‘He doggedly pursued his unique vision’: a tribute to Robert Holman

Over the course of a career spanning almost fifty years, Robert Holman garnered a reputation as an extraordinary playwright, who influenced many of today’s most renowned dramatists. His plays, which have been staged at leading venues including the Royal Court, Chichester Festival Theatre, Bush Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Traverse Theatre, Lyric Hammersmith, Donmar Warehouse and Manchester Royal Exchange, combine close observation of the way people behave with a thrilling and often fiercely uncompromising mastery of dramatic form.

Here, to mark the sad occasion of Holman’s death last week, NHB’s founder, Nick Hern, pays tribute to a true writer’s writer, who will be much missed.


Robert was a ‘playwright’s playwright’. Simon Stephens was not alone in saying in 2015 ‘His is the name I most often offer when anybody asks me who my favourite living writer is.’ Which makes me, as publisher of fourteen of his plays, glow with pride.

I was there in 1974 in the audience at The Cockpit off Edgware Road for the very first of his plays to reach the stage, The Natural Cause. I loved the play but, having only been in publishing for five weeks, I lacked the confidence to take on this 22-year-old unknown. Mercifully, I got a second chance ten years later, publishing Other Worlds alongside its Royal Court premiere ­– and indeed every play that followed. I once asked him to sign a stack of his published work: he dedicated each one with a different message, but, round about the seventh, the best he could manage was ‘Not another bloody play!’ He was modesty incarnate.

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The Cockpit in Marylebone, London, which staged the 1974 premiere of Robert Holman’s first produced play, The Natural Cause 

He always evinced surprise that anyone was interested in his work, and it’s true that box-office success consistently evaded him. Indeed, Other Worlds held the record at the Royal Court for the lowest attendance at a mainstage play: an average of 18% over a three-week run. But despite such setbacks, his reputation among his peers remained undented, the commissions kept coming in, and his doggedness in pursuing his unique vision kept him writing.

A couple of years ago, NHB published a collection of his earlier work, including, at last, The Natural Cause. He wrote what was, for such a private person, a gratifyingly revealing Introduction, an excerpt from which follows this. It is very ‘Robert’. I will miss him badly.

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Robert Holman Plays: One, a selection from Holman’s first decade of playwriting, published by NHB in 2019


Robert Holman speaks about his early days as a playwright and what he believes are a writers’ responsibilities, in this edited extract from his introduction to Robert Holman Plays: One.

Mud is the first play I wrote that had an interval. I was twenty-one. I left Yorkshire when I was nineteen and stayed with a school friend in Camden Town. I slept on an air bed. One night a bullet came through the window, made a little hole in the glass, and passed over my head. A prostitute lived below, but I never found out what the bullet was about. In the kitchen in Camden Town, in a notepad and then on the portable typewriter my parents bought me, I wrote a play which a few months later went on in a lunchtime theatre in Edinburgh. It lasted nearly an hour and was my first professional production. The play was a sort of fantasy about an old man visiting a graveyard at night, and the critic of the Scotsman newspaper said it was clearly written by a bitter old man. I was still only nineteen. I have wondered if I might one day write about the bullet in Camden Town, but a play has not come along.

Mud was written in Belsize Park. I had got there by way of Westbourne Park, where I had found a room overlooking the railway to Paddington. There were more very small spiders living around the window than I had seen before or since, as well as untroubled mice running across the floor. There was an old, broken wardrobe. The window was opaque with dirt. I put down my case, sat on the bed and looked about, got depressed, and stayed two hours. Back in Camden Town in desperation I rang my mother, wondering if I should go home to Yorkshire, but she had heard, from a distant relative, about a family in Belsize Park who sometimes had a room they let out. I went to Belsize Park for a week and stayed seven years. All the early plays were written there, in a bright room at the top of the house overlooking the garden, with Hampstead Heath nearby to walk across and the space to think. Sometimes in life we are most grateful for ordinary things, if giving someone a room to live in is ordinary. The room set the course for the rest of my life. The rent was a few pounds a week, and very often I did not pay it. I have struggled with money ever since, and it started then.

Mud was written in the evenings and in the early hours of the mornings, because I worked during the day on Paddington Station, selling newspapers and magazines. I was not a clever boy, but sometimes I had a good instinct about the best thing to do, and I was learning to trust myself. Intuition had told me to get an easy job, one where I did not have to think too deeply. If that sounds rude about the bookstall or the other people working there, I do not mean it to be. It’s the only ‘proper’ job I have ever had, and to begin with I did not tell them I was also trying to write. The first draft of Mud was written in longhand using the fountain pen I had sat my school exams with. I made it up as I went along, with no idea of where it might end up. I put down the things I saw in my imagination and wrote what I heard people say. The dialogue was character-driven and the people in the play led me. If there were days when they said nothing it was a nuisance, and I would do my best to look at the empty page for half an hour before putting away the pen. If too many days like this came one after the other, it would be frustrating and then I would get depressed. I longed for the skills of a proper writer. My writing was in charge of me, rather than me being in charge of it.

Mud was written when writing was a hobby of mine. There were two drafts of the play written in ink, the second one bearing very little resemblance to the first, because all I was trying to do was to get a sense of who the characters were, and this was changing as I wrote them. Men were becoming women, women men, someone of nineteen was becoming sixty and vice versa. At some point a consistency emerged, as much decided by them as decided by me. It was as if I knew these people as well as I knew anybody who was actually alive. By now I was typing the play. It was still changing as I went on, still surprising me. I would sometimes look at my watch and it would be past three o’clock in the morning. One day Mrs Bradshaw, who owned the house, came up the stairs with a felt pad to put underneath the typewriter because their bedroom was below, and the clatter of the typewriter keys was keeping them awake.

Other Worlds by Robert Holman, Royal Court Theatre, 1983, included in Robert Holman Plays: One

On Paddington Station we used to give rude customers as many small coins in their change as we possibly could. We wore badges with our names on. One day a stranger asked to speak to me. I expected to be told off or even sacked, but it was a theatre director, who asked if I might be free to write a play for him. He had wanted Howard Brenton, but Howard Brenton was busy and had told him about me. Still standing on the platform of the station, the director explained he had a slot. The play would need to be written in six weeks. Mud had taken me over a year to write and I was usually very slow. But who would say no to this? So, I said yes. I would be given money for writing, which I was not used to. When could I start? I said I could start straight away.

The Natural Cause was the play that began to turn my hobby into a job. I set the play in London not in Yorkshire, though when the characters said something I still heard my own accent. As with Mud I made it up as I went on. Some evenings I would write three or four pages and other evenings three or four lines, and then cross out most of it. I had to be taken in by what I was writing and get lost in it. Sometimes it would be like bashing my head against a brick wall. At the end of two weeks it dawned on me that there would not be a play if I was still selling newspapers because I needed every minute of the day to try to write. I spoke to the manager of the bookstall and told him what I was doing. He said to come back when I was finished, and if he had not managed to replace me, there would still be a job.

The Natural Cause was a worrying play to write. If writing is a hobby it matters little if there are days when you cannot do it very well. I had four weeks left to finish a play, and a day with nothing done is a day empty forever. I spent all one Monday walking up and down across the Heath, all the time wondering how I was going to lie my way out of writing the play. If I told the director I was ill that was better than saying I could not do it. Or I could just disappear. The rain started. It came down in heavy sheets and was soon penetrating the leaves and branches of trees, so standing under them was pointless. On Parliament Hill it looked as if London was drowning. As it got towards evening and lights came on, the city was resplendent. For less than a minute, in the hardest of the rain, London went turquoise, a colour I had not seen it go before or seen since. I stood on one of the wooden benches to get a clearer view, and decided it was better to write rubbish than to write nothing at all, and to work out the lies I would tell another time.

I am mostly a private writer, which means my plays mean different things to different people, even though the theatre is a public place. My plays are not driven by a single ideology or an idea, there is no right or wrong in them, or one easy explanation. They are about what you want them to be about, and this changes.

Royal Shakespeare Company poster for 1985 Barbican season, including Robert Holman’s Today

All plays are pieces of energy, and how they come about, the places they are written and in what circumstances, always says something about them. Today was written quickly. I did not have much time to think, and sometimes this is the best way to write, because thinking is inhibiting, if you are me. I still want to write a play where I do not think at all. Today was written in the moment, line by line, wherever the dialogue led me, rather than me leading it. It is a history play, but not one with an overarching idea or ideology. It is a play driven by the needs of its characters. I am simply not clever enough to write about history in an original way. If I might generalise for a moment, there is always at least one person somewhere in the world who is cleverer than we are. These are the people who come up with new thoughts about history – or anything else for that matter. On the other hand, our emotions, our feelings, are always slightly different and special to each of us. You might fall in love in a different way to me or be scared by very different things. Sometimes living is easy, but often it is painful. There are times when we feel alone even with friends about us. I was learning to try to write about all this and to know it is the stuff of life. If I have anything special as a writer, and you will decide if I have or not, it is writing characters who stay in the mind for an hour or two when the play is over; and they stay in the mind because the people in the plays are like you with your fears. They are my fears, too.

