‘The mistake is to pretend you have all the answers’: Richard Eyre on what makes a good theatre director

What makes a good theatre director? How do you learn to be one? What do you do on the first day of rehearsals? Sir Richard Eyre reflects on the director’s elusive craft in his foreword to a new book, Drama Games for Actors by Thomasina Unsworth…

Most of us have an indecent curiosity about what other people do in private. Sex and tax, for instance: ‘What do you do in bed?’ and ‘How much do you earn?’ are the questions that underlie all profile journalism and most biography. My own particular corner of prurience concerns the working habits of directors: I’m inordinately fascinated by what they are. Directors are not very gregarious creatures, at least among their own kind, and if you were to search for a collective noun for them it would probably be a ‘solitude’. When we do gather together, we’re wary of discussing each other’s work, and warier still of asking how it was achieved. Rehearsals are a private province; no one likes to be observed, so it’s hard to see enough to imitate, even if you have a model to follow.

Directors are often self-effacing, often surprisingly lacking in the gift and appetite for self-promotion, and, in spite of a high estimation of their own importance, are often reluctant to capitalise on it by making public pronouncements on their craft. It’s all the odder therefore that directors occupy such an elevated status in contemporary mythology, often, like conductors, placed somewhere between the maestro and the magus, when in fact they’re more like teachers or doctors. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that it’s better to be more like the pupil or the patient than the teacher or the doctor. The mistake is to pretend that you have all the answers.

Which is one of the reasons that I’m consistently reluctant to recommend my ‘process’ to any director, and suspicious of any young director who asks to be an assistant of mine in order to learn about it. If I chose to rationalise the way I work I suppose it would amount to a ‘process’, but it is so idiosyncratic and personal that I wouldn’t dignify it with that description.

A rehearsal has to be a time when actors can experiment, invent, explore, discuss, dispute, practise and play, and it is the job of a director to create a world – private and secure – where this activity can go on without fear of failure. There is no method that guarantees a good rehearsal. It’s as hard to know why some highly articulate, learned and intelligent directors seem unable to animate a cast of actors, as it is to understand how the same orchestra can be inspired by some conductors but seem commonplace in the hands of others.

Richard Eyre directing Liolà by Luigi Pirandello at the National Theatre in 2013. Photo by Catherine Ashmore.

If you ask me, ‘What do you need to be a director?’ I’d have to say this: you need to be somehow assertive and yet self-effacing, to be dogged and yet pliable, to be demanding and yet supportive. And if this sounds like a prescription for a perfect marriage partner, it’s because directors are ever hopeful of making a successful marriage of actor and character, of text and design, of play and audience, so perhaps, if they look hesitant, doubtful, and diffident, it’s because they know just how difficult it is – as in real life – to make a marriage work.

And if you ask me, ‘How do you learn to be a director?’ I’d recommend a poem called ‘Garden Hints’ by Douglas Dunn, which begins with the line: ‘Only a garden can teach gardening.’ Directing is like that: only working with actors in a rehearsal room can offer a real insight into the craft.

The start of most rehearsals resembles others more than it differs from them. Rehearsals have to begin somewhere – usually it’s a meeting of the cast and a reading of the play. The director stands like a heron, rigid with anxiety, talks a little – or a lot, depending on temperament – and his or her words drift like incense over a group of actors who, regardless of their mutual familiarity, are united only in their nervous anticipation and social unease. It never works to give the actors – who are always numbed to deafness by nerves – a lengthy lecture about the background to the play and its meaning: it doesn’t encourage actors to be made to feel that the director holds all the cards and they hold none.

So how do you start rehearsals? It’s always a problem: how do you get a disparate set of individuals to work as an ensemble within a few days? British actors are good at this, but you still have to find means of mutual familiarisation, ways in which they can legitimately sniff each other out. I change my approach for each production. Sometimes we just sit around a table and I encourage everyone, regardless of experience and size of part, to talk about the play, about their parts, about themselves. Sometimes we do physical and vocal exercises. Sometimes we do improvisations connected with the play. And sometimes we even play games – and many of them are in Thomasina Unsworth’s new book, Drama Games for Actors. In it, Thomasina gives you a mass of invaluable ideas for drama exercises for all ages and all types of actors, amateur or professional. It’s hard to imagine anyone involved in theatre who wouldn’t find it useful.


The above extract is reproduced from Drama Games for Actors by Thomasina Unsworth, out now from Nick Hern Books.

This dip-in, flick-through, quick-fire resource book offers dozens of games to serve as a rich source of ideas and inspiration for all actors – and those teaching or directing them.

To buy your copy with a 20% discount (just £7.99), click here.

Alongside the bestselling Drama Games series, Nick Hern Books also publishes a wide range of titles for aspiring and emerging theatre directors, including So You Want To Be A Theatre Director? by Stephen Unwin, Getting Directions by Russ Hope and The Actor and the Target by Declan Donnellan. All available with a 20% discount from Nick Hern Books.

