‘Sometimes we all need to colour outside of the lines’: Paul Kalburgi on The Writer’s Toolkit

Whilst it can be hugely freeing, empowering and rewarding, every writer knows that writing can also sometimes be a tough and frustrating process. Whether you’re trying to crack a problem on a script, come up with a new idea or find the inspiration to start anything at all, sometimes writers need something to kickstart their creativity – and this is where standalone exercises can be invaluable.

Here, writer and producer Paul Kalburgi explains how giving yourself permission to forget about the end product, and just write, can give you exactly the kickstart you need – and how his new book, The Writer’s Toolkit, can help that process. 

American playwright James Thurber once said, ‘Don’t get it right, get it written.’ A productive motto, which I try to keep in mind whenever I sit down to write, and something I always share with fellow writers in my classes and workshops. Just as an Olympic athlete must push through the pain barrier to achieve success on the track, writers must push past ‘writer’s block’ to achieve success on the page – especially when inspiration is fleeting. Sometimes, this is easier said than done, of course. Writing is a creative process, which I believe can’t be forced, so how do we keep writing and remain productive, when we are in a slump?

If a script is beginning to feel forced or sluggish, or you find yourself unable to write through or around a roadblock for lack of motivation or ideas, I suggest stepping back from ‘scriptwriting’ and refocus your creativity by simply ‘writing’. Remove the confines of structure, story beats, and the pressure to produce work that needs to be ‘good enough’ to one day share with others (hopefully an audience), and allow yourself to indulge in the craft of writing. Discover how writing exercises and prompts can free you of expectation, judgement and the need to deliver. Sometimes we all need to throw a little sand outside of the sandbox, colour outside of the lines, and give ourselves permission to make a mess, in order to inspire real creativity.

‘Only you know the best way to tell your story.’ – Paul Kalburgi on set

If you are on a roll, however, and just need a little help to shape, improve or invigorate a scene, then a related writing exercise can help to highlight any sticking points and may suggest a new way forward. In my new book, The Writer’s Toolkit, I share specific activities for the critical elements of scriptwriting, which will allow you to fine-tune your script and inspire new ideas. Perhaps you are looking for inspiration for a new piece of writing? I have included 101 quick-fire writing prompts, so set a timer and get to it. There are no rules, just read the scenario, pick up a pen or open your laptop – and start writing. It’s amazing how satisfying it can be to create a series of short, complete scenes in a brief amount of time, and this can provide a positive start to your writing session.

Inside The Writer’s Toolkit, you’ll find a bounty of original writing exercises and activities, as well as my riffs on some classics. Also included is an introduction to immersive writing and meditative writing. The latter is something that I have found hugely beneficial for the heart, mind and soul at the start and end of a writing session. Included are three mindful meditation exercises to try before your writing sessions, and a relaxing Savasana to finish your practice. I encourage you to explore the creative and spiritual benefits of meditative writing, which can be a productive and enriching addition to your process.

All of the exercises in the book are designed to be done solo; however, many would be great to try out whilst working alongside fellow writers. I would encourage all writers to consider joining a local writers’ group (if one doesn’t exist, why not start one up?), where you can meet regularly to chat about your latest project, share tips and tricks, circulate news of writing opportunities, and find supportive and encouraging readers for your early drafts. If groups aren’t your thing, consider finding a writing buddy. Just like having a friend to go to the gym with, find someone to check in with once a week, keeping each other focused and on track towards achieving your writing goals and deadlines. If you can’t meet regularly in person (especially now, during the COVID-19 pandemic), this could even be a weekly phone call.

Only you know the best way to tell your story. Go write it!


This is an edited extract from The Writer’s Toolkit: Exercises, Techniques and Ideas for Playwrights and Screenwriters by Paul Kalburgi, published by Nick Hern Books. Save 20% to your copy when you order direct from the NHB website here.

Paul Kalburgi is a British playwright, screenwriter and television producer. His plays have been produced in the UK, USA and Ireland. He has written for and produced programmes for a host of networks in the UK and USA since 2007, working across a variety of genres. Alongside his writing projects, Paul continues to facilitate writing courses and workshops in the USA, UK and New Zealand. Paul is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America.

‘The training must go on!’ – Glyn Trefor-Jones on teaching drama socially distanced

Teachers and students returning to school this month are having to get to grips with a ‘new normal’ of bubbles, masks, and social distancing. The constraints caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic make teaching any subject trickier – but perhaps none more so than drama.

That’s why director, writer and teacher Glyn Trefor-Jones has created Drama Menu at a Distance: a new follow-up to his bestselling first book, Drama Menu, which has been written specifically for all those teaching drama during COVID-19. Here, he discusses how even in these unprecedented times, training the next generation must continue – and how his new book can help.

Since the COVID‐19 pandemic began spreading across the world in 2020, we have faced challenges like never before. For those of us who teach and lead drama classes and workshops, it must be our priority to do so in a safe, secure, healthy way – whilst also observing social distancing, in order to protect our students and halt the spread of the disease. But, as the old adage goes… the show must go on! At a time when performers are needed more than ever, training the next generation of performers must also go on!

