something which you think is good’. As a salutary warning, Lucy mentions the figure of the late Arnold Wesker, whose early success with plays such as Chicken Soup with Barley and Roots, which both came to the Royal Court after premiering at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry in the late-50s, gave way to neglect when his work later fell out of fashion. Why does Wesker appeal to her?

‘His work is beautifully written, with well-crafted ideas given robust expression with political passion and understanding. All you can hope for in the theatre is that people will continue to want to direct your work and that you avoid writing plays that are inward-looking.’

Benedict Wong in Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica at the Almeida Theatre in 2013 (photo by Es Devlin)

There is no shortage of new plays being written, and in the jostling for exposure, new plays can lose out when they are denied further productions, especially outside the metropolis. Lucy feels drawn in two opposing directions on this subject.

‘I tend to get bored listening to my voice, and I often feel I’d rather be watching a new play written by somebody else rather than a revival of my own work that is too familiar. I think that a lot of writers secretly have their favourites among their plays, and it varies from day to day which they like the most.’

She stresses the importance of having her plays published. ‘My publisher Nick Hern is one of the first people to read a new play of mine, and the email which he sends me after he has read it is one of the highlights of the production process, like the conversation we’ll have about the design of the book covers, for example. I feel that the people involved in the publication process are just as important as the individuals contributing to the production. In a sense, the published text is a valuable record of what went on in the rehearsal room. It’s part of stating that the play has arrived.’


Lucy Kirkwood’s plays are published by Nick Hern Books, including the collection Plays: One, which contains Chimerica as well as four other plays.

Other Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviewees include Harriet Walter and Rona Munro. Catch up with them all here.