All my plays are a mixture of memory and imagination, and they have mostly used landscapes that I know well. I was born and brought up on a farm on the moors in north Yorkshire. Middlesbrough and the Tees Estuary, with the chemical and steel industry close by, were twenty miles away.

The Overgrown Path by Robert Holman, Royal Court Theatre, 1985, included in Robert Holman Plays: One

The way my plays are written in the moment means that they will not be perfect. They can be strong because of the moment but also weak because of it. If I write a scene one morning it might be slightly different if I write it the next morning. It is down to luck, but I have learned more about the world from writing plays in this way than I have from anything else in life. I have surprised myself, and now and again I hope I have surprised an audience. If an audience does not know what is coming next, it is because I also did not know what was coming next. My writing involves a lot of trust. I have to trust myself that something interesting will come out of me next morning  and know that I can put it down using words. Words are everything. To trust oneself to find the right word is sometimes a challenge. The thing that matters most to me is the English language and how it can be used to tell a story.

A writer has no responsibilities whatsoever, other than to themselves, their integrity and intelligence. My plays are not about the world as it is, but about the world as I would like it to be and wish it was. In this way my plays are romances.


Robert Holman died on Friday 3 December, at the age of 69.

From all of us at Nick Hern Books: thank you, Robert, for allowing us to publish your beautiful, masterful plays.

‘He was a bit of a wonder’ – a tribute to Antony Sher

Equity RawsAntony Sher, who sadly died this week, was one of the most respected actors of his generation. Most closely associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company – with whom he performed many of the most famous roles in the Shakespearean canon including Richard III, Macbeth, Lear, Prospero, Iago, Falstaff, Shylock, Malvolio and Leontes, as well as other classical and contemporary roles, and for whom he was an Honorary Associate Artist – he enjoyed a hugely successful career on stage and screen that spanned nearly fifty years. He was awarded a knighthood in 2000, for services to theatre.

In addition to skill as a performer, Sher also possessed many other talents, including as an artist and writer. Nick Hern Books is incredibly proud to publish many of his books and plays, including Year of the King – his gripping account of his breakthrough performance in Richard III for the RSC in 1984 – which has gone on to firmly establish itself as a classic of theatre writing.

Here, to mark the sad occasion of his passing, we share an extract from Sher’s autobiography Beside Myself, in which he reflects how he first fell in love with performing. And NHB’s founder and publisher, Nick Hern, remembers his own relationship with Antony – as author, interlocutor, passenger and gift-giver…


This is an edited extract from Beside Myself: An Actor’s Life by Antony Sher.

I owe Esther Caplan my career.

Esther was known as Auntie Esther to all her pupils, though I had a special claim to this name, for my brother Randall had married her daughter Yvette. Esther was officially a teacher of Elocution. This word was more respectable than Acting and more comprehensible to any parents sending their little darlings for tutelage. To learn to speak nicely made sense; to learn to act made none. Who would anyone in Sea Point [a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, where Antony Sher grew up] become an actor? There was the Cape Performing Arts Board, which did occasional shows at the Hofmeyr [a theatre in Cape Town], and there was Maynardville, which did an annual Shakespeare in its leafy open-air auditorium, but there was little other theatre, no film industry whatsoever and television didn’t yet exist. There was some radio work, yes. In other words employment for about five and a half actors in Cape Town. It certainly wasn’t a career for me.

Esther had been an actress herself, during her youth in Johannesburg, and even worked with the most famous Jewish South African actor there’s ever been, Solly Cohen (later known as Sid James, the lovable Cockney of Carry On fame), but now she was a teacher: this had become her Great Role. She was an outrageously theatrical figure, Sybil Thorndike with a touch of Ethel Mermen thrown in. Tall, proud, big-bosomed, with a crash helmet of lacquered blond hair, skin darkly tanned and quite leathery, splashed with turquoise eyeshadow and bright-pink lipstick. She didn’t talk, she boomed and trilled. She didn’t walk, she strode. She didn’t gesture, she carved the air – thumb arched, forefinger splayed from the rest. Ballet dancers use their hands like this to compensate for not being allowed to speak. Esther was sometimes lost for words too, but only after emptying the dictionary: ‘Oh, my darling, that monologue was so outstandingly, brilliantly marvellous that… it was so superbly, fantastically, unbelievably amazing that… oh my darling, I don’t know what to say!’

She called everyone ‘my darling’. She was the warmest of warm springs; she bubbled, she gushed, she overflowed.

Given her style, the surprising thing is that she was fascinated by modern drama. By improvisation, by the Method School in New York, by the new plays coming from England by Osborne, Pinter and Wesker. So my first lessons in acting were not one might expect from a grand dame elocution teacher in some former corner of the empire – not Rattigan, Coward or even Shakespeare – but something altogether more contemporary.

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Esther Caplan (left) directing Antony Sher (centre), aged sixteen, in a production of The Bespoke Overcoat by Wolf Mankowitz

I quickly developed an appetite for my weekly visit to Auntie Esther’s studio: a bare room above some Main Road shops. I ceased to be Little Ant, hopeless at sport, mocked in the showers. Instead I became anyone I wanted to be.

At first the work was very private – just me and Auntie Esther – but I soon grew greedy for the next phase: a public audience.

Every year there was a local Eisteddfod [performing arts competition] in Cape Town’s City Hall. Along with Esther’s other pupils I entered several categories, Monologues, Duologues, and my favourite, Improvisation. You’d be given a subject, five minutes to think about it and then you were on. I used to cheat. I’d prepare situation, speeches and characters, usually based on favourite film performances – Oskar Werner in Ship of Fools, Harry Andrews in The Hill – and somehow adapt these to whatever subject I’d been landed with. No one seemed particularly fazed by the arrival of world-weary Viennese doctor or sadistic British RSM into a scene entitled ‘A quarrel on Clifton Beach’ and I did well; I won prizes.

In my penultimate year at school the English teacher, Quinn, mounted a production of the Whitehall farce Simple Spymen. I got one of the two leads: the Brian Rix role, the dupe, the clown. The gales of laughter that night were overwhelming; a storm of approval from the same people who’d scoffed at us in the playground. I was hooked.

The drug of laughter, the megalomanic thrill of the cheering crowd…

As I hear the tinny echo of cliché drift into the story, it strikes me that I’m not being altogether fair to myself. The attraction in acting is more deep-seated. I recall one late afternoon, finishing a game of Cowboys and Indians in the garden – me aged about ten or eleven – and my sister Verne unwittingly playing the critic again. She said, ‘You’re going to stop this soon, y’know, it’s puerile.’ I had no idea what the second half of her statement meant, but the first was unequivocal. You’re going to have to stop this soon. I remember staring at the churned black soil under a hedge where I’d been hiding and thinking how beautiful that place looked – a dark and dreamy place of make-believe – and how I didn’t want to leave it. Ever. Was there really no way to cheat fate: this inevitable business of growing up, of becoming sensible, of stepping politely on the earth instead of rolling in it? Was there no way of playing on?

Well, yes, there was, I discovered during that performance of Simple Spymen; yes, there were people – adult people – who did this for a living.

I decided I should go to drama school in London. When I told Esther she swelled her great bosom, gestured with balletic poise and boomed assurances: ‘You’re going to make it, my darling, I know you will, I promise you will. And in England, in London – the very heart of world theatre! Oh, it’s so incredibly, marvellously, fantastically exciting that… oh, my darling, I don’t know what to say!’

We started making enquiries about London drama schools and working on audition speeches.

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Antony Sher, aged eighteen, with his parents in Leicester Square, London, having just arrived in the UK to audition for drama school


NHB’s founder and publisher, Nick Hern, reflects on his forty-year relationship with Antony Sher. 

Tony was a bit of a wonder. A magnetic actor, of course, but also and equally an artist and author. I published five books by him, and in every case the vivid words were illuminated by equally vivid sketches. Also two plays, and a whole volume of his paintings and drawings. Furthermore, he was a delight to work with: punctilious, of course, but open to and eager for comment and improvement. If only every author were as receptive!

I first met him in 1980 in the wake of publication of his first, and most famous, book Year of the King. I had kicked myself for not having had the idea myself of asking him to keep a diary of his preparations for what turned out to be an iconic performance of Richard III. But the paperback rights were still available, so I seized them with both hands. Several equally illuminating diaries followed, on Falstaff, on Lear, on playing Primo Levi – and an eye-opening autobiography, Beside Myself.

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Antony Sher’s acclaimed Year of… books – capturing his experiences playing Richard III, Falstaff and Lear, respectively, for the Royal Shakespeare Company – are some of his many books to published by NHB

With each publication came obligatory appearances at ‘author events’, and I was flattered that Tony, rightly nervous of being interviewed by someone he didn’t know, would ask me if I’d step in. We began to refer to ourselves as the Abbott and Costello of the literary circuit. I was also his chauffeur (Tony didn’t drive and admitted to a total lack of sense of direction), and I would ferry him up and down the country to satisfy the many fans who would congregate at such events – often clutching an ancient, dog-eared copy of Year of the King for him to sign.

As I delivered him back home at the end of what was to be the last of such tours – for Year of the Mad King – we were met at the door by his husband, Greg Doran, clutching a bottle of Bollinger. ‘For you,’ said Tony, ‘for all your hard work’. If only every author were as appreciative!

