‘As a playwright, you must have something that you want to say’: Stephen Jeffreys on the craft of playwriting

In addition to his success as a highly respected writer and teacher, Stephen Jeffreys also spent many years working on a guide to the craft of playwriting, to share his wisdom and experience. That book, Playwriting, is out now, published posthumously following Stephen’s sad and untimely death in September 2018.

Here, in an extract from Playwriting, he reflects on ‘learning things the hard way’, how writers should always be seeking to improve, and the opportunities of live performance.  

As a teacher of writing, my starting point has always been that nothing that I can say or teach you will turn you into a playwright: you must have something that you want to say. You have to have the urge to say something onstage, and that is something I can’t give you. Most people have learned fascinating things from their life or lived through extraordinary experiences, had brilliant ideas or imagined great things. What I can try to do is to save you years of work by transmitting certain techniques, tools and tricks that can help you to translate your experiences or ideas into your play.

Aristotle’s assessment of playwriting in the Poetics remains to this day the greatest attempt to explain this mysterious craft. I have read many later books on playwriting, some going back to the nineteenth century, and most of them are not very helpful to the aspiring playwright. Either they tend to view plays in an overly academic manner or they tend to be too simple. What I think playwrights need is a practical guide to writing plays, including techniques, approaches, and story ideas, providing them with the tools that they can apply to their own work.

The first time I went to a playwriting workshop, I was running it, and so when I became Writer-in-Residence at Paines Plough, a new-writing theatre company, I sought to remedy this lack of teaching. I set up a group of playwrights called ‘The Wild Bunch’ whose intention was to teach each other everything we knew. We took it in turns to teach sessions, and we learned a great deal. I carried on learning about playwriting through working with writers over many years, including spending twelve years at the Royal Court Theatre in London, reading five plays a week, and running playwriting masterclasses. But more than anything else, I have learned about playwriting from working on my own plays. Writing plays is difficult. It’s rather different from writing poetry or novels or songs. It’s a very particular type of writing with its own set of skills. What I try to share are mostly things that I’ve learned myself the hard way.

Stephen Jeffreys delivering a masterclass on ‘Writing History Plays’ at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, in October 2016

Writers tend to fall into two groups. There are those who are terribly good at things like structure, organisation, getting the characters on- and offstage, and making sure that the plot is watertight; the tendency of writers like these is that they may be a little unimaginative and possibly lack that sense of poetry, metaphor, and the unexpected. Whereas the other type of writer tends to be brilliant at coming up with great visual images, understanding the psychology of the characters, or finding beautifully poetic moments or metaphors, but they seem incapable of getting the actors on and off the stage in the right order, or finding an overall shape for the play. I rather crudely refer to this as left-brained and right-brained writing: the left-brain being responsible for our organisational, rational and cognitive capabilities, and the right-brain being more poetic and spontaneous. There’s been some recent work on the theory that the left-brain and right-brain are fundamentally different, which of course concludes that it’s a bit more complicated than that, so I enter a disclaimer here that I’m using those terms in inverted commas. When I say ‘left-brain’ and ‘right-brain’, I don’t mean that I have any real grasp of neuroscience, but rather as a convenient way of labelling and thinking about these different types of approach to writing plays.

What I’d encourage writers to do is recognise and improve upon the part of playwriting that you’re not good at. While reading the last paragraph, you may already have instinctively identified with one of the approaches to playwriting; if so, that’s a good start! Because the key to playwriting, in contrast to other forms of writing, is that you do need to develop both these sets of skills. You can just about get away with being a novelist who doesn’t have a great grasp of structure, for instance, but it’s very hard to do that in theatre; conversely, a play that is beautifully organised but has no driving metaphor, no inner life, will be received by audiences as being very efficient but very dead. Another way of looking at it is to think of the difference between a ‘bird’s-eye view’ of playwriting, where you look down and see the whole map of a play spread out before you, and a ‘worm’s-eye view’ of playwriting, where you’re peering up from a muddy field, you have no idea what’s going on, but you are richly in the moment – which I imagine worms to be. Try to look into yourself, and to woo those skills that you feel you don’t have.

If you think about the way an audience receives a play, it’s very different from other art forms. If you are reading a novel, maybe you’ll read forty pages on the first day; the next day you have a domestic crisis so you won’t read anything; the day after that you may read a hundred pages; the day after that you read about five pages before falling asleep; and the next day you’ll get completely gripped and finish the book. Essentially, you choose when it all happens. Or imagine you’re in an art gallery, and you see a sculpture: you can generally choose how much time you spend looking at that sculpture – you can spend half an hour, you can spend ten seconds, but it’s your choice. In the theatre, however, as an audience member, if you’ve lost attention and dropped out at some point, then the show has gone on without you: there’s no rewind button; you can’t go back. A play happens live, in real time – that is the basic condition of writing for theatre – and as a playwright you have to learn to deal with that.

The 2016 revival of The Libertine by Stephen Jeffreys, starring Dominic Cooper as the Earl of Rochester (photo by Alastair Muir)

It’s always frightening when you see audiences tune out at the same time. If I have a play on at the Royal Court, during the first preview I will generally watch the play and take notes; but for the second preview, I will sit in one of the seats at the side of the stage in the gallery and watch the audience. I watch to see at which points they start, literally, to lose the plot. Audiences tend to switch off all together, and when they do that, it’s probably your fault as a writer: there’s something wrong with the play; this is the bit where it’s not interesting. A novelist can get away with writing a self-indulgent description of the countryside, say, because the reader can always think, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just skip that bit.’ But you can’t do that when writing a play. If you lose the audience, even for a minute, it’s very hard to get them back, because they are holding on to a continuous piece of wire, they are following the story second by second. Our responsibility as playwrights is to make every single second interesting. This is our great problem, and also our great opportunity.

This is an edited extract from Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write by Stephen Jeffreys, out now and published by Nick Hern Books. Click here to buy your copy at a 20% discount.

Stephen Jeffreys was a playwright and teacher, whose plays include The Libertine. His Masterclasses – delivered at the Royal Court Theatre, London – attracted writers from all over the world and shaped the ideas of many of today’s leading playwrights and theatre-makers. 

Author photo by Annabel Arden.

Big new plays for great big casts: the exciting new Multiplay Drama series

As Nick Hern Books launches its new Multiplay Drama series – a great range of plays with large casts that are perfect for older teenagers and young adults to perform – series editor John O’Donovan explains why it’s a boon for any group looking for an ambitious play to perform with roles for all the company.

Every year, a great number of original plays are commissioned and performed by drama schools, educational institutions, and youth, student and amateur-theatre companies. Reading them, talking to their writers, seeing them in production, we are always struck by the complexity of their themes, the invention of their storytelling and the calibre of their playwrights.

Some of these plays are revived in professional productions – for instance, Growth by Luke Norris was first seen at the Royal Welsh College before being revised and produced on tour by Paines Plough in their pop-up theatre, Roundabout, and winning a Fringe First Award in Edinburgh – but most haven’t yet had a further life. It seems like the very raison d’être of many of these plays – the creation of large-scale complex pieces for young, large casts – has meant theatre companies, hamstrung by ever-shrinking budgets, haven’t been able to find a way to give the plays the continuing existence that they deserve.

