‘Theatre makes people more intelligent than they are individually’: celebrating Peter Hall

Sir Peter Hall, who has died at the age of 86, held a truly special place at the heart of our cultural landscape: among his many achievements were founding the Royal Shakespeare Company, serving as Director of the National Theatre, and directing the English-language premiere of Waiting for Godot.

To celebrate his extraordinary life, here’s an extract from an interview with him, conducted by Richard Eyre for his book Talking Theatre.

RICHARD EYRE: What makes theatre so special?

PETER HALL: It’s the only art form in which a group of people meet together in order to play a game of imagination with the actor, who invites them to imagine things, and that union makes them more intelligent than they are individually. Collectively they’re sharper, they’re more alive. The experience is more incandescent than if they were reading a book or a poem or listening to a piece of music by themselves. The desire to imagine something which isn’t there is stronger in the theatre than in any other media. If we go and stand on the stage, which is a completely bare black box, and we speak with some clarity a piece of Julius Caesar, if we’re any good at all, the audience will believe it’s Rome. They’ll say: yes, those two guys are in Rome. If we bring a camera into the auditorium and film the two of us doing exactly the same thing in the same circumstances and we then show that piece of film, the audience will say: well, that’s not Rome, that’s a black void in a black box—where’s Rome? In other words their imagination is not stimulated by any visual imagery, which after all is the basis and strength and extraordinariness of film. I think what’s really been interesting about the theatre in the last fifty years is that the increased visual media and, in a sense, the increased literalness of our age has freed the theatre to be more imaginative.

Or to try to be as imaginative as Shakespeare?

The theatre’s strength comes out of its limitations to some extent. Shakespeare initially played in daylight: it’s much more eloquent because it’s imaginative for Lady Macbeth to come on with a candle in daylight and say the night is black, than actually for us to walk onto a modern stage where we can create blackness and yet we can’t see. And then we can’t hear her telling us about the nature of blackness and of evil. Shakespeare was there in daylight in a large space with two or three thousand people with a permanent stage which could become anything or anywhere he wanted it to become. Or nowhere if he didn’t want to tell us where it was. One of the problems with doing Shakespeare today is that we think it has to be somewhere. Why did Shakespeare happen? It’s the—it’s the genetic pack of cards. Genius makes its own rules. Shakespeare inherited a very formal method of writing with the iambic pentameter and broke all the rules, and therefore made it sound human and flexible and extraordinary.

Do you think it’s a marvellous piece of luck to have had Shakespeare as our theatrical DNA or is it a burden?

Some people take the view that Shakespeare is a dead weight, a kind of albatross round the neck of the British theatre. I don’t believe that’s true. Strangely enough, unlike the French classicists, he’s entirely questing and revolutionary. He questions form all the time, whether it be the form of his own blank verse line or whether it be the form of the play. Whatever it be he’s writing about, his historical sense changes and develops. Everything is questioned. But it’s a sobering thought that in two or three hundred years we shan’t understand Shakespeare because the language is now changing at an accelerating rate, and Shakespeare will be like Chaucer: he’ll need to be modernised.

Peter Hall on the set of his film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968), with Paul Rogers and Judi Dench

What were you trying to achieve when you started the RSC?

Stratford had a renaissance immediately after the war. It seemed to come at the same moment: the beginning of subsidising the arts, the coming of the Third Programme, the new Education Act, our post-war hopes. And there was a huge boom in Shakespeare. Barry Jackson, who ran Birmingham Rep, took over Stratford and made it a rather glittering and glamorous place. He got the great stars to come. He got Diana Wynyard, he got the young Paul Scofield, he got the young Peter Brook. And he also built an infrastructure of rehearsal rooms and workshops which actually took the theatre seriously for the first time. I mean, there’d been a theatre at Stratford since the late nineteenth century, though it had burnt down in 1931 and the new Art Deco, rather cinema-like building went up, which wasn’t very easy to play in. That was the main problem that Barry Jackson had and then Tony Quayle had and then Glen Byam Shaw had. But they actually put Stratford on the map. Suddenly Shakespeare was hot. I went there first in 1956, when I was twenty-five, to direct a play, and I directed a play each year from then on. The season ran from March until October: it was a star-led company. There were always two or three really big West End stars. And there were a lot of young actors who would do one, two or three years there gradually coming up through the ranks. Some of them became stars in their own right, like Dorothy Tutin, Geraldine McEwan and people like that.

