Ladies Unleashed: Playwright Amanda Whittington on her Ladies Trilogy

Business portraits Marsden HuddersfieldWhen Amanda Whittington’s play Ladies’ Day premiered at Hull Truck Theatre in 2005, it introduced the world to Pearl, Jan, Shelley and Linda – four likely lasses from the Hull fish docks on a day at the races. The play and its sequel, Ladies Down Under, have since been performed around the world, including thousands of performances by amateur and community theatre groups. Now there’s a third play in the sequence, Ladies Unleashed, just premiered at Hull Truck, which brings the story of the Ladies bang up to date. Here, the playwright reflects on the enduring popularity of her beloved Ladies, and why amateur performances of her work are so important to her…

It’s hard to believe it’s almost twenty years since Hull Truck asked me to write Ladies’ Day, a play inspired by Royal Ascot coming to York Racecourse for one year only. It was a huge event in the Yorkshire calendar and a pretty big deal for me, too. A youngish playwright, it was my first commission for a company I’d long admired.

Ladies’ Day opened in June 2005 and ran for three weeks to full houses. I was knocked out by the response but had no expectation it had a future beyond its first production. It was written for a specific place and time; that was part of its success, or so I thought. The characters had other ideas.

The play dramatises a day at the races with four friends who work side-by-side at a Hull fish plant. Swapping overalls for Sunday best, Pearl, Jan, Shelley and Linda set out for Royal Ascot and get lucky on the Tote. But what Ladies’ Day is truly about is friendship, relationships, hopes, dreams and disappointments. They’re ordinary women in the best sense of the word.

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Hull Truck production of Ladies’ Day by Amanda Whittington, 2005 (Photograph by Adrian Gatie)

A year later, Hull Truck took Ladies’ Day on a UK tour. I’d hoped the Ladies would be recognisable to a Hull audience but we soon found they were just as relatable across the country. There was also a growing curiosity about the next chapter. The end of Ladies’ Day – a big win for the workmates on the horses – felt like a new beginning.

Ladies Down Under caught up with the gang a couple of years after the win. I hadn’t conceived the story as a sequel, but it was wonderful to write in response to the impact the Ladies had made. The much-loved Hull Truck cast reprised their roles on a once-in-a-lifetime tour of Australia, which soon becomes a metaphorical journey of discovery.

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Hull Truck production of Ladies Down Under by Amanda Whittington, 2007 (Photograph by Louise Buckby)

In 2008, Ladies Down Under returned from a UK tour to join the final season at Hull Truck’s legendary Spring Street theatre. It felt like a fitting end to our four-year run. I imagined the characters would forever stay in that magical bubble of time. Not quite. Nick Hern Books had published Ladies’ Day and Ladies Down Under, and pretty soon, new productions were springing up in villages and towns across the country.

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Wolverhampton Grand production of Ladies’ Day by Amanda Whittington, 2018 (Photograph by Graeme Braidwood)

As a playwright, you learn to let go of your stories. At the end of a run, there’s no guarantee you’ll see your characters again. Yet thanks to amateur and community theatre, these ladies – and the gents in their world – are very much alive. Pearl, Jan, Shelley and Linda have been played by hundreds of actors in thousands of performances.

Words can’t express how grateful I am to each and every company that programmes my work. I read every licence that comes in, and note all the villages, towns and cities the Ladies are heading to next. I love to hear from you, see your photos and answer your questions on the plays. It’s always a joy to meet you and and talk Ladies. By programming new work, the amateur sector not only keeps plays alive but sustains careers. Every ticket sold in a local theatre, church hall or school is an investment in a writer’s future work, as well as our past

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Four out of the thousands of amateur productions of Amanda Whittington’s Ladies plays. Clockwise from top left: Hyde Heath Theatre Company; Tanat Theatre Club; Dudley Little Theatre; Nantwich Players

Which brings us to Ladies Unleashed.

I’d made up my mind not to do it. The first Ladies play achieved more than I’d dared hope. The sequel came hot on its heels. Fifteen years passed, but a question kept popping up from actors, producers and audiences: ‘When are you writing a third?’

It was a great compliment, but I really wasn’t sure. I think I was torn between love and fear: your love for the characters, and my fear of failure. Yet I was curious too, and self-doubt is a voice writers know very well. We learn to live with it, channel it and, ultimately, fly in the face of it. Which I finally did in 2018, onstage at Nick Hern Books’ Amateur Theatre Fest, announcing the trilogy so then, I couldn’t not do it.

At the same time, I was talking to Artistic Director Mark Babych about a new play for Hull Truck. We had various ideas but the conversation kept coming back to the Ladies. Mark loved the characters and was interested in the idea of ‘where are they now?’ In 2019, I wrote a first draft set in the present day on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Northumberland. Then along came Covid. We all know that story. When theatres reopened and I returned to the play – now programmed for Hull Truck’s 50th-Anniversary season – the world had changed, so I started afresh.

Ladies Unleashed is the third in a trilogy but, like the first, it stands alone as a play for today. I didn’t want to repeat whatever formula there might be in the first two. Pearl, Jan, Linda and Shelley are a generation older, and so am I; the 30-something writer of Ladies’ Day wouldn’t and couldn’t have written this play. I set out to push the boundaries the first two plays had set. Yet in draft after draft, the characters came back so strongly, I knew they’d never quite left. It’s like meeting old friends. I do hope you’ll feel the same.

Gemma Oaten in Ladies Unleashed

Gemma Oaten (foreground) and Fenella Norman, Sara Beharrell and Allison Saxton (background) in the Hull Truck production of Ladies Unleashed by Amanda Whittington, 2022 (Photograph by Ian Hodgson)

To mark the publication of the trilogy, I’ve set up a Facebook group for companies producing the Ladies plays. Share your thoughts, questions, photos, dilemmas and discoveries with us on Ladies’ Day, Down Under & Unleashed. I look forward to seeing you there!


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Amanda Whittington’s play Ladies Unleashed is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy a copy of the playscript with a 20% discount (£10.99 £8.79 plus p&p), visit our website.

The playscript is also available as part of an exclusive three-book bundle deal: buy all three plays in the Ladies TrilogyLadies’ Day, Ladies Down Under and Ladies Unleashed – at a time-limited discount: £32.97 £24 plus p&p. Only available on our website here.

Amateur performing rights are now available for all three plays. For more information, visit the relevant page on our Plays to Perform site: Ladies’ Day, Ladies Down Under or Ladies Unleashed. It’s important that you apply for performing requests before any commitment is made.

Author photo by Elizabeth Baker Photography

‘My happy place is where Art meets Activism’: Julie Hesmondhalgh on why she feels at home with political theatre

Hesmondhalgh, Julie (credit James Melia)_cropJulie Hesmondhalgh is one of those rare human beings: an actor who is instantly recognisable from her performances in popular TV dramas such as Broadchurch and Happy Valley, and as Hayley in the ITV soap opera Coronation Street; but at the same time, one who remains grounded in a politically engaged, compassionate, activist, grass-roots theatre practice in her native Lancashire. Here, in an extract from her new book, An Actor’s Alphabet: An A to Z of Some Stuff I’ve Learnt and Some Stuff I’m Still Learning, she explores the roots of that activism in her childhood, and in the inspirational figure she encountered at drama school.

A is for… Activism

I blame the Baptists.

And my brother.

And Brian. Especially Brian.

So maybe this section should come under B, actually.

Let me explain. When your childhood soundtrack is a mash-up of stirring old-school hymns, happy-clappy gospel songs and Never Mind the Bollocks (with a bit of Paul Robeson thrown in for good measure); when you know the security of ‘FELLOWSHIP’ and ‘COMMUNION’ and the thrill of ‘BEARING TESTAMENT’; when Jesus is your poster boy and your big brother buys you Billy Bragg EPs and sneaks into your room after the pub to teach you about ‘IMPERIALISM’ and ‘RACISM’ and ‘CLASS’, it kind of sets your stall for a life of some sort of evangelism. And when you later become aware of some of the more problematic parts of organised religion (‘Hello, homophobia! Hey, The Patriarchy! How ya doin’?’) and become at worst agnostic, at best Buddha-curious, you find you never really lose that bit of yourself that wants to heal the world and storm the barricades at the same time.

I always loved acting, but when it came to deciding about careers, I was so consumed with the idea of being of service to the world (insufferable right-on god-botherer that I was) that to go into the arts felt frivolous to me, and at odds with what I believed was my purpose on this earth. (Evangelism and grandiosity often go hand in hand.) I wanted to help people, goddammit! Like Jesus! I thought I should go into social or probation work instead – after a stint of volunteering ‘in the third world’, of course – and be of use to society. It never occurred to me that I could try to do both. Be an actor and try to be a useful citizen. I had no sense that art could actually have a purpose beyond pure entertainment.

It was my brother Dave who persuaded me to audition for drama school and to take a different path than what might be expected of someone from Accrington. And because I do everything that my brother tells me to do, I did, and I got in!

