‘It gives you the freedom to choose’ – Penny O’Connor on the Alexander Technique

The Alexander Technique has revolutionised the physicality, presence and professional lives of generations of actors. By first asking you to identify your own acquired habits, the technique enables you to find new and beneficial ways of moving, thinking, breathing and performing, freely and without unnecessary tension.

Here, Penny O’Connor – a teacher of the Technique for thirty years, and whose book on the subject, Alexander Technique for Actors: A Practical Course, is out now – explains its history, how she first encountered it, and how it can empower actors everywhere to unlock the key qualities any great perfomer needs…

When I was first introduced to Alexander Technique, it was a life-changer. My teacher placed one hand on my head and one under my chin and said ‘Simply follow your head’ as he gently guided me out of a chair in a way I had never experienced before. I arrived at standing without knowing how I had done it. I had no sensation of muscular effort. I was sitting, and then I was standing. It was seamless. I have been trying to work out how that happened ever since.

I was about nineteen, training as an actor at Rose Bruford. And just by the experience of moving effortlessly for a moment, I had this very powerful inkling that life could be something very different from what I had thought it was. I wondered then if I shouldn’t be exploring more of this stuff and forget about the acting lark. I was so moved. But no, I was wanting to be an actor, wasn’t I? And, actually, I didn’t have a clue how to go about doing more of this stuff! So I stuck to my acting guns.

The Alexander lessons continued – a small group of four of us would visit a training school in West London for our lessons on a Saturday morning – and served me well in my chosen profession. My voice, confidence and transformational acumen, my ability to connect with fellow actors, all developed hugely. I got the lead part in a third-year show! But several years on, I began to run out of steam. I was extremely anxious, impecunious, and my personal life was not easy. At that moment, another Alexander teacher presented herself to me. I treated myself to an individual session, and I knew immediately that I had come home.

From then on I organised my life around this desire to learn more and pass on the teachings to others. Once the decision was made, many things conspired to help me: a grant, an opportunity, a space on a training course – it was as if all the traffic lights had turned green. I qualified as a teacher of the Alexander Technique in 1992, and have been teaching it full-time ever since.

But what is the Alexander Technique, and how can it help you?

How it all began

It started as a means to solve a problem. Frederick Matthias Alexander was an Australian actor who, whilst on tour reciting Shakespeare in the 1880s, began to lose his voice. The doctor diagnosed inflamed vocal cords and irritation of the mucous membrane in his throat and nose, and recommended he rested his voice for two weeks. Alexander’s voice came back in time for his next recital, but halfway through the performance the problem returned and by the end he could hardly speak. They agreed that it must be something he was doing to himself. But what? Alexander was determined to find out.

‘His legacy lives on’ – Frederick Matthias Alexander, founder of the Alexander Technique

His observations took some months, but he eventually realised that, as he started to recite, he pulled his head back, depressing the larynx, and sucked in air through his mouth, which sounded like a gasp. At the same time, he was lifting his chest, thereby arching his back, which shortened his stature and created a pattern of tension throughout his whole body, including the legs. His elocutionist had suggested at one time that he should grip the floor with his feet and this he had faithfully carried out. All this amounted to a very strong pattern that he had cultivated, and he noticed it was something he did, to a lesser extent, even when he was talking normally, not ‘on voice’. So that was easy then: once we know which of our habits are causing the problem, we can easily stop them, right?

Habits, the greatest power in the universe, are like predictive text on a mobile phone. Alexander found a way of reprogramming his ‘predictive text’, creating new neural pathways from the brain to the muscle. By stopping and consciously redirecting himself, he found a natural movement and poise that freed the neck, so his head came up, his stature lengthened and widened, his legs released and his throat and breathing were no longer restricted. His voice returned!

When Alexander moved to London in 1904, armed with these discoveries, he began promoting this new method, working with the great actors of the day, including Henry Irving, Viola Tree and Lily Brayton. Writers such as Aldous Huxley and George Bernard Shaw also became devotees. He continued to teach and develop his work internationally, and his legacy lives on: Alexander Technique is still taught in theatre and music schools throughout the world, as well as to individual acting greats, helping actors perform effortlessly and with confidence, free in their movement and voice.

Here’s what some actors say of his work:

‘With the best of intentions, the job of acting can become a display of accumulated bad habits, trapped instincts and blocked energies. Working with the Alexander Technique has given me sightings of another way… Mind and body, work and life together. Real imaginative freedom…’

Alan Rickman

‘[The Alexander Technique] is a way to transform stress to joy. It’s my way of keeping on track with work and truth and the world I’m in, which is working with people and creating.’