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Antony Sher (left), Nick Hern (centre) and Gregory Doran (right), Antony’s husband and Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, at NHB’s 30th birthday party at the Royal Court Theatre, London, in 2018


All of us at NHB are devastated to learn of the death of Antony Sher, who has died at the age of 72. May his memory be a blessing.

Photograph of Antony Sher by Paul Stuart Photography Ltd.

‘What a golden legacy he has left us’ – Nick Hern pays tribute to Stephen Sondheim

sondheimblogOver the course of a career spanning almost seventy years, the American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim unquestionably established himself as one of the most significant figures in 20th-century theatre. His works include some of the most beloved and renowned musicals of our time, which continue to be produced worldwide, and he has theatres named after him both on Broadway and London’s West End. He won multiple Tony, Grammy and Olivier Awards, an Academy Award, a Kennedy Center Honour and a Pulitzer Prize. When President Barack Obama presented Sondheim with the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the US’s highest civilian honour – in 2015, he praised him for ‘reinvent[ing] the American musical.’

Nick Hern Books has been proud to publish the book and lyrics to Stephen Sondheim’s work for over thirty years. Here, to mark the sad occasion of Sondheim’s passing this week, NHB’s founder, Nick Hern, pays tribute to one of the great artists of our time, and remembers his relationship with Sondheim and his work.


The peerless British premiere of Sunday in the Park with George at the National Theatre in 1990 was the spark. Until then, Sondheim’s work had not been published in book form. I had heard the recording of the Broadway production with Mandy Patinkin, which to my unsophisticated ear sounded pretty avant-garde, but thought, “Well, if the NT is doing it, I’ll do it”, and so the first of our many Sondheims came into being alongside the production.

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‘I thought, “Well, if the NT is doing it, I’ll do it”: the NHB edition of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George, published alongside the British premiere at the National Theatre, London, in 1990

After that we moved back in time to Forum (which I’d seen at its London premiere in 1963), A Little Night Music (also alongside the NT production) and Sweeney Todd (which we published with an engaging piece by Chris Bond, whose original play had been the inspiration for the musical, something always scrupulously acknowledged by Sondheim), as well as keeping pace with this extraordinary talent, right up to the ‘re-gendered’ Company, devised and first presented here in the UK a couple of years ago. All in all, we’ve published thirteen glorious musicals and one stage play.

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The NHB-published Company: The Complete Revised Book and Lyrics, released alongside the acclaimed, multi-award-winning 2018 West End revival – which switched the gender of several characters, including the protagonist Bobbie

It goes without saying how proud I am to be Steve’s UK publisher. One particular memory stands out. Sometime in the nineties, I went to meet him in his home in upstate New York. I arrived late and flustered, but Steve was the acme of warm hospitality. By way of calming me down, he showed me his newly acquired eighteenth-century crystallophone, a perfect embodiment of his musicianly curiosity. The purpose of the trip – my purpose, that is – was to persuade him to allow us to conduct and publish a sequence of interviews on the lyrics of the major shows. I remember saying – and I blush now at the memory – that the chief advantage for him was that the hard work of finding the ‘mots justes’ (yes, I was that pretentious!) would fall on the interviewer rather than on him. “Yes,” he replied with a light irony, “but I’d have to find the ‘mot juste’ myself first”. Of course he would! And just such a book finally came out in 2010…

As someone has already said, there is unlikely ever again to be a single figure who has wrought such a ground-breaking revolution in musical theatre. What a golden legacy he has left us!

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A letter from Stephen Sondheim, thanking NHB’s Managing Director, Matt Applewhite, for sending him copies of Company: The Complete Revised Book and Lyrics 


Stephen Sondheim died at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, on Friday 26 November 2021, at the age of 91.

From all of us at NHB: thank you, Stephen, for allowing us to publish your incredible work, and for the indelible mark you leave behind on theatre, music and our lives.

Photograph of Stephen Sondheim by Richard Avedon.

‘Unique visions, supported by common architecture’: David Edgar on the structures and rules of playwriting

Renowned playwright David Edgar pioneered the teaching of playwriting in the UK, founding the Playwriting Studies course at Birmingham University in 1989. In this extract from the new, revised and updated edition of his seminal book How Plays Work, he investigates the fundamental geometry of plays, and why playwrights need to know the ‘rules’ that govern audience expectations…

What am I describing?

1) A town is threatened by a malevolent force of nature. A leading citizen seeks to take the necessary action to protect the town from this danger, but finds that the economic interests of the town are ranged against him and he ends up in battle alone.

2) Two sisters are unjustly preferred over a third sister. Despite their efforts, the younger sister marries into royalty and her wicked sisters are confounded.

3) A young woman is pledged to a young man, but finds that a parent has plans for her to marry someone else. Calling on the assistance of a priest and a nurse, the young couple plot to evade the fate in store for them.

4) A married couple is at war. A younger influence enters their lives, providing a sexual temptation which threatens the marriage. But ultimately, the couple finds that although they find it hard to live together, they cannot live apart.

5) A man who has scaled many heights senses that his powers have deserted him. A woman from his past re‐enters his life, and provokes him to take one last, fatal climb.

6) With her father’s encouragement, a young woman allows herself to be wooed by a prince. Her brother moves a long way away. The prince behaves increasingly peculiarly and abusively, and, shortly after the death of the woman’s father, leaves on board a ship. The woman goes mad, alarms the Royal Family, gives everybody flowers, escapes from her minders, and dies in a suspicious accident. The brother returns, angry, at the head of a popular army. There is a contest over the funeral arrangements between family, church and state. The prince returns and he and the woman’s brother end up fighting over the coffin.

Regular theatre and cinema audiences will recognise some of these summaries, and people who enjoy parlour games might have spotted that all of them describe more than one play, film, or story. The first is the story of Jaws, but also Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (and The Pied Piper of Hamelin). The second outlines the situation at the beginning of both King Lear and Cinderella. The first sentence of the third summary is the action of most comedies written between the fifth century BC and the end of the nineteenth century; with the second sentence, it describes Romeo and Juliet, and the subplot of John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse. In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, both Jack and Algernon seek to fulfil their romantic ambitions with the aid of a priest and a governess.

The fourth description applies to a host of nineteenth‐ and twentieth‐century marriage plays: obviously to August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; but also to Noël Coward’s Private Lives, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Peter Nichols’ Passion Play. The fifth outlines the common action of three of Ibsen’s last four plays (The Master Builder, John Gabriel Borkman and When We Dead Awaken), in all of which old men are confronted by women from their past, and end up climbing towers or mountains, to their doom.

On the last one, I’m not the first to spot the parallels between the tragedy of Hamlet and that of Diana, Princess of Wales.

‘A town is threatened by a malevolent force of nature…’: Jaws (1975) and Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People in a version by Arthur Miller (1950)

There is a danger of taking this idea too far. In the mid‐1950s, London audiences probably didn’t notice that two groundbreaking new plays both had five characters and one set, and included long speeches, a crucial offstage character, music‐hall turns, people taking off their trousers, elements of the first half being echoed in the second, nothing much happening, and the two protagonists spending the play trying to leave and ending up agreeing to stay. The reason why playgoers are unlikely to have spotted these similarities between Waiting for Godot and Look Back in Anger is because they employ completely opposite strategies to dramatise the conditions of their time.

Nonetheless, audiences do recognise that plays, which are on the surface as different as can be, can share an underlying architecture. I’m aware how unpopular this idea is for playwrights beginning their careers. Properly, playwrights insist that their voice is unique, and they don’t want to start a new project with an audit of how many other people have been here before. But without the kind of common architecture which I’ve identified, the uniqueness of their vision will be invisible. In that sense, plays are like the human body. What’s distinctive and unique about us is on the surface, the skin, including the most particular thing of all, the human face. Although they differ a bit, in shape and proportion, our skeletons are much less distinctive. But without our skeletons holding them up, what’s unique about us would consist of indistinguishable heaps of blubber on the floor. So plays that no one else could possibly write (as no one else could look exactly like us) can nonetheless share an underlying structure. You could argue that one of the least interesting things about King Lear is that it shares a basic action with a fairy tale. But without that fundamental geometry in place (there’s two nasty sisters and one nice one, and their father judges them wrongly), the whole thing collapses.

Like all other artists, playwrights choose, arrange, and above all concentrate events and behaviours they observe in the real world in such a way that gives them meaning. George Bernard Shaw argues that ‘It is only through fiction that facts can be made instructive or even intelligible’, because the writer ‘rescues them from the unintelligible chaos of their actual occurrence and arranges them into works of art’.

How playwrights do that has been the focus of my teaching for over thirty years, and is also the subject of my book, How Plays Work.

Do plays have rules?

The idea of plays having shared structures is also suspect because it implies that there are rules.  Many people – including many playwrights – remain attached to the romantic ideal of the uniquely expressive artist. The idea of playwriting as a craft with rules that apply over time is resisted theoretically by postmodern literary critics who believe that nothing cultural applies over time. Those playwrights who read historical criticism are understandably put off by the iron determinism of the French neoclassicist critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with their iron laws about how many characters can be on the stage at any one time (in Vauquelin’s L’Art Poétique it’s no more than three), how long a dramatic action may be permitted to last without flouting Aristotle’s unity of time (generally held to be no more than twenty‐four hours), and how far distant from another a location might be without flouting Aristotle’s unity of place (another room in the same house occasionally permitted, another house in the same town frowned upon, another house in another town beyond the pale).