That’s why Nick Hern Books has created Multiplay Drama – a new series aiming to bring back to the fore some of the best plays for large casts we’ve read. Offering ten high-quality plays that originated with various drama schools and youth-theatre companies, it provides a selection of ambitious, complex, dramatic and theatrical plays with one common factor: large casts of rich, exciting characters for teenagers and young adults to perform.

No one-person shows. No knotty two-handers. No triptychs. These are plays with big ideas and need big companies to put them across. From the relatively modest seven-hander Blue to the 75+ speaking characters in katzenmusik, these plays offer multiple perspectives and clamorous takes on some of the most important issues of today.

In making these plays available to read and perform, we’re hoping to see a legion of other drama schools, youth theatres, student-drama societies, sixth-form colleges and amateur-theatre companies gaining ready access to the kinds of plays that interrogate theatrical storytelling form as vigorously as they question the world we live in today. In every play in this first season of the initiative, actors will find roles that are fleshed out and demand self-reflection, that justify their time on the stage and find their place within a larger set of characters.

If your performance group is looking for a play that builds a post-apocalyptic world and focuses on a large group of identifiable characters navigating through a dystopian vision of Britain – we have the play for you; if you prefer a play where a Chorus comes and narrates across time zones and locations, splitting up voices to tell a fragmented story – we have the play for you; if you want to wonder what it’s like to spend every day in a psychiatric unit; or in mourning for a loved one; or even what it’s like to metamorphose into an animal – we have the plays for you…

Multiplay Drama is a great way for plays with large casts to find even larger audiences. Commissioned by some of the most illustrious educational and youth groups in the country, and featuring playwrights whose work has been seen on the most celebrated of stages, these ten plays offer rigorous storytelling, unflinching explorations of contemporary issues, and a willingness to experiment with theatrical form and invest even the smallest of roles with significance and dignity. They are ideal for companies with a lot of performers looking for fresh, modern and dramatic stances on the world we live in today.


John O’Donovan is Consultant Editor at Nick Hern Books.

The first ten titles in the Multiplay Drama series are out now, published by Nick Hern Books. For more information and free extracts, visit www.multiplaydrama.co.uk.

All ten plays are available to buy as ebooks from Nick Hern Books and from most ebook retailers.

‘A burning obsession with horror’: Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson on their play Ghost Stories

As Ghost Stories returns to terrify London audiences, and appears in print for the first time, its creators Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson explain how they came up with idea, and the inspirations they drew on.

Ghost Stories is a dream come true.

We met in 1981 at a Jewish summer camp called, appropriately enough, ‘Chai ’81’ (‘Chai’ being Hebrew for ‘life’). It was fate that threw together three kids from Leeds (including Dyson) and three kids from Leicester (including Nyman) into one cramped room for six. We were fifteen and within a couple of hours had discovered that we shared two mutual loves: dirty jokes and a burning obsession with Horror. We became best friends, and in the thirty-eight intervening years very little has changed.

Throughout our friendship we have constantly mused, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to actually work together?’, always meaning it, but somehow never quite finding the time. We’ve both remained busy, Jeremy as a writer and Andy as an actor. Our careers, and the practicalities of being freelancers with families, meant the realities of collaborating were beginning to feel like an impossible dream.

The Woman in Black at the Fortune Theatre

Then one day that all changed. Andy was in the West End of London and happened to walk past the Fortune Theatre, where The Woman in Black has been playing for almost thirty years. Andy was struck by a thought: how insane it was that there hadn’t been another horror play since that one had opened, almost as though such a thing wasn’t allowed.

Andy had also recently seen The Vagina Monologues in which the staging is remarkably simple – three women sit on three stools reading/performing the play directly from the script. The two experiences collided and Andy phoned Jeremy with this thought – ‘I think I know what we should work on together – a play, like The Vagina Monologues, but with ghost stories. Three men, sitting on three stools telling ghost stories.’ Jeremy loved the idea and we started to ponder.

The third essential cog in the machine was Sean Holmes. He and Andy had worked together on a play Andy had starred in (Moonlight and Magnolias by Ron Hutchinson); they’d loved working together and wanted to collaborate on something else. Andy casually mentioned the idea of the ghost-story play. A month later Sean became the Artistic Director of the Lyric Hammersmith, and his second phone call on his first day in the job was to Andy, to find out what was happening with ‘that ghost play’. A meeting was set for three days later.

Fortunately we’d been talking about it and thinking about it on and off for about a year, emailing each other fragments of our own writing and our favourite ghost stories by other people – so in some ways the earth had been tilled when we got together, prior to meeting Sean to draw up some rules of engagement:

  • It had to be contemporary, so that it was as different as possible from The Woman in Black.
  • It had to have a small cast to keep costs down.
  • It should only be ninety minutes without an interval to keep the tension high.
  • There should be no spoilers allowed at all, no plot given to press or indeed auditioning actors.

And finally, and most importantly:

  • It had to be as frightening as the best modern horror film, with full ‘leap out your seat’ scares.

On 27 January 2009, we had the meeting and, incredibly, Sean and the Lyric commissioned the play, with us set to direct.

We were both busy for about six months with our own various commitments, but set a time when we could get started properly. Then on 19 July we finally sat down with four clear days to scratch out something concrete. The script had to be delivered on 1 October. The first thing we did was put a large index card on the wall. It said simply ‘FUN’, and it acted as an essential reminder both that the play itself should be entertaining and enjoyable, but also that the creative process wasn’t to be some terrifying daunting task, but was built around the simple joy of two lifelong friends finally coming together to do what they had talked about doing for over thirty years.

We set out with one very simple premise: what was the play we would most want to see ourselves? We started talking about our favourite moments from horror films, what made us laugh, scream and jump; but we also discussed what were the most memorable and impactful moments of theatre we could remember. The aspiration was somehow to combine both.

Very quickly the wall filled up with random thoughts and ideas, all disconnected but all born from the same place.

As we started to sift and shift these ideas into categories and sections, we realised that the ‘three men telling three stories’ idea had somehow shifted itself into a stage version of a cinematic phenomenon we both adored: the portmanteau horror film.

Dead of Night (1945)

The incredible films of the production companies Amicus and Tigon in the 1970s, and their earlier 1940s Ealing Studios predecessor, Dead of Night, had shaped our childhoods – utterly British and yet fantastically global, full of deliciously playful scares that had creeped us out and stayed alive in our imaginations for decades. We knew, though, that we also wanted to craft a play that would deliver something of substance to an audience, some solid ground underneath the fun, that would leave a deeper, darker residue and be harder to shake off.

With that in mind, we asked each other a question: ‘Had you ever done anything in your life that you were truly ashamed of?’ The answers we gave would go on to shape both the individual stories and the overall plot in ways that were consistently surprising to us both.

* * *

Andy Nyman as Professor Phillip Goodman in Ghost Stories, 2010

Ghost Stories opened at the Liverpool Playhouse on 4 February 2010 before transferring to the Lyric Hammersmith, and we truly had no idea what to expect. By now Sean had come on board as a third director, bringing a wealth of experience to help guide us through the technical rehearsals and first previews.

