‘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.

Theatre for the Climate Emergency: 100 Plays to Save the World

Fighting climate change is an urgent, universal endeavour – and theatre-makers and playwrights have a vital role to play, capturing the reality of an experience we’ve never faced before, and envisaging our responses to it.

Elizabeth Freestone and Jeanie O’Hare’s new book, 100 Plays to Save the World, is a guide to a hundred brilliant plays that address the climate crisis, from recent plays that tackle it directly, to classic texts in which ecological themes now ring out clearly.

Designed to start conversations, provoke debate and launch many future productions, 100 Plays to Save the World is a call to arms, a challenge to us all to unleash theatre’s power to imagine a better future into being.

Here, the authors explain why the great climate-change play already exists, and what theatre-makers can do to save the planet.


People often ask: where is the great climate-change play? The answer is it’s here, it has already been written, and quite possibly it was staring you in the face. Writers have for years been wrestling with the challenges the world now faces, but clarion calls from the past by visionary playwrights are only now being listened to. Extinction, extreme weather, resource shortages, failing political leadership, truth, denial – these things already exist in the playwriting culture. We just need a sharp new ear to tune into their resonances. In addition, new plays are being written every day dealing head-on with these topics.

We – artists, thinkers, creators – have a responsibility to communicate the truth of this emergency. The future we currently face is as uncertain as it is daunting. The world is shape-shifting and our culture must too.

‘The future we currently face is as uncertain as it is daunting’: there were mixed responses from activists to the COP26 summit that took place in Glasgow in Oct-Nov 2021.

The Anthropocene is the name given to the geological age we are in now. Named after the Greek ‘anthropos’, meaning ‘man’, it was chosen to emphasise the truth that humankind has now left a geological footprint on this planet: radioactive isotopes are found in glacial ice; the high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are detectable in tree rings and limestone; our plastic waste is forming a new sedimentary layer. But still large swathes of the population opt out of believing in these facts. Why? We have to consider that the stories we tell, the way in which we tell them, and on which stages they are told, might be part of the problem. We urge theatre-makers and programmers to become part of the Theatre of the Anthropocene, telling stories that anticipate our future, acknowledge our past and make our present liveable.

Climate-change plays don’t need to be either scientist plays, dystopias, or have a polar bear in them. Some of the works we can now view in this light were written long before such a thing as a climate crisis was known about. Plays by Aristophanes, Chekhov, Brecht and others now seem eerily prescient when read through environmental eyes, both predicting and speaking directly to this moment. Some were written more recently but without an explicitly stated intention that the play addresses environmental issues. Relationships to nature, geopolitical issues, social consequences of environmental impacts; all of these help tell the story of the most pressing issue facing us today. Their relevance is a useful reminder that staging environmental stories is not just the responsibility of playwrights. Theatre-makers of every discipline – casting, design, acting, directing, stage management – must reimagine and reinterpret these plays through the prism of the present. The climate crisis is not one problem. Turning down the global thermostat won’t solve habitat destruction or reconnect people to the natural world.

Fighting the climate crisis is a global endeavour. There are voices and places under-represented – and we urge translators and commissioners to enable more work from the Global South to be heard.  We need to acknowledge that the nature of our international theatre reveals our collective thinking, and that maybe our collective thinking is sleepily behind the curve. The world is reshaping itself violently in the physical realm and that is impacting on the reshaping of stories we need to tell, not just for now but for generations to come. This climate emergency will, in many ways, be the subject of all of our art for the foreseeable future, just as it ought to be the dominant discourse in our political, economic and social spheres.

Writers won’t just write plays about these issues for a short while, after a fashion, believing the crisis will then be over. This is our new reality. The shifts we make societally in the next decade will be with us forever, otherwise the undeniable truth is that the concept of forever will itself no longer exist.

The impact of the climate emergency is also altering the way that plays are written and for whom they are written. The movement of peoples has an impact on our stories, and the rise in the pitch of the voices that need to be heard has an impact on our listening.

We can no longer navel-gaze and clink our gins. We need to capture a reality that we have never experienced before. We need to unleash the power of a total theatre, an era of playwriting that embraces epic stories, and values playwrights’ intelligent, focused urgency and understanding. We need to exercise and stretch our thinking, widen our eyes, strengthen our neck muscles for the sustained looking up we now need to do. Theatre must imagine the future, and help us reach towards the bold, humane, quick thinking we are going to need.

Elizabeth Freestone (left) and Jeanie O’Hare (right), authors of 100 Plays to Save the World


This is an edited extract from 100 Plays to Save the World by Elizabeth Freestone and Jeanie O’Hare, out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £11.99 plus p&p (rrp £14.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website now.

Elizabeth Freestone is a theatre director, creative consultant and environmentalist. She has directed plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Manchester Royal Exchange, the Citizens Theatre Glasgow, the Young Vic and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, amongst others. She is a former Artistic Director of Pentabus, a new work touring company. She offers strategic advice and creative and environmental consultancy in both a paid and volunteer capacity for various organisations, as well as teaching and mentoring young artists. She has a Masters degree in Environmental Humanities from Bath Spa University.

Jeanie O’Hare is a short-story writer, playwright and project consultant for theatre and film. She originally trained as a sculptor. She has worked for the Royal Court Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Druid Theatre, and was Chair of Playwriting at Yale School of Drama. Most recently she was the Director of New Work Development at the Public Theater in New York.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

I owe Esther Caplan my career.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

'Nick Hern Books' party, 30th Anniversary, London, UK - 01 Jul 2018

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


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

Photograph of Antony Sher by Paul Stuart Photography Ltd.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Photograph of Stephen Sondheim by Richard Avedon.

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

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

What am I describing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do plays have rules?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How it all began

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what some actors say of his work:

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

Alan Rickman

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

Juliette Binoche

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

Hugh Jackman

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

Lenny Henry

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

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

Making your own discoveries

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

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

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

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

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

Sound good? Then let’s start.


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

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

Great new American drama to celebrate

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

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


A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson

Strange Loop

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

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

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

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Linda Vista by Tracy Letts

Linda Vista

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

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

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

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Gloria: A Life by Emily Mann

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

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

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

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


What the Constitution Means to Me by Heidi Schreck

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

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

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

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


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

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

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

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

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You.

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

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

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

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

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