For however long we must keep our distance, we will continue to create, to reinvent, to strive and to feed our creativity. Performers are resilient and resourceful and we won’t let a little thing like distance come between us and the drama.

This is where my new book, Drama Menu at a Distance, comes in. It contains eighty games and exercises that offer fun, creative, learning experiences without the need to get up close and personal. Several exercises have been adapted from my first book, the highly popular Drama Menudue to their appropriateness for socially distanced play, whilst the rest are new exercises that have been devised with distance in mind. Even at a distance, drama training can still be vibrant, engaging, energising and extremely rewarding – and these exercises set out to increase every player’s performance abilities as well as respecting the rules of social distancing.

For those of you familiar with the Drama Menu concept, you’ll find that the format of the new book remains the same. The eighty exercises are categorised into menu‐inspired ‘courses’ that increase in difficulty (and dramatic potential) as you progress through the book. You will find the same progressive approach to theatre training, with exercises categorised into ever‐more engaging courses. Just like a menu in a restaurant, you should choose one exercise from each course (or two if you’re feeling hungry) until you have a satisfying feast ready to be consumed!

Throughout the book there are also a great many exercises which are particularly useful as they can be employed in a physical setting and, with a bit of adaptation and ingenuity, in a virtual/digital workshop as well.

Social distancing must not be seen as an end to creativity. In fact, the current restrictions may prove to be the catalyst for untold invention if we embrace what’s possible, rather than lamenting what has been (temporarily) lost. Developing a new way of teaching and leading our students will only serve to broaden all of our horizons, if we have the courage to look towards a whole new world of dramatic possibilities just waiting to be discovered.

The global pandemic has provided an opportunity like never before to rethink the old, and bring a new approach to teaching drama. The more we allow ourselves to embrace these opportunities, the more creativity will emerge during this unprecedented time. So, let’s make this period one that will be forever regarded as a time when teaching was reimagined and rediscovered – and our students emerged stimulated, challenged, reinvigorated.

My hope is that Drama Menu at a Distance plays its part in reinventing what is possible within the drama session. When we are able to come together again, and the restrictions of social distancing are a distant memory, I trust that drama practitioners and players alike will be better, stronger and more resilient for the experience. By navigating this time with imagination and open minds, when the curtain rises on a new era of live performance, there will be a whole generation of inventive, imaginative, well‐rounded and resilient performers primed to take to the stage. At whatever distance, they will be ready once more to bring joy to our lives.

Until that time, stay positive, stay creative and stay safe.


This is an edited extract from Drama Menu at a Distance: 80 Socially Distanced or Online Theatre Games by Glyn Trefor-Jones.

Save 20% when you order your copy direct from publishers Nick Hern Books here.

To get a flavour of the book, you can download and keep four games – completely for free – in the Taster Pack, available here.

‘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.

Nicholas Wright on writing his plays

Today, 27 June 2020, marks the 80th birthday of playwright Nicholas Wright. Born in South Africa in 1940, over the course of his long and illustrious career he has established himself as one of the UK’s most-respected dramatists. His plays have been staged at leading venues including at the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal & Derngate in Northampton, Almeida Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre and in London’s West End, as well as internationally. He has also won numerous awards, including the Olivier Award for Best New Play for Vincent in Brixton in 2003.

Here, to mark the occasion, Nicholas reflects on five of his many notable plays, how many of them draw on his own life and experiences, and pays tribute to the many people who’ve helped make his remarkable career possible.


Mrs Klein

Zoe Waites, Nicola Walker and Clare Higgins in the 2009 revival of Mrs Klein at the Almeida Theatre, London (photo by Tristram Kenton)

I first heard of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein when I was very young. A friend at drama school invited me around to her house one Sunday: she was Harriet, the daughter of George Devine, the director of the Royal Court Theatre. Her father was living elsewhere and the house – a romantic old place on the bank of the Thames – now revolved around his wife Sophie, a much-respected stage designer who had made it a regular Sunday home for impecunious young people. I went there often. It was my first encounter with English middle-class, semi-bohemian life, and a great education for a young and raw South African.

The presence of the Royal Court was felt throughout the house. Its star director, Tony Richardson, lived on the top floor in a flat containing an aviary peopled by exotic birds including a real toucan. Richardson’s partner was a social worker named George Goetschius: a big bear-like, bearded American, twinkly-eyed, who was said to have formed the Royal Court policy of being ‘a writers’ theatre’. Like all real intellectuals, he had the gift of making everything he talked about sound interesting. He spoke about religion, ethics, social change, always with a dry American wit and, in his hands, psychoanalysis became a labyrinth of infinite fascination. Surprisingly, while working in New York, he had met and got to know Melanie Klein’s estranged daughter, Melitta Schmideberg.