When the audience screamed for the very first time, it was one of the greatest moments of our creative lives. Something so unique and very special.

West End promotional image for Ghost Stories, 2014

Wonderfully, the play performed to packed houses at the Lyric, and very swiftly transferred to the West End. It ran at the Duke of York’s Theatre for thirteen months – a fact that still makes us pinch ourselves.

Since then the show has been performed all over the world – Moscow, Sydney, Lima, Germany, Toronto, Shanghai, Norway, Finland and with many more international productions planned. We also adapted it for film, writing and directing it ourselves. It was released in cinemas in 2018 both in the UK and internationally to much critical acclaim. It also won us a Fangoria Chainsaw Award for Best First Feature – a fact that would have made our fifteen-year-old selves explode with delight.

And here we are now, 2019, with the revival of Ghost Stories about to open at the Lyric Hammersmith, the final show of Sean Holmes’s artistic directorship there. Like the best dreams, as one looks back and reflects on what has happened, it feels impossible, ungraspable. So many stars have to align to create anything, let alone something that lasts and is still a living, breathing thing almost a decade after it was first conceived. No small part of Ghost Stories success lies in the enthusiasm and individual brilliance of our fantastic creative team who threw themselves into the challenge of bringing it to life with a zeal that matched our own: Sean Holmes, designer Jon Bausor, lighting designer James Farncombe and sound designer Nick Manning.

It fills our hearts with joy that so many people have seen the show and kept its secrets.

We wish you the sweetest of dreams.

Garry Cooper as the Caretaker in the 2019 revival of Ghost Stories at the Lyric Hammersmith (photo by Chris Payne)


The above is an edited extract from the introduction to Ghost Stories the playscript by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, out this week (4 April 2019), published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for £7.99 plus p&p (RRP £9.99), click here.

The play is at the Lyric Hammersmith until 11 May 2019 [extended until 18 May 2019].

Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson will be signing copies of the book at the Forbidden Planet London Megastore on Monday 8 April 2019, 6-7pm.

Author photo  by Dan Wooller.

Vaulting ambition: the best new plays from VAULT Festival 2019

VAULT Festival, London’s biggest arts and entertainment festival, is now underway in the Vaults in Waterloo, where it runs until 17 March.  With over 400 shows from more than 2,000 artists, featuring the best new writing in theatre and comedy, cabaret, immersive experiences, late night parties and more, there’s something for everyone. And to celebrate the publication of Plays from VAULT 4, an exciting collection of seven of the best plays from the festival, we asked the authors whose work is featured in the anthology to tell us a bit about their play, and what VAULT means to them – plus, at the bottom, a few handy tips on what to see at this year’s festival…

Maud Dromgoole on her play 3 Billion Seconds, 6–10 March:

3 Billion Seconds is about two hardcore population activists who advocate having no children until (obviously) they get pregnant themselves. We watch them going to greater and greater extremes, struggling to ‘offset’ keeping the baby.

It comes really from being a member of a fair few zero-waste groups, and observing the sporadic militantism and absolute hypocrisy of trying to be a good person in a confusing world. It’s been a complete nightmare play for me in interrogating my own choices. It’s made me vegetarian which is, you know, good for the cows, but sad for me.

The text isn’t particularly prescriptive and I’m very lucky to have a director I trust implicitly. I’m really excited to see what Beth [Bethany Pitts] makes with it, and I hope people will come see it at VAULT.


Nathan Lucky Wood on his play Alcatraz, 27 Feb–3 March:

Alcatraz is the story of a little girl who breaks into a nursing home to bust her Granny out for Christmas. It’s about finding room for love in big institutions, and the meaning of Christmas, and the meaning of Clint Eastwood.

It started life as a short play for The Miniaturists. I had an idea for a sort of gender-swapped Don Quixote set in modern London. I thought I could write a play where a woman with dementia wanders through London misinterpreting everything she sees, and her granddaughter goes with her, not realising she has dementia. Don Quixote became Donna Quexis and Sancho became Sandy, which I thought was quite clever. Then I sat down to write the play and by the time I had finished, something very different had emerged, and it had nothing to do with Don Quixote except the names. At the time I’d been stuck on a very serious, important play about whistleblowing in the NHS, and Alcatraz seemed to absorb all those themes and ideas. But at heart it’s about a child trying to repair a broken family. Which seems to end up being the subject of every play I write, whether I want it to or not.

It’s a huge privilege to come back to VAULT Festival. It’s an incredible place with an incredible atmosphere, and a fantastic, supportive team behind it. And the venues have so much atmosphere. I’m really excited to see Alcatraz in the Cavern – it’s been my favourite venue here for years and it’s just perfect for the play.


Margaret Perry on her play Collapsible, 13–17 February:

Collapsible is a play set inside the brain of an unemployed and isolated woman who increasingly feels she is not a person who exists. Interviewing for job after job, she starts to run out of ways to describe herself, and so she decides to make a list, crowd-sourced from the people who know her. Or used to know her. But as the list grows, she soon finds that words on a page aren’t enough to cling to. It’s a monologue about work, self, and trying to wade out of the dark.

The play came from a few different places. When I first moved to London almost five years ago, I was unemployed for three horrible months. Collapsible is partly an exorcism of that time in my life and an interrogation of the damaging way in which our neoliberal capitalist society has intrinsically linked who we are to what we do. I also wanted to explore the tunnel-vision solipsism of depression and anxiety – the ways we push people away just when we need them the most. And I wanted to write a play from the perspective of a complex, compelling bisexual woman.

I’m SO excited to be at VAULT 2019 making this play with the best collaborators I could ask for. VAULT 2017 and 2018 filled my heart and emptied my pockets and I knew I had to be part of it any chance I got!


Nabilah Said on her play Inside Voices, 23–27 January:

Inside Voices is a dark comedy about Muslim women from Singapore. It blends humour with magical realism to confront audiences with a community they rarely see, or think about. The play is highly energetic and playful – with mythology and monsters thrown in – to really reflect the atmosphere and rich cultural diversity of Southeast Asia. The show is presented by an all-Asian and all-female team.

I wrote Inside Voices because I saw nothing in London that reflected my sensibilities as a Southeast Asian. Growing up in Singapore, which is a super-modern country and a former British colony, I have a natural (and sometimes confusing) affinity for British culture, but that love isn’t necessarily reciprocated. A lot of people still wonder why I speak good English. The movie Crazy Rich Asians didn’t help either – it put Singapore on people’s radar but it didn’t portray brown people like me who are also Singaporean.

I am so thrilled to be showing Inside Voices at VAULT 2019. Last year I was a festival assistant and I remember thinking, “Man, I wish I could be part of this”. The festival has a real buzz to it. I value the opportunity to share a little bit of Southeast Asia with London – I honestly don’t think people have seen anything like it here. I suppose it’s a bit of a provocation as well: would you watch a show about a community you probably have never cared about?

