‘My happy place is where Art meets Activism’: Julie Hesmondhalgh on why she feels at home with political theatre

Hesmondhalgh, Julie (credit James Melia)_cropJulie Hesmondhalgh is one of those rare human beings: an actor who is instantly recognisable from her performances in popular TV dramas such as Broadchurch and Happy Valley, and as Hayley in the ITV soap opera Coronation Street; but at the same time, one who remains grounded in a politically engaged, compassionate, activist, grass-roots theatre practice in her native Lancashire. Here, in an extract from her new book, An Actor’s Alphabet: An A to Z of Some Stuff I’ve Learnt and Some Stuff I’m Still Learning, she explores the roots of that activism in her childhood, and in the inspirational figure she encountered at drama school.

A is for… Activism

I blame the Baptists.

And my brother.

And Brian. Especially Brian.

So maybe this section should come under B, actually.

Let me explain. When your childhood soundtrack is a mash-up of stirring old-school hymns, happy-clappy gospel songs and Never Mind the Bollocks (with a bit of Paul Robeson thrown in for good measure); when you know the security of ‘FELLOWSHIP’ and ‘COMMUNION’ and the thrill of ‘BEARING TESTAMENT’; when Jesus is your poster boy and your big brother buys you Billy Bragg EPs and sneaks into your room after the pub to teach you about ‘IMPERIALISM’ and ‘RACISM’ and ‘CLASS’, it kind of sets your stall for a life of some sort of evangelism. And when you later become aware of some of the more problematic parts of organised religion (‘Hello, homophobia! Hey, The Patriarchy! How ya doin’?’) and become at worst agnostic, at best Buddha-curious, you find you never really lose that bit of yourself that wants to heal the world and storm the barricades at the same time.

I always loved acting, but when it came to deciding about careers, I was so consumed with the idea of being of service to the world (insufferable right-on god-botherer that I was) that to go into the arts felt frivolous to me, and at odds with what I believed was my purpose on this earth. (Evangelism and grandiosity often go hand in hand.) I wanted to help people, goddammit! Like Jesus! I thought I should go into social or probation work instead – after a stint of volunteering ‘in the third world’, of course – and be of use to society. It never occurred to me that I could try to do both. Be an actor and try to be a useful citizen. I had no sense that art could actually have a purpose beyond pure entertainment.

It was my brother Dave who persuaded me to audition for drama school and to take a different path than what might be expected of someone from Accrington. And because I do everything that my brother tells me to do, I did, and I got in!

When I started at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), I met Brian Astbury, who became one of the most important and influential figures in my life. Brian was a white South African who set up The Space in Cape Town in the early 1970s, along with his wife, the actor Yvonne Bryceland, and playwright Athol Fugard. The Space was the first multiracial theatre of its kind, and was operating at the height of apartheid. Police raids were par for the course in a country where it was illegal for black and white creatives to work together. There is a story that I love to tell to tired actors (oh god, so many tired actors) about the black actors at The Space working all day as manual labourers, then turning up at the theatre to rehearse into the night, in a room where brooms were strategically placed against the walls, ready to be grabbed the moment the police inevitably turned up. Because if the black people were sweeping the floor they were allowed to be there, of course.

Yvonne Bryceland, Brian Astbury, Athol Fugard

Brian Astbury (centre) with Yvonne Bryceland (left) and Athol Fugard (right) at The Space in Cape Town, South Africa

To put on the plays they were producing – plays like Athol Fugard’s provocatively titled Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, about an illegal love affair between a man of colour and a white woman – was an act of huge resistance, and also of courage. Brian and his colleagues at that theatre were in real danger of arrest and imprisonment for making art that spoke truth to power. As the apartheid regime became more and more brutal, many people were forced to either take up arms or leave the country. Brian and Yvonne, lifelong pacifists, left.

Statements

Everything that Brian taught us at LAMDA was imbued and inspired by his first-hand experience of seeing the power of art and of theatre to be a force for change, even when that change doesn’t happen straight away. He believed passionately in our responsibility as artists to engage with injustice, to start conversations and to tell stories that help us make sense of the world and hold the powerful to account. He kick-started in me a lifelong passion for making work that challenges convention and that has something to say. And under his mentorship, I started to understand who and what I wanted to be. I discovered that my happy place is in the crossover point of the Venn diagram that has Art in one circle and Activism in the other. Like Brian, I believe that to be apolitical is a place of absurd privilege. How can you live in this world and not question the greed, the poverty, the inequality? It can only be if you’re unaffected by it, or worse, if you benefit from it.

