‘Getting there, doing it, and making a living out of it’: Paul Clayton on being a Working Actor

Clayton, PaulPaul Clayton has been an actor for almost forty years, a career spanning roles in Peep Show, Doctor Who, Wolf Hall, Hollyoaks and more. As his new book The Working Actor is published, he reflects on how it all started, what it takes to keep going, and how you can make it, too…

In my role as Chairman of the Board of the Actors Centre, I’ve hosted a series of lunchtime interviews with actors at various stages of their careers, helping them share their experience and expertise with others. Partly out of laziness, and partly out of a desire to achieve some sort of commonality in the framework for the interviews, I begin each one with the question: ‘How did it all start? When was that moment that you knew that this was what you wanted to do?’ The answers proved revealing. For Juliet Stevenson, it was reading a poem at school. For Josie Lawrence, it was finding out that she could entertain members of her family. For Douglas Hodge, it was a natural step from being a teenage impressionist. Mark Rylance recalled helping to build the scenery for a high-school play in America. Sir Derek Jacobi remembered a particular feeling as he ran down the street wearing his mother’s wedding veil.

For all of the interviewees, however, one thing was the same. There had been one moment when they knew the only thing they wanted to be was an actor. I think my own particular Damascene conversion happened in Miss Woodcock’s class, late on a Thursday afternoon, in an infant school nestling in the foothills and slag heaps of the Soviet Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire. Having press-ganged Susan Clarke and Christine Evans into sharing the stage with me, I played the role of a heroic soldier battling for his loved one against the forces of an evil witch. Imaginatively titled Evil Spirits, and with its envelope-pushing casting of myself as the heroic, and no doubt heterosexual, soldier, it entertained the other members of our class for nearly ten minutes. I remember the applause, and I remember thinking: ‘I like this.’ From that moment on, I can honestly say that I knew what I wanted to be. An actor. I was seven.

Getting there, doing it, and making a living out of it, is what my new book The Working Actor is about. I’ve managed to do that now for nearly forty years, something of which I am proud. I’ve spent a great deal of time unemployed. There have been weeks when seven imaginative ways with a baked potato has been my diet. Approaching sixty, I’d like to think I can call myself ‘a Working Actor’. It says ‘actor’ on my passport, and it says ‘actor’ on my tax return. I make a living out of it, and I know that I’m incredibly lucky to have a job that I always wanted and that I still enjoy.

No one can teach you to act, but you can learn how to be an actor.

Luck is obviously a great part of success, and that has to be acknowledged. Luck can be helped along, though, and working hard at your career will bring its own rewards. Understanding the business, how it works, and your place in it, is crucial. How to look at the work that is out there, the jobs, the opportunities, and how to talk to people who have the power to give you those jobs, and to give you those opportunities. To find out how they make their choices. To find out what you can do to maximise the chance of their choice being you. That’s what the book aims to do. To help you manage your day-to-day life as an actor. No one can teach you to act, but you can learn how to be an actor. A Working Actor.

One of the most important pieces of advice I think I’ve ever been given was from a fabulous old tutor called John McGregor at my drama school. He’d been a young hopeful at the RSC in the mid-fifties, alongside Olivier and Ian Holm. It hadn’t worked for John in terms of stardom, but it had worked for him in terms of being a Working Actor. When he was our technique tutor at Manchester Polytechnic in the mid-seventies, he was still regularly appearing in television dramas and making a good living out of his acting. His mantra was one I have tried to follow ever since:

‘Every day do at least one thing that might lead to work, and then get on with living your life.’

I think what he was trying to say was don’t let the whole of your life be consumed by being an out-of-work actor. Don’t forget to be a person. People buy people. So often in audition situations, sitting on the other side of the table, I have seen people come in absolutely desperate for the job to the point where I have had no chance to get to know them as a person. As a result, there is no hook with which I have been able to engage with them. They haven’t got the job.

The Working Actor consists of twenty-six subjects. An eclectic mix, and made as a result of my own individual choice. At the end of each article is a work task. So, on the basis of Mr McGregor’s mantra, my book gives you at least five weeks of one thing to do each day before getting on with your life. Assuming you take the weekend off! Not all of them may apply to everyone, but if just one of them leads to something, then I have done my job.

Not for nothing do people call it ‘The Industry’ or ‘The Business’ – a business is exactly what it is.

There may be a lucky few who, after leaving drama school, will jump from job to job, but for the vast majority it will be a constant fight, a struggle, to keep that employment as continuous as possible. It will require huge reserves of energy and focus to cope with unemployment, and it will rely on a constant input of imagination and creativity to maximise the opportunities that come along.

Not for nothing do people call it ‘The Industry’ or ‘The Business’ – a business is exactly what it is, and that’s how you have to treat it and behave in it if you are to succeed.

I sincerely hope that The Working Actor helps. Helps you on a day-to-day basis. Helps you to manage your career as a business, and to maximise your potential. Above all, I hope it helps you realise those childhood dreams.


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The Working Actor by Paul Clayton is published this week by Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), visit our website here.

Join the author in conversation with Miss L (Twitter’s @ProResting) to discover the essential steps to building a successful career. A Samuel French event at Camden People’s Theatre, Monday 9 May, 8-9pm, booking required.

Victoria Wood: ‘Giving Notes’

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We were saddened by the death of Victoria Wood this week – she was a gleeful, mischievous presence on our screens for so many years, and will be sorely missed. Here’s a reminder of her talent in her sketch included in the RSC’s The Shakespeare Revue – appropriately enough as we commemorate the death of William Shakespeare 400 years ago. In this sketch, ‘Giving Notes’, the director of an amateur production of Hamlet offers the cast some priceless advice…

Right. Bit of hush please. Connie! Thank you. Now that was quite a good rehearsal; I was quite pleased. There were a few raised eyebrows when we let it slip the Piecrust Players were having a bash at Shakespeare but I think we’re getting there. But I can’t say this too often: it may be Hamlet but it’s got to be Fun Fun Fun!

Now we’re still very loose on lines. Where’s Gertrude? I’m not so worried about you – if you ‘dry’ just give us a bit of business with the shower cap. But Barbara – you will have to buckle down. I mean, Ophelia’s mad scene, ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remem­brance’ – it’s no good just bunging a few herbs about and saying, ‘Don’t mind me, I’m a loony’. Yes?