Inside Voices by Nabilah Said (publicity shot and author photo by Erfendi Dhahlan)


Christopher Adams and Timothy Allsop on their play Open, 23–27 January:

We initially conceived of Open after we’d worked together on another play about a nineteenth-century book collector. Chris had been working with an archive to write the play, and we realised we had an archive of our relationship. All our emails, Facebook posts and Guardian Soulmates messages had formed part of material we had handed to the Home Office when Chris was processing his Leave to Remain. This is what began our discussion about doing a show about our relationship, the focus on the ‘open’ aspect came afterwards.

It was an exciting but also complex process of engaging with the timeline of our relationship and working out a narrative structure through which to explore a modern-day romance. When researching we found amazing statistics about how many gay men are in open relationships (40–50%) and yet how few people talk about it openly. There were also lots of different rules that worked for different couples. We found this a useful focus point for the show.

We also interviewed some of our former lovers and friends and used that material in the show. The result was a moving patchwork of voices and experiences which helped to people the stage alongside our own story.

The responses from the audiences have been overwhelmingly positive, with most people connecting with its humour and honesty. We were also amazed by the diversity of the audience and felt the play spoke to all kinds of people. We hope there will be a future life for the piece and fully enjoyed our time at VAULT. It’s also been wonderful to be published in the Nick Hern Books collection.

Timothy Allsop and Christopher Adams in their play Open


Dylan Coburn Gray and Claire O’Reilly of MALAPROP Theatre on their play JERICHO, 6–10 February:

Dylan Coburn Gray: JERICHO is a play about the world right now. It’s about a young journalist struggling to get by, writing about things she doesn’t care about and worrying whether writing about things she cared about would be any more meaningful. It’s about professional wrestling, and how it’s like contemporary politics in more ways than you might think. It’s about plausibility, the danger of myths, Roland Barthes and RuPaul, and whether there’s any point even trying to get a pension as well as paying rent if the world’s just going to go on fire before any of us get old.

Jericho is the oldest city. It has a protective wall around it. Chris Jericho’s signature move is named after that wall. Wrestling has always been more about what feels true, rather than what is true. From that little constellation of ideas, the show grew. Its heart is interrogating our sentimentalities about the past and how they lead us to interpret the present.

I think we started off knowing we wanted to make something that would approach the present obliquely. The news cycle right now is such that we spend all our time in our political fury refractory period; you can only get so angry about so many things, and beyond that current events just hurt us with no change in motivation or insight. We didn’t want to just tell people more horrible stuff, we wanted to encourage a reappraisal of the horrible stuff we all already know. Or something like that.

Claire O’Reilly: Having had a blast in Edinburgh for the last two years, bringing work to the UK [MALAPROP is a Dublin-based collective] has so far been a pleasant experience for us (one I’m probably jinxing as I type, go me). It’s exciting to open the conversation out beyond our regular audience, particularly now that we’re no longer complete strangers to the British landscape. That said, being part of VAULT 2019 feels particularly special due to the high volume of Irish work on offer. This is owed in no small part to fellow Irishwoman Gill Greer, Head of Theatre and Performance at Vaults, who really put VAULT Festival on the radar of Irish practitioners.

JERICHO by MALAPROP Theatre (photo by Molly O’Cathain)


Jodi Gray on her play Thrown, 6–10 March:

Jill Rutland and Ross Drury from Living Record approached me a while ago with (what I naively thought was) quite a simple, but beautiful, stimulus for a show: When was the moment you knew you were no longer a child? This is what we referred to as the ‘Thrown’ moment (something to do with the impenetrable philosopher Heidegger) – the point at which we’re hurled unceremoniously into adulthood. We all of us have one, though the levels of drama and sometimes trauma vary hugely; everyone I spoke to could pinpoint theirs immediately.

Along with this simple question, they explained that in performance we would be using binaural technology – an on-stage microphone shaped like a human head with a pick-up in each ‘ear’ – and the audience would listen in via wireless headphones. So, the performer breathes into the left ear of the mic, and each audience member can almost feel their own left ear warming up. (Yes, it is eerie – and has ended up feeling a bit like we have direct access to your brain…)

Part of the development of the play involved us collecting testimony from older people (how better to understand how the end of childhood affects a life?), and I was overwhelmed by the stories we heard, the detail and the joy and the pain. Every one was a privilege to hear, and I’m only sorry I couldn’t include all of them*.

So, this simple idea had somehow become The Stuff of Life – much too much to squeeze into the running-time of a show designed to be performed at a festival. I decided to wrangle it through the character of Dr Constance Ellis – a child psychologist searching through her life story for her own, lost, thrown moment amongst those of her former patients.

Jill is a bewitching performer, and she understood Constance immediately, intuitively. (She also makes everything I wrote magical in ways I could never have dared dream for.) With Ross’s profound direction, and Chris Drohan’s otherworldly sound design, Thrown is not an ‘easy’ watch – but we’ve made something that feels exactly like a memory: strange, enigmatic, bittersweet.

It surprised me in the end that this play, developed so collaboratively, should end up being one of the most personal I’ve ever written. In fact, after one of the previews a close friend turned to me, shaking her head but laughing, and said, ‘No wonder you’re like this.’ I still don’t know what the fuck she means.

We’re so chuffed to be bringing Thrown to VAULT Festival after a run at the Edinburgh Fringe, and ahead of our UK tour – it’s such a beacon of awesomeness in the depths of winter and I love the timelessness of being underground. It’s like a lovely nourishing fugue for all us creative folks.

* These interviews are available to watch on the company’s YouTube Channel as part of Living Record’s ongoing online archive of collected testimony called ‘The Record of Living’ – true stories from the end of childhood retold and relived from people all over the country.

Thrown by Jodi Gray


What to see at VAULT Festival 2019

Just before the festival opened on 23 January, we asked our authors which shows from this year’s programme they were most excited to see. Check out their picks below…

Maud Dromgoole: I’m really looking forward to so many shows at the festival. All the other shows in the Nick Hern Books anthology look brilliant. I also can’t wait to see Hear Me Howl (30 Jan–3 Feb), Queens of Sheba (30 Jan–3 Feb), Fatty Fat Fat (30 Jan–3 Feb), 10 (13–17 Mar), Pufferfish (6–10 Mar),The Last Nine Months (of the rest of our lives) (20–24 Feb), Lola and Jo (8 Feb), Juniper and Jules (23–27 Jan), i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) (27–28 Feb), Essex Girl (30–31 Jan), Lucy Light (13–17 Mar), WORK BITCH (27 Feb–3 Mar) and Cabaret Sauvignon and a Single VAULT Whiskey (24 Jan–8 Mar), which I think has won VAULT on title alone.

Nathan Lucky Wood: There’s so much great stuff on this year it’s hard to know what to recommend, But I’m hugely excited for WOOD by Adam Foster, directed by Grace Duggan (27 Feb–3 Mar). I saw a very early sharing of it last year and it was absolutely astonishing. I’m really excited to see the full-length play.