Sir Richard Eyre is a theatre, opera and film director, and was Artistic Director of the National Theatre from 1988 until 1997. He is the author of several books, including Talking Theatre and What Do I Know?, both published by Nick Hern Books.

Photograph of Richard Eyre by Andrew Hasson. Photograph of Richard Eyre directing Pirandello’s Liolà by Catherine Ashmore.

Dymphna Callery: we need a more playful approach to staging plays

Dymphna CalleryDymphna Callery’s Through the Body: A practical guide to physical theatre is beloved of a generation of drama students. But have we ghetto-ised ‘physical theatre’ in an unhelpful way? In her new book published today, The Active Text, she looks at how physical theatre techniques can be used to unlock scripted plays, and inject new life into even the most familiar of texts…

 

Recently, several productions drawing rave reviews have challenged notions of naturalism, or at least received ideas about naturalistic plays. The Flemish director Ivo van Hove’s extraordinary staging of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge is a case in point – it transfers to the West End this spring after a sell-out run at the Young Vic. In this production barefoot actors move within a minimalist black box set, perch on its edges rather than on chairs round a table in the Carbone apartment; the action is virtually underscored by Fauré’s Requiem with tension ratcheted up during family dinners by the ticks of a metronome. Van Hove has turned the play inside out; his streamlined aesthetic makes the words spoken more vibrant, the action more vital, the acting more resonant.

Luke Norris, Emun Elliott, Phoebe Fox and Mark Strong in A View from the Bridge. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Luke Norris, Emun Elliott, Phoebe Fox and Mark Strong in A View from the Bridge. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

It would be perverse to refer to van Hove’s production as ‘physical theatre’, yet it is clearly non-naturalistic. Or rather, is not naturalism as we tend to think of it. All the trappings of our received ideas about naturalistic style have been stripped away. Miller’s stage directions for the design that seem so integral to the play in reading do not feature; costumes do not reflect the 1950s when the play is set. And the tragic story and its brutal outcome are all the more powerful and poignant.

So is there a label to suit such a production style? Labels, rather like comparisons, can be odious – though attaching labels to distinguish styles is often considered important. They provide some kind of certainty, a sort of comfort blanket that tells us what kind of play we are considering. Uncertainty makes us feel uncomfortable. But methods of judging and defining style can be problematic, the criteria used debateable. And labels can certainly outlive their currency. Frantic Assembly get frustrated at being labelled physical theatre, for example. They prefer to describe their work as ‘exciting contemporary theatre for new audiences’.

A View from the Bridge: Phoebe Fox (Catherine), Mark Strong (Eddie) and Nicola Walker (Beatrice). Photo by Jan Versweyveld

A View from the Bridge: Phoebe Fox (Catherine), Mark Strong (Eddie) and Nicola Walker (Beatrice). Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Physical theatre is frequently considered distinct from text-based theatre. Yet many companies bracketed as physical theatre produce plays. Frantic Assembly, Kneehigh and Complicite are examples of companies who work with playwrights, use scripted texts and create work that tests the boundaries of stylistic conventions. However, their process depends on working collaboratively using strategies associated with devising rather than following the traditional routes associated with text work. And it is this way of working that underpins my new book The Active Text, an approach more akin to collective storytelling, rooted in an imaginative use of space and the kind of physical listening between players that means their attention is focused outwards.

We meet a play on the page largely through dialogue, and performance seems to rest on how we flesh out the words. Those words are often the starting point – picked over at a desk or sitting on chairs round a table. Character behaviour is analysed and conclusions drawn about them. Then the words they speak get fleshed out by adding actions once everyone pushes back their chair. Yet dialogue is what David Mamet calls ‘sprinkles on the ice-cone’. It is the dynamic and kinaesthetic signals embedded in the text that bring it to life, its image structure in performance is as powerful as the words spoken. A play should be an experience for the senses and the minds of an audience. Unearthing the fabric of actions and images that determine what happens – and what an audience will see – is where it begins. And in my experience that doesn’t start with a read-through or sitting in a chair.

A traditional read-through is not the automatic recourse of early rehearsals for many directors, and even when it happens, actors don’t necessarily read the part they’ve been cast. Many contemporary directors start with anything but the text. Actors who have developed a capacity for play thrive in this context. And ‘play’ is at the heart of the improvisatory channels to discovering the style of a play, one which may challenge received ideas about what a play is supposed to look like in performance.

When teaching acting and directing for scripted texts I find applying principles of ‘play’ produces far more energised and vital results than following the conventional path of studying characters and what they say. Using improvisation and games to dig into a play before dealing with dialogue, and searching out physical means of expressing any subtext takes players to a more vital level and elicits more energised performances. And everyone feels they are having fun even when the text under scrutiny is serious.

Through the Body: A practical guide to physical theatre

Through the Body: A practical guide to physical theatre

How do you start using the approach I’m talking about? The notion of unlocking text via playful means is what underpins the approaches to working with text that form the body of The Active Text. Those familiar with my previous book Through the Body will find the exercises framed in similar terms, addressing a group rather than an individual actor or director, with an open stage/spectator relationship in operation which both prepares actors for an eventual audience and provides opportunities for learning through watching.