In 1958 Glen Byam Shaw said he was going to retire, so he asked me if I would be interested in taking over. I was twenty-seven. My ambition as a young man had been to do Shakespeare, which is why I did what I did and why I went to Cambridge and why I followed the path that I tried to follow. Even more shamingly, I suppose—because it’s like Harold Wilson standing outside the door of Number Ten—I wanted to run Stratford. So it was an extraordinary moment for a twenty-seven-year-old man. I can’t imagine how I had the nerve to do it looking back, but I said: I don’t want to run a Shakespeare Festival from March until October; I don’t want to be a runner of an ad-hoc festival; I want to try and make an ensemble; I want to give the actors three-year contracts, I want us all to speak Shakespeare in the same way, I want us all to approach Shakespeare in the same way. So therefore I want a team of directors and a team of designers and most of all I want to do modern plays and other classics as well as Shakespeare. Because I believe a classical company that is not alive to the present has absolutely no prospect of making the past live. Therefore I want a London theatre because I want it to be a year-round operation. The idea was that a company, a family, would achieve more than an ad-hoc group. The chairman of the theatre’s board, Sir Fordham Flower—of the Flowers brewers who had been the patrons and the starters and the supporters of Stratford from the previous century—was terribly interested in all this, but he was an arch-diplomat and extremely clever. He said: ‘I think this is all very good, but I don’t know whether it’ll get through. We’ve got a hundred and seventy-five thousand pounds in the bank, which is savings from our Australian and American tours from the past, but those are our total resources.’ And I said to him: ‘There is a political reason why you’ve got to do this: within the next five or six years the National Theatre will come, and if the National Theatre comes, Stratford will become a very provincial repertory stuck out in the country, visited only by tourists.’ And he said: ‘Well, we can’t have two national theatres.’ And I said, for the first time, and I’ve gone on saying it all my life: ‘We must have two theatres.’ I think the fact that France had the Théâtre National Populaire of Vilar, as well as the Comédie Française, gave some hope for young actors and young writers and for the future. That artistic competition is absolutely essential. So I said there must be two national theatres and we must be the first.

Peter Hall in 1958, the year he pitched the idea for what would become the RSC

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the board was very, very hostile to it, particularly Binkie Beaumont, who was the doyen of West End theatres and a great manager and a great producer. He took me out to lunch and he said: ‘If you do this, you will ruin the West End theatre. Once an actor is allowed to play less than eight times a week, he will never want to play eight times a week.’ And I said: ‘Well, he shouldn’t play eight times a week; that’s nineteenth century and dreadful.’ And he said: ‘All the playwrights will give you plays because you’ll be able to nurse them in repertory, and they won’t be instant flops or successes, and you will ruin the commercial theatre, and I’m not having it. If you succeed in getting this, I will resign.’ And I said: ‘That’s fine.’ He was a friend, I’d worked with him and I’d work with him again. And he said: ‘I will resign, and I will resign quietly and without fuss or without bother, but I will go.’ Ultimately he did.

Anyway, the Stratford company went to Russia in November, December 1958. I was director designate at that time and a rather worried director designate because I wasn’t sure whether what I wanted was going to happen. And I wasn’t therefore sure whether I was actually going to take the job, although I already had it. In Leningrad—as it was then, now again St Petersburg—in one of those vast Edwardian hotels, Fordy Flower sat up all one night with me and said: ‘Now let’s get to the bottom of this: tell me the whole thing again.’ And I went over it all in painful detail until about four in the morning over several quantities of drink. And at the end of it Fordy said to me: ‘You are absolutely mad, but I think you’ve got something. I will back you, and here’s my hand: through thick and thin I will back you.’ And he did. The board practically resigned but didn’t. Then it started to be a success. It wasn’t an instant success; it took two years before we became internationally famous. Then everybody said: oh, how wonderful. But looking back on it, the interesting thing to me is that it is absolutely inconceivable that such a thing could happen now. This is not an old man being nostalgic. I mean, now there would have to be money from the Lottery, and there would have to be a feasibility study, and the feasibility study would certainly say we don’t need to do this, we don’t need any more classical theatre in London, and this shouldn’t happen.

You did Godot in ’55. Nothing was known about Beckett in this country. What was the response?