When I started at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), I met Brian Astbury, who became one of the most important and influential figures in my life. Brian was a white South African who set up The Space in Cape Town in the early 1970s, along with his wife, the actor Yvonne Bryceland, and playwright Athol Fugard. The Space was the first multiracial theatre of its kind, and was operating at the height of apartheid. Police raids were par for the course in a country where it was illegal for black and white creatives to work together. There is a story that I love to tell to tired actors (oh god, so many tired actors) about the black actors at The Space working all day as manual labourers, then turning up at the theatre to rehearse into the night, in a room where brooms were strategically placed against the walls, ready to be grabbed the moment the police inevitably turned up. Because if the black people were sweeping the floor they were allowed to be there, of course.

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Brian Astbury (centre) with Yvonne Bryceland (left) and Athol Fugard (right) at The Space in Cape Town, South Africa

To put on the plays they were producing – plays like Athol Fugard’s provocatively titled Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, about an illegal love affair between a man of colour and a white woman – was an act of huge resistance, and also of courage. Brian and his colleagues at that theatre were in real danger of arrest and imprisonment for making art that spoke truth to power. As the apartheid regime became more and more brutal, many people were forced to either take up arms or leave the country. Brian and Yvonne, lifelong pacifists, left.

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Everything that Brian taught us at LAMDA was imbued and inspired by his first-hand experience of seeing the power of art and of theatre to be a force for change, even when that change doesn’t happen straight away. He believed passionately in our responsibility as artists to engage with injustice, to start conversations and to tell stories that help us make sense of the world and hold the powerful to account. He kick-started in me a lifelong passion for making work that challenges convention and that has something to say. And under his mentorship, I started to understand who and what I wanted to be. I discovered that my happy place is in the crossover point of the Venn diagram that has Art in one circle and Activism in the other. Like Brian, I believe that to be apolitical is a place of absurd privilege. How can you live in this world and not question the greed, the poverty, the inequality? It can only be if you’re unaffected by it, or worse, if you benefit from it.

For the last seven years I’ve co-run a political theatre collective in Manchester called Take Back. We have made a lot of work: some immersive and installation-based stuff, including collaborations with the university and bigger theatre spaces, about migration, refugees, and, more recently, sex work. But we’re best known for our award-winning script-in-hand responses to social and political events: joyful evenings of FELLOWSHIP and COMMUNION where we’re in a room together, starting conversations and emboldening each other in the face of unbelievable amounts of despondency and apathy out there.

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Take Back Our Girls, Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester, October 2018

Our model is simple: we ask ten or more writers to create a short piece on a theme, then we come together in a space to share them with an audience. Our first was Ten Takes on Hope in 2015, at a time when things looked like they might be on the up – if you can imagine such a thing! We took over a room above a pub at no cost, set up ticket sales on Eventbrite, sold out twice in one night, and had enough money in the account to hire a bigger venue for Ten Takes on Capital a few weeks later. Other shows have included Take Back Our Bodies, Take Back Our Girls, Take Back America (on the day of Trump’s inauguration) and Take Back Togetherness (after the Brexit referendum).

Some shows have been more successful and nuanced than others; some evenings have needed a serious edit (Take Back Our NHS, I’m looking at you…). Of course, we have never been so naive as to think that we might effectively heal the deep divisions in our country caused by Brexit, or that we might topple the Trump administration with a bit of cleverly curated spoken word at The Comedy Store. But what we have done, I think pretty successfully, is bring together a group of artists who broadly share a worldview – a worldview that feels a bit out of step with the spirit of the times – and who have a hankering to exist in the overlap of that Art/Activism Venn diagram. And I believe we have had some success in helping those artists, and our audiences, to feel less alone in it all, and sometimes even feel, dare I say it, empowered by the experience.

Last year I had the privilege of producing, with Take Back, Lucy Kirkwood’s short and powerful howl of pain that was Maryland, her response to the murders of Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman, Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. We brought together fifty women of all ages and backgrounds, dis/abilities and ethnicities, and rehearsed for two days over a weekend, then performed it twice on the Sunday night. The material was raw and painful, especially the sections written specifically for the women of colour in the cast. There were tears in the readthrough. And in the performance. It was overwhelming.

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Take Back production of Maryland by Lucy Kirkwood at The Edge, Manchester, November 2021 (Photograph by Elspeth Moore)

But in spite of the subject matter, and the unspoken personal memories of sexual violence for many of us; in spite of (or perhaps because of) the unadulterated rage we all felt as the play reached its harrowing climax; in spite of the stunned reaction of the audience who sat in silence for ten minutes after the second performance had ended, and the difficult and upsetting conversations that inevitably took place in the bar afterwards; in spite of all this, that weekend was one of the most exhilarating and joyful experiences of my working life. I will never forget it. Because in that accelerated way that can only happen in theatre, friendships were formed, connections were made, everyone held each other steady, and we all united in the most powerful way imaginable over something that we all desperately needed to express in that moment. There is no feeling like it in the world. Using our voices and raising each other up.

As an unapologetically political group, we have been asked many times about what we hope to achieve with our work, when we are so clearly preaching to the converted in most cases. But as someone who grew up buzzing off bearing testament, and to all intents and purposes literally preaching to the converted, I can testify that there is joy and purpose in just that. Because coming together and connecting over ideas and feelings and hopes and beliefs in a room is actually a really, really important and uplifting thing, especially in this age of isolation and doom-scrolling.

I’m not sure that anyone who was part of our sharings of Maryland, as an artist or an audience member, necessarily had their minds changed about anything. That was not the purpose of making this piece of political theatre. But I feel that every single person left the theatre that night feeling as though something in them had shifted. Something deep and unsayable had been said. And we were all a bit changed by that. And the world felt a bit different as a result.

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Julie Hesmondhalgh with the cast and crew of the Take Back production of Maryland by Lucy Kirkwood at The Edge, Manchester, November 2021 (Photograph by Elspeth Moore)


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This is an extract from Julie Hesmondhalgh’s book An Actor’s Alphabet: An A to Z of Some Stuff I’ve Learnt and Some Stuff I’m Still Learning published by Nick Hern Books. Save 20% on your copy when you order direct from the Nick Hern Books website here.

Julie Hesmondhalgh is in conversation at Contact Theatre, Manchester, on Thursday 17 November, 7pm, when she will be signing copies of her book. Tickets available here.

She is also appearing in conversation at The Dukes, Lancaster, on Wednesday 30 November, 11am. Tickets available here.

Author photo by James Melia.

In dark times: Two Ukrainian playwrights on life in the midst of the conflict

It has been six months now since Russia invaded Ukraine, but as a double-bill of Ukrainian plays – published this week and currently showing at the Finborough Theatre in London – makes clear, the conflict really began much earlier than that, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. For the two leading Ukrainian playwrights whose work is being staged, and who both still live and work in Ukraine, the war there is as devastating as it was foreseeable. Here, Natal’ya Vorozhbit and Neda Nezhdana (together with their translators, Sasha Dugdale and John Farndon) write about the anger, dismay and horror that has fed into their work, as well as the extraordinary human resilience in the face of outrageous Russian aggression.

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Natal’ya Vorozhbit writes: ‘When I wrote Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha in 2014, the war in Ukraine had already begun. It continued in the east of the country, and it was impossible to believe. I tried to wear this war, as did my family; I wrote about my fears and premonitions and hoped that they would never come true, that humanity would be horrified and stop the war at that stage. But humanity pretended that nothing was happening and bought gas from Russia. Eight years have passed and everything that I described in the play, only much worse, has happened to the whole of Ukraine, hit all of us and touched all of you.

For eight years, neither Ukraine nor the world has coped with the evil that came without hiding. It really hurts me that this text is only now so relevant. Can it change anything? It seems that art does not become a warning and does not change the world at all. And only the human ability not to lose hope moves us further, makes us write, fight, and believe that good and truth will win.’

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Amanda Ryan and Alan Cox in Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha by Natal’ya Vorozhbit at the Finborough Theatre, 2022 (Photograph by Charles Flint)


Dugdale, SashaSasha Dugdale writes: ‘I translated Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha in late 2014 for A Play, A Pie and A Pint at Òran Mór in Glasgow, directed by Nicola McCartney. The war in Donbas had begun earlier that same year, so by the time Natalka wrote her short play the initial shock of war and invasion had worn off. In her lithe, funny and poignant work, Natalka looks back to the Soviet period, and the confusion of the nineties, and shows how ideas of masculinity have shifted over a period of turbulent change. With her “sly writer’s heart” (a phrase she uses in her 2017 classic Bad Roads) and her abundant compassion and humour, she depicts a family operating under all sorts of strains: the burden of alcoholism, divorce, poor health, death, financial constraints, and the various toxins of a corrupt and venal late- or post-Soviet military system.

It is a surprise when war interrupts this mess of ordinary lives and their tensions – as much a surprise to the viewer as it appears to be for the characters. They are wrenched backwards into a time when masculinity counted for something – and yet paradoxically it is women now managing, holding the fort, buying the supplies: the men turn out to be absent, shadowy or supernatural.

I have translated Natalka’s work for many years and it has been a privilege and a responsibility. Over the period of our collaboration she has documented the emerging Ukraine and its process of self-definition, through protest and uprising, into the woeful period of Russian aggression which has dominated Ukraine’s recent history. I love and relish her deft, wry dialogue and its humour, and the power female protagonists have in her writing. Most of all I love her joy in humanity, in all its forms, and I take this into my translating, often laughing aloud at her sheer cleverness and wit as I strive to find English equivalents.’