Similarly, playwrights are alarmed by the contemporary equivalent of the French rules, those prescriptions handed out by American screenwriting experts. The founder of this school is Syd Field, who famously divided film screenplays into three acts of thirty, sixty and thirty pages, with a significant propelling plot point occurring between pages twenty‐five and twenty‐seven (this may sound absurd, but I am assured that p. 26 of I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder’s script for Some Like It Hot includes Marilyn Monroe’s character undulating unforgettably along the station platform).

Marilyn Monroe makes an entrance in Some Like It Hot (1959), written by I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder

More liberal – and critical of Field over such matters as the admissibility of flashbacks – is Robert McKee, whose weekend courses did so much to homogenise the vocabulary of BBC script editors in the 1980s (he then committed the cardinal error of writing it all down). But while McKee accepts what he calls open and closed endings, multiple protagonists, nonlinear time and even inconsistent realities, his definitions of ‘protagonist’, ‘inciting incident’ and ‘act design’ still seem schematic. And the idea that screenwriting gurus might have become less prescriptive in the new millennium is countered by Blake Snyder’s 2005 how‐to movie‐writing guide Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, with its six things that always need fixing, its nine immutable laws of movie physics, its ten genres of any movie ever made and its fifteen essential beats: from the ‘Opening Image’ and ‘Theme Stated’ via ‘Fun and Games’, ‘Bad Guys Close In’ and ‘All Is Lost’ to the ‘Finale’ and ‘Final Image’.

And writers who’ve read any twentieth‐century literary theory are understandably irked by the arithmetical reductionism of so much thinking in this field, with its mechanical lists, symbols, charts and graphs.

I share some of these prejudices. But I think that the neo‐classicists, Hollywood gurus and structuralist thinkers all remind us of a basic reality of playwriting, which is that, however much playwrights may choose to ignore them, audiences have certain expectations of what they’re going to see in the theatre and they cannot be required to check those expectations in with their coats.

In this sense, the ‘rules’ are a sedimentation of all of the expectations of all the plays (and, to an extent, all the stories) which we have ever encountered. This is why the argument that one should know the rules in order to break them is only half the story. Playwrights should know the rules because they are the possession of the audience, their essential partner in the endeavour. They won’t be thanked for sticking so closely to the rules that the play is predictable from start to finish. But nor will audiences readily accept their expectations being wilfully ignored.


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This is an extract from the revised and updated edition of How Plays Work by David Edgar, published in 2021 by Nick Hern Books. See more about the book and order your copy here.

David Edgar is the author of many original plays and adaptations, including Maydays (1983), The Shape of the Table (1990), Pentecost (1994), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1996), The Prisoner’s Dilemma (2001), Continental Divide (2003) and Playing With Fire (2005). Most recently, he performed his own solo show, Trying It On, which toured the UK in 2018 and 2019. All are available from Nick Hern Books.

‘It gives you the freedom to choose’ – Penny O’Connor on the Alexander Technique

The Alexander Technique has revolutionised the physicality, presence and professional lives of generations of actors. By first asking you to identify your own acquired habits, the technique enables you to find new and beneficial ways of moving, thinking, breathing and performing, freely and without unnecessary tension.

Here, Penny O’Connor – a teacher of the Technique for thirty years, and whose book on the subject, Alexander Technique for Actors: A Practical Course, is out now – explains its history, how she first encountered it, and how it can empower actors everywhere to unlock the key qualities any great perfomer needs…

When I was first introduced to Alexander Technique, it was a life-changer. My teacher placed one hand on my head and one under my chin and said ‘Simply follow your head’ as he gently guided me out of a chair in a way I had never experienced before. I arrived at standing without knowing how I had done it. I had no sensation of muscular effort. I was sitting, and then I was standing. It was seamless. I have been trying to work out how that happened ever since.

I was about nineteen, training as an actor at Rose Bruford. And just by the experience of moving effortlessly for a moment, I had this very powerful inkling that life could be something very different from what I had thought it was. I wondered then if I shouldn’t be exploring more of this stuff and forget about the acting lark. I was so moved. But no, I was wanting to be an actor, wasn’t I? And, actually, I didn’t have a clue how to go about doing more of this stuff! So I stuck to my acting guns.

The Alexander lessons continued – a small group of four of us would visit a training school in West London for our lessons on a Saturday morning – and served me well in my chosen profession. My voice, confidence and transformational acumen, my ability to connect with fellow actors, all developed hugely. I got the lead part in a third-year show! But several years on, I began to run out of steam. I was extremely anxious, impecunious, and my personal life was not easy. At that moment, another Alexander teacher presented herself to me. I treated myself to an individual session, and I knew immediately that I had come home.

From then on I organised my life around this desire to learn more and pass on the teachings to others. Once the decision was made, many things conspired to help me: a grant, an opportunity, a space on a training course – it was as if all the traffic lights had turned green. I qualified as a teacher of the Alexander Technique in 1992, and have been teaching it full-time ever since.

But what is the Alexander Technique, and how can it help you?

How it all began

It started as a means to solve a problem. Frederick Matthias Alexander was an Australian actor who, whilst on tour reciting Shakespeare in the 1880s, began to lose his voice. The doctor diagnosed inflamed vocal cords and irritation of the mucous membrane in his throat and nose, and recommended he rested his voice for two weeks. Alexander’s voice came back in time for his next recital, but halfway through the performance the problem returned and by the end he could hardly speak. They agreed that it must be something he was doing to himself. But what? Alexander was determined to find out.

‘His legacy lives on’ – Frederick Matthias Alexander, founder of the Alexander Technique

His observations took some months, but he eventually realised that, as he started to recite, he pulled his head back, depressing the larynx, and sucked in air through his mouth, which sounded like a gasp. At the same time, he was lifting his chest, thereby arching his back, which shortened his stature and created a pattern of tension throughout his whole body, including the legs. His elocutionist had suggested at one time that he should grip the floor with his feet and this he had faithfully carried out. All this amounted to a very strong pattern that he had cultivated, and he noticed it was something he did, to a lesser extent, even when he was talking normally, not ‘on voice’. So that was easy then: once we know which of our habits are causing the problem, we can easily stop them, right?

Habits, the greatest power in the universe, are like predictive text on a mobile phone. Alexander found a way of reprogramming his ‘predictive text’, creating new neural pathways from the brain to the muscle. By stopping and consciously redirecting himself, he found a natural movement and poise that freed the neck, so his head came up, his stature lengthened and widened, his legs released and his throat and breathing were no longer restricted. His voice returned!

When Alexander moved to London in 1904, armed with these discoveries, he began promoting this new method, working with the great actors of the day, including Henry Irving, Viola Tree and Lily Brayton. Writers such as Aldous Huxley and George Bernard Shaw also became devotees. He continued to teach and develop his work internationally, and his legacy lives on: Alexander Technique is still taught in theatre and music schools throughout the world, as well as to individual acting greats, helping actors perform effortlessly and with confidence, free in their movement and voice.

Here’s what some actors say of his work:

‘With the best of intentions, the job of acting can become a display of accumulated bad habits, trapped instincts and blocked energies. Working with the Alexander Technique has given me sightings of another way… Mind and body, work and life together. Real imaginative freedom…’

Alan Rickman

‘[The Alexander Technique] is a way to transform stress to joy. It’s my way of keeping on track with work and truth and the world I’m in, which is working with people and creating.’

Juliette Binoche

‘It’s beautiful, an art… it was about being still and relaxed in order to one hundred per cent listen to someone, to be present.’

Hugh Jackman

‘Alexander Technique really helped my posture and focus during my stint as Othello with Northern Broadsides Theatre Company. Imagine how excited I was when I arrived at the National Theatre for Comedy of Errors and found I could have Alexander taught to me once a week, I was chuffed to little meatballs.’

Lenny Henry

There’s an apocryphal story about Michelangelo being asked by a small child what he was doing as he chiselled away at a piece of marble. ‘There is an angel trapped in that stone, and I am setting it free,’ comes the reply. That is what it felt like to me when my teachers worked with me, allowing me to shed the unnecessary and reveal the essence. That is what I like to think I am doing when I work with an actor. Together we chip away at the old habits, the old patterns of use, to reveal the Inner Actor.

‘A way to transform stress into joy’ – some well-known advocates of the Alexander Technique

Making your own discoveries

I feel really blessed to have found this work (or that it found me), and that it has been such a big part of my life. This journey has now led me to write my new book, Alexander Technique for Actors: A Practical Course. My hope is that it will bring others to the work, to help them in their acting career and, for some, strike deep to the heart.

My book consists of a course of eleven lessons based on my years of teaching on the BA and MA theatre courses at the Arts Educational Schools in London, and on my own pathway through the work. I suggest it should take eleven weeks – one week per lesson, including theory, instruction and assignments – but it can be spread over a longer time frame. I have so ordered it that, if all you manage is the first chapter and first assignment, you will leave better informed, having learned something you can immediately put into practice and add to your actor’s toolbox.