I was running the Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street. I was twenty-four, and I was in the middle of dress-rehearsing Mourning Becomes Electra, which I’d always wanted to direct. I went into my little cupboard office and found a script which said ‘Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett’, and a letter from Donald Albery, who was a West End impresario. It said: ‘I don’t know whether you know this play: it’s on in Paris in a seventy-five-seat theatre, and it’s been on for some time; it’s very highly regarded. No one will do it in the West End, no director will touch it, and every actor has turned it down. I’ve seen some of your work at the Arts Theatre, and I liked it, so I wonder whether you’d like to do it.’ So with a sense that I was certainly at the end of the queue, I looked at it. I’d vaguely heard of Beckett; I hadn’t read a word of him; I hadn’t seen the play in Paris, but I’d heard of it. And I read it. I won’t say that I said to myself: this is the major play of the mid-century and it’s a turning point in drama, but I did find it startlingly original. First of all that it turned waiting into something dramatic. Second, that waiting became a metaphor for living. What are we actually living for, what are we waiting for, will something come, will Godot come, will something come to explain why we’re here and what we’re doing. And I found it terribly funny, and I also found it genuine, poetic drama. We’d just lived through the time of T.S. Eliot and the time of Christopher Fry and the time of W.H. Auden, where poetic drama—which was usually done in tiny theatres in Notting Hill Gate—was trying to put poetry back into theatre by sticking it onto ordinary dialogue like sequins. It was very false and very artificial. And here was somebody who had an extraordinary ear, an extraordinary rhythm for writing, which was both clear and eloquent and full of character and very funny. Of course I knew it was Irish: that’s very important, because you know out of O’Casey comes Beckett. No question. No question. Out of Joyce comes Beckett, no question. But it was an individual voice, and I thought: well, what have we got to lose, let’s do it. So I went off on holiday leaving Mourning Becomes Electra running, armed with all the volumes of Proust which I’d never read. I was a very serious-minded youth.

Translation from the French?

Oh, translated; no, no, not in French, alas. And I settled down on the beach to read all these, and I think I got to volume eight or nine and a telegram arrived saying: ‘Mourning Electra failing return at once for Godot.’ Which I did, and I’ve never finished Proust which seems to me an eloquent moral to the whole tale and I did Godot. Very hard to cast it, nobody wanted to do it: they all thought it was mad, they all thought it made no sense. I could never understand why people didn’t understand what was going on, what was happening, but they didn’t. We ended up with a cast of Peter Woodthorpe, Paul Daneman, Peter Bull and Timothy Bateson, and in a hot summer we started rehearsing it. Peter Bull practically died as Pozzo carrying all those bags and whips. Gradually the cast began to understand it and began to feel it. I have to say I felt from the very beginning terribly comfortable in the rhythms. I didn’t know whether I was doing the right thing, but I had that wonderful feeling that a director can have when he’s happy: that there’s only one thing to do and that’s what you do. So you don’t say to yourself: what ought I to do? I felt completely at ease. The play opened in late August or September 1955. The first night was full of cheers and counter cheers. When Estragon said: ‘Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful,’ an English voice said: ‘Hear, hear!’ There was a good deal of that going on, and audible sighs and yawns, and at the end there were cheers and boos. My new agent, who was terribly grand, met me backstage pink with rage and said: ‘Everything is just beginning for you as a director, you’ve got a West End play, you’re going on Broadway and then you go and do a thing like this.’

The 1955 English language premiere of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, directed by Peter Hall

So people were shocked?

They were absolutely baffled, a lot of them. But half the people said: this is it, this is what we’ve been waiting for. And the press reaction was equally divided. Philip Hope-Wallace in the Guardian said: ‘This is the sort of thing that we saw in basements in the twenties in Berlin, and it really won’t do.’ And there was quite a lot of patronising and joke-making, because it was an easy target. I was very dubious after the daily press whether it would run. The owner of the Arts called me the day after it opened and said: I don’t think we can keep this on. I said: just wait for the Sundays, please. I’d sent a copy of Watt [Samuel Beckett’s novel] to Harold Hobson [drama critic of the Sunday Times] just saying: this might interest you as background to the play. And he had a complete Pauline conversion to Beckett. And he went on writing about it for the next six weeks. Tynan [in the Observer] was enthusiastic but less so than Hobson, though he became very enthusiastic as the Godot bandwagon rolled. And it did roll. It’s extraordinary now to think of—we were more one nation then. We didn’t have so much press, we didn’t have so many television channels, we didn’t have so many radio channels. But it was everywhere. There were cartoons about Godot. I was on Panorama interviewed about what was the meaning of it, was it the Cold War? It went on, on and on and on and on, and it ran for over a year. It really got me started, it got me to Stratford. Because of that I met Leslie Caron, who became my first wife and I directed her. Tennessee Williams gave me his plays to direct in London. It completely transformed my life. On the level of what it brought to theatre, I think it nailed the colours again to the old mast of theatre: that theatre is a place of imagination and of metaphor and of contradiction. It’s the Shakespearean mast to me. It also says that there is no active theatre without the tension between the form of the writing, the form of the creation, and the emotion that the actor is trying to express. Whether it’s Shakespeare’s iambic pentameters or whether it’s Beckett’s very precise, beautiful cadenced prose, it has a rhythm and an actuality.


This interview is taken from Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People by Richard Eyre.

Nick Hern Books is saddened to hear of the passing of Peter Hall. Everyone associated with British theatre today owes an enormous debt to his extraordinary, influential career.

We’re proud to be the publishers of Peter Hall’s book, The Necessary Theatre, in which he makes an impassioned argument for public funding of the arts, and theatre in particular.

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‘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.

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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.]

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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.]

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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…


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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.

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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.