There are thirteen plays referred to throughout for illustration purposes, including A View from the Bridge, Woyzeck and Antigone – plays readers may already be familiar with. They are all plays I’ve used in studio or workshop contexts, or directed, so the exercises have been tested out. There are references to productions that embody some of the ideas behind or have influenced the approaches suggested, and also references to playwrights, practitioners, directors and actors whose words offer valuable insights into the rehearsal process. Putting their ideas into practice has invigorated my rehearsals and workshops – and there’s nothing more rewarding than the surprise of discovering something new or different about a play you thought you knew.


FormattedThe Active Text: Unlocking Plays Through Physical Theatre by Dymphna Callery is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Visit www.dymphnacallery.co.uk for more details about her work.

Michael Palin: Monty Python as it happened

Palin, Michael_photo John SwannellThe inspiring Monty Python at Work is Michael Palin’s intimate, behind-the-scenes account of the conception and making of the legendary group’s shows, films, books and albums, drawn from his published diaries. Here, the author explains what writer-performers can learn from the book – and read further for extracts from the beginning of the Python journey.

Since the publication of my diaries I’ve received reactions from many people in many different areas of life. Some respond to the family material, particularly those entries dealing with illness and loss. Others find particular interest in locations and shared neighbourhoods, others in political asides, still others in my involvement in transport, and trains in particular. In many ways the most surprising and gratifying response has come from writer-performers, often much younger than myself, who see in my descriptions of the agony and ecstasy of creative work, reassuring parallels in their own experience.

As diaries are about work in progress, rather than achievement explained or reputation gained, they have a directness unvarnished by time. The creation of Monty Python, through the pages of a daily diary, is a nagging reminder of the unglamorous process rather than the glamorous result. I can understand why people in the same line of work might find this helpful. I was often lifted from the gloom of elusive inspiration by reading, in her diaries, that Virginia Woolf had bad days too. Similarly, I’ve been told by aspiring young comedy writers and performers how encouraged they are by the travails of Python.

Michael Palin as a Gumby, during Monty Python filming

When my friend and scrupulous editor, Geoffrey Strachan, asked me if he could extract my Monty Python experiences from the diary into a single compact volume he made much of the fact that this could almost be an educational tool. I wasn’t so sure about that. There’s little point in a Do-It-Yourself Python. Monty Python is what it is and can never be recreated by following steps one, two and three. And Python is a product of its time. The way we did things will never be possible again. But the important thing is that the will to do them and the spirit that created Python is timeless. If this account of the hoops we went through to turn that spirit into reality is instructive and inspirational today then I think it will indeed have proved itself to be some sort of educational tool, albeit in a very silly syllabus.


Below are some extracts from Monty Python at Work. Dating from August 1969 to December 1970, they give a fascinating glimpse into the group’s early days, starting with the filming of the first series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The book as a whole covers the period up to the release of their final film, The Meaning of Life, in 1983.

Thursday, August 31st 1969, Southwold

Out to Covehithe, where we filmed for most of the day. The cliffs are steep and crumbling there and the constant movement of BBC personnel up and down probably speeded coastal erosion by a good few years.

Mother and Father turned up during the morning and appeared as crowd in one of the shots.

In the afternoon heavy dark clouds came up and made filming a little slower. We ended up pushing a dummy newsreader off the harbour wall, and I had to swim out and rescue this drifting newsreader, so it could be used for another shot.

∼ ∼ ∼

Monday, February 16th 1970

Somehow, since Monty Python, it has become difficult to write comedy material for more conventional shows. Monty Python spoilt us in so far as mad flights of fancy, ludicrous changes of direction, absurd premises and the complete illogicality of writing were the rule rather than the exception. The compilation of all the last series, plus new links, into the film script And Now for Something Completely Different has been completed, and the script should be with Roger Hancock. No further news from Victor Lownes III, under whose patronage the work was done.

I am about to start writing Monty Python II, for, as Eric reminded me on the phone today, there are only eleven weeks until we go filming in May, and we are seriously intending to have eleven shows written by then.

∼ ∼ ∼

Sunday, March 8th

We watched David Frost ‘hosting’ the Institute of Television and Film Arts Awards at the London Palladium. Monty Python was nominated for four awards and won two. A special award for the writing, production and performance of the show, and a Craft Guild Award to Terry Gilliam for graphics. But somehow the brusqueness of the programme, and its complete shifting of emphasis away from television and towards Frost and film stars, made the winning of the award quite unexciting.

None of us was invited to the awards ceremony, as the girl who was organising it ‘didn’t know the names of the writers’ of Monty Python.

 ∼ ∼ ∼

Thursday, April 16th

At 10.00, cars arrived to take us to the Lyceum Ballroom off the Strand to be presented with our Weekend TV awards. We were rushed into the stage door, where a few girls with autograph books obviously thought we were somebody, but none of them was quite sure who.