For the last seven years I’ve co-run a political theatre collective in Manchester called Take Back. We have made a lot of work: some immersive and installation-based stuff, including collaborations with the university and bigger theatre spaces, about migration, refugees, and, more recently, sex work. But we’re best known for our award-winning script-in-hand responses to social and political events: joyful evenings of FELLOWSHIP and COMMUNION where we’re in a room together, starting conversations and emboldening each other in the face of unbelievable amounts of despondency and apathy out there.

Take Back_Our Girls

Take Back Our Girls, Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester, October 2018

Our model is simple: we ask ten or more writers to create a short piece on a theme, then we come together in a space to share them with an audience. Our first was Ten Takes on Hope in 2015, at a time when things looked like they might be on the up – if you can imagine such a thing! We took over a room above a pub at no cost, set up ticket sales on Eventbrite, sold out twice in one night, and had enough money in the account to hire a bigger venue for Ten Takes on Capital a few weeks later. Other shows have included Take Back Our Bodies, Take Back Our Girls, Take Back America (on the day of Trump’s inauguration) and Take Back Togetherness (after the Brexit referendum).

Some shows have been more successful and nuanced than others; some evenings have needed a serious edit (Take Back Our NHS, I’m looking at you…). Of course, we have never been so naive as to think that we might effectively heal the deep divisions in our country caused by Brexit, or that we might topple the Trump administration with a bit of cleverly curated spoken word at The Comedy Store. But what we have done, I think pretty successfully, is bring together a group of artists who broadly share a worldview – a worldview that feels a bit out of step with the spirit of the times – and who have a hankering to exist in the overlap of that Art/Activism Venn diagram. And I believe we have had some success in helping those artists, and our audiences, to feel less alone in it all, and sometimes even feel, dare I say it, empowered by the experience.

Last year I had the privilege of producing, with Take Back, Lucy Kirkwood’s short and powerful howl of pain that was Maryland, her response to the murders of Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman, Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. We brought together fifty women of all ages and backgrounds, dis/abilities and ethnicities, and rehearsed for two days over a weekend, then performed it twice on the Sunday night. The material was raw and painful, especially the sections written specifically for the women of colour in the cast. There were tears in the readthrough. And in the performance. It was overwhelming.

Maryland

Take Back production of Maryland by Lucy Kirkwood at The Edge, Manchester, November 2021 (Photograph by Elspeth Moore)

But in spite of the subject matter, and the unspoken personal memories of sexual violence for many of us; in spite of (or perhaps because of) the unadulterated rage we all felt as the play reached its harrowing climax; in spite of the stunned reaction of the audience who sat in silence for ten minutes after the second performance had ended, and the difficult and upsetting conversations that inevitably took place in the bar afterwards; in spite of all this, that weekend was one of the most exhilarating and joyful experiences of my working life. I will never forget it. Because in that accelerated way that can only happen in theatre, friendships were formed, connections were made, everyone held each other steady, and we all united in the most powerful way imaginable over something that we all desperately needed to express in that moment. There is no feeling like it in the world. Using our voices and raising each other up.

As an unapologetically political group, we have been asked many times about what we hope to achieve with our work, when we are so clearly preaching to the converted in most cases. But as someone who grew up buzzing off bearing testament, and to all intents and purposes literally preaching to the converted, I can testify that there is joy and purpose in just that. Because coming together and connecting over ideas and feelings and hopes and beliefs in a room is actually a really, really important and uplifting thing, especially in this age of isolation and doom-scrolling.

I’m not sure that anyone who was part of our sharings of Maryland, as an artist or an audience member, necessarily had their minds changed about anything. That was not the purpose of making this piece of political theatre. But I feel that every single person left the theatre that night feeling as though something in them had shifted. Something deep and unsayable had been said. And we were all a bit changed by that. And the world felt a bit different as a result.