It’s Goetschius’s angle on analysis that I drew on when, many years later, I wrote Mrs Klein. I read Klein’s books and papers and found her thinking difficult but rewarding. It’s more dynamic than the conventional analytic notion of emotions being displaced from one place to another, like water being poured in and out of buckets. With Klein, the relations between us are in a state of flux, transformed this way and that by our perceptions, with the mother always centre-stage in the psychic drama.


Cressida

The cover to the playscript of Cressida, published by Nick Hern Books alongside its premiere at the Albery Theatre (now Noël Coward Theatre), London, in 2000, starring Michael Gambon

Cressida is based on my life as a child actor. During the war, while my father was away, I was taught to read by my grandmother and became precociously fluent, so when the local broadcasting company needed a little boy who could sight-read, I was a shoo-in. I made my radio debut at the age of six, after which I was on the air most weeks. At twelve, I gave what I’m told was a chilling performance as the corrupted schoolboy in a stage adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, and by then I knew all there is to know about the joys and pains of pre-pubescent acting, not to mention the cut-throat rivalry that rages between one child-actor and another.

My acting career dwindled away as I got older. Child actors aren’t really acting anyway: they’re simply trying to win approval and, once you reach adolescence, that doesn’t work for you or anyone else. There’s something melancholy about the ephemeral nature of childhood talent and one could say the same thing about theatre in general. Nothing about it lasts, except in memory.

While I was writing Cressida I did a lot of what people call research, though I don’t think of it like that. It’s more like rummaging around until I feel comfortable in the world of the play. That’s how I learned about John Shank’s dodgy practices and Stephen Hammerton’s rise to stardom. I became fascinated by the phenomenon of gender-crossing acting by boys and I wondered what the attraction of it was. Was it their brilliance at impersonating women? Or was something weirder going on: was the cross-dressing in itself an attraction? I also wondered what would happen if a girlish boy, such as I was at that age, were to play women’s roles. Would he be better or worse at the job? That’s one of the things that Cressida is about.


Vincent in Brixton

Peter McGovern and Janine Birkett in the 2013 revival of Vincent in Brixton at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick (photo by Keith Pattison)

When I was writing Vincent in Brixton, I had in my mind the painterly contrast between the foggy streets of Victorian London and the incandescent blaze of colour that we associate with van Gogh. I thought back to my Sunday afternoons in the house of Sophie Devine: her artist’s appreciation of homely things, not least the large and weathered kitchen table that she used to scrub with Vim and that I placed, unchanged, at the heart of the action.

Van Gogh turned out to be the most remarkable man I’d ever studied. I read his marvellous letters to his brother. I discovered his omnivorous reading – all Shakespeare, all Dickens, all George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell – his soaring ambition and his reckless commitment to his art. I learned how the radicalism of nineteenth-century London illuminated his thinking and his work, and I discovered the manic depression that would torment him throughout his life.


The Reporter

The cover to the playscript of The Reporter, published by Nick Hern Books alongside its premiere at the National Theatre, London, in 2007

Depression is a theme in all five of these plays. The Reporter is the story of a man who ended his life because of it. The insidious thing about this illness is that it disguises itself as a perfectly sane appraisal of an unbearable world, rather than the distorted view that it really is. Thus, while Mossman, as I’ve written him, knows that something is badly wrong, he doesn’t know what it is and we, the audience, discover the truth only obliquely.

The play is set in and around the BBC of the 1960s, where I worked as a floor assistant, i.e. glorified callboy. I was present in the early scene of the play where the irascible interviewer Robin Day takes over at short notice from the ailing Richard Dimbleby. I knew Mossman very slightly from his august and elegant backstage presence in discussion programmes. Louis I knew better: I’d met him when I was twenty-one, when his brilliant mind and his charisma bowled me over.


8 Hotels

Tory Kittles and Emma Paetz in the premiere production of 8 Hotels at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2019 (photo by Manuel Harlan)

Finally, 8 Hotels. When Mrs Klein was produced in New York, the title role was played by the great American actress Uta Hagen. Once it had finished its off-Broadway run, the production set off on a national tour and it was at the opening date, San Francisco, that I had the idea for the play.

Uta, the director William Carden and I were having dinner after the show in a once-grand but somewhat down-at-heel hotel. It was Uta who had chosen the place, and I wondered why. Then I noticed her mood of elation. ‘Oh, I am so happy!’ she rasped, and I understood. During World War II, she and her lover – the singer and activist Paul Robeson – had toured the country in Othello, with her husband José Ferrer as Iago. One of their dates was San Francisco, and this hotel was surely where all three of them had stayed. Had Robeson been allowed through the front door, I wondered? Or, like other people of colour, was he sent round to the goods entrance?

Both he and Uta were larger-than-life figures, hugely talented and politically aware. The difference is that, for Robeson, acting and singing were necessary tools in his political work: they gave him profile, they got him heard, they enabled him to get his message across to the world. His art was useful but subordinate. For Uta, it was the whole purpose of her life. 8 Hotels is about these two contrasting paths, with rewards and penalties lying in wait whichever one chooses.