Right, Act One Scene One, on the ramparts. Now I know the whist table is a bit wobbly, but until Stan works out how to adapt the Beanstalk it’ll have to do. What’s this? Atmosphere? Yes – now what did we work on, Philip? Yes, it’s midnight, it’s jolly cold. What do we do when it’s cold? We go ‘Brrr’, and we do this (slaps hands on arms). Right, well don’t forget again, please. And cut the hot-water bottle, it’s not working.

Where’s my ghost of Hamlet’s father? Oh yes, what went wrong tonight, Betty? He’s on nights still, is he? OK. Well, it’s not really on for you to play that particular part, Betty – you’re already doing the Player Queen and the back legs of Hamlet’s donkey. Well, we don’t know he didn’t have one, do we? Why waste a good cossy?

Hamlet – drop the Geordie, David, it’s not coming over. Your characterisation’s reasonably good, David, but it’s just far too gloomy. Fair enough, make him a little bit depressed at the beginning, but start lightening it from Scene Two, say from the hokey-cokey onwards.

Polonius, try and show the age of the man in your voice and in your bearing, rather than waving the bus-pass. I think you’ll find it easier when we get the walking frame. Is that coming, Connie? OK.

The Players’ scene: did any of you feel it had stretched a bit too . . . ? Yes. I think we’ll go back to the tumbling on the entrance, rather than the extract from Barnum. You see, we’re running at six hours twenty now, and if we’re going to put those soliloquies back in . . .

Gravediggers? Oh yes, gravediggers. The problem here is that Shakespeare hasn’t given us a lot to play with – I feel we’re a little short on laughs, so Harold, you do your dribbling, and Arthur, just put in anything you can remember from the Ayckbourn, yes?

The mad scene: apart from lines, much better, Barbara – I can tell you’re getting more used to the straitjacket. Oh – any news on the skull, Connie? I’m just thinking, if your little dog pulls through, we’ll have to fall back on papier mâché. All right, Connie, as long as it’s dead by the dress . . .

That’s it for tonight then; thank you. I shall expect you all to be word-perfect by the next rehearsal. Have any of you realised what date we’re up to? Yes, April the twenty-seventh! And when do we open? August! It’s not long!


Here’s a version of the sketch performed by Julie Walters:


Shakespeare RevueThe above is an extract from The Shakespeare Revue compiled by Christopher Luscombe and Malcolm McKee, published by Nick Hern Books.

‘Hockey sticks and navy knicks’: Kath Gotts on Crush: The Musical

Gotts, Kath 2015-2_croppedWhen Kath Gotts and Maureen Chadwick started writing a musical about the pupils at an all-girls school rebelling against their tyrannical headmistress, they didn’t know it would take decades to reach the stage. But when it finally opened in 2015,  Crush was acclaimed as a hilarious blend of Malory Towers and St Trinian’s – a family-friendly hit with a touch of subversiveness. Here, as the script is published for others to perform, composer-lyricist Kath Gotts explains the appeal of schoolgirl fiction, and why it’s perfect for a musical…

Crush has a short title, but it took a long time – possibly a record-breakingly long time – to reach the stage.

Maureen Chadwick 2015

Maureen Chadwick

The show was first conceived when I was not that long out of school uniform myself, when the tragi-comic emotional territory of first love and adolescent angst was sadly rather fresh in my memory. Maureen [Chadwick, who wrote the book for the musical] and I decided we wanted to write a musical together and with our shared delight in Fred and Ginger movies we had a mission to write our own version of a romantic comedy in classic book musical form. Inspired by our love of the British tradition of schoolgirl fiction – from Malory Towers to St Trinian’s, and the old Girl’s Own annuals – we thought it would be great fun to write a musical set in that world. In fact, we were amazed that nobody else had got there before us and that here was this whole rich genre as yet unpilfered by musical-theatre writers, with its own distinctive milieu and lingo, and the schoolgirl crush providing new love-story material for musical-comedy treatment.

We entered the very embryonic Crush (then called Sugar and Spice) for the 1989 Vivian Ellis Prize for New Musicals – three songs and a synopsis. We were thrilled to find we’d made it into the televised final. When asked to describe the show I cheerfully explained that it was a traditional romantic musical – just a simple case of ‘girl meets girl, girl loses girl, one girl finds a boy and the other one finds another girl’. We’d heard that Cameron Mackintosh was rooting for us, but on the big day itself he unfortunately wasn’t there in person and the rest of the panel seemed altogether perplexed by a love song from one schoolgirl to another – one suggested that he could imagine the show appealing to the ‘old men in macs’ brigade. Naturally, we didn’t win.

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Catherine Hayworth, Eleanor Brown, Georgia Oldman and Emma Harrold in Crush. Photo by Robert Day.

Crush isn’t so much a musical of its time as a musical that has had to wait its time. Back in the late eighties and nineties the very notion of celebrating a romance between schoolgirls was seen as radically subversive. Most of the cast of the 2015 premiere at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry weren’t even born in 1988 when Section 28 came into force. Finally, however, the new Crush has emerged into a world where a light, frothy, show featuring a schoolgirl romance can be seen as what we always wanted it to be – a big-hearted show for all the family.

The love story in Crush is innocently played out – it represents a quest for self-expression and the claiming of one’s own true identity. Our story is set in a hitherto idealistic and liberal girls’ boarding school – Dame Dorothea Dosserdale School for Girls – which has recently been taken over by the tyrannical and repressive headmistress, Miss Bleacher (who has a couple of great belter numbers to help make her point). The first targets for her new moral crusade are two girls accused of ‘indecent and unnatural behaviour’ in the art room after hours, and the race is on to identify and expel them.

Sara Crowe, Georgia Oldman, James Meunier, Rosemary Ashe and Kirsty Malpass. Photo by Robert Day.