A dinner-jacketed young man with a vacant expression and an autograph book asked me if I was famous. I said no, I wasn’t, but Terry Gilliam was. Gilliam signed Michael Mills’* name, the twit then gave the book to me saying, ‘Well, could I have yours anyway?’

So I signed ‘Michael Mills’ as well. We all signed ‘Michael Mills’ throughout the evening.

[* Michael Mills, Head of Comedy at the BBC, was the man who green-lighted Python in the summer of 1969. Despite a disastrous meeting at which we could give no satisfactory answers to any of his questions, he came out with the memorable words: ‘All right, I’ll give you thirteen shows, but that’s all.’]

∼ ∼ ∼

Monday, May 11th, Torquay

Set out for Torquay and our first two-week filming stretch away from home.

Our hotel, the Gleneagles, was a little out of Torquay, overlooking a beautiful little cove with plenty of trees around. However, Mr Sinclair, the proprietor, seemed to view us from the start as a colossal inconvenience, and when we arrived back from Brixham, at 12.30, having watched the night filming, he just stood and looked at us with a look of self-righteous resentment, of tacit accusation, that I had not seen since my father waited up for me fifteen years ago. Graham tentatively asked for a brandy – the idea was dismissed, and that night, our first in Torquay, we decided to move out of the Gleneagles.*

[* Eric and John decided to stay. In John’s case a lucrative decision as he later based Fawlty Towers on Gleneagles.]

∼ ∼ ∼

Thursday, June 18th

To Camberwell. The morning’s work interrupted by the delivery of a large amount of dung. We were sitting writing at Terry’s marble-topped table under a tree sheltering us from the sun. All rather Mediterranean. Suddenly the dung-carriers appeared. Fat, ruddy-faced, highly conversational and relentlessly cheerful, they carried their steaming goodies and deposited them at the far end of Terry’s garden. After about twenty-five tubfuls they were gone, but at least they left a sketch behind.*

 [* ‘Book of the Month Club Dung’, which found its way into Show 6 of the second series.]

∼ ∼ ∼

Sunday, November 8th

After washing my hair and shaving at 7.00 in the morning, I am driven to work and immediately my hair is caked down with grease and my face given a week’s growth of beard.

Ken Shabby* was especially revolting, with an awful open sore just below the nose. But Terry J (who has seen the rushes) is worried that it was shot with too much emphasis on Shabby and not enough wide shots to create the joke – which is the relationship of this ghastly suppurating apparition to the elegant and tasteful surroundings.

[* Shabby, a disgusting man with a pet goat, who appeals to the father of a beautiful upper-class girl (Connie Booth) for her hand in marriage, but spoils his chances by, among other things, gobbing on the carpet.]

∼ ∼ ∼

Thursday, December 31st

Apart from some dubbing still to do on the film, Monty Python is finished – we spent almost a year on one thirteen-week series and six weeks making a film – now it remains to be discussed as to whether or when we do another series…


Formatted

Monty Python at Work, £9.99

Nick Hern Books are thrilled to publish Monty Python at Work, Michael Palin’s intimate and inspiring behind-the-scenes account of the conception and making of the shows, films, books and albums.

Drawn from his published diaries, it will delight Python fans everywhere, and be a source of instruction and inspiration to students and those who seek to follow in the group’s footsteps.

To order your copy at a 20% discount, no voucher code required, click here.

Michael Palin will be discussing the book at a National Theatre Platform on Monday 2 June, at 6pm – click here to book tickets.

Author photo by John Swannell

 

Sexting in Parliament: insights from the writer and director of Girls Like That

Girls Like That2.inddBack in January, members of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Youth Theatre travelled to Westminster to perform an extract from the play Girls Like That in Parliament as part of the launch of YoungMinds Vs, a new children’s mental health campaign.

An urgent and explosive play that explores the pressures on young people today in the wake of advancing technology, Girls Like That tells the story of Scarlett, a secondary school pupil. When a naked photograph of her goes viral, she becomes the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons. But while rumours run wild and everyone forms an opinion, Scarlett just stays silent…

Here, Evan Placey, writer of the play, and Gemma Woffinden, Youth Theatre Director at West Yorkshire Playhouse, offer insights into how the play was developed, the positive impact it has had on both performers and audiences, and what it was like performing Girls Like That to an audience of MPs and celebrities in Parliament.


Evan Placey

Evan Placey

EVAN PLACEY, writer of Girls Like That

And why doesn’t someone do something? Why won’t someone do something?

Why won’t Russell say something, stop this?!

Why does he just.

Stand there.

So say the Girls in Girls Like That as they watch as Scarlett is physically attacked, none of them brave enough to be the one to take action. And later having to contemplate how complicit they are for their inaction.

As scenes from the play were performed in Parliament as part of the YoungMinds Vs campaign, I was reminded of this. What are we doing to combat the pressures young people currently face and how are we taking action?

Any time we write a script, we’re hoping in some way people will listen, that our words might have an effect, that they might shake people. So the opportunity to see parts of my play performed in Parliament was a rare chance: to really get politicians to listen and to shake the people in charge. It’s one thing for those making policy to say they’re doing it in the best interests of young people, but it’s quite another to give those young people a voice – to let them tell the adults what it is that needs to change, the obstacles they’re facing, and the realities of being a young person in the UK at the moment.