As far as possible I have suggested a way for you to experiment on your own: after all, it’s your own journey. What you discover may not be what others will discover. It’s a personal journey to discover your habits, the way you use yourself in life, and to find a way of relinquishing those that are interfering with your performance. But you may find it easier to do this in a group or with a study partner, either face to face or online, depending on the circumstances.

Experiencing my personal Alexander journey, I find that I have become more myself, no longer limited by habit. We only change what we want to change, and it’s always our choice. Alexander returns us to self-awareness and conscious choice. We cannot always change the world around us, but we can change our reaction to it.

Habits are not necessarily bad things, but we need not be controlled by them. The Alexander Technique helps us become aware of them and gives us a way of letting go if they are limiting or restricting our performance. We can then transform effortlessly, speak clearly, move well in any shape we need for our character, receive and act on direction, and be electrifying onstage and on-screen. We’ll be embodying great presence, becoming vulnerable, sexy, unpredictable and intelligent, the four qualities a great actor needs.

Sound good? Then let’s start.


This is an edited extract from Alexander Technique for Actors: A Practical Course by Penny O’Connor, published by Nick Hern Books. See more and order your copy here.

Penny O’Connor has been teaching Alexander Technique since 1992, in London, on the Greek island of Alonnisos, and globally on Zoom. She has taught the Technique at several London drama schools, including ArtsEd, where she was resident for eighteen years, and is currently assisting in training Alexander teachers at the South Bank Alexander Centre. Penny trained as an actor at Rose Bruford College, and has also worked as an actor, playwright, director and teacher.

Great new American drama to celebrate

As part of our celebration of American drama this month, we’re taking a look at five new titles from our US partners, Theatre Communications Group, all of which are now available direct from Nick Hern Books.

They include a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, a dark new comedy from the revered author of August: Osage County, a life of Gloria Steinem, a gloriously personal take on the US Constitution, and a collection of plays by one of American theatre’s greatest innovators…


A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson

Strange Loop

Winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Michael R. Jackson‘s blistering musical follows a young artist at war with a host of demons – not least of which are the punishing thoughts in his own head – in an attempt to understand his own strange loop.

Usher is a Black, queer writer, working a day job he hates while writing his original musical: a piece about a Black, queer writer, working a day job he hates while writing his original musical.

‘An exhilarating cocktail of hilarious lyrical complexity… Michael R. Jackson is a musical talent with deep wells of invention’ Time Out New York

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Linda Vista by Tracy Letts

Linda Vista

From the Pulitzer-winning author of Killer Joe and August: Osage County, Linda Vista is a scorching new play about the ultimate midlife crisis.

Fifty-year-old Wheeler is moving into his own apartment after a nasty divorce. There’s nothing so bewildering as the search for self-identity once you’ve already grown up.

‘An inspired, ruthless take on the classic midlife-crisis comedy’ Ben Brantley, New York Times

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Gloria: A Life by Emily Mann

Five decades after Gloria Steinem began raising her voice for equality and championing the voices of others, she remains a leader of the American feminist movement.

Emily Mann‘s play traces the life of the American feminist icon, from her undercover Playboy Bunny exposé in the 1960s, through her founding of Ms. Magazine in the 1970s, to her activism in today’s women’s movement.

‘A unique, deeply moving performance created in the hopeful, conversational spirit of its extraordinary subject’ New York Magazine’s Vulture

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


What the Constitution Means to Me by Heidi Schreck

A finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Heidi Schreck‘s very personal play looks at the way the US Constitution is inextricably linked with personal life.

When she was fifteen years old, Schreck started travelling the country, taking part in constitutional debates to earn money for her college tuition. Decades later, in What the Constitution Means to Me, she traces the effect that the Constitution has had on four generations of women in her family.

‘A wildfire! Something every citizen must see. Heidi Schreck’s play has tears on its cheeks and the torch of liberty in its fist’ Time Out New York

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box and other plays by Adrienne Kennedy

In her first new work in over a decade, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, Adrienne Kennedy traces the story of an interracial love affair in the 1940s, doomed by the devastating effects of segregation.

Also included in the volume are the plays Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side and Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles?

‘One of the American theater’s greatest and least compromising experimentalists’ New York Times

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


We’re proud to distribute these and dozens of other titles by our American partners, Theatre Communications Group. See our full range of TCG publications here.

‘For agents to do their job well, you have to play your part too’ – JBR on making the most of the actor-agent relationship

JBR_blogheadshotWhatever stage an actor is at in their career, few relationships will be so vital as the one with their agent. And yet despite this, there’s still a certain amount of mystery around exactly how agents operate, what their role is, and how to attract and work with them successfully.

Here, JBR – who has seen this crucial dynamic from both sides, as a multifaceted creative, and as an agent and personal manager  – explains that when thinking about representation, perhaps the most important thing is to remember what you, the actor, can bring to the table, and that it’s up to both sides to do their part.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, actors didn’t need agents. In an interview for Fourthwall Magazine, Penelope Keith, in her seventies at the time, had a few choice words to say about agents:

‘We never thought about agents in my day. I don’t remember anyone at Webber Douglas, ever, talking about being rich or famous, or wanting to be a star. It didn’t enter our heads. You wanted to work and you wanted to learn. And that is very, very different now… And what do agents know? Truly? What do they know? They know what they can cast and get some money with for a year, there is no career progression, no one takes care of your career.’

This is something you may hear rather a lot from a certain generation of actors – yes, they have agents, but many consider them to be a necessary evil, someone who helps them run their business rather than someone who manages their career for them.

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‘We never thought about agents in my day… what do they know?‘ – for Penelope Keith’s generation, agents were viewed with some scepticism

This is something you may hear rather a lot from a certain generation of actors – yes, they have agents, but many consider them to be a necessary evil, someone who helps them run their business rather than someone who manages their career for them.

It is true that in recent years ‘getting an agent’ has become something of an obsession. Goodness, someone has probably even written a book on how to do it! It has become, for many drama schools, something of a marker of how successful they are. You will often see schools using ‘100% of graduates have been signed by agents’ as part of their marketing.

Many schools have an Industry Liaison Officer – a member of staff whose job it is to get agents to attend shows and showcases, to foster good relationships between the school and the industry, and, in part, to help students get signed. Whether it actually does the students any good to indulge this obsession with getting an agent is debatable. It encourages the belief that any agent is better than no agent.

Quite simply, that is not the case. Agents are great, many agents are incredible, most are lovely people, the vast majority of agents truly care about their clients and about the industry they work in – but it’s true too that many do not. As with people in any business, there are good agents and there are bad agents. Far better for drama schools to teach graduates how to manage their own careers than to fob them off on any old agent just so they can boast of a hundred per cent record.

In fact, landing the perfect first agent is not actually that important, but getting the wrong agent at the beginning of your career can be detrimental. Of vital importance is working out what type of agent you want and need, and recognising that your need may change as your career progresses. Most actors will move through a few agents in their careers.

There are very many things that modern agents do, and the role has changed over time. One of the things agents do is find people jobs. That is often considered to be the primary role of an agent. An agent is there to make your life easier, to handle the contracts, to negotiate the deal, to ensure that you are fairly looked after, represented and taken care of. These are often the things that clients are not particularly good at. Creatives are, on the whole, not always sure exactly how to sell themselves.

An agent’s primary job is to look after their clients – to represent them. Some people advocate that an agent works for you, some say you work together. A good analogy is to imagine you are both working on the railways; you will be driving the train, but your agent is out in front, laying down the tracks. If you’re not communicating effectively about what direction you’re both going in, then this train is going to crash.

The finding of work is just one of the roles of an agent. Billy Porter, in a Masterclass interview for Carnegie Mellon in 2013, said it best when he said:

‘Your agent takes ten per cent. Don’t ever expect them to do more than ten per cent of the work. And so they do ten per cent of the work. So the moment that you think that you’re about to have an attitude with your agent, look at yourself, and make sure that you’re doing your ninety per cent.’

In an increasingly competitive marketplace, actors need to be out there looking for work themselves, creating their own work, working with other creatives, and building their own network. An agent’s job is to negotiate the contracts, and deal with all the technical and business stuff of the industry that creatives are often not interested in or don’t know too much about. The best resource an agent has is their clients. The information that comes into the office from clients is invaluable.

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‘Your agent takes ten per cent. Don’t ever expect them to do more than ten per cent of the work.’ – Billy Porter’s

When you’re out of work, your agent is still working for you; it’s not in their interests to stop. They are still doing what they do; always looking for the chance to maximise your work opportunities. An agent will submit you for hundreds of jobs that you never even get to hear about. They make decisions about you every day that you have no control over. That’s why, when thinking about what an agent does, it is important to realise that for them to do their job well, you have to play your part too.

You have to have a relationship with your agent, to be able to talk to them in the good times and the bad times. They believe in you, they mentor you, they nurture your career, they try to inspire you and they commiserate with you. Agents are there for a thousand things that are beyond any job description of what an agent does. They advise clients on moving house, they give references to letting agencies, they write recommendations for ‘real-world’ jobs, they sometimes even feed their clients. Agents try to remember birthdays and try to be there during important life events.