Like Elle Woods – the not-so-dumb blonde in Legally Blonde – or Tracy Turnblad – the not-so-slim girl with a beehive in Hairspray – our heroine Susan Smart is an outsider, a clever scholarship girl who loves another girl. Only it’s the wrong one. Susan has to navigate her way through her first lessons in love and learn to stand up for herself and her right to love whomever she chooses. And everyone else has to stand up and be counted too in order to save the school and everything it stands for. The girls are aided in this by the trusty Deputy Head, Miss Austin, and by a mysterious new games mistress, Miss Givings – who rallies their team spirit in the tap-dancing hockey number ‘Navy Knicks’. There’s also Benny the oddjob boy, who is not at all who he seems and is set to throw a romantic cat among the pigeons in Act Two when we run away to London…

The musical style has a nod to Irving Berlin and Julian Slade mixed with early sixties pop and some jazzy overtones. I like to think there’s a flavour of innocent sophistication to the songs! Steven Edis has done some wonderful arrangements for a band of seven players and it’s a thoroughly joyful musical – plenty of laughs, smiles and a few tears along the way.

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Georgia Oldman, Charlotte Miranda-Smith and Stephanie Clift. Photo by Robert Day.

Like our previous musical, Bad Girls The Musical [which premiered at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2006, before transferring to the West End in 2007), Crush is written for a predominantly female cast. Both shows are set in all-female environments – Bad Girls is set in a women’s prison – where the action and stories are driven by the female characters. If you apply the Bechdel test to either of these shows – does it (1) feature at least two roles for women who (2) talk to each other about (3) something other than a man – they pass with flying colours! Professor Rosemary Auchmuty – who wrote a piece for the Crush programme, reproduced in the published playtext – has written extensively about how the all-female worlds of schoolgirl fiction have been so empowering to the young women who have devoured those books since they first started appearing as early as the eighteenth century. They showed that girls and women could be the protagonists in their own stories, and that whatever derring-do was required, they too could fulfil those roles.

The world of schoolgirl fiction is ripe for musical comedy, but it also has great heart and integrity. A lot of people assume that Daisy Pulls It Off was a musical – but it actually only included the school song.  Crush takes on some of that same flavour but is less of a direct parody. We always used to say that we wanted our artistic style to be ‘subversion by seduction’. In other words, make whatever you’re doing thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable and get your message across with a smile. Crush is an idealistic show – but it’s not simplistic. Like a good pint of Guinness, there are creamy bubbles on top but a deeply delicious pint underneath.

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Brianna Ogunbawo, Charlotte Miranda-Smith, Eleanor Brown, Sara Crowe, Stephanie Clift, Catherine Hayworth, Emma Harrold and Jennifer Potts. Photo by Robert Day.

We were really thrilled when Nick Hern approached us about publishing Crush. Not only is it a wonderful culmination of its long journey to the stage, but more importantly it also represents the possibility of new beginnings for the show, with potential productions by amateur theatre companies, schools and youth groups. We know from our workshops and from our first production that Crush is a really fun show to perform, and we can’t wait for others to have a crack at it.

So ‘Put on your navy knicks, Pick up your hockey sticks’ and let’s all say ‘Bully Off’ for Crush!


Watch the trailer for the 2015 touring production of Crush:


FormattedCrush: The Musical, the complete book and lyrics by Maureen Chadwick and Kath Gotts, is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for just £7.99 (20% off the RRP of £9.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

Facing the Fear: Bella Merlin on overcoming stage fright

Stage fright afflicts many actors, and has the power to drive you away from the stage for months, years, or even a lifetime. In her new book, Facing the Fear: An Actor’s Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright, performer, author and teacher Bella Merlin shows you how to meet the challenge – or simply how to prepare yourself in case that day should ever come. Here she recalls her own experience of stage fright, and what it taught her about how to deal with it.

In 2004, I was smitten with an overwhelming bout of stage fright. It was very near the end of a five-month run of David Hare’s powerful verbatim play The Permanent Way, directed by Max Stafford-Clark for his company Out of Joint in collaboration with the National Theatre. I’ll let my production journal reveal the pride and fall:

 May 1st 2004: Last night at the National Theatre

The last night at the National and the end of something very special. I’ve never before felt so strongly that performing a play could be so important. The audiences have been incredible, with all kinds of eulogies – from critics, public, theatre professionals, stage-door staff and ushers. It has been extraordinary.

It’ll be good to get out of London, though. Not that I’ve been nervous, not that it’s ever worried me who’s in and what they might think. But who knows? – There might be a sense of ‘pressure off’ among us all, so that we can finish this long run with some playful fun.

May 5th: First night at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Courtyard Studio Theatre

What a nightmare!

Tonight I had every actor’s worst possible scenario. I get midway through a sentence – and my brain shuts down. All those thoughts I’d had about being out of London – the pressure off and the fun on – couldn’t have been further from the truth. Earlier in the day during the tech rehearsal, my fellow actor Matthew Dunster looked out into the auditorium of the intimate Courtyard Theatre, where the front row is barely a foot from the stage. ‘God, they’re close!’ he said. ‘This is scary!’ I didn’t think anything of it at the time, apart from being surprised that any of us should find anything scary so far into the run.

Then – during the show – I walk to the front of the stage in the role of the Investment Banker and, as always during this moment, I address a member of the audience. ‘Well, I don’t know about you, but I can only work when I feel the hot breath of a competitor down my neck.’ Well, that’s what I’m supposed to say…

Instead, I manage to say, ‘Well, I don’t know about you…’ but then, as I look at this man on the fourth row, I can see the whites of his eyes. ‘Wow!’ I think. ‘You really are close, aren’t you?’ And at that moment, any connection to the play is cut in my brain. I have no idea what I’m supposed to say next.

Strangely, I don’t get the mad pumping of adrenalin that I’ve had in the past when I’ve momentarily tripped over a word. No heart pounding, no instant sense of fight or flight. Just a feeling of floating away… Into oblivion… As if I’m in a dream and nothing really matters… In this fleeting moment, it doesn’t matter that I’m eyeballing a total stranger and saying whatever nonsensical words come out of my mouth. It doesn’t matter that Max Stafford-Clark and Ian Brown (Artistic Director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse) are watching, and his casting director, and a full house of audience from Leeds. It’s just me and this kind of floating-away feeling.

The moment maybe lasts a split second, yet it seems like a thousand years. Somehow I retrieve the next line and manage to get to the end of the scene seemingly in control. But all the time, I just want to slip into this strange kind of fainting place. I get off stage feeling totally, utterly spaced out.