Juliette Binoche

‘It’s beautiful, an art… it was about being still and relaxed in order to one hundred per cent listen to someone, to be present.’

Hugh Jackman

‘Alexander Technique really helped my posture and focus during my stint as Othello with Northern Broadsides Theatre Company. Imagine how excited I was when I arrived at the National Theatre for Comedy of Errors and found I could have Alexander taught to me once a week, I was chuffed to little meatballs.’

Lenny Henry

There’s an apocryphal story about Michelangelo being asked by a small child what he was doing as he chiselled away at a piece of marble. ‘There is an angel trapped in that stone, and I am setting it free,’ comes the reply. That is what it felt like to me when my teachers worked with me, allowing me to shed the unnecessary and reveal the essence. That is what I like to think I am doing when I work with an actor. Together we chip away at the old habits, the old patterns of use, to reveal the Inner Actor.

‘A way to transform stress into joy’ – some well-known advocates of the Alexander Technique

Making your own discoveries

I feel really blessed to have found this work (or that it found me), and that it has been such a big part of my life. This journey has now led me to write my new book, Alexander Technique for Actors: A Practical Course. My hope is that it will bring others to the work, to help them in their acting career and, for some, strike deep to the heart.

My book consists of a course of eleven lessons based on my years of teaching on the BA and MA theatre courses at the Arts Educational Schools in London, and on my own pathway through the work. I suggest it should take eleven weeks – one week per lesson, including theory, instruction and assignments – but it can be spread over a longer time frame. I have so ordered it that, if all you manage is the first chapter and first assignment, you will leave better informed, having learned something you can immediately put into practice and add to your actor’s toolbox.

As far as possible I have suggested a way for you to experiment on your own: after all, it’s your own journey. What you discover may not be what others will discover. It’s a personal journey to discover your habits, the way you use yourself in life, and to find a way of relinquishing those that are interfering with your performance. But you may find it easier to do this in a group or with a study partner, either face to face or online, depending on the circumstances.

Experiencing my personal Alexander journey, I find that I have become more myself, no longer limited by habit. We only change what we want to change, and it’s always our choice. Alexander returns us to self-awareness and conscious choice. We cannot always change the world around us, but we can change our reaction to it.

Habits are not necessarily bad things, but we need not be controlled by them. The Alexander Technique helps us become aware of them and gives us a way of letting go if they are limiting or restricting our performance. We can then transform effortlessly, speak clearly, move well in any shape we need for our character, receive and act on direction, and be electrifying onstage and on-screen. We’ll be embodying great presence, becoming vulnerable, sexy, unpredictable and intelligent, the four qualities a great actor needs.

Sound good? Then let’s start.


This is an edited extract from Alexander Technique for Actors: A Practical Course by Penny O’Connor, published by Nick Hern Books. See more and order your copy here.

Penny O’Connor has been teaching Alexander Technique since 1992, in London, on the Greek island of Alonnisos, and globally on Zoom. She has taught the Technique at several London drama schools, including ArtsEd, where she was resident for eighteen years, and is currently assisting in training Alexander teachers at the South Bank Alexander Centre. Penny trained as an actor at Rose Bruford College, and has also worked as an actor, playwright, director and teacher.

‘Anyone can improve their memory’ – Mark Channon on how to learn your lines more quickly, easily and confidently

MarkChannon_blogheadshotWhether it’s a script for a play, scenes for next day’s shooting, or sides sent over shortly in advance of an audition, every actor will be familiar with the process of trying to get their lines off the page and into their brain.

The pressures of line-learning can cause anxiety, and the fear of forgetting them can hit your confidence, your focus, and ultimately your performance – but it doesn’t have to be this way. With practice, experimentation and patience, it’s possible to strengthen your memory, reduce that pressure, and find a memorisation strategy that fits into your own process as a performer.

Here, Mark Channon – performance coach, ‘Grand Master of Memory’, and author of Learning Your Lines – explains how to go about improving your memory, and creating a personalised line-learning approach you’ll come back to again and again.

If you were to score your memory between one to ten, how good would you say it is, where ten is the best possible version and one is the memory of a goldfish?

When I ask this question to a room of a hundred people, around twenty per cent believe they have poor memories (ranking themselves 1–3), seventy per cent believe they are average (4–7), and only a small percentage, usually around ten per cent, believe they have excellent memories (8–10).