An agent is so much more than just the day-to-day office work of your career. An agent is one half of a relationship. Ultimately, it comes down to what you want that relationship to be like, knowing what you want from your career, finding an agent that wants the same things, and knowing that you can talk to them about it. Perhaps the most important agent, the one you will have the longest relationship with, and the one whose opinion is most valuable to you is –

You.

You are your own best agent. Being as involved in your own career as you possibly can is so important because you are the best agent for you. Agents are salespeople. They sell their clients. Whether you know it or not, you are better at selling yourself than anybody else is. You know yourself back to front. If you are constantly learning and developing, finding out what you like and what you don’t like, if you are constantly interrogating your own skill set and your own interests, then you will know yourself better than any other agent could possibly know you. Learn to develop a critical eye for your work, for your CV, for your headshot, and how you’re packaging and selling yourself.

Do you need an agent? The answer is no. You absolutely do not. The role of an agent is a relatively new addition to the industry and a fairly modern way of working. Once upon a time, you would come out of drama school and, as Penelope Keith said, you would simply want a job, any job at all.

An agent is there to represent you and to advise you. It is perfectly possible to represent yourself. Indeed, many actors do this very successfully. Whilst there are advantages to having an agent – having somebody to ring up, moan at, talk to, work through problems with, ask for advice, have as a friend, a sounding board, and a mentor all rolled into one – there is absolutely no reason why you should not be able to do all this for yourself. Being self-represented is a scary decision to make, but there is no shame in it. In fact, many successful performers are self-represented, and don’t rely on an agent either to find them work or to manage their careers for them. It is, as everything, an option. Your journey is your journey.

GETTINGACTINGAGENTS


This is an edited extract from Getting, Keeping & Working with Your Acting Agent: The Compact Guide by JBR, published by Nick Hern Books.

JBR is a non-binary creative. He has been an actor, a director, a writer, a designer, a drag queen, a producer, a dramaturg, a teacher, a comedy booker, a publican, a marketing manager and an agent. He started as an agent at Simon & How before setting up on his own as JBR Creative Management. He is also a regular guest lecturer at a number of UK drama schools.

‘Anyone can improve their memory’ – Mark Channon on how to learn your lines more quickly, easily and confidently

MarkChannon_blogheadshotWhether it’s a script for a play, scenes for next day’s shooting, or sides sent over shortly in advance of an audition, every actor will be familiar with the process of trying to get their lines off the page and into their brain.

The pressures of line-learning can cause anxiety, and the fear of forgetting them can hit your confidence, your focus, and ultimately your performance – but it doesn’t have to be this way. With practice, experimentation and patience, it’s possible to strengthen your memory, reduce that pressure, and find a memorisation strategy that fits into your own process as a performer.

Here, Mark Channon – performance coach, ‘Grand Master of Memory’, and author of Learning Your Lines – explains how to go about improving your memory, and creating a personalised line-learning approach you’ll come back to again and again.

If you were to score your memory between one to ten, how good would you say it is, where ten is the best possible version and one is the memory of a goldfish?

When I ask this question to a room of a hundred people, around twenty per cent believe they have poor memories (ranking themselves 1–3), seventy per cent believe they are average (4–7), and only a small percentage, usually around ten per cent, believe they have excellent memories (8–10).

How good we believe our memory to be can have an impact on how we approach a situation. Let’s say you have an audition tomorrow and you believe you have a poor memory; this will make you believe perhaps that you ‘can’t do it’, or that your ‘memory isn’t good enough to learn lines quickly’. You may even have past experiences to back both of these statements up. However, when you approach any type of memorisation or learning with this type of belief, it’s going to increase your levels of anxiety and impact on your performance.

The truth is we all have fantastic memories but we tend to focus on the moments where it didn’t work so well: the name you didn’t remember; the fact that slipped your mind; the location of your keys. But these are only a few of the jobs our memory performs, and like any set of challenges, they can be overcome with the right strategy; indeed, if you were to think about all the memories you have stored throughout your entire life, you would start to realise that your memory is, in fact, phenomenal.

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‘The truth is we all have fantastic memories but we tend to focus on the moments where it didn’t work so well’

With regards to improving your memory, there is bad news and good news. The bad news is that there is no magic bullet; improving your memory is a skill, and like any skill, it will require time, effort and commitment.

The good news, though, is that improving your memory is a skill, therefore it’s something you can learn! All you need is a set of compelling reasons and some good habits and routines. Once these are in place, anyone can improve their memory. For actors, the compelling reasons are usually the big rewards you’ll earn: increased confidence, a strategy to learn lines rapidly, the ability to make lines stick, and the chance to have more freedom in auditions and performance.

But what habits and routines should you be using? This is where my book, Learning Your Lines, comes in. It includes dozens of tips, tricks and techniques such as Memory Palaces (yes, like in Sherlock), Mental Maps, Creative Memorisation, Visual Cues and many more, along with exercises and examples to illustrate how they work in practice. You’ll discover how to harness these tools to strengthen your memory, and develop a personalised line-learning strategy that works for you and your acting process – one that is easier, faster and more enjoyable.

sherlock

You too could build a mind palace like Sherlock Holmes (image from Sherlock © BBC)

In writing the book, I’ve drawn on both my own real-world experiences as an actor using these strategies for myself, as well as my many years coaching and training other actors. By both practising and teaching memory strategies I have developed a systematic approach not just to learning lines quickly, but also to building confidence and focus when applying this approach.

Let’s take a look at of one of the strategies I cover in the book.

The Chain Method

The Chain Method taps into our amazing visual memories; more than this, it also utilises our love for stories. Stories are easy to remember and hard to forget! In my experience, it is generally easier to remember the story and details of a fictional book than details of a non-fiction book, which might contain complex frameworks, terminology and facts.

When reading a story, you are in a state of flow whilst bringing the world to life with your imagination, making connections between characters and plots and, most importantly, making sense of things whilst being emotionally invested as if it were you at the centre of the story.

One of the differences between fiction and fact is that, with the first, you do not try to remember, it just happens through your heightened observation as you find yourself becoming part of the experience. With non-fiction, however, you tend to be much more focused on remembering, which ends up being counterintuitive. Stories that we experience can become unforgettable.

Try the activity below and see how the Chain Method works using the power of your visual memory and stories.

In a moment, you will read a story that includes fifteen main words. Each of these words is connected together with an association either visually, by narrative, or both. All you have to do is let the story come to life in your mind as clearly as you can, and give your attention to the details – what you see, hear, feel, smell or even taste. I’ll ask you to read through this story three times.

Imagine this:

Big Ben is wearing a fur coat, he’s bouncing up and down on a springboard and dives into a large pot of honey. Out of the honey jumps a dinosaur. The dinosaur is wearing a baseball cap and swinging a baseball bat. He starts smashing up a Ferrari with the baseball bat. Driving the Ferrari is Tom Cruise, Tom is holding a gigantic cigar; he takes a cigar and puts it out on the head of a bald-headed man. The bald-headed man is eating a big sticky chocolate bar. Wrapped around the chocolate bar is a slimy snake, the snake is playing the drums and drinking a bottle of beer.

Read this through two more times, bringing it to life with more clarity each time.

Now test yourself out. Grab a piece of paper and write down as many of the keywords as you can remember in order (not the whole story). When I run this activity with anything from thirty to a hundred people, most will remember over ten words. If you are in the group that remembers all fifteen, well done! If you happen to get less than ten, stick with it.

People often ask me: ‘How long does it take to develop a good memory?’ From my observations over the last twenty-five years as a trainer and coach in memory and performance, you can see improvement relatively quickly – usually within a week or two. However, to permanently establish the skill requires around six weeks of consistent daily practice: at least ten to twenty minutes per day.

TomCruiseFerrari

Tom Cruise in a Ferrari – did you remember it? If not, stick with it!

This six-week time span was backed up by two neuroscientists, Boris Konrad (also a world-class memory athlete) and Martin Dresler. Their research demonstrated that if you practise memory techniques daily then, in around six weeks, you see a change in the activity of your brain; your memory essentially becomes more efficient.

My hope is that Learning Your Lines will help you in this endeavour. Think of it as a set of ingredients in a recipe, rather than a fixed menu. As with all recipes, it’s beneficial to follow it as laid out at first. The first time, it may not turn out as expected, but with practice your skill will improve, and with enough time you will build the confidence to experiment with ideas, remove what doesn’t work, and add in what does, until you can eventually create something that feels personal and specifically yours.

Because if there is one thing that has stood out for me when working with other actors, it is this: everyone has their own process. Whether you follow Stanislavsky, Strasberg, Meisner, your own gut or some other method, the outcome for most actors seems to be the same: create an authentic character, be faithful to the story, live in the moment and react truthfully.

So whatever your process, you will hopefully discover that there is a way to integrate what you learn from the book into your method of working. Think about your craft as an actor and how these ideas can be added to augment your existing practice, rather than changing the essence of your process.

Above all, I have one simple suggestion for you in terms of approach: ‘Make it your own.’ You are much more likely to use what you own for yourself, and taking ownership is crucial to deriving real value from what you are about to experience.

On a personal note, there’s something that I have always loved about acting: the playfulness and impact it has in the way it creates and recreates imaginary characters and worlds, and gives audiences experiences that can elicit a feeling of entertainment and a sense of reflection. It can even be a catalyst for change. My hope for you is that you approach learning your lines with that same intention. Get creative, make it meaningful and you’ll make it memorable!