And then it hits. The shakes and the palpitations kick in. It’s as if my legs from pelvis to knee don’t exist – it’s just thin air. My peripheries have vanished. I can’t feel my hands. Maybe I’d experienced some kind of ‘connection overload’ out there. What I mean is that in the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, I hadn’t really been able to see the eyes of the person whom I’d picked out in the audience for the Investment Banker’s ‘hot breath of a competitor’ line. Here, however, the guy on the fourth row was as clear as daylight. And he was looking straight back at me. There was a true connection, and maybe the electrical currents of that connection overloaded my brain, giving me a moment of meltdown. Who knows? Whatever…

 Bella Merlin performing in The Permanent Way by David Hare (photo by Geraint Lewis)

Bella Merlin performing in The Permanent Way by David Hare (photo by Geraint Lewis)

May 12th: First night at the Oxford Playhouse

I’m just so glad to be back in a bigger space. You’d think this verbatim play would be perfectly designed for intimate studio spaces, but I’m so much happier now that we’re back in the big theatre of the Oxford Playhouse. Apart from anything else, I can’t see the audience!

May 14th: Third night at the Oxford Playhouse

I don’t believe it!

It’s the last time Sir David Hare is going to see the play and I do it again! I fuck up! I’m shocked and appalled at myself. This time it was a stupid fluff, and again as the Investment Banker. What is it with that character? She’s supposed to be calm and confident. Instead of saying, ‘In fact, you can hardly get out of the country without using something I’ve had my finger in,’ I say, ‘In fact, you can hardly get your finger… out of… something I’ve had my finger in…!’ In that split second, my brain does a million somersaults as I strain to bring everything back to the present tense. But what a load of bollocks came out of my mouth! And I know what Sir David is like! I know he won’t let me off the hook!

Sure enough, he’s backstage after the show in the middle of a conversation – and suddenly he sees me. ‘And as for you!’ he booms down the corridor. ‘Oh, no – could you tell?’ I wince. ‘Of course I could tell! It was a load of rubbish!…’ And off we all troop into the Yorkshire night. And the knight goes off to the station to catch the last train back to London. And yes, yes – I’ll never work in British theatre again…!

My stage fright grew worse in the final two weeks of the run. I came down with chronic laryngitis and could barely be heard. It was as if my body didn’t want me to go out onto the stage and into the spotlight any more, but, with no understudies, I had no choice.

As it turned out, I wasn’t alone in feeling performance anxiety so very late in this long run, and little by little some of the other actors spoke of how uneasy they were feeling. It was then I began to realise that sharing our fear-based stories brings with it a kind of talking cure.

The talking cure

It takes courage to be an actor. It takes even greater courage to admit how terrifying it can be. Yet the very act of admitting it can be transformative. Describing the actor as An Acrobat of the Heart, the writer, director and acting teacher Stephen Wangh writes, ‘It takes real courage to say, “I am afraid”, so in the act of naming it you are already converting the fear into usable energy.’ Certainly sharing my ‘shameful’ secret with some of my fellow actors was an important part of dealing with the situation. That said, not all of them wanted to talk about their experiences. And it’s true that the small amount of literature that exists about stage fright tends to stem from psychologists and theatre scholars, rather than the actors themselves. There’s something of a conspiracy of silence. Which isn’t surprising. We all know that stage fright is an irrational fear. After all, the audience and the performance situation can’t (usually) harm us. So the damaging force has to be our own inner messages. In fact, all too easily stage fright can feel like some sort of mental illness, or what German scholar Adolph Kielblock (back in the 1890s) called, ‘the result of a morbid state of the imagination’. That’s almost the scariest part of the fear: we’re doing it to ourselves. And if we’re not careful, we start perpetuating our own downfall. Our morbid imagination conjures up all sorts of catastrophic conclusions that wholly outweigh any rational assessment of the situation – like ‘I’ll never work in British theatre again…!’

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‘It takes real courage to say, “I am afraid”’ – Stephen Wangh

The thing is that, whether we realise it or not, we’re going to talk about our stage fright anyway. If we’re not going to talk about it out loud to others, we’re going to find ourselves talking about it over and over and over in our heads. In fact, there aren’t many healthy options when it comes to dealing with stressful situations. Sometimes we pretend they don’t bother us. Sometimes we try to avoid them. Yet both of these strategies (according to writer Taylor Clark) ‘are destined to fail’. Clark suggests that if we try to control our emotions or we try to avoid the stressful situation, we actually keep our fears alive – because then a significant part of our thoughts is taken up with worrying about how we’re going to avoid it. It’s a downward spiral. Worrying may have the short-term pay-off of making us less afraid, but in the long term it traps us in a cycle of anxiety. This cycle of anxiety is perpetuated by the fact that the voice in our head (‘the Fear Voice,’ as sports psychologist Don Green calls it) doesn’t just talk – it literally poisons us. It leads our brain to create more stress chemicals such as cortisol. And these stress chemicals increase our physical state of alarm – and so the situation simply grows worse. Our inner Fear Voice is chemically – as well as psychologically – unhealthy. So we might as well talk about our stage fright out loud!

Yes, indeed, talking about our anxieties has been scientifically proven to help. It’s known in psychology as ‘flooding therapy’. Every time we confront, describe and relive our thoughts about a negative experience, we find that ‘the very act of disclosure lessens these thoughts’. So by putting our feelings into words, we actually change how our brain deals with the stressful information. (Not least because we’re producing less cortisol.) It’s also known as ‘mindful noting’. And the very act of translating our stressful feelings into words (or mindfully noting them) is almost more therapeutic than understanding them. As we try to put the chaos of our feelings into logical sentences, we find ourselves unpicking that chaos, like knots in a string. And then we can be more objective about what we’re feeling, whether or not we actually understand it. (‘I feel afraid – though I’ve no idea why – but at least I feel better for naming it “fear”.’)