Margaret Perry: I’m very excited to see all the other plays in the anthology – particularly 3 Billion Seconds (6–10 Mar), Inside Voices (23–27 Jan) and JERICHO (6–10 Feb). I also can’t wait for Dangerous Lenses (23–27 Jan), 17, (23–27 Jan), i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) (27–28 Feb), Juniper and Jules (23–27 Jan), Pufferfish (6–10 Mar), Landscape (1989), (13–14 Feb), bottled. (13–17 Feb),WORK BITCH (27 Feb–3 Mar), Finding Fassbender (15–16 Mar), and The New Writers’ Showcase (17 Mar).

Nabilah Said: I’m excited for Silently Hoping by Ellandar (20–24 Feb) and SALAAM by Sara Aniqah Malik (30 Jan–3 Feb). Both deal with Muslim-related issues in different ways – Silently Hoping tackles being half-Asian and half-British, while SALAAM is a lyrical take on Islamophobia in Britain. I love that there can be three really different plays at the festival talking about being Muslim. It just shows you that there isn’t one way to be Muslim, and it isn’t mutually exclusive with being human, either.

Maeve O’Mahony of MALAPROP Theatre: I can’t wait to see Queens of Sheba (30 Jan–3 Feb), having missed it at Edinburgh Fringe (actually, note to self, book tickets now). There’s also a plethora of Irish work on offer this year. I’m particularly excited about Sickle Moon Production’s Tryst (13–17 Feb), Sunday’s Child’s Get RREEL (6–10 Feb), Joanne McNally’s Bite Me (13–17 Mar), and Nessa Matthews and Eoghan Carrick’s Infinity (6–10 Feb). I’m also REALLY tempted to extend my stay and crash on a couch so I can catch Oisin McKenna’s ADMIN (27–28 Feb) and Margaret Perry’s new play Collapsible (13–17 Feb)!

Jodi Gray: I’m especially looking forward to all the plays in Nick Hern Books’ VAULT collection, particularly 3 Billion Seconds by Maud Dromgoole (6–10 Mar) and Collapsible by Margaret Perry (13–17 Feb), and then BOAR by Lewis Doherty (6 Mar) (you’d be an absolute idiot to miss this, and it’s on for one night only), 10 by Snatchback (13–17 Mar), Vespertilio by Fight and Hope (20–24 Feb), and Tacenda by RedBellyBlack (20–24 Feb).

Plays from VAULT 4, containing seven of the best plays from this year’s festival, is published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £13.59 (RRP £16.99), visit our website now.

Collections from previous VAULT Festivals are also available on our website here.

VAULT Festival 2019 runs from 23 January – 17 March at the Vaults, Waterloo, London. Visit the festival website here.

Top 10 Most-Performed Plays of 2018

2018 saw the thirtieth anniversary of Nick Hern Books – and it was certainly a year to remember, with more plays published than in any previous year in the company’s history, a shelf-load of awards, and the inaugural Amateur Theatre Fest in September. Plus, we licensed many brilliant productions of Nick Hern Books’ plays to amateur companies up and down the country, and further afield. We’ve done some number-crunching, and can now announce our official Top 10 Most-Performed Plays of 2018, together with some of our favourite posters and production shots from the productions we’ve licensed over the year…

10. The Railway Children by E. Nesbit, adapted for the stage by Mike Kenny
Cast: 5f 6m doubling (6f 9m possible)
Staging: can be simply staged (with or without a steam train!)

At number ten on our list comes this delightful period drama, adapted by Mike Kenny from E. Nesbit’s much-loved book. It’s the heart-warming story of a prosperous Edwardian family forced into penury in the rural north of England. This imaginative adaptation captures the anxieties and exhilarations of childhood with great tenderness and insight. It offers three plum roles for young performers, and is eminently suitable for schools, youth theatres and drama groups. ‘This glorious adaptation never for a moment runs out of steam’ Guardian

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit, adapted by Mike Kenny, performed in 2018 by Doncaster Little Theatre


9. Be My Baby by Amanda Whittington
Cast: 6f
Staging: multipurpose set

This poignant and moving drama is set in a 1960s Mother-and-Baby Home, where young, unmarried women are sent to have their babies. It revolves around a central character who has to cope with the dawning realisation that she will have to give her baby up for adoption, whether she likes it or not. Yet despite their plight, the girls’ youthful effervescence keeps breaking through as they sing along to the girl-group songs of the period. Amanda Whittington’s ever-popular play has a cast of 6f, making it our most-performed all-female play in 2018. ‘Immensely touching’ The Times

Be My Baby by Amanda Whittington, performed in 2018 by Chorley Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society, Lancashire


8. Handbagged by Moira Buffini
Cast: 4f 2m
Staging: minimal requirements

A fresh and funny drama about two of the most powerful women of the twentieth century, Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher, Handbagged undoes the clasp of history and takes us right into the royal chamber, exposing the antipathy between Queen and Prime Minister as they battle for supremacy. Featuring two exceptional roles for female performers, the play is also available in a  one-act version suitable for festivals and shorter time-slots. ‘Hilarious and moving… raises serious questions about the balance of power’ Guardian

Handbagged by Moira Buffini, performed in 2018 by Chads Theatre Company, Cheadle Hulme


7. Arabian Nights by Dominic Cooke
Cast: 4f 5m doubling (large cast possible)
Staging: flexible staging, minimal requirements

A simple and delightfully inventive re-telling of the stories from the Arabian Nights, with an original music score by Gary Yershon that can also be licensed for performance. Dominic Cooke’s enchanting Arabian Nights was originally produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and has been hugely popular with amateur companies ever since. It was our highest-ranking family show in 2018. ‘A truly magical piece of theatre that delights all the senses’ WhatsOnStage

Arabian Nights by Dominic Cooke, performed in 2018 by Falls Church High School, Virginia, USA


6. Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth
Cast: 5f 8m plus 1 boy
Staging: single built set (mobile home in a woodland clearing)

This hugely acclaimed powerhouse of a play by Jez Butterworth centres on local waster Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron and his disreputable retinue, a constant source of irritation to the local council, who want him evicted from his illegal encampment in a woodland clearing. The play offers an outstanding lead role for a male performer, with plenty of additional roles for a cast of 14 (plus chickens, if available). ‘Unarguably one of the best dramas of the twenty-first century’ Guardian

Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, performed in 2018 by The Norwich Players

Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, performed in 2018 by Swan Theatre, Bedford


5. The Thrill of Love by Amanda Whittington
Cast: 4f 1m
Staging: various interior and exterior settings (can be simply staged)

A gripping, noirish period drama about Ruth Ellis, who became the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Holding a place in our Top 10 for the fourth year running, Amanda Whittington’s The Thrill of Love dramatises an absorbing true story, with a female-led cast and a 1950s setting. ‘Tense and engaging throughout… a triumph’ The Stage

The Thrill of Love by Amanda Whittington, performed in 2018 by Bedford Drama Company

The Thrill of Love by Amanda Whittington, performed in 2018 by Nantwich Players, Cheshire


4. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted for the stage by Steven Canny and John Nicholson
Cast: 3m (playing various roles)
Staging: minimal requirements