‘I’ve been luckier than I deserve’

Nicholas Wright (r) with regular collaborator Richard Eyre (l) (photo by Bruce Glikas)

A few sources: I couldn’t have written Mrs Klein without the help of Phyllis Grosskurth’s classic biography. Martin Bailey’s book Van Gogh in England was indispensable, Stephen Orgel’s Impersonations opened my eyes to the ambiguities of Jacobean theatrical cross-dressing, and I’m grateful to Professor Martin Dubermann for access to his unpublished interviews with Uta Hagen.

Anyone who has a play produced knows how much is owed to everyone else who touches it. These five plays were directed by three superb directors (Richard Eyre, Peter Gill and Nicholas Hytner) and I’m grateful to them all, as I am to the actors and designers I’ve been lucky enough to work with. Looking back over a long-ish life, I feel that I’ve been luckier than I deserve.


Nick Hern Books is proud to publish Nicholas Wright’s plays – you can browse his work, available to purchase at a 20% discount, here.

Author photo by Dan Wooller.

‘Generosity of the ferocious kind’: Simon Stephens on the late Stephen Jeffreys and his contribution to playwriting

STEPHEN JEFFREYS was an acclaimed playwright and a hugely respected mentor to an entire generation of playwrights who emerged through the Royal Court Theatre while he was Literary Associate there. Amongst them SIMON STEPHENS, who spoke at an event at the Royal Court last weekend to celebrate Stephen’s life and work. Here, in a longer version of the speech he gave, Simon pays tribute to his friend and colleague, and the fearsome intelligence he brought to his work.

A lot has been said about the energy that Stephen brought to his commitment to developing playwriting and working with playwrights. I want to speak briefly on behalf of the playwrights he worked with.

It strikes me that there may be the perception that Stephen’s reading and work and thinking was born out of a beautiful gentleness. I very much want to disillusion anybody who thinks there may have been anything gentle about the way Stephen worked with us.

Simon Stephens

In 2000, I was Resident Dramatist at the Royal Court. At the time, Stephen was Literary Associate. The bulk of our work involved advising Ian Rickson, who was Artistic Director,  about the plays he might choose to produce, at the semi-legendary Friday morning script meetings. I am not somebody who would ever be comfortable describing myself as an intellectual, though neither have there been many occasions in my life when I would describe myself as being quite simply thick. But in those meetings, that is precisely how I felt. And the kernel of that feeling was the ferocious, not gentle, brain of Stephen Jeffreys.

He read like a laser, and spoke with a force and eloquence that left me utterly terrified. Most of my contributions to those meetings very quickly became a timid mutter of ‘Yeah, I think what Stephen thinks’. To be honest, it started making me miserable. The opportunity to be at these meetings was something I had wanted all my life, and the experience was becoming an unhappy one. Until Graham Whybrow, who was Literary Manager, suggested that Stephen might take me for lunch.

I was terrified. It was magnificent. It changed my life.

We spoke for three hours. In those three hours, he talked of my work and the work of this place and his own writing, all with the same intelligence and articulacy and insight. It was during that lunch that I realised that the ferocity I had dreaded in the script meetings was born, not out of cruelty, but out of a faith in the importance of our work.

Stephen Jeffreys could annihilate plays and playwrights with his reading, but he only ever did that when he thought that the playwright wasn’t working properly, or wasn’t taking their art or this place seriously. When he perceived that they were, that ferocity became a ferocious loyalty and faith.

Stephen taught me more about playwriting than anybody I have ever met. He infected me with a sense of the importance of this theatre. He taught and infected not only me, but an entire generation of writers.

Stephen Jeffreys, Masterclass

He wasn’t gentle or frivolous with his wisdom, because he had a deep and serious faith in the importance of theatre as a forum for empathy and humanity, and as a space for the interrogation of the complexity of the human animal. At a time when our national discourse seems shorn of that empathy and humanity, I value his wisdom and teaching more than ever.

He took this art form seriously. He took the work of the playwright seriously. He took this theatre seriously. He taught me that this room, the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs, is the most important room in the world.

There is a great deal I miss about Stephen. Oddly, I miss his hair! Not many men could rock that haircut, but he did. I miss his sparkling smile. Our sons are the same age, and I miss comparing notes on their progression and the love and respect with which he spoke of his family. And I also miss comparing notes on the decline and pathos of our crumbling football teams. I think he would have enjoyed the total collapse of Manchester United, and I secretly miss not having to endure that from him.

But I don’t miss his intelligence or his ferocious, not gentle, generosity. Because I remember it every time I come into this theatre. I remember it every time I write. Generosity of the ferocious kind, intelligence of that force – when it comes, as it always did with Stephen, from grace and love – inevitably survives us. I am honoured to be asked to celebrate it today.