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‘Use it to create something that feels personal and specifically yours’ – Learning Your Lines by Mark Channon


This is an edited extract from Learning Your Lines: The Compact Guide by Mark Channon, published by Nick Hern Books.

Mark Channon trained and worked as an actor for many years, including at the National Theatre and in the West End, before becoming a Grand Master of Memory at the World Memory Championships. He now works as a trainer and coach in Memory and High Performance, and has written several books on memory improvement.

‘You can really recreate the thrill of making theatre’ – Ian Higham on directing The Weir online


IanHigham_croppedWhen the COVID-19 pandemic first forced theatres to close their doors back in March 2020, it wasn’t just professional venues that were affected; many hundreds of amateur groups and organisations were suddenly thrown into darkness, too. And as the lockdown stretched out longer than any of us first thought it would, these passionate, dedicated, community-based venues and companies have had to draw on their strength, endurance and creativity to navigate a challenging year.

One of the ways amateur groups have kept going and their memberships connected is by staging their plays online, using NHB’s Online Performances initiative. Launched last May, this scheme has seen dozens of groups worldwide seize the opportunity to bring their actors and audiences together to enjoy plays, even while their venues are closed. Here, NHB’s Sales Manager, Ian Higham – also a veteran amateur theatre director based at Putney Theatre Company, in South London – shares his experiences of working on a production of Conor McPherson’s play The Weir in Februrary this year, and how, despite having to work in a new way, the familiar thrill of live theatre ended up coming through...

A year ago, when theatres closed, the production I was then working on had just had its tech. We’re still waiting to have our dress rehearsal. But amateur theatres, like their professional counterparts, have proved resilient in the face of a crisis, keeping members active and involved, and raising funds to maintain their venues. Putney Theatre Company – a brilliant amateur company that I’ve worked with for over thirty years now – have spent the past year organising monologues and readings over Zoom, doing outdoor performances, socially distanced live rehearsed readings and even a full production on stage when we could. One of our biggest successes, however, enabling members to act and the theatre to keep connected with our audience, has been in producing licensed one-off performances online.

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‘Amateur theatres have proved resilient in the face of a crisis’ – Putney Arts Theatre in south London, home to Putney Theatre Company

It was our Artistic Director who came up with the idea of producing Conor McPherson’s haunting and emotional play The Weir in this format. The play was one that had been on my to-do list for some time, though I’d always imagined it live on stage. But as we talked it through, it became increasingly obvious that this was a production that really could work online. A single set, five characters and five cracking monologues… it seemed the right play to point a laptop camera at.

One of the great joys of Conor’s writing is the sense of an entire world he creates by bringing together five people in just one room. The play is set in a small bar in rural Ireland – County Leitrim, to be precise – and takes place over the course of one evening. From the get-go I decided that I really didn’t want the production to look like a business Zoom meeting, with five people on screen talking to camera all the time. It seemed obvious that with the characters gathered round a bar, a single camera should focus on each one, capturing everything their character says. As the dialogue develops it becomes quite reactive – it’s a script where characters listen and then respond. So, although I’d lose some of the physical reactions from characters as others were talking, I knew that by essentially using ‘speaker view’ (to slip into Zoom vocab for a moment), I could focus the audience on each actor when necessary. This would give them equal weight and build a sense of intimacy that seemed to me to be inherent in the play, and vitally important to any production. With our own social lives stunted by lockdown, I wanted as much as I could to make the audience feel that they were there in the pub, sharing a drink with Jack, Brendan, Jim, Finbar and Valerie.

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‘Conor McPherson creates the sense of an entire world by bringing together five people in just one room’ – English Touring Theatre’s 2017/18 revival of The Weir by Conor McPherson (photograph © Marc Brenner)

Over five weeks, working a few evenings a week and over Sunday afternoons, we began to put the play together. As each character entered the scene, they took their seat at the bar and, so long as each actor – in reality stuck in their own room – knew exactly where everyone else was (to their left or right, across the bar, and so on), they could talk to each other rather than to the camera. For the audience at home, watching on their laptop or TV, this created a sense that they were watching people interacting in the same space. To aid this further, I bought on eBay a job lot of framed Victorian prints that had been destined for a pub, and distributed them to each actor at home. With these up on their walls, the sense of being in one place was subtly enhanced, and the sense of being in Conor’s world was created.

In fact, eBay became the go-to for all our props – and with the actors spread across different locations in London, these all had to be doubled up. If Brendan the barman filled and put down a pit of Guinness, I wanted to be sure that Jack picked up an identical glass. It sounds simple but there is a lot of drinking going on in the play! So we had to put in cues, finding the right point in a character’s line for them to put a glass down and the right point for the other character to pick it up. With over thirty different glasses of Guinness, Harp, Irish whiskey and white wine passing back and forth, it became a highly choreographed alcoholic ballet that took some organisation and brought a whole different skill to directing.

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‘A highly choreographed alcoholic ballet’ – props for Putney Theatre Company’s online production of The Weir

Working online also requires a different skill from the actors. In live theatre, you inhabit a world together that hopefully seems as utterly real and believable to the actor as to the audience. Stuck in a small room in front of a laptop, it’s really difficult to recreate that and connect with the other characters. To help overcome this, I felt it was important that everybody attended as many rehearsals as possible as a company. It’s a big ask over five weeks – especially when a character isn’t even in a scene and people are already in a stressful situation – but working together like this meant that we built a sense of community. Our actors didn’t just come along and do their own thing, which I felt could be a bit of trap in this situation, making it far too easy to drift out when not onscreen. We worked on the principle that though they might not be seen, it was important to the production that each actor worked even harder than usual at fully inhabiting their role at all times. They had to really listen to each other so that they knew exactly what they were thinking, exactly how to react even off-camera and, most importantly, to know exactly how to respond to what was happening in the play when it came to their turn onscreen. Gradually, despite the distance, a real sense of being a company developed, and the friendships and relationships that Conor so brilliantly creates in his writing began to come to life, even over a small screen.

The other fantastic thing about Conor’s work is his ability to write big, gripping, emotional monologues. The Weir is steeped in the Irish tradition of storytelling, and there are five stories told in this play. The first is a tale of the fairy road, the kind of traditional Irish story that outsiders love to hear. The second and third, told as alcohol loosens tongues, are more personal encounters with the supernatural, strange events that are explained away by fever or a flight of fancy. The fourth is a devastating story of the loss of a child and a genuine belief in a supernatural event that cannot be so easily explained. And then, finally, we get a different kind of ghost story: a tale of regret, one that looks to the past and acknowledges a deep sense of loss and yearning, an emotion that comes unexpectedly but that has, it becomes clear, been present throughout the play.

These were the only scenes that we worked on individually with the actors, and it was fascinating to see how working on Zoom one-on-one, without any other distraction, really helped to focus on the writing and dig deep into the reason and meaning of each story. When we then got together it became clear how each of the monologues is a step towards the other, an opening or an allowance for each story to be told as the evening unfolds. We may have been broken up as a group while working on the monologues, but in really focusing on them, and understanding how they are related, we built up to a coming-together of the characters that then flowed through the play and the production – giving it a richness and emotional connection that, I hope, managed to reach beyond the small screen.

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‘Working online requires a different skill from the actors’ – behind the scenes at a rehearsal for The Weir

Strangely, I’ve rarely been so nervous before a performance as I was before The Weir. While working together it really felt as if we were creating something special, but we were such a small and fragmented group that it was hard to know if the feeling we had tried so hard to create – of being together in one space – would carry through to the audience. In the end, the brilliance of Conor’s writing, the talent of the actors and their belief in the world we created, shone through and for that one night we had a terrific success. The audience reaction was certainly amazing; with many people saying how they felt that they had been in Brendan’s small bar for the evening, and had really connected with the characters and the way they talked to each other so naturally. Better still, it was an evening that not only raised much-needed funds for the theatre, but one that gave members of PTC an opportunity to do what they love.

And that is the main reason I’d recommend doing a play online. It might not be entirely the same as live theatre, but it can be special – and with thought, commitment, and great writing, you can really recreate the thrill of making theatre, building a story and a world on screen to share with an audience until we are all able to get up in front of them again live on stage.