How good we believe our memory to be can have an impact on how we approach a situation. Let’s say you have an audition tomorrow and you believe you have a poor memory; this will make you believe perhaps that you ‘can’t do it’, or that your ‘memory isn’t good enough to learn lines quickly’. You may even have past experiences to back both of these statements up. However, when you approach any type of memorisation or learning with this type of belief, it’s going to increase your levels of anxiety and impact on your performance.

The truth is we all have fantastic memories but we tend to focus on the moments where it didn’t work so well: the name you didn’t remember; the fact that slipped your mind; the location of your keys. But these are only a few of the jobs our memory performs, and like any set of challenges, they can be overcome with the right strategy; indeed, if you were to think about all the memories you have stored throughout your entire life, you would start to realise that your memory is, in fact, phenomenal.

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‘The truth is we all have fantastic memories but we tend to focus on the moments where it didn’t work so well’

With regards to improving your memory, there is bad news and good news. The bad news is that there is no magic bullet; improving your memory is a skill, and like any skill, it will require time, effort and commitment.

The good news, though, is that improving your memory is a skill, therefore it’s something you can learn! All you need is a set of compelling reasons and some good habits and routines. Once these are in place, anyone can improve their memory. For actors, the compelling reasons are usually the big rewards you’ll earn: increased confidence, a strategy to learn lines rapidly, the ability to make lines stick, and the chance to have more freedom in auditions and performance.

But what habits and routines should you be using? This is where my book, Learning Your Lines, comes in. It includes dozens of tips, tricks and techniques such as Memory Palaces (yes, like in Sherlock), Mental Maps, Creative Memorisation, Visual Cues and many more, along with exercises and examples to illustrate how they work in practice. You’ll discover how to harness these tools to strengthen your memory, and develop a personalised line-learning strategy that works for you and your acting process – one that is easier, faster and more enjoyable.

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You too could build a mind palace like Sherlock Holmes (image from Sherlock © BBC)

In writing the book, I’ve drawn on both my own real-world experiences as an actor using these strategies for myself, as well as my many years coaching and training other actors. By both practising and teaching memory strategies I have developed a systematic approach not just to learning lines quickly, but also to building confidence and focus when applying this approach.

Let’s take a look at of one of the strategies I cover in the book.

The Chain Method

The Chain Method taps into our amazing visual memories; more than this, it also utilises our love for stories. Stories are easy to remember and hard to forget! In my experience, it is generally easier to remember the story and details of a fictional book than details of a non-fiction book, which might contain complex frameworks, terminology and facts.

When reading a story, you are in a state of flow whilst bringing the world to life with your imagination, making connections between characters and plots and, most importantly, making sense of things whilst being emotionally invested as if it were you at the centre of the story.

One of the differences between fiction and fact is that, with the first, you do not try to remember, it just happens through your heightened observation as you find yourself becoming part of the experience. With non-fiction, however, you tend to be much more focused on remembering, which ends up being counterintuitive. Stories that we experience can become unforgettable.

Try the activity below and see how the Chain Method works using the power of your visual memory and stories.

In a moment, you will read a story that includes fifteen main words. Each of these words is connected together with an association either visually, by narrative, or both. All you have to do is let the story come to life in your mind as clearly as you can, and give your attention to the details – what you see, hear, feel, smell or even taste. I’ll ask you to read through this story three times.

Imagine this:

Big Ben is wearing a fur coat, he’s bouncing up and down on a springboard and dives into a large pot of honey. Out of the honey jumps a dinosaur. The dinosaur is wearing a baseball cap and swinging a baseball bat. He starts smashing up a Ferrari with the baseball bat. Driving the Ferrari is Tom Cruise, Tom is holding a gigantic cigar; he takes a cigar and puts it out on the head of a bald-headed man. The bald-headed man is eating a big sticky chocolate bar. Wrapped around the chocolate bar is a slimy snake, the snake is playing the drums and drinking a bottle of beer.

Read this through two more times, bringing it to life with more clarity each time.

Now test yourself out. Grab a piece of paper and write down as many of the keywords as you can remember in order (not the whole story). When I run this activity with anything from thirty to a hundred people, most will remember over ten words. If you are in the group that remembers all fifteen, well done! If you happen to get less than ten, stick with it.

People often ask me: ‘How long does it take to develop a good memory?’ From my observations over the last twenty-five years as a trainer and coach in memory and performance, you can see improvement relatively quickly – usually within a week or two. However, to permanently establish the skill requires around six weeks of consistent daily practice: at least ten to twenty minutes per day.

TomCruiseFerrari

Tom Cruise in a Ferrari – did you remember it? If not, stick with it!