Julie & Maryland company_crop

Julie Hesmondhalgh with the cast and crew of the Take Back production of Maryland by Lucy Kirkwood at The Edge, Manchester, November 2021 (Photograph by Elspeth Moore)


Actors Alphabet for blog

This is an extract from Julie Hesmondhalgh’s book An Actor’s Alphabet: An A to Z of Some Stuff I’ve Learnt and Some Stuff I’m Still Learning published by Nick Hern Books. Save 20% on your copy when you order direct from the Nick Hern Books website here.

Julie Hesmondhalgh is in conversation at Contact Theatre, Manchester, on Thursday 17 November, 7pm, when she will be signing copies of her book. Tickets available here.

She is also appearing in conversation at The Dukes, Lancaster, on Wednesday 30 November, 11am. Tickets available here.

Author photo by James Melia.

‘Dear Class of 2020…’: A message to new drama graduates – Part Two

Graduating from a course or degree is always a momentous moment of change – but with the world in grips of a pandemic and the theatre industry almost entirely shut down, the Class of 2020 face additional challenges.

Here, in Part Two of a special two-part blog post, we asked some celebrated theatre-makers (and NHB authors) to offer some words of encouragement to all those now setting out from drama school or university. Read their thoughts below, and read Part One here.


Anna Jordan: ‘you have already achieved great things’ 

You are already amazing. You have already achieved great things. Getting to the end of an acting/theatre course at a drama school is no mean feat. It’s a test of your mental and physical ability, your spirit, your tenacity, your bravery and openness. I did it nearly fifteen years ago, so I remember (just!).

To do it in the face of COVID and all the challenges that it has brought is nothing short of exceptional.

A career in the arts is not easy. It was never easy and it’s going to be even harder now. You will have to do other things to supplement this. There is no shame in that. Find an additional career that doesn’t kill your brain, but is more reliable than acting/working in theatre/TV/film. Take time to cultivate it. Be creative and resourceful. Try to live a balanced life. I’m not saying make theatre your hobby – but understand that sometimes it might be your passion rather than the thing that pays the bills. It is possible to have two careers.

Surviving in the arts is bloody tough, but it can be the most rewarding and magical job in the world. Enjoy every moment. Wishing you love and strength.

Anna Jordan is a playwright, screenwriter, director and acting tutor. She won the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting 2013 for her play Yen, which was subsequently produced at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, the Royal Court Theatre, London, and in New York. Other work includes Chicken Shop (Park Theatre, 2014),  The Unreturning (Frantic Assembly & Theatre Royal Plymouth, 2018) and Pop Music (Paines Plough & Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 2018). As a director she has worked at venues such as Theatre503, Soho and The Shed, National Theatre, and has taught, directed or written at numerous drama schools including Italia Conti, ArtsEd, RADA, LAMDA and Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Her screenwriting credits include Succession (HBO) and Killing Eve (Sid Gentle/BBC). 


Nathan Bryon: ‘hopefully during this time, we will have moved forward’

Don’t worry – it will all be back to the ‘normal’ crazy industry soon-ish – and hopefully during this time, we have moved forward in many ways and, as an industry, we’ll start reflecting the world around us.

Until then, jump in ya PJs, watch some PROPER trashy reality TV (Selling Sunset on Netflix is FIRE), order some fried chicken, put some prosecco on ice, get yourself a Nivea rehydrating face mask, and pat yourself on the back because YOU MADE IT!

Nathan Bryon is an actor, playwright, screenwriter and author. As an actor, his credits include Some Girls (BBC), Benidorm (ITV) and one-man show Mixed Brain (tiata fahodzi and Paines Plough, Edinburgh Fringe). He has written for critically acclaimed Cbeebies’ animation Rastamouse, BAFTA Award-winning Swashbuckle and on all three series of Cbeebies’ BAFTA-nominated Apple Tree House, and has written plays including Mixed Brain (Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 2017) and Dexter and Winter’s Detective Agency (Paines Plough & Theatr Clwyd tour, 2019). He is also the author of a series of children’s picture books, published by Penguin Random House; the first book in the series, Look Up!, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.


Declan Donnellan: ‘we have never needed you so badly’

You know this already but…

At the heart of making theatre is acting.

Acting is not just a job; it is also an art.

Acting, live acting, is increasingly important in an increasingly commoditised world.

For the actor says to the audience: ‘Sometimes I act being me, but sometimes I also act being someone else’ – it reminds us of a very important fact, that we are all many different things. Accepting this can keep us all a bit saner.