The above is a longer version of a speech delivered by Simon Stephens at a Celebration of Stephen Jeffreys at the Royal Court Theatre on Sunday 29 September 2019. Our thanks to Simon Stephens for his permission to reproduce it here.

Stephen Jeffreys’ book Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write is published by Nick Hern Books, extracted on our blog here. Click here to buy your copy at a 20% discount.

Author photo by Annabel Arden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author photo by Annabel Arden.

Remembering Stephen Jeffreys

This week saw the tragic passing of playwright and NHB author Stephen Jeffreys. Known for works including hit historical romp The Libertine, he was also a caring and supportive mentor to an entire generation of writers. In this edited introduction from a recently published collection of Stephen’s plays, his wife, Annabel Arden, pays tribute to the life and career of a much-loved figure. Plus, publisher Nick Hern shares a few words on a man he was proud to not only call an author, but a friend

Stephen Jeffreys was born on April 22 1950 and spent his childhood in Crouch End, North London. His father’s family ran a business making billiard tables, where he himself spent a short time working after university and which he immortalised in his play A Going Concern. According to family legend his great-grandfather taught the Pankhurst sisters how to play billiards. His mother’s family were originally from Ireland. The house Stephen grew up in, 45 Weston Park, had been acquired by his paternal grandfather in 1936, and three generations as well as many lodgers lived there in a very particular post-war austerity. It was a childhood full of eccentric characters, English humour and stoicism. His monologue Finsbury Park (commissioned by Paines Plough for their 2016 series of Come to Where I’m From, and performed by Stephen himself) captures the essence of this. The house remained inhabited by his sister, the writer and journalist Susan Jeffreys, and Stephen later returned to share it with her, bringing myself and his two sons Jack and Ralph to this almost mythical extended family home. It was known to all as ‘The Chateau’.

Finsbury Park by Stephen Jeffreys was part of Paines Plough’s Come to Where I’m From project

Stephen was educated in Crouch End, at Rokesly Primary School, and then at a boys’ grammar, the Stationers’ Company’s School in Hornsey, before going to read English at Southampton University. While there he revitalised the student theatre scene and took a company to the Minack Theatre in Cornwall, directing Indians, in which he cast all the Indians as women – an idea ahead of its time and setting the trend by which he gave great parts to women in all his plays. After his short spell in the family business and work as a supply teacher, he wrote Like Dolls or Angels, taking it to 1977 National Student Drama Festival, where it won the Sunday Times Playwriting Award. Later he would join the board of the NSDF, which he served on for many years.

A part-time job teaching theatre in an art college in Carlisle gave him time and solitude to write, as well as the experience of putting on enormous community plays combining street theatre with carefully staged disruption and spectacle, such as The Garden of Eden (1986) about nationalised beer performed by the people of Carlisle. While living in Carlisle he also spent time at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, where he met Gerry Mulgrew, Alison Peebles and Robert Pickavance, who would go on to found Communicado. Together with Stephen they formed Pocket Theatre Cumbria, which toured the north.

Round this time, Stephen decided to devote his talents to writing plays. His first big success came in 1989 when Valued Friends (with Martin Clunes, Peter Capaldi and Jane Horrocks in the cast at Hampstead Theatre) won the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Awards for Most Promising Playwright. There followed The Clink (1990) for Paines Plough, for whom he was Arts Council Writer-in-Residence from 1987–89; A Going Concern (Hampstead, 1993); and The Libertine, a considerable success at the Royal Court Theatre in 1994, where he began an eleven-year stint as Literary Associate, which brought him into contact with a whole generation of emerging writers. He also began giving writing workshops at the Court, which were attended by then little-known playwrights such as Simon Stephens, Roy Williams and April De Angelis.

The American premiere of The Libertine, directed by Terry Johnson at Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago, in 1996 with John Malkovich as Rochester, led to an ongoing association both with Malkovich and with Steppenwolf, where Lost Land, about Hungary at the end of World War One, was premiered in 2005, again with Malkovich in the lead. When The Libertine was made into a movie (released in 2005) starring Johnny Depp, it was Malkovich’s company that produced it.

Rosamund Pike (Elizabeth Malet) and Johnny Depp (Rochester) in the 2004 film adaptation of Stephen Jeffreys’ play The Libertine, for which he also wrote the screenplay

Meanwhile, Stephen wrote I Just Stopped By to See the Man (directed by Richard Wilson at the Royal Court in 2000), a tribute to the old-time blues singers of the Mississippi Delta, which was also staged by Steppenwolf and many other American theatres; and Interruptions (written while resident at the University of California, Davis, and staged there in 2001), which sprang from his fascination with the Japanese aesthetic principle of Jo-ha-kyu and his desire to create a particular narrative form to express our struggles with democracy and leadership. The Art of War (Sydney Theatre Company, 2007) was inspired both by the ancient Chinese military treatise by Sun Tzu and by Stephen’s own response to the Gulf War. In 2009 he contributed the first play (Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad) in the series The Great Game: Afghanistan at the Tricycle Theatre, London. This landmark series toured to the US and was performed to senior military personnel at the Pentagon.