Of course, it’s very difficult for us as actors to confess that we’re experiencing anything that might in any way impede our work as professionals. Jobs are hard enough to come by without directors or casting directors getting a whiff that we might be afraid of what we do. Yet if we don’t talk about it, our Fear Voice keeps us alone with our fear, and coping with a fear alone can be difficult and distressing. As biophysicist Stefan Klein puts it: ‘Loneliness is a burden for spirit and body. Getting support is normally one of the best ways of dealing with stress.’ So rather than churning our anxieties over in our heads, we should share our fears out loud. That way, we can change our damaging inner monologue and, thus, reduce our stress hormones. This is pretty important for us as actors, as stress hormones do two unhelpful things. They undermine our immune system (and no actor can afford to be ill) and they affect our memory (and absolutely no actor can afford to lose their memory!). As I explore in my book, Facing the Fear, loss of memory and stage fright are intricately interwoven. So talking about our fear might actually improve our memory, which in turn will reduce our stage fright. Seems like a no-brainer to me!

It’s important to remember that many actors never suffer bad stage fright. Most of us experience a lively adrenalin buzz – and that’s perfectly normal, if not actually rather helpful. The point of Facing the Fear is to dispel the unhelpful nerves. If you’ve never suffered from stage fright, reading the book is a chance for you to get to know what your fellow actors might be going through. And there’s no need to worry that by knowing all the ins and outs of stage fright, you’re somehow going to provoke it. In fact, the opposite is true. A certain performance buzz can be a benefit to any actor. Not only that, but, if you read my book, you’ll see that any unnecessary stage fright can ultimately be overcome. In fact, the monster is rather funny when you look it in the eye. It need be no more frightening than Shrek!


FormattedThe above is an edited extract from Facing the Fear: An Actor’s Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright by Bella Merlin, published by Nick Hern Books

To buy your copy for £10.39 (RRP £12.99) plus P&P, visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

Bella Merlin discusses her book in a National Theatre Platform on 7 June 2016 at 5.30pm. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the National Theatre website here.

Author photo by The Riker Brothers.

‘We see only what we want to see’: Simon McBurney on Complicite’s The Encounter

Production shot 3 (c) Robbie JackWhen actor and theatre-maker Simon McBurney first read Amazon Beaming – Petru Popescu’s book about a National Geographic photographer, Loren McIntyre, who went into the rainforest to take photos of the rarely seen Mayoruna tribe, only to lose his way back – he knew he would one day attempt to stage it. But how?

Twenty years later he found a way. The Encounter, a solo show performed by McBurney, opened at the Barbican this month as part of Complicite’s UK and international tour. It incorporates innovative technology to build a shifting world of sound as it traces McIntyre’s extraordinary journey, and along the way explores the outer limits of human consciousness. Here, McBurney describes some key moments in the development of the show, from experiencing total sensory deprivation in a research laboratory in Watford, to his own encounter with the Mayoruna tribe in the Brazilian Amazon…

When making a piece of theatre I am, frequently, if not most of the time, in the dark. I truly do not know where we will end up.

—    We’re going to shut the door now and we’ll open it again in twenty minutes. Is that okay?
—    Yep, I guess.
—    Have you ever sat in total silence? In the dark?
—    I’ll be fine.

As a result of spending sixty-three days in silence on a Vipassana retreat, Yuval Noah Harari, the acclaimed author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, proclaimed it the ideal tool with which to scientifically observe his own mind. He came to realise he had no idea who he really was and that the fictional story in his head, and the connection between that and reality, was extremely tenuous.

—    Okay well… if you freak out then push this button and we’ll open the door.

Anechoic Chamber (c) Simon McBurney

Designer Michael Levine in BRE anechoic chamber. Photo by Simon McBurney

The vast door to the anechoic chamber, which is, as the name suggests, a room without echoes, at the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in Watford, closes definitively behind me.

The concrete walls are so thick no sound from the outside world enters your ear canals and the vast foam wedges that cover the walls absorb sound to such an extent that a clap becomes a tap.

I am in total darkness. And total silence. I don’t mean the silence of three in the morning at home, or even the silence of the remotest place on Earth, I mean total silence.

My breathing sounds like a set of bellows; my heartbeat like an arrhythmic drum machine.

—    Why am I here?

It is 40°C, my clothes are already sodden, although we have only been here an hour. Or have we? I’ve lost track of time and I have no battery on my phone. In fact I don’t know why I have a phone at all given there is no signal here.

We are sitting in the house of Lourival Mayoruna, the headman or Cacique of Marajaí, a village of Mayoruna people deep in the Brazilian Amazon, an hour’s flight west of Manaus and four hours by boat up the River Solimões.

Photo by Chloe Courtney

Lourival, according to local protocol, talks to us as part of our welcome into the village – and has been doing so for the best part of an hour. The hut is crammed with people and sitting between us all like some twenty-first-century totem is a binaural head, the microphone that records in, so called, ‘3D’.

Paul Heritage, head of People’s Palace Projects, who has lived for more than twenty years in Brazil, translates as Lourival winds down…

—    So you have come all this way and I have one question…

Lourival leans forward looking me in the eye.

—    Why are you here?

I nervously lick the wet salt off my upper lip, and sweat stings my eyes as everyone’s eyes turn towards me.

—    I think you need to reply, says Paul.

Binaural head in the Amazon Rainforest. Photo by Chloe Courtney

The sounds of the forest and the village become extremely loud all of a sudden. I clear my throat.

The slight rising panic makes me realise the noise I am now hearing is the sound of fluids circulating in my head. And there is a high-pitched hiss caused by spontaneous firings of the auditory nerve. How long have I been sitting here in darkness? I squeeze my phone. Five minutes. I thought it was at least half an hour.

—    Where are you going?
—    To work on my show…
—    What are you doing?
—    Um… sitting in a dark silent room in Watford.
—    Why?
—    To see what it’s like.

I look at my son. He is four. I’m not sure he buys this answer.

—    When is Christmas?
—    A long time. Several months. When it is winter, when it will be cold again.
—    It was cold today.
—    Yes, okay, but not very cold.
—    Yes it was. I was cold.
—    You’re right, it was cold.
—    How long is several months?

I mutter something about moons and loads of sleeps.

Maybe this high-pitched hiss generated by my auditory nerves is something more sinister. I should get my ears checked for tinnitus when I get out of here. How much longer?

—    Forty-five minutes.
—    What?
—    You’ve been speaking for forty-five minutes.
—    Good God.

I got it all, whispers Gareth my sound designer, who looks even more sodden than I do in the Amazonian heat, unplugging the totem.