Not a standard period whodunnit, but a gloriously funny makeover of the Sherlock Holmes story, from the hit comedy team Peepolykus. This Hound of the Baskervilles is an madcap and zany spoof, offering abundant slapstick opportunities for three male performers. ‘A masterclass in madcap energy… a fun and fresh Sherlock Holmes romp’ The Stage

The Hound of the Baskervilles adapted by Steven Canny & John Nicholson, performed in 2018 by Bersted Arts in Bognor Regis


3. Ladies’ Day by Amanda Whittington
Cast: 4f 1m doubling (or up to 6m)
Staging: flexible staging

The third play by Amanda Whittington in the Top 10 is this high-spirited comedy about four likely lasses from the Hull fish docks on a day trip to the races. Ladies’ Day has been a hit with amateur companies for years, and with its warm heart, relatable soul and fabulous roles for women, it’s not hard to see why. Plus, there’s the option of performing the equally brilliant sequel, Ladies Down Under. ‘Exuberantly up-to-the-minute comedy’ Guardian

Ladies’ Day by Amanda Whittington, performed in 2018 by Tanat Theatre Club, Llanrhaeadr, Powys

Ladies’ Day by Amanda Whittington, performed in 2018 by Bradford Players


2. Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale
Cast: 8-10f 8-14m (plus 2 extras)
Staging: various interior and exterior settings

Jessica Swale’s moving, comical and eye-opening historical drama Blue Stockings is the defiant story of four young women fighting for education against the backdrop of women’s suffrage. Set in 1890s Cambridge, it has plenty of opportunities for a large cast with female leads. ‘Cracking… leaves you astonished at the prejudices these educational pioneers had to overcome’ Guardian

Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale, performed in 2018 by Between the Bars Theatre Company, Cambridge (photo by Timothy Winn)

Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale, performed in 2018 by Commonwealth Theatre, Louisville, Kentucky, USA


***Our most-performed play in 2018***

1. Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale
Cast: 5-7f 7m
Staging: can be simply staged

In the top spot for the second year running, Jessica Swale’s warm-hearted historical comedy about the young Drury Lane actress who won the heart of the king is a truly popular champion. Boasting a large cast and a wonderfully charming lead role for a female performer, Nell Gwynn is a proper crowd-pleaser with strong box office appeal, and the chance to show off some spectacular frocks. Congratulations to the hugely talented Jessica Swale for holding first and second places in our Top 10 of 2018! ‘Bawdy and brilliant… a wonderful, warm-hearted and generous piece of theatrical history’ The Stage

Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale, performed in 2018 by the University of Southampton Theatre Group

Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale, performed in 2018 by Barn Theatre, Welwyn Garden City


Congratulations to all of our wonderful authors who have made it into the Top 10 this year, and to all of you whose performances have been such a success throughout the year.

We have over 1,000 plays available for amateur performance on our website, where there’s a handy Play Finder tool to help you find the perfect play to perform. Our friendly and knowledgeable Performing Rights team is available to discuss your requirements with you in person (email us at rights@nickhernbooks.co.uk, or give us a call on 020 8749 4953). And make sure you sign up for our newsletter to get notifications of the latest releases.

Whatever your plans for 2019, we hope to hear from you soon!

Nick Hern Books at 30

This year, Nick Hern Books celebrated thirty years of theatre publishing. As the year draws to a close, we take a look at some of the things that have made it a year to remember…

We published 100 new plays over the year, two-thirds of them by female writers.

They included the exhilarating debut play from Natasha Gordon, Nine Night, which premiered at the National Theatre in April, went on to win the Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright Award, and is now in the West End.

Featuring alongside Nine Night on many critics’ review-of-the-year lists were Ella Hickson’s The Writer, which premiered at the Almeida Theatre in April, and Annie Baker’s spellbinding John, which had its UK premiere at the National Theatre in January.

Arinzé Kene followed up his acclaimed performance in Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country with a play of his own, Misty, performed by Kene at the Bush Theatre in March before transferring to the Trafalgar Studios in September.

There was Josh Azouz’s unsettling Buggy Baby at The Yard in March; Joe White’s ethereal family drama Mayfly at the Orange Tree in April, along with Chris Bush and Matt Winkworth’s headline-grabbing The Assassination of Katie Hopkins at Theatr Clwyd, winner of Best Musical Production at the UK Theatre Awards; Stephen Karam’s The Humans at Hampstead Theatre in August; Alexis Zegerman’s Holy Sh!t, opening the renovated Kiln Theatre in Kilburn in September; Nina Raine’s Stories at the National Theatre, debbie tucker green’s ear for eye at the Royal Court, and Iman Qureshi’s Papatango Prize-winning The Funeral Director at Southwark Playhouse, all in October; Jessie Cave’s Sunrise at Soho Theatre in November; and, in December, Mike Bartlett’s Snowflake at the Old Fire Station in Oxford, as well as Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse.

In January, we published a collection of plays from the annual VAULT Festival in Waterloo, as well as a selection of award-winning monologues from the inaugural Heretic Voices competition. In June, there was a volume of short plays by and about women, from the Women Centre Stage Festival. And in July, we published Vicky Featherstone’s selection of monologues, Snatches: Moments from 100 Years of Women’s Lives, as well as a collection of plays by Stephen Jeffreys, who very sadly passed away this year.

It was also a year of major revivals, with Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s superlative musical Caroline, or Change at Hampstead Theatre in March, and now in the West End; in May, Winsome Pinnock’s Leave Taking at the Bush, and Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe at the Trafalgar Studios with Orlando Bloom; Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal at the Almeida and Rona Munro’s Bold Girls at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake, both in June; David Edgar’s Maydays revived by the RSC in September, alongside his new one-man show, Trying It On; and Martin Crimp’s Dealing with Clair at the Orange Tree in October, thirty years after it premiered there in 1988 – when it was the second play ever published by Nick Hern Books!

Dealing with Clair by Martin Crimp (left, the 2018 edition; right, the original 1988 edition, also published by Nick Hern Books)


Awards

Many of our playwrights won awards this year, and we’ve got space here to mention only a few…

Jez Butterworth’s magnificent play The Ferryman won Best New Play at this year’s Olivier, Critics’ Circle and Whatsonstage Awards.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins won Most Promising Playwright at the Critics Circle Awards for his plays Gloria and An Octoroon, while Andrew Thompson won Best Writer at The Stage Debut Awards for In Event of Moone Disaster.

There were awards aplenty for the revivals of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Stephen  Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies.

And at the Writers Guild Awards, Lucy Kirkwood won Best Play for The Children, Sarah McDonald-Hughes won Best Play for Young Audiences with How To Be A Kid, and Caryl Churchill was recognised for her Outstanding Contribution to Writing.


Some key stats….


Essential theatre books

This year we published Antony Sher’s account, in his own diary entries, paintings and sketches, of his portrayal of King Lear for the RSC. Year of the Mad King follows his classic of theatre writing, Year of the King, in offering a close-up study of a great actor at work on one of Shakespeare’s most challenging roles ­– a fascinating read for actors and theatre-lovers.

Amongst our other publications, there were invaluable resources for actors, including a selection of audition monologues from the National Youth Theatre, and a series of vocal warm-ups on CD from the National Theatre’s Head of Voice.