In fact, whenever in your life you feel a little bit fake, don’t feel alone or ashamed, it’s often the most precious part of you in revolt.

Only the ad men and politicians want you to believe you should be one thing.

None of us is.

Your job is not to tell the truth. Your job is to make illusions. You will make them as well as you can and you will try not to lie. You will end up lying but you must forgive yourself and try again better, tomorrow. In fact, if the illusion you share is good then it may help people to destroy delusions.

But art like love depends on equality, so we will not make good art if we place ourselves either below or above the audience.

Above all, hang on to your common sense and develop it. It is a better friend to you than logic ever will be.

Keep wondering what is the difference between acting and pretending.

You are not a luxury.

Acting and art is our way back to reality, away from a delusional world.

We have never needed you so badly.

Declan Donnellan is a director, adaptor and author.  With his partner Nick Ormerod, he is the co-founder and joint Artistic Director of Cheek by Jowl, for which they have created over 40 productions, performing in over 400 cities, across six continents. Other directing credits include work at the National Theatre (including the original premiere of both parts of Angels in America) and in London’s West End, as well as numerous international productions. He has received awards in London, Moscow, Paris and New York, including four Olivier Awards, a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for his work in France, the Charlemagne award (shared with Craig Venter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu). He was awarded an OBE in 2017. Declan’s book The Actor and the Target, published in the UK by Nick Hern Books, has been released in more than fifteen languages, including French, Spanish, Italian, German, Romanian and Mandarin.


Andy Nyman: ‘before you know it, the business will be back’

Well, you definitely win the ‘weirdest graduation ever’ award.

Yes, you are entering a business that appears to be in freefall. Yes, the life you have trained so hard for will undergo changes that none of us can quite conceive of yet, and yes, it feels more unpredictable than ever.

But understand this: before you know it, the business will be back – and you and your phenomenal energy will be needed to keep it motoring with a fierce new vigor. So take this respite to stay physically and mentally fit and ready, because, trust me, you have a lifetime of fun and adventures ahead of you in this brilliant, insane business.

Andy Nyman is an actor, writer, director and magician. His screen credits include the TV series Peaky Blinders, Campus and Dead Set, as well as the films Severance, Death at a Funeral, The Commuter, Judy and Jungle Cruise. Stage credits include Hangmen (Wyndham’s Theatre, West End), Abigail’s Party (Menier Chocolate Factory and West End), Assassins (Menier Chocolate Party) and Fiddler on the Roof (Menier Chocolate Factory and West End; nominated for Evening Standard Theatre and Olivier Awards). He is a frequent collaborator with Derren Brown, having co-created TV specials such as Russian Roulette,The System, The Heist and The Event, as well as co-writing and directing most of Derren’s stage shows. Andy’s play Ghost Stories, co-written and co-directed with Jeremy Dyson, originally premiered at the Liverpool Playhouse before a transfer to the Lyric Hammersmith (both co-starring Andy), and has since seen enjoyed multiple West End runs and productions around the world. It was also made into a hit film in 2018, co-written, co-directed and co-starring Andy. His books The Golden Rules of Acting and More Golden Rules of Acting are published by Nick Hern Books.


Danusia Samal: ‘this is a time to take back control’

Congratulations! You’ve made it through three years of hard work, creative and personal challenges, and spine rolls. You’ve worn black clothes every day, spent every waking moment with the same people, been ripped apart and put back together, and now you are free!

Oh no, wait. There’s a global pandemic. Sorry about that.

I’m not going to lie. This is a hard career. The years ahead will be very hard. But with dark times also come positives. Drama schools confronting institutional racism and inherent discrimination? Artists and organisations uniting instead of competing? Actors asking each other ‘How are you?’ instead of ‘What are you working on?’ These didn’t feel possible before. And they are welcome changes we need to hold on to as we build a new normal.

Art has always adapted. In times of crisis it often flourishes and grows, especially at a grassroots level. This is a time to take back control. What is your story? What do you care about? What do you want to make? Question yourself. Question this industry. Find people to collaborate with. Your peers are your most valuable creative resource. Try something new. It might just work!

And do all this knowing, some days you may not be able to get up. And that is totally okay.