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Issy Knowles and Amanda Ryan in Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha by Natal’ya Vorozhbit at the Finborough Theatre, 2022 (Photograph by Charles Flint)


Nezhdana, Neda_croppedNeda Nezhdana writes: ‘Since the Revolution of Dignity, I have “mobilised” my “literary soldiers”; all my texts have been related to the Maidan and the war. At the beginning of 2014, my native city of Kramatorsk in Donetsk region was occupied by Rashists (Russian fascists) for several months. My relatives managed to escape, and I wanted to write a play about it: what it is like to become a refugee. They had had their whole world stolen from them: home, work, friends, city… And the total lies of Russian propaganda – about the Maidan, Donbas, Ukraine in general – were outrageous. Nothing to do with reality. On the contrary, they called the Maidan’s international goal of association with the EU “Nazism”, and described their own aggression, terror and looting as “liberation”. Time has shown that their hybrid occupation brought only grief: tens of thousands killed, wounded, orphaned, millions of refugees, destroyed houses and destinies… And people, provoked by propaganda, became murderers, executioners and traitors…

I searched for a long time to find the right form for my play, Pussycat in Memory of Darkness. The impetus was the true story of Iryna Dovgan, a beauty-salon worker who was captured and tortured by the Russians. Her words suggested the title of the play: she saw “darkness” in the eyes of her executioner. This is what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to warn the world about this “darkness” – the impunity of criminals turning into a “tsunami” that can engulf all of us in a terrible nightmare of terror… Yet “in dark times, bright people are clearly visible,” as Erich Maria Remarque wrote. The second impetus for the play was photos of our retreating soldiers rescuing dogs, cats and parrots. Animals, whose owners had been killed or captured, sensed where they would be helped, and went to Ukrainian soldiers. I believe that humanity begins with our attitude towards animals. This is how the eventual image of a volunteer heroine who helps soldiers and saves kittens was born. White, grey and black are the three steps in the war of light and dark… Documentary stories from relatives and friends, my own memories and news, such as the shooting down of a passenger plane by the Russians in Donbas, were intertwined with fantasy. It was a cry for help: people, stop this horror before it’s too late… But millions of crimes in the Russian Federation remain unpunished, and unpunished evil is growing progressively.

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Kristin Milward in Pussycat In Memory of Darkness by Neda Nezhdana at the Finborough Theatre, 2022 (Photograph by Charles Flint)

Since 24th February 2022, this “darkness” has spread over the whole of Ukraine. When I wrote this play, I didn’t know, like my character, how it was to be with children and animals under fire from rockets and bombs, what it meant to be a refugee. But now I know this from my own experience in the Kyiv region, and my relatives in Kramatorsk live next to the train station that was hit by Russian rockets on 8th April… Tens of millions of people are going through this now, dozens of countries around the world are helping displaced people and the wounded from Ukraine. More than two-thirds of Ukrainian children are refugees, others are under fire, in infiltration camps, deported, wounded, killed… Now refugees are a problem for the whole world. Rashists destroy entire cities and villages, especially schools, hospitals, museums, theatres, churches, burn books… And they also “denazify” animals: horses are burned in stables and cows are blasted by “hail”… They even attack plants – mining forests and burning grain fields… This is not only the most terrible war in terms of weapons, it is genocide, the attack of barbarism on civilisation, slavery on freedom. It is important to understand: leaving the occupied territories of Ukraine to the Russian Federation means condemning people to death and torture. Unfortunately, this play has only grown in relevance. I believe that such texts help those traumatised by the war and those who want to understand what is really happening. All over the Earth, which is becoming absorbed by the “darkness”. However, I remain in Ukraine and continue to write, because I believe in the victory of light. Thanks to all “warriors of light” in the world.’


Farndon, John_cropJohn Farndon writes: ‘The ongoing Russian attack on Ukraine is a horror which no one can ignore. What can theatremakers do? The very painful answer is not much. But since the beginning of March 2022, I’ve been working with the Worldwide Ukrainian Play Readings project, in collaboration with Theatre of Playwrights in Kyiv, to bring the words of Ukraine’s amazing and courageous playwrights to the world by translating dozens of their plays, many written almost from the frontline – raw, immediate and powerful.

For me, the most extraordinary discovery has been the writing of Neda Nezhdana, and it’s been a privilege to translate her work. She is something of a legend in Ukraine yet her work has never been staged in English until now. It should have been. Neda has an extraordinary ability to distil the most challenging aspects of Ukraine’s situation into bold, provocative, thrilling drama.

Pussycat in Memory of Darkness is set in 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and began its ongoing attempts to destabilise the Donbas, in revenge for Ukraine’s Maidan revolution to rid the country of Russian influence. It tells the story of the nightmare life that develops for one woman in the Donbas in the face of the insidious violence stirred up in her home town by the Russian-backed militia and propaganda. It is a beautifully crafted, yet uncompromising drama that takes us right into the heart of darkness that is Russia’s war on Ukraine. Yet the message is not just about Ukraine, but for us all.’

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Kristin Milward in Pussycat In Memory of Darkness by Neda Nezhdana at the Finborough Theatre, 2022 (Photograph by Charles Flint)


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This is an edited version of the introduction to Voices from Ukraine: Two Plays published by Nick Hern Books. Save 20% on your copy when you order direct from the Nick Hern Books website here. 10% of the proceeds from sales of the book will be donated to the Voices of Children Charitable Foundation, a Ukrainian charity providing urgently needed psychological and psychosocial support to children affected by the war in Ukraine.

The plays Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha and Pussycat in Memory of Darkness are in production at the Finborough Theatre, London, until 3 September. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the Finborough Theatre website.

‘Write with your heart as well as your head’: Jemma Kennedy on getting started as a playwright

JemmaKennedy_blogFor playwright and screenwriter Jemma Kennedy, plays are something of a paradox: carefully structured works of studied, practised craft, but also filled with unstudied, creative instinct. For a script to truly come to life, it must encapsulate both these qualities.

In this extract from Jemma’s book The Playwright’s Journey, she reflects on her own path as a writer, and how you, too, can embark on the voyage towards getting your play onto the page, and then to the stage.

Craft alone cannot make a good play.

Anyone can pick up Aristotle’s Poetics (the book every playwright is told to read) and teach themselves how three-act structure works, or take a course on the mechanics of theatrical dialogue, narrative and stagecraft. But the double bind of being a playwright is that once you’ve perfected your play on paper, its work is only just begun. A dramatist’s real apprenticeship only truly begins the moment their texts start to be performed, if not to a paying audience, then at least to a roomful of students or peers or theatre folk. Like a bungee-jumper, you leap off a platform into thin air and hope your cord holds.

For while plays are constructs, they are also made of organic matter. Thoughts and feelings, experiences, intuition, emotional intelligence. These are the things that make a play come alive, first on the page and then on the stage. You might call it spark, or voice, originality, energy – the unique DNA that is found in any individual playwright’s work, and which starts with their creative instincts. These instincts are, in a way, the direct opposite of craft, and they cannot be learned by rote. If you’re currently writing a play yourself, I’ll bet that you’re not staying up all night hunched over your keyboard or working through your lunch-break simply because you want to practise crafting a dramatic form. It’s because you have a burning desire to tell a story and communicate something about human behaviour.

I never studied theatre formally myself. I learned to write, as most of us do, by trial and error. Watching plays. Reading plays. Studying their structure. Discussing productions with friends and colleagues. And slowly, tentatively, starting to write myself. It was hard. I had readings, I got commissions, I was invited to theatre-writing groups. More often than not, the plays didn’t make it on to the stage, beyond a rehearsed reading. It took ten years from writing that first play to having my first main stage production, and along the way I have learned some pretty good lessons. Incidentally, I never made it through the first chapter of Aristotle’s Poetics. But I have sat in the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, and looked at the stage where Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, among others, debuted their plays. Thousands of bottoms have worn the marble seats smooth.

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‘I learnt to write by trial and error’ – Jemma Kennedy in rehearsals for her play Genesis Inc., which premiered at Hampstead Theatre, London, in 2018 (Photograph by Manuel Harlan)

Over the last decade I’ve also taught many hours of playwriting. To BA and MA students; to adult learners; to young writers; for new-writing theatres, on residential courses, universities, up mountains and by the ocean. I’ve also run a long-running class for developing writers, which I went on to teach at the National Theatre in London – and it’s these classes which have formed the basis for my book on playwriting, The Playwright’s Journey.

The book guides you through the entire life-cycle of your play. Part 1 begins with the very first spark of a new idea, through getting that out of your head and onto the page (with guidance on technical aspects of the craft such as character, structure, constructing scenes, writing dialogue, and so on). Then, once you’ve written your play, Part 2 focuses on the practicalities of (hopefully) having your script turned into a show – including some practical advice about how to navigate this exciting but sometimes baffling process. I hope the book will encourage you to interrogate your creativity and explore your connection to your material, while finding ways to harness them to writing craft. In other words, to explore the process of playwriting via the heart as well as the head.