The campaign seeks to highlight pressures on young people and the effects on their mental health, and so the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Youth Theatre who performed Girls Like That last year were invited because of the play’s exploration of those same themes. The play explores the fallout when a naked photo is circulated of a teenage girl named Scarlett. But the play also explores her past and that of her group of classmates as we encounter the girls at 5 years old, 8, 11, and 12, piecing together the messages that have been built up in the heads of these young women since they were children and their resulting (lack of) self-esteem. It’s about feminism and empowering young women. It’s about the conversations we’re not having with young people. But ultimately, it’s about collective inaction. The play is told from the perspectives of all the girls around Scarlett. And watching the play in Parliament, the parallel became starkly clear: we, the adults, the politicians, are all as guilty as those girls for what happens to Scarlett.

Watching those young women perform brought home the power of theatre to engage young people. In a time of cuts to the arts, where often work for young people is first to go, I hope it also showed the politicians present the importance of having creative arts for young people’s expression, to ask the questions no one else is asking. And the young people demonstrated such passion and charisma in their performance that I thought we’ll only be so lucky if they turn out to be our future politicians!

It also made me smile that I was responsible for the (first?) discussion of pubic hair in Parliament.

YoungMinds Vs is an important campaign and I’m glad to have played a part in it. And hopefully, in some small way, enabled action.


Gemma Woffinden

Gemma Woffinden

GEMMA WOFFINDEN, Youth Theatre Director at West Yorkshire Playhouse

Formed in September 2012, the West Yorkshire Playhouse Youth Theatre aims to provide a platform for new performance work that responds to the lives of young people and explores the diversity of their experiences, making high-quality work that gives young people a voice and recognises their creative potential and talent.

Combining our commitment to new writing and our desire to respond to the lives of young people, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, in collaboration with the Theatre Royal Plymouth and Birmingham Rep, commissioned Evan Placey to write a new play, a process that consisted of workshops, discussions and improvisation with young people aged 13-16 led by Evan across the three Youth Theatres. Working in this way gave the young casts a real sense of ownership over the play, building a strong working relationship with Evan whilst teasing out universal themes that led to the writing of a relevant and authentic play titled Girls Like That.

I found Girls Like That a gift to direct: lots of roles for female performers, great moments of truth, real tension and clever use of humour. The project allowed Evan to attend several rehearsals and this was a big support to me – as a director it’s so helpful to be able to turn to the playwright and say, ‘do you think the character believes she is doing the right thing?’

Chris Thornton Photography (www.christhorntonphotography.com)

Girls Like That performed by members of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Youth Theatre
Photo by Chris Thornton

The young people involved in the production engaged with the themes of the play in a way that affected their lives beyond rehearsals. One cast member told me that though she saw the problems that the characters experience in the play all around her, she had never understood that these were issues; she felt that it portrayed ‘normal life and I didn’t believe it could be different’. The play helped her to shape her own opinions about pressures on young women and she believed performing the play would help other people think about the themes too. We had a great response from a range of audience members. Teachers wanted to see the play tour to schools to prompt discussion amongst their students and parents talked to me about how the play had opened up some very important discussions in the car on the way home from the theatre.

YoungMindsElizabeth Neil, from leading UK charity YoungMinds, had been to see Girls Like That with her teenage daughter back in July 2013. YoungMinds is driven by the needs of young people and aims to support their emotional well-being, putting young people at the forefront of leading and delivering campaign objectives to address sexual pressures, bullying, stress at school, unemployment and the lack of access to counselling. Impressed by the quality of the work and moved by the subject matter, Elizabeth contacted Alex Chisholm (WYP’s Literary Director) to discuss how the Youth Theatre could support the charity’s new campaign, YoungMinds Vs, scheduled to be launched on Monday 20th January 2014 at a national parliamentary event in Portcullis House. Elizabeth invited the Youth Theatre to perform at the event and we accepted with great excitement!

It was a challenge to select scenes from the play that best supported the YoungMinds campaign whilst creating a performance that still reflected the full production and presented a true account of Evan’s original narrative. Girls Like That explores a range of pressures felt by young people in today’s society but for the purpose of the campaign launch we focussed on how the play explores the very real sexual pressures felt by young women. I felt a big responsibility, but also felt very proud to be part of this event. It was exciting that the high quality performance work of our Youth Theatre was to be celebrated in such a way that we could support a valuable campaign that acknowledges the challenges faced by young people today.

castonthetrain

Two Girls Like That cast members en route to London

On 20th January our Artistic Director James Brining, Alex Chisholm, Elizabeth Neil, six of the cast members from Girls Like That and I caught the train from Leeds to London. That morning the Fight the Pressure campaign launch was national news, which only added to our excitement and nerves. Once we arrived at Portcullis House that excitement grew further as we spotted a range of celebrities and MPs who were also attending the event, amongst them Ed Miliband (Leader of the Labour Party), Nick Hurd (a Government Minister responsible for Youth Affairs), Sarah Brennan (CEO of YoungMinds), members of Chickenshed Theatre and Frankie Sanford from pop group The Saturdays.