You are more than your last job, the agent you signed with, how many casting directors you know. You are uniquely, and brilliantly, you. Break a leg x

Danusia Samal is an actor, writer and singer. As an actor, her stage credits include work at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Court, Shakespeare’s Globe, Soho Theatre and Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Her screen credits include Tyrant, Ghost in the Shell and The Great. Her play Out of Sorts won the Theatre503 International Playwriting Award, premiering at Theatre503. She also wrote and performed in Busking It – a gig-theatre show inspired by her experiences as a London Underground busker – which was commissioned by Shoreditch Town Hall and co-produced by HighTide, going on tour around the UK.


Antony Sher: ‘welcome to a beautiful and mad way of life’

Coming into this profession has always been a tough challenge. It requires enormous reserves of power, resilience, resourcefulness, inventiveness, calmness, patience, and, of course, talent. (A bit of good luck won’t go amiss either.) And that’s just what it’s like in normal circumstances.

For the Class of 2020, it’s all of the above, plus some. Well – good. If you can conquer the present obstacles, you are going to emerge very strong indeed. Not just in your career, but as a person. So, welcome to this beautiful and mad way of life – making theatre, films, TV – and wear your special badge with pride: ‘I belong to the Class of 2020.’

Antony Sher is an actor, author, playwright and artist. Much of his acting career has been spent with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he has played Richard III, Macbeth, Leontes, Prospero, Shylock, Iago, Falstaff and Lear, as well as the leading roles in other plays including Cyrano de Bergerac, Tamburlaine the GreatDeath of a Salesman. Other stage credits include work at the National Theatre, London, Almeida Theatre, London, in London’s West End, Theatre Royal Bath and Crucible Theatre, Sheffield,  for which he has received numerous awards including two Olivier Awards for Best Actor.  His screen credits include The Wind in the Willows, Mrs. Brown and Shakespeare in Love. He has published novels and a book of his paintings and drawings; his books Year of the King, Year of the Fat Knight, Year of the Mad King, Beside Myself and Primo Time are published by Nick Hern Books.


Thanks so much to all of the NHB authors who took the time to be part of this blog post, and to those who contributed to Part One.

From all of us at Nick Hern Books, we wish all of this year’s graduates the very best of luck in their future careers, and hope that normal times and opportunities return as soon as possible.

‘Dear Class of 2020…’: A message to new drama graduates – Part One

Graduating from a course or degree is always a momentous moment. Mortarboards are tossed in the air in an act of celebration, freedom, and release from years of education and training. Independence, new horizons and the prospect of employment beckon, and the search for a new, post-student identity begins. It’s a huge change no matter what the backdrop – but of course with the COVID-19 pandemic still with us and the UK theatre industry shut down, the Class of 2020 face additional challenges.

In this special blog post – the first of a two-parter – we asked some celebrated theatre-makers (and NHB authors) to offer some words of encouragement to all those now setting out from drama school or university. Read their thoughts below, and see more advice from NHB authors in Part Two of this post.


Mark Gatiss: ‘out of this crisis, great and surprising things will come’ 

When I was at school, back in the fifteenth century, we had to do a week of ‘work experience’. As I wanted to act, I was despatched to the local Arts Centre and into the kindly care of a slightly bewildered tutor where I spent most of the week staring at the walls, eating crisps and taking long lunch breaks in the park – a good preparation, it turned out, for unemployment. On the Friday, though, I was given THE TALK. This was a stark warning of the treacherous, venal, insecure and perpetually disappointing career I had chosen for myself.

What I’m writing now is not, I hope, THE TALK. You will already be all too aware that you’re entering a treacherous, venal, insecure… oh my God, I’m doing it! Well, listen. You know all that. And you know you’re starting out in a time of unprecedented difficulty where the whole thing just got even harder. But you know what? You’re brilliant. You’ve graduated. It’s all still out there. And just by getting this far you’ve shown your mettle. Out of this crisis, some great and surprising things will come. And you’ll be part of them.

Work hard. Be kind. All love and luck to you. x

Mark Gatiss is an actor, comedian, screenwriter, playwright, director, producer and novelist. His many stage and screen credits include co-creating, writing for and acting in hit BBC series Sherlock and Dracula, writing for and acting in Doctor Who, and his work as one of the members of The League of Gentlemen. He won an Olivier Award in 2016 for his role in Three Days in the Country at the National Theatre. He curated and wrote for the collection Queers: Eight Monologues, which was broadcast on BBC Four and performed live at the Old Vic Theatre, and is published by Nick Hern Books.