As a teacher, and now in The Playwright’s Journey, I offer no hard and fast rules for what a good play is, or should be, or how it should be written. Creativity is a fluid, mysterious thing, bubbling up from our unconscious minds. It can’t and shouldn’t be forced into formulaic shapes. You must allow yourself time to daydream, to feel your way through your writing process, as well as applying craft to those base materials. Then you can find and harness the patterns, rhythms and devices of theatrical narrative – and of language – in order to tell your story. Your play may be a ‘well-made play’ in the traditional sense; it may be a one-woman show or a devised piece of performance or an adaptation of a literary work or anything in between. Whatever it is, I hope to share some knowledge and experience that will help you to keep going and finish the draft that might one day make it on to the stage.

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This is an edited extract from The Playwright’s Journey by Jemma Kennedy – out now, published by Nick Hern Books. Save 20% on your copy when you order direct from the Nick Hern Books website here.

Jemma Kennedy is a playwright and screenwriter. Her work has been seen internationally, including at Hampstead Theatre and the National Theatre, London, where she has been both playwright-in-residence and teacher of playwriting.

‘He was a giant in the world of theatre’ – a tribute to Peter Brook

PeterBrookblogPeter Brook, who has sadly died at the age of 97, was one of the most influential and important figures in twentieth-century theatre – described by the Guardian as ‘one of theatre’s most visionary and influential thinkers’. The New York Times called him ‘a director of scale and humanity, who left an indelible mark’.

Brook’s long and extraordinary career was filled with remarkable achievements, including productions of Titus Andronicus (1955) with Laurence Olivier, King Lear (1962) with Paul Scofield, and The Marat/Sade (1964) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970), both for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Moving to Paris in the 1970s, he established the International Centre for Theatre Research and the International Centre for Theatre Creation, producing events which pushed at the boundaries of theatre – such as his legendary adaptation of epic Indian poem The Mahabharata (1985) – and continued to direct as recently as 2019.

Brook was also a celebrated writer about theatre. NHB have been proud to be Brook’s publisher for the past twenty years, releasing new books such as The Quality of Mercy and Tip of the Tongue, plus the first-ever ebook and audiobook editions of his seminal The Empty Space.

Here, we’re paying tribute to a much-loved and respected NHB author with an extract from The Quality of Mercy, focusing on the story behind one of Brook’s first-ever productions – but first, NHB’s founder and publisher, Nick Hern, remembers his own decades-long relationship with his ‘old old friend’…

Peter Brook was responsible for my getting booed at the National Theatre. I was chairing a Q&A on the occasion of the publication of The Shifting Point [in 1988] and had had to call time on a very rich session. The audience, hungry for more, vented their disapproval – very loudly. It was like that whenever I accompanied Peter on a book tour. It was like being with a rock star: everyone wanted a piece of him. And rightly so, of course. Though small in stature, he was a giant in the world of theatre.

The Shifting Point was only his second book, some twenty years after his groundbreaking The Empty Space. So new was he to the business of publication that he got a fit of the giggles when I first sat him down in a bookshop to sign copies. He soon got the hang, recognising the commercial value of ‘author appearances’, and was still valiantly signing copies of his last book though nearly blind by then.

We resumed our author/publisher relationship with Evoking Shakespeare, which arrived unheralded but with a handwritten note: ‘I don’t suppose you’d be interested in publishing this – it’s very short!’ I was indeed interested, and there followed in due course three more books, all subtitled ‘Reflections’: The Quality of Mercy (on Shakespeare), Tip of the Tongue (on language and meaning) and Playing by Ear (on sound and music). Also two of his last playscripts, Battlefield and The Prisoner.

As an author and a man, Peter was always the soul of kindness and generosity. On meeting – and dining with – my wife for the first time, he inscribed her copy of his latest book: ‘To my new old friend’… I shall really miss my old old friend.

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Peter Brook’s ‘Reflections’ trilogy of books, all published by NHB


This is an edited extract from The Quality of Mercy: Reflections on Shakespeare by Peter Brook.

It was not easy to leave England just after the war, especially as one needed a special permit to carry the tiniest allowance of cash that even the simplest travel needed.

I had just done my first production, Love’s Labour’s Lost at Stratford [in 1946], and was preparing to follow it with a Romeo and Juliet which I wanted to be young and full of fire. In those days, it was an accepted legend in the English theatre that only a mature actress in her forties could attempt to play Juliet. I hoped to smash this tradition by casting two very young actors as the star−crossed lovers. Above all, to get them to speak their lines with their own sense of truth. This meant being free from the established rules of verse-speaking.

My real interest was to discover the climate of the play, so my first trip was to Tangier to get a direct taste of the dust and blazing heat out of which fights and passions arise. This was an exciting revelation. The story did not belong to the polite world of Stratford and the genteel West End plays.

Next, another first. To Italy. This meant a beeline to Verona.

Despite the charm of any Italian small town, the comic side prevailed. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘the commercial side’. As a child, I had been taken to Lourdes. This had left a distasteful memory of how the young Saint Bernadette was being exploited. In the narrow passage leading to the shrine, there were rows of shops each claiming to be more authentic than its neighbour and proclaiming ‘Founded by the true family of Bernadette’ or ‘We are direct descendants of Bernadette’. In Verona, it was very similar. Every corner struggled to exploit Romeo and Juliet – ‘Here is the Capulet residence’, ‘This is where the Nurse went to market’, ‘Welcome to the fencing academy where the Montagues learned to use their swords’, and ‘Visit the exact spot where Mercutio died.’

One beautiful house had a sign saying ‘Birthplace of Juliet’. I went in. It was lunchtime. I was alone, but for a very distinguished elderly Italian who was my guide. His speech was beautifully delivered as he followed me from room to room. Juliet’s bed, the closet where the Nurse slept, the famous balcony, the parents’ wing where the family dined. And then down a narrow stone stair into the cellar. Here my guide pointed to a large stone slab! ‘This is where they brought Juliet’s corpse; it was through this narrow opening that Romeo came – you can imagine the painful sight that confronted him – his lifeless bride. He clasped her in his arms.’

The guide leaned respectfully across the cold slab. ‘We have here a dagger – the actual one – and, after kissing her – ’ the guide mimed the action – ‘and taking the poison from her lips, Romeo took his own life.’

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Today, Casa di Giulietta (‘Juliet’s House’) in Verona is a popular tourist attraction

It was a fine performance, one he clearly repeated day after day. He then led me up the stairs to the front door. I was so struck by his well-schooled intelligence that I could not restrain myself. ‘Tell me,’ I asked, ‘you are such an educated person. How can you bear day after day to tell these tales as though you believe them – when you know they haven’t the least root in truth? In England,’ I said, ‘we all know there were no such persons as Romeo and Juliet.’

He paused. Then with exquisite courtesy he replied, ‘Yes, indeed, it’s true. And here in Verona we all know there was no such person as Shakespeare.’

* * *

I returned to England. The journeys were over, and the practical work on Romeo and Juliet began. I had two marvellous collaborators: Rolf Gérard, who would become my close friend and designer over many years; and an outstanding Catalan−Swiss composer, Roberto Gerhard, who had just made a striking debut with a score for a radio version of Don Quixote. Both at once felt the heat and passion of the play. The set that gradually arose was little more than a blazing orange stage cloth, like a bullring.

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Peter Brook’s production of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1947 (photo by Angus McBean © RSC) 

Together, with a very dynamic instructor, we plunged into rehearsal with our young cast, who were delighted to begin the day with dangerous rapier fights. We made many mistakes and learned many lessons, but when the first night came, the play unfolded to the Stratford audience on the hot orange stage. The audience were dismayed and taken aback. I was attacked for ruining the poetry and wasn’t invited back for many years.

A few days after the opening, the theatre had arranged a public question-and-answer session. When I arrived backstage, I was met by an anxious stage manager. ‘I must warn you,’ he said. ‘You’re in trouble. Prepare for the worst.’ I stepped into the arena. The good and loyal Stratford audience was there. A long silence was broken by a lady rising to her feet, clearly trembling with indignation.

‘I would like Mr Brook to explain to us why, at the opening night of Romeo and Juliet in the Memorial Theatre, there was no light – in the ladies’ cloakroom!’

This got a laugh, but the discussion was heated. And inevitably the press was damning. However, I was already beginning to discover that while praise is for a moment reassuring, the valuable criticisms are the ones that are clearly from an unbiased and intelligent mind. They make one think.

Despite the inevitable disappointment, gradually I saw all that Romeo lacked. There was plenty of fire, colour and energy­ ­­­­– which brought us a small minority of enthusiasts. But what was missing was an overall tempo, an irresistible pulse to lead from one scene to another. I had not yet learned that this was the basis of all Elizabethan theatre, and so began a long period of discovery. The theatre of the day, based on well-made West End plays, with their two intervals, had long lost all contact with the relentless Elizabethan rhythm. Each scene had to lead to another, never letting the audience go. Each scene had to be a stepping-stone for the next ­– there were no curtain breaks and pauses; no new scenery to get accustomed to. And not only did this demand a constant moving forward, it also made contrasts, unexpected changes of rhythm, tones, levels of intensity. In this Romeo I had worked scene by scene, each with its beginning, middle and end.