We were last to present and the young people performed with such confidence, pride and professionalism. I was inspired by their ability to stand out amongst so many adults who regularly address big audiences. After the event, I watched the cast talk with passion about their love for making theatre and at one point I overheard some very sophisticated negotiations around a Girls Like That tour (which is unfortunately not realistic without funding). Staff from YoungMinds praised the cast for their enthusiasm for the campaign and described their performance as one of the highlights of the campaign launch.

One of the young people who performed at the event said ‘I think it’s great to have teens share their opinions at Parliament – not only so we can feel heard and listened to, but also because everyone can hear what we have to say about a world which belongs to us just as much as it belongs to adults and politicians’. Taking Girls Like That to a new audience was so rewarding. This thought-provoking play for young people is important on many levels – as well as being a great piece of theatre, it has a gripping story that speaks to today’s generation and forces audiences to sit up and consider the messages that are presented.

Playwright Evan Placey with members of the Girls Like That cast

Nearly a year after its premiere, Girls Like That‘s influence continues to be felt.  I have heard from Youth Theatre members that monologues from the play are being performed at current Drama School auditions and I am still supporting teachers who are keen to use extracts for GCSE and A level exams with their students. We’ve also kept up our link with Evan Placey: last week the Youth Theatre performed his new play Pronoun as part of the National Theatre Connections Festival. Some staff and young activists from YoungMinds came to see the show, so who knows what next…

YoungMinds and the West Yorkshire Playhouse are committed to giving young people a voice, and what better way than through theatre?


Pronoun, £9.99

Nick Hern Books is proud to publish Evan Placey’s urgent and explosive play Girls Like That, as well as his latest play, Pronoun, a moving, funny and unforgettable story about two teenagers dealing with the issue of transgenderism.

To order both of Evan Placey’s plays at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – visit our website here.

YoungMinds is the UK’s leading charity committed to improving the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people. To learn more about their work, visit their website.

Max Stafford-Clark in Conversation at the Royal Court

On Friday 17 January, renowned theatre director and founder of Out of Joint Max Stafford-Clark appeared at the Royal Court Theatre, London, for a talk and Q&A to launch his new book, Journal of the Plague Year, a personal exploration of the state of arts funding in the UK today.

Appearing on the main stage at the Royal Court Theatre, where he used to be Artistic Director, Max spoke about a range of topics, including dealing with Arts Council England, the ecology of UK theatre, and the climate for young directors trying to break through today.

Listen to the event below in full, via our new SoundCloud page. The recording includes a reading from the book by actor Danny Webb, a discussion between Max Stafford-Clark and the Royal Court’s Literary Manager Christopher Campbell, and an audience Q&A.

By turns funny, alarming and deeply personal, Max Stafford-Clark’s book  Journal of the Plague Year, which recounts his struggles with Arts Council England’s decision to slash his theatre company Out of Joint’s funding, offers a fascinating exposé of the often Kafkaesque workings of arts subsidy in England, and the financial and artistic manoeuvrings which are a fact of life for every arts organisation today.

The book also often takes on an autobiographical flavour, including the unexpectedly moving story of his two fathers, his surreal encounter with the New York theatre world, and the shocking details of what it is to suffer a massively debilitating stroke. It is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the state of our arts, from students to theatregoers, and from struggling arts workers right up to the Secretary of State for Culture.

An extract from the book is available to read on the Guardian website.

Formatted

Journal of the Plague Year, £10.99

Nick Hern Books is delighted to publish Journal of the Plague Year, Max Stafford-Clark’s truthful, personal and insightful exploration of the state of arts funding and carrying on in the face of adversity.

To order your copy at a 20% discount, no voucher code required, visit our website here.

Be sure to follow NHB on SoundCloud to be among the first to receive future audio content from the UK’s leading performing arts publisher.

Mike Alfreds: ‘The play is not the thing’ – actors and storytelling in theatre

Alfreds, MikeA legendary theatre director with over 200 productions to his name, over his long career Mike Alfreds has garnered a reputation as a true performance pioneer. As his new book Then What Happens? is published, the revered Shared Experience founder reflects on how stories are told on stage, and how actors, not plays, lie at the heart of theatre.

Many years ago – in fact, once upon a time – I found myself rehearsing a collection of stories from The Thousand and One Nights. Up to that time, I’d always directed plays. It was my good fortune that most of them were wonderful plays by great dramatists, plays that continue to give me intense pleasure and sense of purpose. But when I began working with these stories, it was as though what I’d always thought of as the parameters of theatrical practice were suddenly lifted; as though my theatrical wings could spread and take flight. It was a sort of creative liberation. It didn’t cancel out anything that I’d learned or done up to that moment; on the contrary, all of that became a firm foundation on which to build completely new structures. This freedom came to me because I had, unknowingly, entered the world of storytelling.