Here are some other amateur theatre groups on their experiences of creating a production using NHB’s Online Performances scheme…

‘We’re so grateful for the advancement of technology and the ability it has provided to keep people safe and still create/share our art. We loved that we were able to tell this beautiful story to more than just our community in Savannah, GA; we were able to share this production with audiences all over the country! We heard multiple times how grateful and excited our virtual audience was that they could safely enjoy live theatre from their homes and support the arts, as well.’ Hannah Chiclana, Producer/Actor, on Front Porch Improv’s production of Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons by Sam Steiner

‘It was an opportunity to explore how digital theatre could be more than just a recording of a live event. Adjusting to a rehearsal process done completely over the internet, where you don’t get that immediate rapport, took a few sessions to get used to, but actually did give the actor the opportunity to be completely immersed in that character’s world. The feedback was amazing. The audience really invested in the concept, we reached far out of our local area, raised over £300 for charity, and one audience member said that it had helped him understand the struggles that young people go through online.’ Sabrina Poole, Director, on Hard-Nosed Cow’s production of Original Death Rabbit by Rose Heiney

‘We decided to go online as we are a busy community theatre who do at least twelve live shows a year, and we wanted to keep our theatre alive. We had previously done some recorded shows online but “going live” seemed the nearest we could get to our stage performances – it felt like more of a connection with the audience. The feedback was very positive, and we learned so much which has been helpful for subsequent productions. My advice to anyone thinking of tackling an online production is to plunge in and just do it!’ Liz Carroll, Producer, on Progress Theatre’s production of Fucking Feminists by Rose Lewenstein and The Nightclub by Chloe Todd Fordham

‘When it came to doing online shows this year, there was no hesitation. We had over 300 members already missing out on a year of normal college, so if we had the option to give them some sort of outlet in Drama we were going to take it. Every rehearsal we learnt something new, about people’s microphones, how people’s backgrounds should look, different Zoom settings… Despite missing the aspect of human interaction, the cast and crew still managed to form a great bond, staying on to chat after rehearsals and play games. Directing this production was an experience I will cherish from my time in college.’ Clara Mooney, Director, on DCU Drama’s production of Start Swimming by James Fritz

‘What was initially a daunting undertaking for the cast turned into an enlightening experience that allowed the company to work together in new, creative ways, under difficult circumstances, and learn a number of important skills as part of the process. The result has encouraged company members to re-conceive parts of their practice and consider how online performance can have a place in their work in the future.’ Nicholas Holden, co-director, on Bathway Theatre Company’s production of Darknet by Rose Lewenstein


We’re still inviting applications to license Nick Hern Books plays for amateur online performance – thanks to everyone who’s taken advantage of this initiative so far, and agreed to share their experiences with us for this post.

Licences are available for both livestreamed performances and broadcasts of recorded productions, with hundreds of plays by many of today’s most exciting writers available to perform. Head to our website to see more, and start the search for your perfect Online Performance.

‘We hold on to hope for a better future’ – Matt Applewhite looks back on 2020

Unprecedented, extraordinary, difficult, relentless, seemingly unending… however you choose to describe it, one thing’s for sure: thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 has been one hell of a year.

For a theatre publisher like Nick Hern Books, nine months with a shuttered arts industry has been a challenge that’s forced us to adapt and find new ways of working and thinking – frequently inspired by the astonishing resourcefulness and stamina of people across the theatre community.

As the year draws to a close, NHB’s Managing Director, Matt Applewhite, reflects on a tumultuous twelve months, and looks ahead to how, amidst everything, we might even find some positives to take with us into a post-pandemic world.


How do you measure a year? For the characters in the musical RENT, it should be defined by love. T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons. And for those of us who have lived through the rollercoaster orbit of the sun called 2020? Stockpiled toilet rolls and squirts of hand sanitiser? Claps for carers? Hours on Zoom?

For the theatre industry, the year might be measured in the heartbreaking number of cancelled productions; the vast sums spent making theatres amongst the most Covid-secure buildings, only to be shut down again in this year’s dying days; or the innumerable halted careers and devastated livelihoods of the freelancers who are theatre’s lifeblood. Opening the aperture further onto a global and gloomier scale: the tragic death toll spirals inexorably upwards, each life lost representing another family deep in grief, broken hearted. Empty chairs at empty Christmas dinner tables. Regardless of where we live, it’s all ended in tiers.

There’s no cheering statistic (the US presidential election result excepted) by which to measure an impossible, incomprehensible twelve months. And no easy way to forget an unforgettable year, however much we might want to.

After closing the door to the Nick Hern Books office on 16 March, we pinned up a notice for visitors saying that we’d be working from home temporarily. In our wildest imaginations (and some of them are pretty wild), none of us dreamed that we wouldn’t be back in time to replace this ‘temporary’ sign with our traditional Christmas wreath.

‘In our wildest imaginations, none of us dreamed that we wouldn’t be back in time for Christmas’ – the
Nick Hern Books office, which has been closed since March

Over the ensuing week, we witnessed curtains fall at theatres across the country, with many of these cancellations having the same knock-on effect on our own publication schedule, with dozens of planned titles struck through. Surely the Edinburgh Fringe – then months away – would survive, we hoped? But alas, its cancellation led to more abandoned productions and publications; some plays that we’d known about and many others which now, heartbreakingly, may never see the light of the stage.

The craft and career books we’d planned for the year were similarly shelved – metaphorically rather than literally. How could we confidently publish practical theatre books serving an industry which was all but shut down, and with all educational institutions likewise suspended? Our amateur performing rights department was deluged, not in applications for new productions, but by requests to delay performance dates and process refunds. Whilst thankful that we still had books we could sell – albeit via a disrupted, creaking book supply chain – there was no doubt about the severity of the uncertainty and insecurity surrounding us and overwhelming everybody.

Those first few frantic weeks of lockdown were charged with adrenaline (a panic?) to establish home offices and schools, recalibrate plans, find ways to keep connected and protect our mental health – before a new routine, a different way of living, took root, and the sounds and smells of nature reasserted themselves. I didn’t read Anna Karenina, or declutter the attic, or bake banana bread. I did have surreal dreams, and suffer self-doubt, and bury a close relative. Occasionally I changed my clothes. I experienced a new silence and a sadness at the suffering unfolding around us, as the world turned, and the seasons passed, and people died.

With customary resilience and resourcefulness, the theatre industry rose to the challenges facing it, offering vital lifelines to as many freelancers as it could, and pivoting towards more digital work. All the world’s a screen. We also saw it as our responsibility to embrace this innovation as an essential means to survival – and our mission was to find ways to work with authors and their agents, with theatres and audiences, to collaborate, to stay connected, and to create.

The NHB Playgroup served up a free play to read online each week, followed by a Q&A with the playwright, sourced from readers’ questions and released as a podcast. We negotiated with playwrights and their agents to allow online performances, so that amateur theatre companies, like their professional counterparts, could continue to showcase their work.

The twelve NHB authors who kindly allowed their plays to be shared for free as part of The NHB Playgroup, and answered reader questions about them for our podcasts

We partnered with other organisations to help amplify their online offerings, such as the remarkable and far-reaching Coronavirus Time Capsule from Company Three and Papatango’s Isolated But Open monologue call-out, which was announced the day after the theatre shutdown and ultimately received over two thousand submissions, providing very welcome paid work for twenty writers and actors as well as producing ten stirring short films (with scripts available to read online for free). Staying lively and loud, engaged and engaging on social media – Twitter especially – continued to be an important priority.

And we’ve managed to publish at least twenty new titles since March, including a compendium of drama games to play socially distanced or online, which was written at breakneck speed and quickly sold through its first four print runs, plus several new plays receiving their virtual premieres, including Stephen Beresford’s Three Kings from the Old Vic, and Jermyn Street Theatre’s 15 Heroines, which featured the work of fifteen female and non-binary playwrights.

In each of these instances, we were fortunate to be an independent, relatively small, nimble-footed specialist publisher, doing our best to keep up, to keep our heads above water, and to keep on going. But what’s really sustained us over the 366 unrelentingly hard days of 2020 is the strength and inspiration, support and courage we’ve been able to draw on from remarkable individuals and companies across the entirety of the theatre industry, as well as the loyal readers who’ve continued to support us, never more so than during our #LoveTheatreDay Sale which saw us raise hundreds of pounds for the Theatre Artists Fund. To them all – and to all of my colleagues who have been beacons of good humour and grace, whether shouldering immense workloads or still experiencing the challenges of furlough – I offer endless gratitude, respect and love.

The snow globe on my desk/dining table is proving an unreliable crystal ball, and no one knows what the next 52 weeks will bring. However, it seems pointless to pretend that, even with glimmers of hope on the horizon, life will be returning to what it was BC (Before Covid) – but, perhaps, nor should we want it to.

We’ve experienced the power and potential of digital innovation, which I believe will be here to stay – or at least a hybrid of digital alongside live theatre. We need to throw a wider protective embrace around freelancers, and remain aware of the delicate, precious ecosystem we inhabit. We know that we can’t look to our woefully incompetent government for leadership or protection, so must seek opportunities to strengthen our working practices and networks, and shout from the rooftops about the vital, transformative importance of live performance.

‘I believe digital innovation will be here to stay’ – Andrew Scott in rehearsals for Three Kings by Stephen Beresford, performed live from the Old Vic Theatre, London, in September, and streamed worldwide
(photo by Manuel Harlan)

And we must never ignore the other seismic shifts witnessed this year, not least Black Lives Matter, which at long last must mean that systemic injustices are properly and permanently addressed. At NHB, we don’t underestimate our own role in all these challenges facing us.

Acts of unsung heroism or compassion, laughter, tears, tweets, coffee spoons, Zooms, or love. In whichever ways we each measure the 525,600 tumultuous minutes of 2020, we hold on to our optimism and hope for a stronger, better future. We look forward to next year.


Matt Applewhite is Managing Director and Commissioning Editor at Nick Hern Books.

From all us at NHB, thank you to everyone who’s helped us get through the chaos of 2020 – our authors, partners, readers, followers and friends. We wish you all a safe, happy and peaceful Christmas, and here’s to a brighter 2021.