This six-week time span was backed up by two neuroscientists, Boris Konrad (also a world-class memory athlete) and Martin Dresler. Their research demonstrated that if you practise memory techniques daily then, in around six weeks, you see a change in the activity of your brain; your memory essentially becomes more efficient.

My hope is that Learning Your Lines will help you in this endeavour. Think of it as a set of ingredients in a recipe, rather than a fixed menu. As with all recipes, it’s beneficial to follow it as laid out at first. The first time, it may not turn out as expected, but with practice your skill will improve, and with enough time you will build the confidence to experiment with ideas, remove what doesn’t work, and add in what does, until you can eventually create something that feels personal and specifically yours.

Because if there is one thing that has stood out for me when working with other actors, it is this: everyone has their own process. Whether you follow Stanislavsky, Strasberg, Meisner, your own gut or some other method, the outcome for most actors seems to be the same: create an authentic character, be faithful to the story, live in the moment and react truthfully.

So whatever your process, you will hopefully discover that there is a way to integrate what you learn from the book into your method of working. Think about your craft as an actor and how these ideas can be added to augment your existing practice, rather than changing the essence of your process.

Above all, I have one simple suggestion for you in terms of approach: ‘Make it your own.’ You are much more likely to use what you own for yourself, and taking ownership is crucial to deriving real value from what you are about to experience.

On a personal note, there’s something that I have always loved about acting: the playfulness and impact it has in the way it creates and recreates imaginary characters and worlds, and gives audiences experiences that can elicit a feeling of entertainment and a sense of reflection. It can even be a catalyst for change. My hope for you is that you approach learning your lines with that same intention. Get creative, make it meaningful and you’ll make it memorable!

LEARNINGYOURLINES_bloglandscape

‘Use it to create something that feels personal and specifically yours’ – Learning Your Lines by Mark Channon


This is an edited extract from Learning Your Lines: The Compact Guide by Mark Channon, published by Nick Hern Books.

Mark Channon trained and worked as an actor for many years, including at the National Theatre and in the West End, before becoming a Grand Master of Memory at the World Memory Championships. He now works as a trainer and coach in Memory and High Performance, and has written several books on memory improvement.

‘You can really recreate the thrill of making theatre’ – Ian Higham on directing The Weir online


IanHigham_croppedWhen the COVID-19 pandemic first forced theatres to close their doors back in March 2020, it wasn’t just professional venues that were affected; many hundreds of amateur groups and organisations were suddenly thrown into darkness, too. And as the lockdown stretched out longer than any of us first thought it would, these passionate, dedicated, community-based venues and companies have had to draw on their strength, endurance and creativity to navigate a challenging year.

One of the ways amateur groups have kept going and their memberships connected is by staging their plays online, using NHB’s Online Performances initiative. Launched last May, this scheme has seen dozens of groups worldwide seize the opportunity to bring their actors and audiences together to enjoy plays, even while their venues are closed. Here, NHB’s Sales Manager, Ian Higham – also a veteran amateur theatre director based at Putney Theatre Company, in South London – shares his experiences of working on a production of Conor McPherson’s play The Weir in Februrary this year, and how, despite having to work in a new way, the familiar thrill of live theatre ended up coming through...

A year ago, when theatres closed, the production I was then working on had just had its tech. We’re still waiting to have our dress rehearsal. But amateur theatres, like their professional counterparts, have proved resilient in the face of a crisis, keeping members active and involved, and raising funds to maintain their venues. Putney Theatre Company – a brilliant amateur company that I’ve worked with for over thirty years now – have spent the past year organising monologues and readings over Zoom, doing outdoor performances, socially distanced live rehearsed readings and even a full production on stage when we could. One of our biggest successes, however, enabling members to act and the theatre to keep connected with our audience, has been in producing licensed one-off performances online.

PutneyArtsTheatre_cropped

‘Amateur theatres have proved resilient in the face of a crisis’ – Putney Arts Theatre in south London, home to Putney Theatre Company

It was our Artistic Director who came up with the idea of producing Conor McPherson’s haunting and emotional play The Weir in this format. The play was one that had been on my to-do list for some time, though I’d always imagined it live on stage. But as we talked it through, it became increasingly obvious that this was a production that really could work online. A single set, five characters and five cracking monologues… it seemed the right play to point a laptop camera at.