Throughout his career, Stephen kept up a steady stream of adaptations. One of the earliest, in 1982, was of Dickens’s Hard Times for Pocket Theatre Cumbria. Two years later came Carmen 1936 for Communicado, which won a Fringe First and played in London at the Tricycle Theatre. He adapted Richard Brome’s seventeenth-century comedy, A Jovial Crew (RSC, 1992), and, in 2000, The Convict’s Opera (premiered in Australia at Sydney Theatre Company and in the UK by Out of Joint), based on The Beggar’s Opera but set on a convict ship heading for Australia. In 2011 his stage adaptation of Backbeat, Iain Softley’s film about The Beatles, opened in the West End, while his characteristically witty and erudite translation in 2013 of the libretto of The Magic Flute in Simon McBurney’s radical production has been performed all over Europe. And for the RSC he helped adapt their 2016 production of The Alchemist.

The Sydney Theatre Company and Out of Joint production of The Convict’s Opera by Stephen Jeffreys

As well as the one for The Libertine, Stephen’s other screenplays include Ten Point Bold, a love story set against the tumultuous political background of the Regency period, written in 2003 but so far unfilmed, and the biopic Diana, released in 2013, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and starring Naomi Watts as the Princess of Wales.

Ever since his experience as a selector for the annual NSDF, which involved him in mentoring and launching many careers, Stephen was steeped in the practicalities of theatre and relished collaborative creative relationships with young companies and young playwrights. He was also the ‘go to’ person for short celebratory plays for leaving dos, birthdays, weddings, etc., all of which made him a hugely popular and enormously well-liked figure in the theatre community.


Publisher Nick Hern pays tribute to Stephen Jeffreys…

My relationship with Stephen dates back thirty years, initially as his publisher, latterly as a friend. A nicer man and all-round gent you couldn’t hope to meet. Also a brilliant and inspiring teacher.

Having sat in on one of his famous writing workshops at the Royal Court, I immediately commissioned him to write a book. That was twenty years ago, but whenever we met in the intervening years – usually at Royal Court press nights with him in his trademark hat – he would assure me that progress was being made. When he got ill, progress suddenly became a matter of urgency.

The book was still incomplete – though in its final stages – when he died, and his friends and colleagues and above all his widow Annabel Arden are striving to complete it. Playwriting – Structure; Character; How and What to Write will be published in the next few months to sit alongside a volume of collected plays which came out in July.

Dear Stephen: he will be much missed by this country’s playwriting community as well as, of course, by audiences of the brilliant plays he wrote, and those – tragically – he never got to write.


All of us at Nick Hern Books are greatly saddened by the loss of Stephen Jeffreys. We’re incredibly proud to publish his work, and our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time.

Photograph of Stephen Jeffreys by Martin Argles.

‘Theatre in its purest form’: Cheryl Henson on the power of puppetry in an increasingly digital world

Puppetry is an artform with ancient roots, but contemporary applications – and the international success of shows like National Theatre hit War Horse proves that it has lost none of its magic.

Here, Cheryl Henson, President of the Jim Henson Foundation, reflects on how that ‘magic’ happens, and pays tribute to director and puppeteer Mervyn Millar, author of a new book, Puppetry: How to Do It

The magic of bringing a puppet to life fascinates me. The precision of gesture that conveys a puppet’s inner life can be breathtaking, immediately taking me out of everyday reality and into a world where anything is possible.

As the President of the Jim Henson Foundation, a grant-making organisation that supports puppetry, I have had the opportunity to meet a wide range of artists. In addition to supporting American puppeteers, our foundation produced an International Festival of Puppet Theater for a decade, presenting more than 120 shows from almost thirty countries in five festivals. We were the first in the United States to present Handspring Puppet Company, as well as many other extraordinary troupes.

A number of years later, I had the pleasure of meeting Mervyn Millar when he worked with Handspring on the National Theatre’s production of War Horse. The puppeteers in this show brought full-size horse puppets to life and interacted as real horses with human actors. The horses were extraordinarily lifelike. Although the puppeteers were in full view, the audience readily accepted the puppets as horses. With the success of War Horse, Mervyn travelled internationally to train new performers to do these roles. He worked with actors, dancers and movement performers to give them the skills they would need to be good puppeteers.

The cast of War Horse in rehearsals

‘The horses were extraordinarily lifelike’ – the cast of War Horse in rehearsals

Puppetry is an ancient theatre form rooted in various cultures throughout the globe. Yet, it is also a contemporary art form embraced by innovative theatre artists creating new styles and techniques. That combination of old and new brings a particular dynamism to puppetry.

A simple puppet can be surprisingly appealing in today’s technologically complex culture. The prevalence of digital media and the easy manipulation of perceived reality is commonplace these days. When what is real in our everyday world becomes questionable, ‘realism’ can feel untrustworthy. In contrast, puppetry can be very straightforward. The magic feels real because you can see exactly how it is done and still choose to believe in it.