Natasha Gordon: ‘resilience has brought you this far’

Congratulations! To arrive at Graduation Day, you’ve already wrestled with many voices of doubt (yours, family, old mates en route to ‘proper jobs’, etc.). These inner demons will inevitably loom large now, as you enter the business during one of its most difficult fights for survival. For now, much of my usual advice is inapplicable. Everything is shifting, but some things will remain the same.

The sense of belonging amongst artists and the urgency to create. The first time you felt shook, awakened by a theatrical/cinematic/dramatic experience, the first ‘aha’ moment that captivated you. Your discovery of this majestic world, its capability to transcend, uplift, enlighten, validate, entertain, to connect our human experiences and deepen our understanding of ourselves, each other and the world we inhabit. These all remain the same.

Use this time to discover more about yourself. In knowing yourself you’ll discover the kind of artist you want to be. If you can, develop a routine. Write, film, sing, debate, meditate, organise, galvanise, read, play your instrument, document, record, collaborate with like-minded people, and – importantly – remember to rest.

Art has always survived during times of social and economic upheaval. Survival requires change. Change requires resilience. Resilience has brought you this far, indulge your resolve further still. Keep going. I wish you the very best of luck.

Natasha Gordon is an actor and playwright. Her debut play Nine Night premiered at the National Theatre in 2018, earning Natasha prizes for Most Promising Playwright at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards and the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards. It later transferred to Trafalgar Studios, becoming the first play by a Black British female playwright to be produced in London’s West End.


Paul Harvard: ‘you have an important role to play in theatre’s recovery’

As human beings, we have always had a fundamental desire to gather together, in one place, at one time, to hear stories being told. It is the very essence of theatre, and fulfils a human need as old as civilisation.

You graduate into what must seem a very frightening world. Our industry, and in particular our theatre, faces an existential crisis. Without significant action from government, many predict the demise of many theatres in this country.

In the midst of this seemingly impossible situation, don’t forget to take time to congratulate yourself on all your hard work over the past few years. Through much endeavour, you have nurtured your creativity and honed your skills. This pandemic doesn’t diminish those achievements; you have so much to offer. So when the sky seems dark as you look out across the immediate horizon, remember that our inbuilt need for stories has not gone away – and some day soon theatre will flourish once again. And you have an important role to play in that recovery. So as you graduate, I offer you a call to arms: be hopeful. Be resilient. Be proactive. Be political.

Paul Harvard is an actor, director, musical director, composer and author whose professional credits include work at the National Theatre, Watermill Theatre, Soho Theatre and Orange Tree Theatre. He is currently Course Leader for BA Acting and MMus Musical Theatre at the University of West London, having previously worked at schools including Urdang Academy, ArtsEd, Guildford School of Acting, Trinity Laban and Italia Conti. His books Acting Through Song, Audition Songs for Men and Audition Songs for Women are published by Nick Hern Books.


Conor McPherson: ‘I can’t wait to see what you will bring to the world’

Congratulations to you all on completing your studies in this most difficult of years. While I know it’s frustrating being unable to get out there and show us all what you do best, this is a wonderful reminder of the fragility of theatre – but also its robustness.

Each moment of live theatre that occurs is gone forever. The very mortality of the live experience is what gives our ghostly passion its power. Yet theatre is the also the most robust of all art forms because it requires almost nothing to achieve its purpose. A space, a performer, and an audience.

Whether it’s a story being told for the first time, or an ancient play being received for the thousandth time, live theatre is a ritual that serves a deep longing for something no other art form can provide. This is why it has endured for millennia. And will continue to endure.

Keep the faith – we will all experience theatre again before too long. And I can’t wait to see what you will bring to the world.

Conor McPherson is a playwright, screenwriter and director whose works include The Weir (Royal Court, London, Duke of York’s, West End and Walter Kerr Theatre, New York; winner of Olivier, Evening Standard, Critics’ Circle and George Devine Awards), Shining City (Royal Court, Gate Theatre, Dublin and Manhattan Theatre Club, New York; nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play), The Seafarer (National Theatre, London, Abbey Theatre, Dublin and Booth Theater, New York; Laurence Olivier, Evening Standard, Tony Award nominations for Best Play), The Night Alive (Donmar Warehouse, London and Atlantic Theater, New York; winner of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best New Play), and Girl from the North Country, a musical based on the songbook of Bob Dylan (Old Vic Theatre, London, Noël Coward Theatre, West End, Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, Public Theater and Belasco Theatre, New York).


