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.

Layout 1

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.