The big revelation came later when working in opera. In music, I saw that a series of notes is a world of infinitely tiny details which only exist because they are part of a phrase. A phrase in turn is inseparable from a driving forwards. Just as in a speech, a phrase is a thought that prepares and leads on to the next one. Only an insufferable bore goes on repeating a phrase long after we have got its meaning. A play of Shakespeare’s must be played as one great sinuous phrase, never ending before the very end.

When after two years of opera I returned to Stratford to direct Measure for Measure, I found that the immersion in music had brought me a new awareness of tempo and phrasing.

There’s an old cliché that Shakespeare could easily have written film scripts. Indeed, when a film is placed in the projector ­– to use the out-of-date jargon of the day – and the spools begin to turn, there is a movement, and with it the interest of the viewer is held. This has to be maintained till the end of the last shot. It applies to every category: art film, thriller, Western. They all were called ‘movies’. This led to the need to be free of the locked−in nature of the scenery that seemed so necessary at the time.

I was only asked back to Stratford when the direction changed many seasons later. This exile was clearly a stroke of fortune, as my approach had been transformed by so many experiences.

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Peter Brook (centre, front row) at a conference celebrating his career at the Institut Français, London, in 2019 – part of the launch of his final book Playing by Ear, published by Nick Hern Books


All of us at Nick Hern Books are saddened by the death of Peter Brook, at the age of 97. We’re honoured to have had the opportunity to share his wisdom and insights with the world. He leaves behind an incredible artistic legacy. RIP.

Photograph of Peter Brook by Régis d’Audeville.

Three plays, one cast, all at the same time: Chris Bush on her ambitious dramatic triptych Rock / Paper / Scissors

Bush, Chris for blogFor the fiftieth anniversary of the Crucible, Sheffield Theatres commissioned playwright Chris Bush to write three plays that could be performed by the same cast, simultaneously, in all three of their spaces (the Crucible, the Lyceum, and the Studio). Nothing quite like it had ever been attempted before. As the resulting plays Rock / Paper / Scissors are premiered in Sheffield, Chris explains how the idea came about…

This is a very silly idea.

We first started dreaming up these shows in February 2021. Directors Rob Hastie and Anthony Lau, designer Ben Stones and myself were making The Band Plays On at the Crucible and going slightly insane through the pressures of creating work during a global pandemic, trying to imagine a brighter future while struggling to navigate the strange new realities of the day to day. The fiftieth anniversary of the Crucible was coming up in November, and who knew how we were going to mark it, or even if the theatre would be open at all by then? While I went home to work on rewrites and do deep dives into lesser known Sheffield Britpop acts, the directors were putting together funding applications and drawing up bold new seasons with a combination of blind hope and bloody-mindedness that all theatre professionals know only too well.

One morning, Rob met me outside my digs to walk with me to the theatre. He had an idea. What if we threw caution to the wind and thought big – even bigger than usual? What if we tried to do something never attempted before – something that could more or less only be done here, within a complex of three world-class stages all only a few metres from each other? What if we took over every inch of Sheffield Theatres with three brand-new standalone shows with a shared a cast, playing simultaneously in the Crucible, Lyceum, and Crucible Studio? Alan Ayckbourn’s House and Garden had done the same thing with two plays, but no one had ever tried it with three (arguably for good reason). The concept was absurd. Would we even be open in a year’s time? What was the story? How do you even begin to plan something like this? I had no idea. Of course I said yes immediately.

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Denise Black in Rock by Chris Bush at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 2022 (Photograph by Johan Persson)

We started kicking ideas around straight away. What was the hook, beside the sheer audacity of attempting it? What if each show had a distinct genre – one farce, one murder mystery, one musical, all linked by the same set of characters? What if we showed the same character at different points in their life?

A christening, a wedding, a funeral (Birth, Marriage and Death as your three titles)? Time travel was definitely discussed at one point. Then for a while we settled on the idea of two weddings, one in the Crucible, one in the Lyceum, and the caterers in the studio (working titles of Bride, Groom and Cake). What if two childhood sweethearts were now getting married on the same day to different people, next door to each other, and hilarity ensued? This concept evolved into one real wedding in the Crucible, and a local am-dram production of a wedding-themed musical in the Lyceum, with all the potential for mistaken identities that might entail. I even came up with the fake show-within-a-show, Wits ’n’ Weddings, a 1980s mega-flop based on the works of Philip Larkin with a book by a young Richard Curtis… alas, it was not to be.

As fun as some of these ideas were, I was never quite sure why we wanted to tell any of these stories, beyond the technical challenge they presented. We all agreed some kind of ‘farce engine’ felt useful, but then a lot of the comedy in farce comes from the audience knowing more than the characters onstage – this is difficult when any given audience might only be getting a third of the overall story at any given time, and these shows needed to be entirely self-contained, as well as forming part of a greater whole. We were all enjoying ourselves, but I felt like I needed to go back to the dramaturgical drawing board.

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Paper by Chris Bush at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 2022 (Photograph by Johan Persson)

What makes good drama?

All drama fundamentally revolves around conflict. All stories are about a hero (protagonist) who wants something (a goal) but there’s something or someone (an obstacle) in their way. Sometimes that obstacle is physical, or psychological, or elemental, but often it takes the form of an antagonist – a villain – a character whose dramatic function is to stop our hero from getting what they want. This might be because the antagonist despises the hero, and wishes them to suffer, but equally it could just be because they have goals of their own, and those goals are incompatible. The crucial takeaway is this: we are all protagonists in our own stories, but we could very easily be antagonists in someone else’s, whether we’re trying to be or not.

‘Main Character Syndrome’ is a contemporary term for a timeless condition. It describes someone who believes that they are the centre of the universe, and anyone else is of little or no significance. It’s a twenty-first-century form of solipsism, and something we can all be guilty of. Three standalone plays with a shared company – three distinct viewpoints on a common event – is the theatrical antidote to this. Each play would have its own protagonist(s), but said protagonist might become a primary or secondary antagonist when they step off one stage and onto another. It doesn’t mean any of these people are monsters, they just want different things. Theatre, at its best, is a machine for generating empathy – it can transport us to strange and unfamiliar worlds and populate them with characters we’ll come to care deeply for, and learn to understand, despite the fact that they might appear to be nothing like us. This simultaneous-trilogy structure offers a unique opportunity for further experiments in empathy: we can watch villains become heroes and vice versa when we watch the same events from a different angle. Our sympathies may shift entirely depending on what order we watch the shows in. A traditional ‘hero’s journey’ three-act saga can often get a bit black-and-white in terms of its morality, in part due to the necessary primacy it places on the hero’s perspective – here we can gently remind an audience, through the theatrical form, that life is messy and complicated and we rarely have the full picture.

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Scissors by Chris Bush at the Studio Theatre, Sheffield, 2022 (Photograph by Johan Persson)

However, I still didn’t know what the plays were about. I wanted to write about intergenerational conflict, and how each generation might have a legitimate reason to feel uniquely hard done by. The next trilogy concept was Work, Rest and Play – a young generation of school-leavers facing an uncertain future, their parents representing the squeezed middle, and their grandparents in retirement. Was this a family saga of three spaces within the same house? The granny annex, the grown-up dinner party downstairs, the teenagers getting high in the garage? What event would throw them all into crisis? ‘No one wants to see a play called Work,’ said Rob Hastie. And a play called Play felt a little sub-Beckett. Fair enough. Keep thinking. What about a properly Sheffield trilogy, using local placenames as generational markers? Intake (the youth), Halfway (middle-aged), and Endcliffe (for the OAPs)? Was that a bit niche? Furthermore, I felt like we’d explored intergenerational family dynamics in the domestic realm quite thoroughly in Standing at the Sky’s Edge, so maybe this should move into the world of work. At this fiftieth anniversary moment of reflection, it was a chance to think about what cities are for, what civic/public spaces are for, who owns our heritage, who owns our future? Where have we come from and how does that inform where we’re going?

For all this intellectualising, we also just brainstormed a lot of three-part lists. What words went together and did any of them mean anything? How about…

Hop, Skip, Jump
Stop, Look, Listen
Ready, Set, Go
Red, Yellow, Green
Faith, Hope, Charity
(the National Theatre got there first)
Snap, Crackle, Pop
(almost definitely trademarked)

Then, on 3 September 2021, with time rapidly running out and a season announcement due very soon, Rob and I had the following exchange over WhatsApp (edited only for clarity).

Chris Bush, 17:29
‘I feel like Rock, Paper, Scissors could be a good name for something (and hints at three competing forces of equal strength) but I don’t know what they mean by themselves.’

Chris Bush, 17:30
Scissors = stainless steel, Sheffield history etc etc, Paper = office work? Or press? Rock = rock music? Teenage rebellion? Dunno…’

Rob Hastie, 17.31
‘Oo that’s quite fun’

Chris Bush, 17:37
‘Could be something in whatever they’re competing over – an inherited building, for instance – could it stay testament to industrial heritage (scissors), become a cool music venue (rock), or just bland but commercially lucrative office space (paper)?