Amazon 3 (c) Chloe Courtney

Lourival and Joaquina, Complicite’s hosts in Marajaí, listening to the binaural head. Photo by Chloe Courtney

I look round the room. Silence. I am not sure how it has gone down. In English, the word ‘rehearsal’ derives from ‘hearse’ which means to rake over. To prepare the ground. And one way for me to prepare has always been to perform or improvise a show I am making to those who have never heard it. Because the story is not the show. It is not even the performance that is the show. The show is made in the minds of the audience. I want to know what they see. What they hear. I look at Lourival. He smiles.

INSIDE COVER IMAGE (c) Chloe Courtney

A girl from the Mayoruna community listening to the binaural head. Photo by Chloe Courtney

—    We are moved by your story, he says. Your story about this man who was lost, but who survived. Your story is about many people, but it is also about us, the Mayoruna. And it tells us that others in this world know of the Mayoruna people. You tell the world that we have survived. Many have perished. We have survived. But whether we will all survive… that is another matter.

He laughs.

—    So is it funny?
—    What?
—    Your performance.

My son examines me. I glance at him sideways. Draw in my breath.

Production shot 7 (c) Robbie Jack

Simon McBurney. Photo by Robbie Jack

The door suddenly creaks open and I am out in the Watford sunlight again, blinking. What greets me I don’t expect. It shocks me. It is a roar. So loud I want to block my ears. Traffic, voices, machinery, planes… industrial, all-encompassing, unstoppable. The shock is that most of the time, I do not hear it because our auditory system blocks out our conscious mind. Our ears, without us asking, form a filter and help to create a ‘normal’ reality, but one in which we hear ‘selectively’. As with our ears, so it is with all our senses. Our eyes, our sense of smell, every way in which we perceive the world creates a gap between what is actually happening and the story we make of it. We only see what we want to see…

The technician looks at me enquiringly.

—    How was it?
—    Disorientating.
—    And how did that feel?
—    Familiar.

Schaubuehne am Lehniner Platz. F.I.N.D. 2015, Amazon Beaming: Work in Progress, Complicite, inspiriert von dem Roman »Amazon Beaming« von Petru Popescu, Performance und Regie: Simon McBurney.

The Encounter. Photo by Gianmarco Bresadola


Formatted

The above article appears in the playtext of The Encounter published by Nick Hern Books, along with 32 pages of essays and colour photographs.

The playtext is available now. To buy your copy for just £7 – that’s 30% off the rrp of £9.99 – use the code ENCOUNTER when ordering through the NHB website here. This offer is valid until 31 March 2016.

The Encounter is at the Barbican, London, until 6 March, then touring.

Author photo at the top of this page by Robbie Jack.


THE ENCOUNTER: LIVE STREAM

The Encounter was live streamed from the Barbican on Tuesday 1 March. This video is no longer available.

‘Dare to fashion yourself’: Diane Samuels on her new play Poppy + George

Samuels, Diane3Diane Samuels, author of the powerful modern classic Kindertransport, set out to write a new play about female pirates… and ended up with a beguiling romance about cross-dressing and music hall. Poppy + George, which opened at Watford Palace Theatre this month, is all about identity, she explains – do we let ourselves be shaped by the assumptions of others, or do we choose to fashion ourselves?

Poppy + George, my new play, opened earlier this month at Watford Palace Theatre in a beautiful production with costumes and design by Ruari Murchison and original music by Gwyneth Herbert. It was a wonderful night, with a sense of well-earned satisfaction at the realisation of much hard work and leaps of the imagination, and not a little courage, all the more satisfying because its journey to this moment has turned out to be as unexpected and regenerative as the story of reinvention it tells.

It started in the early 1990s when I was writer-in-residence at Theatre Centre, researching the lives, loves, adventures and misdeeds of women pirates of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What compelled me most was the significant part their choice of dress played in creating their identity and expressing their ‘free’ lifestyles. This led me to look more closely at ways in which people, women in particular, across the centuries have dressed or been dressed to delineate their roles.

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Poppy + George at Watford Palace Theatre. Photo by Richard Lakos

I found myself, by twists and turns, ending up in 1919, the year after the conclusion of the First World War. This was a time of great change, shifting of national boundaries, loosening of class structures and stirring of gender distinctions – corsets were becoming shorter and less rigid before they started to disappear completely in the 1920s; hems were shortening; and trousers, although still almost exclusively male attire, had been donned here and there, women wearing them while covering men’s jobs during the war years. In the play, Smith – tailor and costumier, born a Jew in Russia and then trained in his craft in the Imperial court in China, in whose workshop in London’s East End the action takes place – asks the young heroine, Poppy, ‘Are you the dummy or the tailor?’ She is affronted and replies, ‘How am I a dummy?’ To which he responds, ‘Either you are fashioned by what you’re told or think you’re told you can be… or you dare to fashion yourself.’

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Photo by Richard Lakos

After running research sessions around the country looking at how we are fashioned and might fashion ourselves – including one in which a 16-year-old boy asked nervously if he might try on a wedding dress and did so with glee and amazement after we closed the doors and drew the curtains – I wrote a one-act play entitled Turncoat. An extensive tour took Smith’s magical workshop, where clothes and identities are created, into a wide range of venues including school halls, community centres and theatres throughout England and Wales.

In 2015, Brigid Larmour, Artistic Director at Watford Palace Theatre, asked if she might read a selection of my plays with a view to producing one. Turncoat leapt out at her as particularly relevant today, even more so than when it had first been written. I was invited to look afresh and write a new full-length play, developed from the earlier version.

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Photo by Richard Lakos

The Palace had started life at the beginning of the twentieth century as a music hall, so I was excited to develop further the theatricality of the piece, adding to the songs, pastiches of music hall ditties, that are sung by the character Tommy Johns, a performer and female impersonator in that hugely popular tradition of ‘dames’ and drag. Underlying his humour is a sense of devastation, for Tommy has returned from a round of duty at the Front during the war, and he is struggling to revive his act and his life in this time of ‘so-called peace’. We meet him at the beginning of the play searching for a name for his latest creation, a maid with “‘er fluffy duster in ‘er ‘and”, encouraged by Smith, who is constructing his costume, and dashing chauffeur George Sampson, who has his uniforms made at the workshop.