Jessica Swale: ‘you have exactly the tools to carry on’

You’ve got this. You really have, and I’ll tell you why. Because theatre people are a little bit magic.

Growing up, I always thought theatres were somehow enchanted. The mystery of them – what happens backstage, the transformations, lights in the gloam, the scurrying, the shadows in the dark, the emergence of characters and music and extraordinary landscapes. But more than that, there seemed to be something magic about the people. And to this day, I still believe that. And it’s this:

Theatre people make things happen. Whether you’re actors, makers, idea bakers, limelighters or backstage pullers-of-strings, we start from nothing and make… something. We begin – most of us – with no money, no resources, no career prospects or life plan, often no real idea what we’re doing at all… and yet, we have hope. Hope and optimism and drive and an oddly inexplicable, wilful certainty that, from this nothing, with just a sprinkling of ideas, something will come.

We are makers in adversity. We get stuff done. And theatre has always survived – war, plague, bans, terrible scripts. And it will still. Because, when the normal channels are scuppered, we find other ways.

This is an extraordinary time. Full of challenges and set-backs, moments of profound grief and uncertainty. But we are all creative souls – you are – or you wouldn’t be reading this. So you’ve got this. You have exactly the tools to carry on. Use them. Spend this time imagining, inventing, thinking, sharing. Don’t wait for the phone call. Make a start. And I promise you, you’ll never look back.

I can’t wait to work with you all. Make work from your own hearts. Be yourselves, be original and be courageous. And if in doubt, turn to Maya Angelou: ‘If you’re always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.’

Jessica Swale is a playwright, screenwriter and director. As a playwright, her works include Blue Stockings (Shakespeare’s Globe, London; nominated for the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright and now a set text on the GCSE Drama syllabus), Nell Gwynn (Shakespeare’s Globe, London, Apollo Theatre, West End, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Chicago and Folger Theatre, Washington D.C.; winner of the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy) and a new adaptation of The Jungle Book, featuring original songs by Joe Stilgoe (UK tour). Her debut feature film Summerland, written and directed by Jessica, will be released in 2020.


Harriet Walter: ‘I know you will shape the future’

Welcome to the honourable, unpredictable, thrilling, frustrating, ancient, traditional, ever re-inventable, totally unfair, engrossing, self-obsessing, non-hierarchical, humiliating, generous, wing-stretching, soul-destroying, University of Life that is the acting profession.

My heart goes out to you that you are emerging just now at this unfavourable moment in history, but I know you will shape the future with your passion and find a way through to communicate those passions somehow, somewhere as long as audiences want to hear and see their stories played out in front of them.

You might make a fortune, you might make a pittance, but giving it a try is all. You will make lasting friends and taste many an adventure. The world needs re-shaping and theatre at its best can re-shape the world.

Don’t lose heart. We need you.

Harriet Walter is an actor and author. On stage, she has played many Shakespearean characters including Ophelia, Helena, Portia, Viola, Imogen, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice and Cleopatra (most of them for the RSC), and has also played Brutus, Henry IV and Prospero in all-female productions at the Donmar Warehouse. She has appeared in numerous other classical and contemporary plays around the UK and internationally, and has won awards including Olivier and Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Her screen work includes roles in Atonement, The Sense of an Ending, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Suite Française, BabelSense and Sensibility, Downton Abbey, Succession, Law and Order: UK, Black SailsCall the Midwife and Killing Eve. She is an Honorary Associate Artist of the RSC, an Honorary D.Litt at Birmingham University, and was awarded a CBE in 2000 and a Damehood in 2011. Her books Other People’s Shoes and Brutus and Other Heroines are published by Nick Hern Books.


Thanks so much to all of the NHB authors who took the time to be part of this blog post – find more words of advice and encouragement from NHB authors in Part Two.

From all of us at Nick Hern Books, we wish all of this year’s graduates the very best of luck in their future careers, and hope that normal times and opportunities return as soon as possible.