Rob Hastie, 17:44
‘Oh that’s VERY good’

Chris Bush, 17:46
‘I wonder if then (another rethink) do we want our stages to all be different parts of the same building/complex – the factory floor, the old manager’s office, the break room or something? And lean into that idea of everyone milling around the same space in real time?’

And that was that. Of course this was still only the sketchiest of ideas, but in just over fifteen minutes something had crystalised. It now felt like we had the bones of a story (or multiple stories) worth telling. Something that spoke to intergenerational conflict, about heritage, about legacy, about autonomy, and how much any of us are in control of our destiny at any given time. What has been done here, and how does that inform what we should do next? How can we work together when no one really has enough? No heroes, no villains, just a group of people trying to survive in difficult circumstances. An exercise in empathy – which is, after all, the best reason to make theatre in the first place.

This is an edited version of Chris Bush’s introduction to Rock / Paper / Scissors published by Nick Hern Books. Save 20% on your copy when you order direct from the Nick Hern Books website here.

The plays are in production at Sheffield Theatres until 2 July. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the Sheffield Theatres website.

‘Theatre needs to be reoccupied by the theatremakers’: Russell Lucas on breaking through industry barriers

Russell LucasRussell Lucas doesn’t exist. At least, not according to conventional theatre categories. He’s a writer, deviser, producer, actor and director – often all at once. He’s a lecturer too. And why not? In his new book, 300 Thoughts for Theatremakers, he offers inspiration and encouragement for theatremakers everywhere, and argues that the maverick, hybrid, jack-of-all-trades theatremaker is what’s needed now, more than ever.

With a background like mine, you’re really not supposed to work in the arts  – never mind be successful and then write a book about it. Of course, I’m being glib, as we’re all allowed to work in the theatre, but that message doesn’t always get through to society – let alone to the lost artists who’ve been encouraged to ‘Go get a real job’.

I come from Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, where it’s all about economic survival – and back in the seventies and eighties it was even more so. When you reached your sixteenth birthday you were expected to work in a chip shop or on the pier and that was you done. You’d peaked. Any deeper discussions about utilising your existing skill set or having a career… Well, there were no debates on either of those, as no one knew what they were and we probably couldn’t afford them anyway. Dreams were for the rich. So, one week after my sixteenth birthday, I began real-jobbing in my local chippy, The Plaice To Be, and one week and one hour after my sixteenth birthday, I silently whispered: ‘This isn’t the place for me’. Admittedly, I didn’t know where I wanted to go next or how to get there but, as it turns out, it’s enough to keep pulling at a thread, because I’m here now, working in the arts, despite society telling me that I couldn’t, and my parents saying that I probably shouldn’t.

From a very early age, every time I went into a theatre I felt completely at home. Its magic, its possibilities and its warmth were palpable to me. I wanted to live and work in there forever, and thanks to my teenage whisper finally finding a voice, I got there. Here.

So, how did I do it? And how can you make a successful and long career in the arts? Well, what type of career do you want?

One piece of immediate advice I can offer you is that you should resolve right now that, no matter what, you’re going to stick around. You should also acknowledge you really do wish to live your life in the theatre. It’s only then – after you’ve given voice to your ambition – that the flimsy, self-imposed barriers that have stopped you from seeing the theatre as a real job will melt away.

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Sarah-Louise Young in An Evening Without Kate Bush, made by Sarah-Louise Young and Russell Lucas (Photograph by James Millar)

Next, you need to redefine two words: ‘industry’ and ‘success’. These two nouns are responsible for so many artists falling by the wayside because they seemingly couldn’t get into the industry nor achieve success. So let’s redefine them.

‘Success’, from this point forward, will be when you have begun to take steps towards achieving an income from your artistic work; and the ‘industry’ will now be called your ‘trade’.

Now, I acknowledge that your path won’t be an easy one – but that’s one reason why we all feel so at home in the theatre, isn’t it? We’re not regular people, nor do we seek the ‘normal’ life. We desire creativity, freedom, stories, illusion, applause, a team, agency, travel – in fact: a life filled with imagination. Every day.

So, suit up; for you are allowed to work in the theatre.

Who Are the Theatremakers?

A theatremaker is anyone involved in the making of theatre. Whether you are a director, actor, writer, designer or another creative, this – of course – makes you a maker of theatre. The person who uses the term ‘theatremaker’ is a hybrid artist, a creative soul that can turn their hand to anything to get their show on.

I consider myself to be a theatremaker as I make theatre using my own resources. I come up with an idea, rehearse it, find a suitable platform, and then sell tickets however I can. I have no regular team, I’ve never used a set, sound or costume designer (yet), and I generally operate the lights myself. I write, produce, improvise, teach and choreograph. I’m also quite deft at finding cheap props online and can make trailers, posters and GIFs for publicity. Plus I know how to remove red wine from a costume (use white). I’m not rich and don’t come from money (can you tell?), and I don’t possess the urge to climb a career ladder either, nor become a prolific artist; and curiously I’ve never applied for public funding. I just make theatre. In a room. Any room. I theatricalise my idea and put it in front of an audience. For the most part, my ideas manifest on a live platform, sometimes online or like now, in my new book, 300 Thoughts for Theatremakers.

I’ve staged work in New York, Toronto, London and Tipton, and in 2018 I made an online interview series with Digital Theatre+ that’s streamed into schools around the world. I’ve directed art gallery films, commissioned an American playwright with an independent venue in London, and devised a new play with the same team over three years. Oh, and everyone’s always been paid.

Sounds professional, doesn’t it? Well, it is. So who am I? Well, I’m definitely not ‘Fringe’, as that’s a reductive term used by the misinformed to describe and supposedly locate artists who, at some point, must surely be aiming for the ‘Centre’ (be honest). Nor am I commercial. No. I am an independent theatremaker, and you won’t have heard of me because I don’t exist – at least not under the regular terminology of ‘director’, ‘producer’, ‘actor’ or ‘writer’, terms that don’t really represent my skill set any more, and so I rarely use them.

Bobby Kennedy Experience

Russell Lucas in his one-man show The Bobby Kennedy Experience (Photograph by Steve Ullathorne)

Theatremakers are like the ‘Where’s Wally?’ of the arts – we’re here, but you have to look really hard to find us. We’ll pop up at festivals (a lot), but you’ll rarely see us on the popular stages, as our transient nature could be performing cabaret or dance one week, then borrowing from the conventions of mime or puppetry the next; and that’s hard to categorise using the regular ways of classification. Maybe we’re indefinable?

So how did we manifest? By the continued slashing of budgets, changes of policies within funded theatres, and the ever-persistent commercial sector sucking up the air through the vacuum of nostalgia and film? It’s a theory.

How about our extended periods of unemployment as we wait for ‘heavy-pencilled’ jobs to turn into half a day’s work? (#actorslife) What about that devious myth that there are too many artists and not enough places for them to perform? Couple that with the cold hard truth of not enough affordable rehearsal spaces, outlandish financial demands on our already delicate reality – and how long was it going to be before we grabbed hold of the reins? Again.

In the same way that the actor-managers of the nineteenth century morphed into the director, the theatremaker is the next aggregation of the desires of the actor. And this seismic evolution/revolution was born from our exclusion from too many parties – for all those times we should have been the hosts, we were miscast as the caterers. And now that the theatremaker roams freely, they have discovered that the theatre itself needed them, before it too became a muted servant.

Theatremakers no longer spend days waiting for permission to cross the Rubicon to that utopian centre. No. We have walked off down the road and created our own trade, and us Jills and us Jacks of all the trades are fast becoming the majority.

Maybe one day, the birth of theatremakers – and their dirty ways – will be studied in schools, paving the way for more like us? Imagine the possibilities.

So, let it be known: the theatre is being reoccupied by its original tenant: The Maker of Theatre. And if you’re salivating right now, come join us off the radar. You can plough up the stalls, erase the interval and even tie some knots in the curtains if you wish, because it’s your trade too. But be warned: you’ll need to tear the tickets, serve the drinks, bring up the lights, and then go break everyone’s heart with your self-penned aria. Yes, it’s back to the old ways: make a show, sell your tickets, make some money, then make a new show.

Spread the word: the theatremaker is now the centre.

300 Thoughts for blog

This is an edited extract from 300 Thoughts for Theatremakers by Russell Lucas, out now. Save 20% on your copy when you order direct from the Nick Hern Books website here.

Russell Lucas is a UK-based artist specialising in writing, devising, producing, acting and directing. His work has been seen in London, Edinburgh, the West End, on tour and Off-Broadway.

He is also a qualified lecturer and has written and delivered workshops at leading venues and educational institutions across the UK and internationally. See more on his website.

Author photo: Steve Ullathorne

Great new drama from the US and Canada

This month we’re bringing you a selection of fantastic plays from our North American partners, Theatre Communications Group and Playwrights Canada Press.

They include an updating of the myth of Eurydice by Pulitzer-finalist Sarah Ruhl, a fabulously anarchic ‘sequel’ to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus by performance artist Taylor Mac, Wajdi Mouawad’s award-winning play about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a collaborative exposé of modern motherhood.