Puppetry invites the audience to participate in the theatrical experience. The puppet is not alive. No matter how well it is manipulated, everyone knows that it is not alive. It is an object that appears to breathe, to see, to think, to react – to be an emotionally whole being with an unknowable inner life, just like us. But we understand that a puppet is doing none of these things. It is an illusion that the audience agrees to go along with. It is theatre in its purest form. The puppeteer cannot force the audience to believe. The puppeteer must cajole, convince and carry the audience into the shared illusion of believing in the life of the puppet. As Mervyn puts it in his new book, Puppetry: How to Do It:

‘Something is happening when the audience believes in the puppet, and invests in it emotionally, that they recognise as being close to religious or ritual action. But we should remember that it also has the opposite energy – of playfulness and irreverence. The puppet is like a little god, or a little miracle, but also “just” a toy. It reminds us of being a child – when we imagine our toys into vivid life. I hope that the emphasis in this book on the active part the audience play in imagining the character helps to reveal how it is they who are making this connection…’

Of course, this connection to the audience does not happen if the puppet is not believably performed. The manipulation of the puppet is everything. How one trains to manipulate a puppet can vary immensely, but the fundamental principles remain the same.

I had the pleasure of observing Mervyn Millar teach puppet manipulation using the techniques in the book when he came to the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, an annual gathering of international puppeteers that brings professionals and trainees together for an intense ten-day period of creative development. At this conference, I watched as Mervyn encouraged and inspired the participants to experiment with their choices, to pick up odd objects and combine them to create characters and give them movement: an old watering can and a wrench, a piece of hose and a bucket, a brass bell and some paper. All of them came to life before our eyes in new and unexpected ways. The atmosphere was calm and supportive, and the participants worked together to create unique characters.

Based on the workshops he developed for training performers for War Horse, as well as workshops like the one at the National Puppetry Conference, Mervyn has written his book to share his craft. With care and dexterity, he takes us through a basic training technique that uses simple materials like sticks and brown paper to focus attention on the movement that gives these objects the appearance of life. The exercises in the book are clear and easily reproducible for many different types of participants.

‘Giving these objects the appearance of life’ – one of Mervyn Millar’s workshops covered in his book
Puppetry: How to Do It (photo by Nick Arthur Daniel)

Although Mervyn’s book is aimed at training performers for live theatre, creating the illusion of life is a skill that can be used in the digital world as well. Digital media – video games, virtual reality, television, film, even social media – all contain manufactured reality in varying degrees. Creatures and characters within those realities can be brought to life by defined gesture and movement, just as puppets are. Whether through digital puppetry or motion capture, the human body and the human hand is still better at conveying movement that reads as life than any computer algorithm. Not only is the training outlined in this book beneficial for a range of performers, it could provide important skills for all sorts of jobs not yet invented in the creation of believable life in alternate realities.

By writing Puppetry: How to Do It and sharing the teaching techniques that he has mastered over many years, Mervyn has offered a wonderful gift to the field of puppetry. I hope that it will be used widely to introduce adventurous spirits to this dynamic art form.

The above is taken from the Foreword to Puppetry: How to Do It by Mervyn Millar.  Written by an experienced theatre and puppetry director, the book is a practical, accessible and inspiring guide to using puppetry in theatre – the perfect entry point for anyone looking to use puppets in their productions, to explore what puppets can do, or to develop their puppetry skills.

Get your copy of Puppetry: How to Do It for just £11.24 (that’s 25% off) – enter code PUPPETRYBLOG25 when ordering online here.

Cheryl Henson is the President of The Jim Henson Foundation and a member of the Board of Directors of The Jim Henson Company. The Jim Henson Foundation supports the creation of innovation contemporary puppet theater through grants to puppet artists and presenters. The foundation has given over 800 grants to over 350 artists.

Photograph of Cheryl Henson by Richard Termine.

Understanding the Mad King: Antony Sher on rehearsing King Lear

Leading actor Antony Sher’s new book Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries provides an intimate, first-hand account of his process researching, rehearsing and performing arguably Shakespeare’s most challenging role, Lear, in the acclaimed 2016 Royal Shakespeare Company production.

This extract, written during rehearsals only a few weeks before the production opened, takes us behind the scenes of the RSC, offering a window on director Gregory Doran and the cast’s sharp, insightful interrogation of the text – and how events occurring in the world outside fed into the production. Also included are a selection of Sher’s magnificent illustrations, which feature throughout the book.

Thursday 7 July 2016

When I walk into the rehearsal room this morning, I find one wall transformed. Covered with sheets of paper: some with images, some with text. It’s the research that Anna [Girvan, assistant director] has led, about the homeless in Shakespeare’s time. Much of it is from two books by Gamini Salgado: The Elizabethan Underworld and Cony-catchers and Bawdy Baskets.

Reading the extracts, I learn that the failure of harvests in the 1590s, and subsequent shortage of food, led to the Enclosure Acts, where people were thrown off common land and deprived of their livelihoods. Some turned to petty crime, while others took to roaming the countryside.