We published books on Brecht and Ibsen, as well practical guides to puppetry, verbatim theatre and long-form improvisation.

For budding playwrights, there was an indispensable career guide, Being a Playwright, from the team behind new-writing theatre company Papatango, destined to guide and inspire a new generation of playwrights.

Being a Playwright authors Chris Foxon and George Turvey with (centre) NHB Managing Director Matt Applewhite


30 Years / 30 Plays

In July, we published 30 Years / 30 Plays, a fabulous book of postcards featuring a selection of covers from some of the most successful plays published by NHB over our first thirty years.

Copies quickly sold out at HQ, though there may still be a few available from other retailers.


Birthday Party

Also in July, we joined many of our authors and friends for a party at the Royal Court Theatre, to celebrate the anniversary of the company’s launch in July 1988. There were speeches from NHB author Jack Thorne (whose completely delightful speech is reproduced on our blog here) and the Artistic Director of Kiln Theatre, Indhu Rubasingham, as well as from NHB Publisher Nick Hern and Managing Director Matt Applewhite. It was wonderful to bring together some of our newest authors with those who have been with Nick Hern Books since the very beginning.

Jack Thorne, Indhu Rubasingham, Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite at Nick Hern Books’ 30th birthday party at the Royal Court Theatre in July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)


Amateur Theatre Fest

NHB author Mike Bartlett (right), interviewed by Matt Applewhite at Amateur Theatre Fest 2018 (photo by Ben Copping)

On 8 September, a capacity crowd gathered at The Questors Theatre in Ealing for an all-day event of talks, workshops and performances focussing on amateur theatre. Taking part were over four hundred actors, directors, producers and many others involved in amateur theatre up and down the country. Highlights included the keynote speech from actor and NHB author Simon Callow, interviews with NHB playwrights Jez Butterworth, Amanda Whittington and Mike Bartlett, and masterclasses from actor Oliver Ford Davies, director Stephen Unwin and fight director Roger Bartlett. Thank you to everyone who came and made it such a success!

Nick Hern Books is one of the UK’s leading licensors of amateur performing rights, and we look forward to helping more amateur drama and youth theatre groups find their perfect play to perform, over the years ahead.

Nick Hern Books staff at Amateur Theatre Fest 2018 (photo by Ben Copping)


Playwriting Then and Now, National Theatre panel event

We staged a panel event at the National Theatre on 8 November with NHB playwrights Howard Brenton, Conor McPherson, Alecky Blythe and Natasha Gordon, to explore how playwriting has – and hasn’t – changed over the 30 years of Nick Hern Books. It was a lively event, attended by many budding and emerging playwrights, who came away full of hope and inspiration, even if there was a consensus that playwrights still face daunting challenges when it comes to making a living from their work.

Clockwise from top row centre: Alecky Blythe, Howard Brenton, Conor McPherson, Nick Hern, Natasha Gordon


Anniversary Interviews

Over the course of the year, we published a series of Anniversary Interviews with some of our leading authors and playwrights, specially commissioned for our blog. Launching with Harriet Walter on the unique challenges facing actresses, particularly in finding mature roles for women in the Shakespeare canon, the series included interviews with playwrights Rona Munro, Lucy Kirkwood, Jack Thorne and Howard Brenton.

Drawing the series to a close this month, NHB’s Publisher Nick Hern and Managing Director Matt Applewhite reflect on the company’s thirty-year history, and what lies ahead. Catch up with all the interviews, over on our blog.

Left to right: NHB authors Jack Thorne, Lucy Kirkwood, Harriet Walter, Howard Brenton, Rona Munro


And finally…

Thank you to everyone who has come along to one of our events this year, or who has bought a book from us. We look forward to seeing more of you in the next thirty years. But for now, have a very happy Christmas, from all at Nick Hern Books.

The Nick Hern Books team at the anniversary party, July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Rounding off our Anniversary Interviews series, theatre journalist Al Senter talks to Publisher Nick Hern and Managing Director Matt Applewhite about thirty years of Nick Hern Books, and what lies ahead for the company…

In the thirty years since it came into being, Nick Hern Books has grown into a considerable force, not just in theatre publishing – where it’s undoubtedly a leading player – but arguably in the whole ecology of theatre in the UK and beyond. Without Nick Hern Books, the livelihoods of many playwrights, and consequently many theatres, would be severely diminished.

And yet, while he is hugely liked and respected amongst playwrights and their agents, and in the world of theatre professionals in general, the company’s Publisher, Nick Hern, keeps a relatively low profile. He’s not to be found on Wikipedia, and some people still confess a degree of surprise when they learn that Nick Hern is in fact a real, living person.

I know for sure that he is, because I recently met up with him, along with the company’s Managing Director and Commissioning Editor, Matt Applewhite, at their offices in Shepherd’s Bush in West London, not far from the venerable Bush Theatre, one of London’s great crucibles of new writing.

Nick is in his seventies now, but his commitment to the theatre and to his company is undiminished. He came to theatre publishing from academia, joining Methuen as Drama Editor in 1974. When he left Methuen to set up his own theatre imprint at Walker Books in 1988, it was Sebastian Walker who came up with a name for the fledgling imprint. ‘I was at a bit of a loss about what to call it,’ recalls Nick. ‘Sebastian said, “I call my company ‘Walker Books’, so you’ll be Nick Hern Books”. I thought it rather self-aggrandising, but I’ve got used to it now.’

Nick Hern (left) and Howard Brenton at the launch of Nick Hern Books in 1988

For five years, after leaving Walker Books and setting up as a self-financing limited company, Nick ran things out of his back bedroom. But now, after thirty years, it’s thankfully on much firmer footing. In 2013, Matt Applewhite was appointed as the company’s youthful and enterprising Managing Director, and the two continue to work closely together, along with a core team of eleven staff. They have every intention that the company will embrace another thirty years and more of theatre publishing. ‘We’re prepared for the future,’ says Nick, ‘whatever that will bring.’

Matt first joined the company in 2003 as Editorial and Production Assistant, not long after getting a good degree from Cambridge and finishing a Masters at RADA. Nick recalls how, when his future employee turned up for interview, it was in the middle of a torrential downpour. ‘He was like a drowned Bob Cratchit!’ he recalls. ‘But it was clear that, of the ten or twelve people we interviewed, he was head and shoulders above the opposition.’ They connected immediately.

Matt spent his childhood in Chichester, getting his first fix of drama at the esteemed Festival Theatre, and sometimes venturing up to London. ‘Chichester is a great place to grow up – if you like theatre,’ he says. For a while he had ambitions to become a stage director, ‘But I think I lacked the courage to cope with the challenges of being a freelance. On the other hand, I wasn’t absolutely smitten at the time by the idea of going into publishing. I eventually settled for giving the job six months, maybe a year, and seeing where that got me.’