They join our growing list of the best plays from the US and Canada, including recent additions such as Michael R. Jackson’s Tony Award-nominated musical A Strange Loop, Lynn Nottage’s powerful indictment of the ivory trade, Mlima’s Tale, and, from Canada, Jordan Tanahill’s brilliant supernatural thriller Concord Floral. All are available direct from Nick Hern Books, and from good bookshops.


Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl

Eurydice for blog

Alice in Wonderland meets Greek myth in this playful, heart-breaking take on a timeless tale of loss, grief and redemption, from the author of The Clean House and In the Next Room.

Eurydice is in love with Orpheus. Her dead father has advice for her wedding but his letters can’t get through to the land of the living. At last one does. With her father’s words in her hand, she crashes down a flight of stairs and wakes in the underworld, her memory wiped as clean as glass. How will she ever get home?

‘The most moving exploration of the theme of loss that the American theater has produced’ New York Times

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus by Taylor Mac

Gary for blog

Performance artist Taylor Mac picks up where William Shakespeare’s blood-soaked tragedy Titus Andronicus left off in a play that explores generic boundaries and charts the violence done by those in charge, and the lives of those left to clean up.

The Roman Empire is falling. A bloody coup has ended, the country has been stolen by madmen, and there are casualties everywhere. Two lowly servants, Gary and Janice, are charged with cleaning up the bodies. It’s the year 400 – but it feels like the end of the world.

‘Fabulous and bedraggled: a defiant and beautiful mess’ New York Times

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Birds of a Kind by Wajdi Mouawad

A compelling drama from the award-winning Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad (Scorched / Incendies). Winner of the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award in 2019.

A terrorist attack in Jerusalem puts Eitan, a young Israeli-German genetic researcher, in a coma, while his girlfriend Wahida, a Moroccan graduate student, is left to uncover his family secret that brought them to Israel in the first place.

‘A vivid and vaulting multigenerational Middle East-set drama… challenging and complex… full of richness and raw emotion’ Globe and Mail

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


The Children’s Republic by Hannah Moscovitch

A powerful play about Dr Janusz Korczak, hero of the Warsaw Ghetto – a reminder of the hope that can still be found in a world devoid of freedom and the necessities of life.

Confined within the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto, Dr Korczak struggles to protect the children at his orphanage from the horrors of the Second World War. Between a troublemaking thief, an abandoned girl, a malnourished boy, and a violin prodigy, he has his hands full, but together they fight for beauty and hope in a world crumbling around them.

‘Hannah Moscovitch has found a fresh window into one of the most extensively documented horrors of the Second World War’ Glove and Mail

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Mortified by Amy Rutherford

A darkly funny play exploring sex, shame, and transformation, and how we reckon with the traumatic experiences that have shaped us. Winner of the 2019 Carol Bolt Award.

A woman runs into her former abuser and is surprised by the power he still holds over her. In an attempt to uncover the truth of what really happened between them, she recalls her adolescent self: a synchronized swimmer struggling to make sense of the world around her.

‘A beautiful and memorable piece of theatre that will not be easily forgotten’ Vancouver Presents

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Secret Life of a Mother by Hannah Moscovitch with Maev Beaty & Ann-Marie Kerr

The raw and untold secrets of pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth and mothering are revealed in this collaboratively written play that is uplifting and full of love.

A playwright writes an exposé of modern motherhood, full of her own darkly funny confessions and taboo-breaking truths. One of her real-life friends, an actress, performs the piece, and through it her own experiences of motherhood start to surface. These mothers are not the butts of jokes, the villains, or the perfect angels of a household.

‘An engrossing and necessary work of theatre’ Globe and Mail

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WROL (Without Rule of Law) by Michaela Jeffery

Part Judy Blume, part Rambo, this is a darkly comic coming-of-age story for complicated times.

When Maureen, Jo, Sarah, Vic, and Robbie sneak out at night to investigate an ominous hidden lair in the woods, they believe they have stumbled onto proof of what happened to a mysterious local cult that vanished over a decade ago. What they discover changes everything.

‘Captures a generation’s frustration Saskatoon StarPhoenix

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

‘Traditional Shakespeare makes me shudder’ – Andrew Hilton on keeping the plays fresh

Hiltonblog2_214x304Over the course of his fifty-year career, Andrew Hilton has directed dozens of Shakespeare plays to widespread acclaim – including from the Guardian‘s Lyn Gardner, who has called him ‘one of the great tellers of Shakespeare’. Hilton’s new book, Shakespeare on the Factory Floor, draws on these decades of experience, offering insights for theatre-makers, students and lovers of the plays. Here, he explains his approach to Shakespeare, and how to keep the work fresh for audiences today

Shakespeare on the Factory Floor is a by-product of my eighteen years running the theatre company Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol; we produced thirty Shakespeares, some Chekhov, Sheridan, Stoppard, Moliere and Middleton & Rowley, in annual two-play seasons with an ensemble company of anything from fifteen to twenty actors. I sometimes wonder why I didn’t begin it twenty years earlier (I was already 52), though in 1980 there would have been no Tobacco Factory Theatres and I would not have been able to call on so much talent from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School where I began teaching Shakespeare acting in the early 1990s.

At the Factory we wanted to offer not ‘traditional’ Shakespeare – the word makes me shudder – but productions we hoped were fundamentally true to his vision and intention. Though we edited, amended, sometimes even added text, we tried not to bend or distort, or to annex the plays to our own preoccupations. But we did interpret. Centuries of tradition cannot be scraped away to leave a ‘pure’ Shakespeare shining like newly unearthed gold; the traditions have to be overwritten, and worlds created for each play in which we can, to a degree, recognise ourselves. They have to have social and economic force and credibility; and everyone – from the leading characters to the tiniest bit-players – have to know where they belong in them and to have a more completely imagined life in them than ‘the two hours’ traffic of the stage’ will allow them to reveal.  These worlds might be Shakespeare’s own, as far as we can know and express it 400 years on; but they might also be ones he didn’t live to see.

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The Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production of All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare, performed at Tobacco Factory Theatres in 2016 (Photograph by Mark Douet)

In my time with the company, we moved plays into the commonwealth period, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Edwardian period and the inter-war years. I never ventured into the present century, and I explain why in the book – you can read an extract on this subject below.

The approach seemed to work. After an alarming beginning in February 2000, when it seemed we might run out of money within days of opening (we had no subsidy, only private investment), word got around and before long we were playing to over 90% in our 300-seater in-the-round studio. And, against my own expectations, London critics began to make the trip – and to do so repeatedly, which has to be the best testament to their enthusiasm.

The company has now ceased production. In 2018 it lost its long spring slot at the Factory – the economic foundation of its still unsubsidised work – and then came the pandemic to deliver the coup de grace. I don’t mourn it excessively; I think theatre should always be light of foot, that companies should come and go, and never risk outstaying their welcome. But I am pleased that a book has come out of it, and grateful to Nick Hern Books for taking it on. I hope it will be enjoyed equally by those who witnessed what we did during those eighteen years in BS3, and those who never had the opportunity.


Read on for an extract from Andrew Hilton’s book Shakespeare on the Factory Floor.

Is Ophelia portable?

I have seen at least one fine young actress struggle to make sense of Ophelia in a late twentieth-century court. Shakespeare’s Elsinore – as a high-status dwelling – seems to be typical of the period, with women few and far between. Gertrude must have one or two ladies-in-waiting, but there is no evidence that Ophelia has any. Her mother we must conclude is dead; and if, Juliet-like, she had a wet-nurse as a baby, she has been long ago retired. There is no reference to any female friend or helpmate of any kind. This is not just theatrical economy; it is a very likely scenario. Her virginity is (to put it crudely) bankable; her education limited; her access to society at large, and the freedoms of the town, nil. She is lonely while being fiercely protected.

This is the soil in which the chaos of her madness springs; naivety, grief and unmediated sexuality woven together in lethal combination. It is also a representative soil; representative of a fearful and puritanical society, one in which – in the higher echelons at least – unmarried men and women are kept apart, and a young woman’s sexual awakening is expected to begin after marriage, not before it.

Is there a parallel for this in the western world in the twenty-first century? I think not, and here I must demur from Juliet Stevenson’s recent call for all future Shakespeare productions to be in modern dress. Social dynamics matter; and they change over time, impinging radically differently on interpersonal relationships and the sense of self. Our experience of politics, law, religion, work, love and marriage, poverty and wealth, disease and death all change. The extent to which these changes matter varies hugely from one Shakespeare play to the next, and I have as often felt able to escape the traditional ‘Jacobethan’ moment in design as felt compelled to stick with it. At the same time, I think we must credit our audience with the capacity to recognise themselves through the prism of an earlier period; that the past is not such ‘another country’ that it cannot live vibrantly and potently in our imagination.

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Shakespeare on the Factory Floor: A Handbook for Actors, Directors and Designers by Andrew Hilton is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

Save 20% and get your copy for just £13.59 when you order direct from the NHB website here.