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Photo by Richard Lakos

The names people go by are central to the piece, and so I wasn’t surprised when I was asked to find a new title for the play. ‘Poppy + George’ popped into my head immediately. This meant also changing the name of the heroine from Melody to Poppy, a young woman from the north of England who arrives in London with an open, curious mind and a desire to make her way independently in the world. She becomes a seamstress and assistant to Smith and falls in love with George, which leads to her whole world being turned upside down. And so the symbolism of the poppy, with its associations with transformation and dreams (it was not selected as a symbol of memorial for the fallen in the war until 1921, two years after the play is set), has unfolded powerfully throughout the re-writing process, particularly the way the seeds lie dormant in the soil, perhaps even for centuries, and only spring into life and bloom when the earth is churned up and disrupted.

In the few days since the play has opened, it has been heart-warming to receive so many messages of appreciation. One reviewer described it as ‘winningly generous and big-hearted’, with many seeing the modern relevance of this threshold moment nearly a century ago. As Brigid Larmour wrote, ‘Diane has somehow tapped into the zeitgeist debates about gender and identity, in a way that is wonderfully warm and accessible to a wider audience. The music hall element works really well, and is incredibly playful, and the play seems to be leaving people very moved as well as entertained.’


Tamara von WerthernFrom our Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

We’re very excited to have Poppy + George on our list, and it’s sure to be hugely popular with amateur theatre groups. It offers two wonderful, fully-rounded central roles for women, it’s funny, it’s moving and it’s full of charm and atmosphere. Anyone who has enjoyed staging Diane’s brilliant Kindertransport  – or Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings, or Amanda Whittington’s Be My Baby – should certainly give Poppy + George a twirl.

To register your interest, drop me a line at tamara@nickhernbooks.co.uk, or call me on 020 8749 4953.


FormattedPoppy + George is at Watford Palace Theatre until Saturday 27 February.

The playtext is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £7.99 (20% discount) plus p&p, visit the NHB website here.

Out of the vault: highlights from VAULT Festival 2016

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VAULT Festival is fast becoming one of the most exciting events on London’s cultural calendar. Taking place each year in the vaults beneath Waterloo, this year’s festival (running until 6 March) is host to over 100 events, from hard-hitting drama to comedy, dance, cabaret, installation, and of course late-night parties. This year Nick Hern Books publishes an anthology containing five of the best plays appearing at the festival, Plays from VAULT (don’t miss the special offer at the bottom of this page). We asked each of the writers to sum up what their plays are about and what VAULT means to them – plus, at the bottom, a few handy tips on what to see at the festival…

Kellett, RosieRosie Kellett on her one-woman play Primadonna, 17-21 Feb, which she also performs:

Primadonna is about being a PA. It’s about being young and keen and impressionable and the lengths we go to to please the people we respect. It’s somewhat based on experiences Jamie [Jackson, the play’s director] and I have had of being assistants ourselves, but in a way it’s more about questioning the cult of overwork and the void between service and servitude that we’ve found ourselves in. I was in Edinburgh with a show in 2015 and saw a lot of solo shows whilst I was there – some were awful, but a few were brilliant and I became fascinated by the challenge of writing one myself. This struck me as the perfect story to tell in monologue form, and it has proven to be equally challenging and rewarding to make.

VAULT Festival is such a special place. I think it might be one of my favourite places to be in London. Big words, but seriously, if you’re not down there in deepest darkest winter, you’re in the wrong place. I mean, not only is it one of the very few places in London that you can put on a show with relative financial ease, it’s also made up of the kindest and most supportive production team you’re ever going to meet. Tim, Mat and Andy seem to only hire lovely, professional people. It’s like a gang that you want to be a part of and for a few weeks you are. It’s the best. It’s one of London’s treasures.

Primadonna

Rosie Kellett in a publicity shot for her play Primadonna


Forsyth, OliOli Forsyth on his play Cornermen, 2-6 March, set in the world of boxing:

Cornermen came out the time I’ve spent in boxing clubs over the years. They’re really fascinating places to be. You get trainers, promoters and boxers of all levels working there, and they’re all looking for the right fight for the right money. I realised the most fascinating relationship of all was between boxer and manager: it seemed full of conflicts of interest. Managers are expected to know their fighters intimately, to care for their well-being and guide their career in a way that generates the most income and the most longevity. But in that lies a conflict. What happens if you manage a boxer who isn’t good enough to compete for titles or book large purse fights? What happens to the vast majority of boxers? The answer is that they become journeymen, boxers who make a living out of fighting any opponent, often at short notice and largely with the expectation that they’ll loose. It’s a hard career, both physically taxing and often short lived. The complexities of that business and the relationships within it are what inspired Cornermen.

We’re hugely excited to be taking the show to the 2016 VAULT Festival. The work last year was exceptional and it looks set to be even better this time around. We’re very fortunate to be on in the closing week, bringing the curtain down on the festival, so to speak, but it does mean the pressure’s on to live up to what came before! To have also been published by Nick Hern Books is something really special – it’s a strange feeling when you see people walking around holding a script you wrote in your local greasy spoon.

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Cornermen by Oli Forsyth


Keith-Roach, Florence_Cropped_Credit Lily Bertrand-Webb

Author photo by Lily Bertrand-Webb

Florence Keith-Roach on her dark comedy about female friendship, Eggs, 24 Feb-6 March:

I wrote Eggs to try to examine the volatility and unique calibre of the variety of female friendships I saw around me and felt was underexplored in art. I was also interested in making theatre that nodded to its own artifice, was non-naturalistic and highlighted the absurd in the mundane.

Eggs is a dark comedy about female friendship, fertility and freaking out. It’s an intimate two-hander looking at the struggle of growing up as a part of Generation Y.

It’s structured as a series of dialogues between two women in their late-twenties, taking place intermittently over the course of a year. They have been friends since university, but in the years since they have started to make very different life choices, and as a result live utterly divergent, almost incommensurable lives. They also lost a friend a while ago, and in the time that has passed since this traumatic event, they realise that without the link of this ‘third leg of their tripod’, they actually have very little in common.