Once he’d started working at Nick Hern Books, however, Matt realised that theatre publishing was the perfect fit. ‘I’d spent my whole youth watching plays and buying theatre books, so nothing had really changed.’ Over the next few years, he tackled just about every job it’s possible to do at NHB. Within that time he spent six months at Currency Press, Australia’s chief publisher of plays, having swapped jobs – and lifestyles – with his opposite number there, which included living in a flat just a stone’s throw from Bondi Beach. The experience gave him a new perspective on theatre publishing, and NHB’s association with Currency Press remains strong. ‘The world of theatre publishing can be insular, with rival publishers competing for the same small pool of talent,’ says Matt. ‘But being immersed in a very different theatre culture is a great reminder that there’s equally important work going on elsewhere. It’s vital to remind ourselves of that, especially at times like the present.’ NHB prides itself on having a list of contemporary playwrights that spans the globe, and Matt is particularly pleased to have so many talented Australian playwrights on the list, including Joanna Murray-Smith, Andrew Bovell, Tommy Murphy and Melissa Bubnic.

NHB playwright Jack Thorne, Indhu Rubasingham (Artistic Director of the Kiln Theatre), Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite at the Nick Hern Books anniversary party, July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

There’s something of a family atmosphere about NHB. It’s a small, tightly knit company, with employees who are noticeably passionate about the theatre. Many of them have been with the company for over a decade. What’s the secret? ‘There’s no secret, really,’ says Nick. ‘Though certainly, when we take someone on at Nick Hern Books, the most important thing is that they like theatre. If what you really want to do is get on in publishing, you’re probably better off elsewhere.’ Matt agrees. ‘In many ways, I think of us as part of the theatre world, working alongside theatres, if you like. We do a lot of things differently from a conventional publishing company.’

For one thing, much of the company’s publishing schedule is dictated by the theatres that produce their authors’ work. ‘When I first started in theatre publishing,’ remembers Nick, ‘plays were being published some months after their premiere. I’d come from teaching in the provinces, and what we needed most was immediate access to the plays that London was seeing. So I wanted to speed the whole process up. And I’m pleased to say that it’s now more or less expected that a playtext is available on opening night.’ ‘Which means we have to move fast,’ adds Matt, ‘because understandably our authors want to be able to make changes to their text as late as possible in the rehearsal process. We have to go from final text to finished copies in a matter of days – sometimes less than that. I don’t know if many conventional publishing companies would be able to compete with the turnaround times we can achieve.’

Another difference is that the company handles the licensing of amateur productions of its plays. ‘It was something I wanted to do from the start,’ says Nick, ‘to extend that relationship between the play on the page, and its future life on the stage. We have an in-house Performing Rights team actively promoting the plays we publish to the amateur community, which includes students and drama schools, as well as the many, many amateur groups who do brilliant work. It has become a huge part of what we do. Amateur theatre is really flourishing at the moment, which is so pleasing.’ ‘And authors like it too,’ says Matt. ‘It means their plays have an ongoing life, which is so important. We’re publishing plays not just as a record of the first production – but also as a blueprint for future ones.

Nick Hern Books’ staff at Amateur Theatre Fest, a one-day event for amateur theatre practitioners at Questors Theatre, Ealing, in September 2018 (photo by Ben Copping)

For their own part, Nick and Matt have a relaxed and informal working relationship. It’s easy to see why Nick and his wife Jane were mistaken for Matt’s parents while they were visiting him during his stint in Australia. ‘I already saw him as my successor,’ says Nick. Matt claims to have learned everything he knows about publishing from Nick, and in return, Matt has overseen the expansion of the company’s activities into ebooks, apps, audiobooks, and online publishing, alongside developing an enviable social media presence. ‘We’ve got further plans in that direction,’ says Matt. ‘It’s hugely important to connect with new readers, and especially new generations of drama students, who are using exciting new platforms to access our titles – and we want to support them in doing that.’

Matt Applewhite interviewing NHB author Mike Bartlett at Amateur Theatre Fest, September 2018 (photo by Ben Copping)

Can Nick point to other examples of Matt making a difference to the firm? ‘Yes. I’d always assumed that in a publishing company, design and typesetting was something you outsourced. But Matt assured me that it would be much quicker and more efficient to take these functions in-house. And he was right.’ ‘It’s about being able to respond quickly when you’re up against a tight deadline,’ says Matt. ‘And knowing that your designer or your typesetter is focused on the job, and not squeezing you in between other assignments.’

Both insist that there’s never been a cross word between them. ‘Nick operates with a combination of charm and iron,’ says Matt. ‘The authors he’s worked with all know that he’ll be candid with them about their work. They expect and appreciate that. And it’s the same in the office. Though he’s yet to wield the big stick!’ ‘We have the same taste in plays,’ adds Nick. ‘We talk about plays in the same way, even though we’re from very different generations. And we trust each other’s judgements. He has a great understanding of the work of younger theatre-makers – he really gets them. Yet the fact that NHB has survived for thirty years means I must have been doing something right.’

Nick Hern with NHB authors Howard Brenton (left) and Nicholas Wright (right), July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

Are there ever any differences between them? ‘Matt is much more collegiate that I am,’ says Nick. ‘He seeks consent from the rest of the office, whereas I’m much more autocratic. However, I do look around me at organisations where the leadership is ageing but where they are simply not preparing for the future. I feel incredibly relieved and happy that NHB’s future is assured in Matt’s hands.’

‘There are some differences between us,’ admits Matt. ‘But I really value the fact that Nick is still very much involved with the running of the business. He’s so knowledgeable about plays and playwrights, and he still goes to the theatre more than anyone I know. His indefatigable, undimmed passion for it is inspiring.’

So, no regrets? ‘Occasionally I wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t got the job at Nick Hern Books, and gone into theatre-making instead,’ confesses Matt. ‘But actually, I think I can make more of a genuine contribution to theatre in my current role, through publishing the plays that people will go on reading and performing, and the books that make such a difference to other theatre-makers learning their craft. That’s the contribution we all make at Nick Hern Books.’ Apparently, he still has the advert for the Editorial and Production Assistant role that he cut out from The Guardian’s Media section, sixteen years ago. ‘Sometimes I wonder where I’d be now if I hadn’t bought The Guardian that day!’

Nick Hern interviewing NHB author Jez Butterworth at Amateur Theatre Fest, September 2018 (photos by Ben Copping)

As for Nick, he’s spent most of his career working behind the scenes, the midwife to other, starrier careers. Does he ever crave the limelight himself? ‘Not really. I did a bit of acting when I was at university. I have no great desire to inflict myself on the public.’ Still, he can certainly rise to the occasion when it calls. At the recent Amateur Theatre Fest – a day of talks and workshops for anyone involved in amateur theatre, organised by Nick Hern Books as part of their thirtieth-anniversary celebrations – one of the headline speakers was the playwright Jez Butterworth, whose plays, including Jerusalem and The Ferryman, are published by NHB. When Nick followed Butterworth onto the stage in order to conduct the interview, there was a second roar of approval – this time for the publisher who has brought so many great plays to so many different stages, simply by putting them in print.

The Nick Hern Books team, July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)


 

The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews series includes interviews with Harriet Walter, Rona Munro, Lucy Kirkwood, Jack Thorne and Howard Brenton. Catch up with them all here.

Photograph of Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite by Dan Wooller.