This is the population that Greg [Doran, director of King Lear and Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company] wants to represent, as a kind of chorus, in the production.

Prince Philip’s Lear

I go over to my bag, find a picture, and stick it up among the others on the wall. It’s the one of Prince Philip which I sketched about a year ago – showing him in some kind of discomfort during an official ceremony.

Good. Now the display shows both sides of the world we’re trying to create. The poor naked wretches and the burden of monarchy.

Oddly, both sides represent the Dispossessed.

Odder still, Lear has brought it on himself.

In rehearsals of the storm scenes, I confessed that I didn’t know what to do with ‘Blow winds’. I said, ‘Let’s take the reality. A man is shouting in a storm. You wouldn’t be able to hear him. He probably wouldn’t be able to hear himself. We’ve solved how to do it in performance – we’ll be using mics – but how do we rehearse? I can’t just stand here, yelling. I’ll strain my voice.’

Derek Jacobi as Lear

I mentioned the brilliant solution which Michael Grandage and Derek Jacobi found in their 2010 Donmar production. When you first saw Lear in the storm, you heard the full cacophony of it. But as he lifted his head to speak, all the sound was abruptly cut, and he whispered the speech: ‘Blow winds…’ It was, as Lear describes in his next scene, ‘The tempest in my mind’.

‘Couldn’t we borrow that?’ I suggested tentatively.

‘Absolutely not,’ said Greg; ‘Much too recent. And anyway, that was a chamber-piece production and that was a chamber-piece solution, and we’re not doing a chamber-piece.’

He then came up with his own, striking scenario for the scene. He suggested that maybe the winds aren’t blowing – yet – and the speech is a desperate plea (‘Blow winds, I beg you!’), not simply a description of what’s already happening (‘Yeah, go on winds, blow!’)…

…And so we created a narrative to the speech:

  • A subsidence in the storm prompts, ‘Blow winds…’
  • A flash of lightning prompts, ‘You sulphurous and thought-executing fires…’
  • A crash of thunder prompts, ‘And thou, all-shaking thunder…’

We can put these cues into rehearsals, we can create the other character in the scene – the storm – for me to play against.

Stage management made precise notes: they’ll find some recordings from stock (for now) to play when we next rehearse the scene.

For me this was, potentially, a solution to the hardest part of the role.

Olly as Edgar as Poor Tom

Then we moved onto the first Poor Tom scene. Oliver Johnstone [playing Edgar] really went for the mad tumble of language in his speeches. (It’s not just Beckett who owes a debt to Shakespeare, it’s James Joyce too.) I was also intrigued to note that Olly had a new range of movements – some of them twisted and jerky, almost like cerebral palsy – and new sounds too: mumblings and stutters. This was all from his ‘secret’ rehearsals with Greg. Which is a technique Greg used with the witches in Macbeth. He’d work with them privately, so that we, the rest of the cast, never knew what they were thinking or what motivated them. It made them more mysterious, more powerful.

I think, in fact, it’s originally a Mike Leigh method. I experienced it when I did his stage play Goose-Pimples (1980, Hampstead and Garrick). Each of the characters was developed separately, in one-to-ones with Mike, so that when he started to bring us together and create a storyline, we encountered one another as strangers. After all, in real life you know little or nothing about people you meet for the first time.

The Minimalist (Richard Wilson directing)

I remember that the long Goose-Pimples improvisations, and later the equally long Auschwitz exercises that Richard Wilson devised to rehearse Primo (2004, National Theatre and Broadway) can make your head go to a very funny place. I was angry with both Mike and Richard after the sessions – because of where they’d taken me – yet my anger was totally unjustified: I could’ve stopped at any point, and walked away. Except I couldn’t, really – it becomes a kind of self-hypnosis.

Today, I wondered how much Edgar loses himself in the Poor Tom disguise? But, of course, I wasn’t allowed to ask.

Olly had a question for me though, in the mock-trial scene: had Lear been planning this cross-examination for a while, ever since his daughters turned against him after the abdication?

‘That’s an interesting thought,’ I said; ‘There must’ve been people yesterday…’ (when the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War was published) ‘…who’ve become obsessed with the idea that Tony Blair should be put on trial for… what’s it called?… humanity… what’s the phrase?’

Someone suggested, ‘Crimes against humanity?’

‘Exactly!’ I cried; ‘That’s what Lear has been obsessing about. Except in his case, it’s crimes against the king!’


This is an edited extract from Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries by Antony Sher, published by Nick Hern Books.

Get your copy of the book for just £12.74 – that’s 25% off the RRP – by entering code SHER25 at checkout when you order via our website.

The RSC’s production of King Lear transfers to BAM, New York, from 7-29 April, before returning to Stratford-upon-Avon from 23 May – 9 June.

Illustrations by Antony Sher, photographed by Stewart Hemley. Author photo by Paul Stuart.