Eggs presents two very complex, intelligent, witty, at times irrational, women, facing life’s obstacles and making bold, but tortured and sometimes quite reckless decisions about how they choose to live their lives. The piece focusses on their friendship, their journey. Both women are at an age where society forces them to confront the ‘ticking time bomb’ that apparently is their fertility, and we witness how these two different women internalise this systemic anxiety. It deals with broader questions about the link between the political and the personal, the visceral alienation that our laissez-faire, capitalist society engenders in people’s subjectivities. And it’s about human beings coping with a mounting sense of alienation in an increasingly fragmented world.

VAULT Festival provides an amazing platform for emerging artists like me and I am incredibly grateful for the huge support they’ve given me. They came to see Eggs in Edinburgh and have offered us their biggest stage for one of their longest runs, which is a huge step for our team. Fringe theatre is becoming increasingly unviable in our profit-driven capital city. This is a real problem as London still prides itself on being a cultural capital of the world and yet most of the artists living here cannot afford to make work. The Vaults however offer an uniquely affordable platform for new work to be exposed to large audiences, younger theatregoers who normally can’t afford the tickets, and industry members. The opportunities they have given me have been essential to the development of my career. It’s a very special place.

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Eggs by Florence Keith-Roach (photo by Lily Ashley)


Laughton, Stephen 1Stephen Laughton on writing Run, 10-14 Feb, his play about a young man who risks everything for love:

So in a short sentence, Run is basically about a 17-year-old who falls in love – and that kind of takes over his entire universe. It’s about love, life, loss, growing up into the man you’re supposed to be and everything in between. And space. There’s a lot of that.

Rather than coming from something  external that inspired me, which is the way I usually work – this time I sat down and thought, I’ve never written a monologue before, I’d like to write about being in love at 17, I’d like to write something about being gay and Jewish, and I’d like to write about a boy who’s a bit obsessed with space. I was then approached about writing a short for Theatre Renegade’s Courting Drama showcase, so I sat down and wrote a twenty-minute version and we all (cast and crew) loved the process so much we decided to have a go at making a full length version. Fastforward nine months or so, and here we are!

It also occurred to me last week that, on a really personal level, it’s also about the moment when my partner and I took a break for a little bit last January. Although it was ultimately a good move, looking back it’s clear that I really had a hard time dealing with that – including a disastrous rebound. And that space apart really affected me.  (But it’s all okay, now, because we got back together and we’re really happy!)

I love VAULT Festival. I’ve been going for a few years now and it’s one of my favourite things to do in London. So being a part of it is just, well… wow…. I’m absolutely super chuffed.

It’s special having this particular play in the festival too… with this team… it’s all kind of just fallen into place wonderfully! Oh and I got a play published because of it… that just rocks!

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Run by Stephen Laughton


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Camilla Whitehill on her monologue about modern love and old-fashioned entitlement, Mr Incredible, 10-14 Feb:

Mr Incredible is about the dark side of modern romantic relationships; it’s about toxic privilege and entitlement; it uses the word ‘love’ a lot but is not a love story. I think a lot of people who have co-habited with a significant other will recognise a lot of the behaviour and language.

VAULT Festival is utterly unique – it is a genuinely egalitarian testing ground for new work and experimental styles. There’s nothing else like it. And once you go, you’ll be addicted. The atmosphere is electric.

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Mr Incredible by Camilla Whitehill


Our writers recommend at VAULT Festival 2016…

Rosie Kellett: It goes without saying that you should see all the other plays in the Nick Hern Books anthology: Mr Incredible, Run, Eggs and Cornermen. Rebecca Durbin is doing really exciting things with Play, I’m totally going to try and make it down to a show. And Vinay Patel has a reading of his play Known Unknowns which I’m really excited for – I loved True Brits which was at the Festival last year.

Florence Keith-Roach: The VAULT Festival seems to be the place for this year’s exciting new writing. It’s not all polished, but that’s what’s so thrilling about it. I am heading straight to the performance poetry/one-woman play by Lily Ashley called You are Me and I am You. After the Heat We Battle for the Heart by Tallulah Brown, about a female bullfighter, will be great too. I am also excited to see Play, a series of devised plays bringing together some really great talent across acting, writing and directing. All of the other plays in the Nick Hern Books anthology are by writers who I have been hearing great things about, so I’m going to be seeing their shows and cannot wait.

Camilla Whitehill: I’m excited to see all the other plays in the anthology, Isley Lynn’s Skin A Cat, and Plunge Theatre’s scratch of their new show Success. I’m also running a fundraiser called A Night For Syria on 5 February, with loads of brilliant theatre and comedy, and all proceeds going to the UNHCR emergency fund.

Oli Forsyth: There’s so much on! I’m working with an Edinburgh Fringe model of running my finger down the programme and going to see whatever I stop on. That said, there are undoubtedly some highlights I’ll be in to see. I Got Dressed In Front of my Nephew Today is as mental as it sounds but is brilliantly funny, clever and makes a real point about the pressures woman are under to conform to a modern perception of beauty. I’m really excited to see Run, Primadonna and Mr Incredible. Chill Pill is usually an excellent night and it’ll be good to see some spoken word during the Festival. Police Cops is exceptional and very, very funny and I can’t wait to catch Eggs – our shows clashed during Edinburgh so I’ll take my chance now!

Stephen Laughton: Isley Lynn’s Skin A Cat, Rosie Kellet’s Primadonna, Camilla Whitehill’s Mr Incredible and Viscera Theatre’s In Tents and Purposes are looking like particular highlights for me. Also check out what Play are doing and basically everything that’s going on at The Locker, there are some great pieces playing there; Crowley and Co are doing a takeover for a couple of weeks and they have an awesome programme… and you’ll def find me at Sarah Kosar’s new play Armadillo and Vinay Patel’s Known Unknown.

FormattedPlays from VAULT contains five of the best plays from VAULT Festival 2016:

Eggs by Florence Keith-Roach
Mr Incredible by Camilla Whitehill
Primadonna by Rosie Kellett
Cornermen by Oli Forsyth
Run by Stephen Laughton

The anthology is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

SPECIAL OFFER: To buy your copy for just £7.79 (40% off the RRP £12.99), order via the Nick Hern Books website here and use voucher code VAULTBLOG at checkout. Offer valid until 31 March 2016.

VAULT Festival 2016 runs from 27 January – 6 March. Visit the festival website here.