Theatre is not about plays. The art of theatre is acting. The theatre isn’t there to serve plays.  Plays are there to serve the actors. Plays need actors and without them, they’re just blueprints. Actors, however, do not need plays. They can improvise. They can mime. They can tell stories.

Mike Alfreds' first book, Different Every Night, has become an essential resource

Mike Alfreds’ first book, Different Every Night, has become an essential resource

What first drew me to theatre and has ever since engrossed and thrilled me most is the extraordinary phenomenon of the actor, not virtual but actual, present and immediate, endowed with our infinite human potential to express what it means to be alive. To that end, over the years, all my work on plays has been a search to provide actors with the maximum space for creative freedom in performance, a spontaneity that allows them to play nightly not as if for the first time, but actually for the first time; to be different every night – not for the sake of being different – but to be true to the moment, to what is happening at any instant in a performance. Different Every Night, published by Nick Hern Books in 2007, is a detailed account of my rehearsal processes aiming for just that goal when working on plays.

But as I worked with these other forms of fiction, fiction never intended for performance – novels, short stories, sagas and the like – I found this entirely new world of storytelling demanded a seemingly endless supply of fresh techniques to accommodate the variousness of the material. Plays, because of their need to be performed, all more or less comply with  a certain conformity of means: scenes of dialogue, usually chronological, in a limited number of locations with a limited number of characters and playing over an average of two or so hours. But stories have no such constraints of length, language, characters, place or time. The conventions of acting in plays is inadequate in this world. Here actors have to become first and foremost storytellers. They are the core of the theatrical experience. Within them, they contain the entire story which they relate in an infinitude of ways, each new story requiring a particular performance language of its own. So to tell stories, actors need to acquire techniques that extend and expand their skills and functions way beyond the already complex and demanding job of creating a character.

It’s interesting that current attempts to break the mould and refresh the nature of theatre rely less on human beings and more heavily on all those aspects of theatre that have always been tangential to the main event. I mean sets, lights, costumes, music, sound effects, burlesque and circus acts, installations – now of course made more available and dazzlingly expressive by unceasing digital innovation. As far as I’m concerned all these elements take theatre further and further away from its roots, in many cases, actually tearing them up and casting it in shallow soil.

Of course adaptations are nothing new.  They’ve been around for centuries. Principally they were achieved by squeezing stories into the corsets of whatever happened to be the conventional dramatic structures of the time. Novels were forced to become plays. You more or less lost the novel and ended up with something that wasn’t quite a play. Two incompatible forms cancelled each other out. What I found out was by trying to put a story on stage virtually intact, true not only to the spirit and the plot but also the word – and ignoring the conventions of a play – whole new worlds, new forms of performance began to open up. I’ve found it exhilarating struggling to find a way to make non-dramatic material dramatic, non-theatrical material theatrical. Each new story is an adventure, an expedition into the unknown, provoking unceasing invention and challenges to the imagination.

Initially, the fundamental difference between playacting and storytelling is the actor/character’s ability through narrative to step outside the story being enacted in order to talk about it. This single simple difference unleashes what seems an unstemable torrent of new conventions. And because storytelling by its nature needs an absolutely direct contact with an audience, the contact is natural, unforced and unselfconsciously interactive. Audiences, too, are given space for their own creativity. Storytelling invites them to bring their imaginations to bear on a story.

My new book, Then What Happens?, describes the discoveries I made in learning to adapt and tell stories. More than half of it is devoted to workshops full of exercises and improvisations to develop techniques for storytelling, mainly in an empty space with nothing apart from the considerable skills and imaginations of the actors. It also describes processes of adapting material in a way that remains as true as is possible to the material in its original form. I heartily recommend the world of storytelling to you.

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Then What Happens?, £10.99

Nick Hern Books are thrilled to publish Mike Alfreds’ Then What Happens? – Storytelling and Adapting for the Theatre, his impassioned, engaging case for putting story and storytelling back at the heart of theatre.

To order your copy at a 25% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Overcoming artistic ‘burnout’ by Russ Hope

Russ HopeForging a career in theatre directing is no mean feat, and for every director who reaches the peaks of success, there are many burnt-out casualties littered along the roadside. In an aim to avoid his own creative burnout, Russ Hope shadowed eight of the UK’s most exciting young theatre directors, with unprecedented access to that most mysterious and alchemical of places: the rehearsal room. His new book, Getting Directions, records the processes, practices and personalities he encountered, and suggests how other emerging theatremakers can avoid their own artistic exhaustion.

I am writing this the day after the start of the London 2012 Olympics and I am still in thrall to Danny Boyle’s spectacular Opening Ceremony. In interview, Boyle explained that the performance, which involved 10,000 volunteer performers, would celebrate ‘the best of us’: the formation of the NHS, the importance of ordinary people – factory workers, enlisted soldiers – in shifting the gears of British history, and the power of popular music to unite communities, from rock ’n’ roll to grime. That Boyle’s definition of ‘the best of us’ annoyed a few commentators on the political right may only have made him smile.