How to learn an American accent – top tips from a leading voice and dialect coach

RebeccaGausnell_214x304Rebecca Gausnell is a voice and dialect coach who’s worked on film, TV and theatre productions around the world, helping actors give convincing performances that not only sound authentically American, but connect the voice to the character they’re playing. In this extract from her new book, Mastering an American Accent: The Compact Guide, Rebecca offers some top tips on how you too can learn to use an American accent with confidence in auditions and performance.

It is not always obvious how to learn an accent. Some people are good mimics, but most require structured practice to hone the skill. And yet, during this work, actors can run into opposing objectives. The muscles of the mouth must move precisely, but without undue effort. The rhythms and melodies of an accent must be attended to, but not to an extent that overpowers the words being spoken. The accent is drilled tirelessly so that it may eventually be invisible in performance. Ultimately, the actor aims to embody an accent in every way – weaving pronunciation, muscular action, vocal musicality and an awareness of culture seamlessly into character and performance.

Here, and in my book Mastering an American Accent: The Compact Guide, I hope to dispel misconceptions around learning a new accent. You can learn a new accent – and the process can be fun.

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Rebecca Gausnell working with actor Rhys Ifans on the set of Berlin Station

What is ‘General American’?

In the entertainment industry and linguistically speaking, ‘General American’ is the term used to describe a group of vowels, consonants, grammar and vocabulary typical of many people from the United States. General American is often abbreviated to ‘GenAm’. General American is a purposefully vague term because the accent is considered to be non-regional. Bizarrely, this means that General American is an American accent from nowhere. This is different to other accents in the United States that tend to be classified based on region or by the ethnic group from which the accent originates.

Because of its non-regional features, General American is often considered a standard accent in the United States. In fact, the accent is sometimes called General American or Standard American interchangeably. That is not to say that the accent is neutral or more valid than other American accents. However, the accent does carry a level of prestige in the United States. A General American accent is typical of most-likely educated, often white, usually middle- to upper-middle-class Americans from around the country. But that doesn’t mean that all General American accent speakers fit neatly into those boxes.

The key here is the regional ambiguity of the accent. The accent expresses that the speaker is American without saying where they are from in the United States. A person could be from California or Vermont yet still speak with the universal features of the accent. In fact, the accent has been referred to as a ‘newscaster’ accent because TV anchors, regardless of the state, often speak with the accent. The accent also dominates American film and television today and is often called upon for American auditions.

The General American accent is more of a continuum of accents, not a single unified sound. It is an umbrella term that encompasses the most widespread American accent. Different speakers of a General American accent may sound slightly different from one another, because a person’s voice is influenced by many factors, including age, gender and lived experience.

Listen to this recording of General American voices speaking the same text to hear this in action.

Mastering an American Accent coaches the general patterns that make up a General American accent. However, specificity is key. Keep in mind that the perfect American accent does not exist. Every speaker is different, and it is the actor’s job to find an American sound that suits the character. Instead of searching for perfection, I would much prefer that the main features of the accent are present and that the accent sits comfortably in your mouth and voice.

Understanding an Accent

When working on an accent there are three distinct areas of practice:

  1. The mouth setting of the accent. This can be understood as the shape and position taken by the muscles of speech when speaking in the accent.
  2. The sounds of the accent, made up of vowels
  3. The music of the accent, which includes the rhythm, the stressing, the melody, pitch, volume, pace, vocal quality and the intonation patterns particular to an accent.

All three of these elements combine to form the technical side of learning an accent and each can be actively trained.

An accent’s mouth setting is the foundation of the entire accent, and a good place to return to if you hit roadblocks. I can assure you that if the accent’s mouth shape is off, the desired accent will be difficult to achieve with ease. The mouth setting is comprised of the muscles of the mouth and face. It includes how the muscles shape the voice and sounds coming out of the mouth. The mouth’s setting forms the basis of the entire accent, so I encourage you to give time and space to finding it in your own muscles. The next step is explore the consonants and vowels or the sounds of the General American accent.

The final technical step involves the music of a General American accent – the rhythm, stressing, melodies and intonation patterns of the accent. Admittedly, the music of any accent can be difficult to practise as there are few definitive rules. However, our ears tend first to identify accents based on the overarching music of a voice. This is why mastering the music of an accent can go a long way in convincing your audience. It can also be vital to feeling confident when performing in the accent.

There is one final piece of the puzzle to any accent, which is the inherent culture of the accent. This includes consideration of the people who speak with the accent, along with the accent’s geographical and historical background. We always hope that this element is already embedded in the character through compelling and accurate writing on the part of the playwright. However, it is the actor’s job to bring that character to life in a truthful manner. Keep in mind that in order to sound fully American you will also need to embody an American character in performance. An accent is more expansive than the sum of its parts. The lived experience of a character should always be considered when developing your performance.

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Orlando Bloom and Sophie Cookson in rehearsals for the 2018 Trafalgar Studios revival of Killer Joe by Tracy Letts, on which Rebecca Gausnell worked as a dialect coach – Bloom’s performance was praised by the New York Times for his ‘husky-voiced insouciance and pitch-perfect accent’ (Photo © Marc Brenner)

The Art of Learning an Accent

I encourage you to approach learning an accent in four ways:

  1. Conscious Listening
  2. Conscious Feeling
  3. Conscious Voicing
  4. Conscious Visualising

The act of Conscious Listening comes into play because you cannot reproduce a sound you cannot hear. It is only through listening that you can begin to approach an accent and understand it fully. Often the accents to which we have been most exposed prove the easiest to recreate. Even your own natural accent developed due to listening to your environment, your parents and your peers. Conscious Listening gives you exposure to the target sounds and music of the accent in order to reach this level of mastery.

Accent work concerns the muscles of speech, so Conscious Feeling develops awareness around these muscles so they can move with ease and precision in the accent. Take notes as you go on how the target sounds feel in your mouth. You may even want to assign a shape or picture to that feeling so that you can recreate the sound in the future. You could also find it useful to use a small personal mirror or a smartphone camera on selfie mode to see the mouth at work when making a new sound. Having those shapes in the mind’s eye will help develop and clarify an accent so that you can hit the target sound every time.

Conscious Voicing might also be described as mimicking or copying the sounds aloud with heightened awareness. Speaking in the accent aloud is important in order to begin rooting the accent in your own voice and body. A big mistake actors can make is practising the accent in silence. Although it may seem safer to stay quiet, you will master an accent by taking it on the road. Practise out loud in order to make strides towards a fully realised accent.

Conscious Visualising allows you to see and feel the accent at work in your own body. It may also give you the space to create your own images to aid the Listening, Feeling and Voicing work. Conscious Visualising will be different for everyone, but it can be an imaginative process that connects the accent to the body, breath, and voice. Perhaps you consider the elements of character – such as movement, pacing or breath – and begin marrying these with accent work. The ways into Conscious Visualising are infinite, and are something I look at in depth in Mastering an American Accent.

To be clear, you are not responsible for thinking about all of these points all of the time while practising an accent. There may be certain ways of working that you favour, and the preferred way will be different for everyone. Having an idea of your own learning styles can go a long way when undertaking a new skill. I suggest you experiment with all four approaches in order to create a well-rounded way in to learning an accent.

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L-R: Zawe Ashton, Kit Harington and Noomi Rapace, three more of the many well-known actors Rebecca Gausnell has coached in her prestigious, international career

Practising an Accent

Think of a new accent as choreography for the mouth. By working on foundational movements, the dance becomes easier to the dancer. Speech is equally physical. What is different is that you speak every day, and these are muscles that you use and engage with ease already. You have reason to be confident when working with the muscles of speech through the technical sections. The biggest mistake I feel actors make in performing with an accent is a lack of technique to solidify the work. I promise that technique will only strengthen your ability to integrate the accent into your voice and your performance.

There are many artists who may be opposed to the idea of drills. This is usually out of a fear that the drills will be done in a rote way and will lead to bad habits. However, you can avoid this by approaching drills with attention and connection. Using them wisely will free you from thinking about the accent in performance. Not unlike an athlete doing reps in a gym, drills build and prepare the muscles to work with ease. And just as the athlete completes their workout with alertness and precision, I encourage you to attend to accent drills with the same level of aliveness.

It is through conscious drilling that the muscles learn to respond. That’s why Mastering an American Accent contains drills and exercises to allow you to practise each new concept in isolation. These concepts are gradually expanded and applied to longer extracts from American plays.

Accent work is best approached little and often. There are many moving parts to an accent, and the brain and mouth muscles can easily get tired. Ten minutes daily over the course of a week can be more effective than a single one-hour practice session. Do not discount the role of repetition in voice work. It is only through repetition that we achieve mastery.

Embrace a sense of play and discovery in the work ahead. Children mimic voices all the time and have no hang-ups about getting them right or wrong. I encourage you to take on this same mindset when practising. Through play comes ease and freedom – freedom from self-doubt, from judgement and from self-critique.

A native speaker of an accent has found ease in their speech through years of practice. If you are coming to it later in life, the best place to begin is at the beginning. Do not worry if a concept doesn’t click on your first try. Meet the work with openness, and confidence will follow.


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This is an edited extract from Mastering an American Accent: The Compact Guide by Rebecca Gausnell – out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

Save 20% and get your copy for just £7.99 when you order direct from the NHB website here.