But to present an ‘impartial’ view of British history would not only be boring; it would be impossible. Stories are about choices, and staging any event means making a thousand editorial choices, big and small, from what to include and what to remove, to whom to cast and where to place the cameras. Whatever your politics, there is no denying that Danny Boyle is a director who is confident in his aesthetic taste and moral judgment. He wants to affect the audience and holds opinions about his subject matter. These qualities are, I would argue, prerequisites to any claim to being an artist, particularly the latter, without which, one is merely an imitator.

In constructing the ceremony, Boyle embraced in spectacular style the challenges of a particular brief, venue and set of circumstances, forging Olympics rings in the air and depicting the Queen skydiving into the stadium alongside Daniel Craig’s James Bond. Even if the stories are eternal, the toolbox is always specific.

Let us look back a few years. It is the mid-nineties, and Danny Boyle, then a successful theatre director, is preparing his first feature film, Shallow Grave. On the other side of London, I am eight years old and writing my first song, my dad’s acoustic guitar laid flat across my lap. Its opening lines were:

‘Cruisin’ with my baby
Café beside me, maybe
We might stop
For a hamburger today.’

My dad came into the room and, as kindly as he could, suggested that I consider writing about some experience closer to home: I was too young to drive, too young for a romantic relationship, and had never yet called a woman ‘baby’. Aside from its decent effort at scansion, there is little in the song worth saving.

I recall this because, despite the temptation to do so, it would be a mistake to ridicule my past self. At the time I had been listening to The Beach Boys and Chuck Berry, and their style and form had rubbed off on me.When, years later, I shifted my focus away from music and towards the theatre, I began in much the same way, with imitation: watching actors, and dissecting plays and stories with a keen eye.

Great Expectations - Great Expectations

Rehearsing Great Expectations, directed by Nikolai Foster (Chapter 4)

It is by using theory and practice that we learn how to design any kind of entertainment to fit the unit of time with which we have been entrusted by an audience. With repetition, we gain clarity over the type of work we wish to create, and we develop and enhance the dexterity and lightness of touch it demands of us. With each production, we pre-empt problems that little bit quicker, and solve them with less friction. With some luck, the hit-rate settles into a consistent level.

A career in the theatre, however, holds many dangers. It is a difficult industry in which to make a living: notoriously bleak employment statistics paired with low wages can be offputting at best and crippling at worst. While the internet has arguably democratised music and film, theatre remains a gloriously (and infuriatingly) people- and resource-intensive process. Only a few years out of university, an emerging theatre director might see his or her friends settling into graduate schemes and degree-conversion courses, and wonder whether the obstacles are worth their reward. For these reasons, my passion appeared to burnout some years ago. Occasionally, news of hard-won successes would reach me through texts or chats or Facebook, but each week I would hear too that some friend or acquaintance was moving on.

Getting Directions - rehearsal shots

The rehearsal room for Dick Whittington and his Cat directed by Steve Marmion (Chapter 2)

We burnout because we have lost sight of what we want for ourselves, or because the reasons that brought us to this career no longer reflect who we have become. There are a few options in such a scenario. In my case, I decided to take a sabbatical. I swore off theatre for six months, refocusing the use of my time to books, friends and cooking. When I was ready to re-enter the world, I emailed Matthew Dunster, a director I admired, to ask if it might be possible to shadow him for the duration of a production upon which he was about to embark. Matthew was gracious with his time, granting me full access to the production, all the way from its inception through production meetings and rehearsals and performance through observation and hours of one-on-one interviews.

Following this, I posed the same question to other directors, and soon I had gathered enough material and experience to formulate an idea using my observations of directors at work.

Getting Directions, the resulting book, grants unprecedented access to the rehearsal rooms and thinking styles of some of our most brilliant young directors, revealing some of the most diverse approaches to directing being used today. The directors involved are very different people, but I believe there are strong similarities in how they conceptualise their work and communicate with their teams, and in how seriously they take their responsibilities as both managers and as artists, making sense of their place within an industry and having something unique to say about the world.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Natalie Abrahami for Headlong (Chapter 3)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Natalie Abrahami for Headlong (Chapter 3)

The productions featured are nothing so grand as an Olympic Opening Ceremony, but they display similar levels of drama and diversity: Greek tragedy at the Gate; Tennessee Williams at the Young Vic; panto at the Lyric Hammersmith and a touring Dickens dramatisation to pick out a few. One of the book’s aims is to prevent creative burn-out by encouraging readers to consider adjusting their focus and ask new questions of texts, of companies and of people, most importantly themselves. It is a book about creative relationships, principles with which to approach problems, and good judgment.

Getting Directions by Russ Hope (£12.99)

Getting Directions by Russ Hope (£12.99)

Getting Directions does not promise quick fixes, but if you’re new to theatre, it could help you get your head straight in a challenging arena. If you have been around for a while, it may help you adjust your posture, reassess your motives, and teach you some new tricks along the way.

NHB are thrilled to have just published Russ Hope’s Getting Directions. To order your copy with 20% off click here – no voucher code required.