One of the great joys of Conor’s writing is the sense of an entire world he creates by bringing together five people in just one room. The play is set in a small bar in rural Ireland – County Leitrim, to be precise – and takes place over the course of one evening. From the get-go I decided that I really didn’t want the production to look like a business Zoom meeting, with five people on screen talking to camera all the time. It seemed obvious that with the characters gathered round a bar, a single camera should focus on each one, capturing everything their character says. As the dialogue develops it becomes quite reactive – it’s a script where characters listen and then respond. So, although I’d lose some of the physical reactions from characters as others were talking, I knew that by essentially using ‘speaker view’ (to slip into Zoom vocab for a moment), I could focus the audience on each actor when necessary. This would give them equal weight and build a sense of intimacy that seemed to me to be inherent in the play, and vitally important to any production. With our own social lives stunted by lockdown, I wanted as much as I could to make the audience feel that they were there in the pub, sharing a drink with Jack, Brendan, Jim, Finbar and Valerie.

Weir_ETT

‘Conor McPherson creates the sense of an entire world by bringing together five people in just one room’ – English Touring Theatre’s 2017/18 revival of The Weir by Conor McPherson (photograph © Marc Brenner)

Over five weeks, working a few evenings a week and over Sunday afternoons, we began to put the play together. As each character entered the scene, they took their seat at the bar and, so long as each actor – in reality stuck in their own room – knew exactly where everyone else was (to their left or right, across the bar, and so on), they could talk to each other rather than to the camera. For the audience at home, watching on their laptop or TV, this created a sense that they were watching people interacting in the same space. To aid this further, I bought on eBay a job lot of framed Victorian prints that had been destined for a pub, and distributed them to each actor at home. With these up on their walls, the sense of being in one place was subtly enhanced, and the sense of being in Conor’s world was created.

In fact, eBay became the go-to for all our props – and with the actors spread across different locations in London, these all had to be doubled up. If Brendan the barman filled and put down a pit of Guinness, I wanted to be sure that Jack picked up an identical glass. It sounds simple but there is a lot of drinking going on in the play! So we had to put in cues, finding the right point in a character’s line for them to put a glass down and the right point for the other character to pick it up. With over thirty different glasses of Guinness, Harp, Irish whiskey and white wine passing back and forth, it became a highly choreographed alcoholic ballet that took some organisation and brought a whole different skill to directing.

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‘A highly choreographed alcoholic ballet’ – props for Putney Theatre Company’s online production of The Weir

Working online also requires a different skill from the actors. In live theatre, you inhabit a world together that hopefully seems as utterly real and believable to the actor as to the audience. Stuck in a small room in front of a laptop, it’s really difficult to recreate that and connect with the other characters. To help overcome this, I felt it was important that everybody attended as many rehearsals as possible as a company. It’s a big ask over five weeks – especially when a character isn’t even in a scene and people are already in a stressful situation – but working together like this meant that we built a sense of community. Our actors didn’t just come along and do their own thing, which I felt could be a bit of trap in this situation, making it far too easy to drift out when not onscreen. We worked on the principle that though they might not be seen, it was important to the production that each actor worked even harder than usual at fully inhabiting their role at all times. They had to really listen to each other so that they knew exactly what they were thinking, exactly how to react even off-camera and, most importantly, to know exactly how to respond to what was happening in the play when it came to their turn onscreen. Gradually, despite the distance, a real sense of being a company developed, and the friendships and relationships that Conor so brilliantly creates in his writing began to come to life, even over a small screen.

The other fantastic thing about Conor’s work is his ability to write big, gripping, emotional monologues. The Weir is steeped in the Irish tradition of storytelling, and there are five stories told in this play. The first is a tale of the fairy road, the kind of traditional Irish story that outsiders love to hear. The second and third, told as alcohol loosens tongues, are more personal encounters with the supernatural, strange events that are explained away by fever or a flight of fancy. The fourth is a devastating story of the loss of a child and a genuine belief in a supernatural event that cannot be so easily explained. And then, finally, we get a different kind of ghost story: a tale of regret, one that looks to the past and acknowledges a deep sense of loss and yearning, an emotion that comes unexpectedly but that has, it becomes clear, been present throughout the play.

These were the only scenes that we worked on individually with the actors, and it was fascinating to see how working on Zoom one-on-one, without any other distraction, really helped to focus on the writing and dig deep into the reason and meaning of each story. When we then got together it became clear how each of the monologues is a step towards the other, an opening or an allowance for each story to be told as the evening unfolds. We may have been broken up as a group while working on the monologues, but in really focusing on them, and understanding how they are related, we built up to a coming-together of the characters that then flowed through the play and the production – giving it a richness and emotional connection that, I hope, managed to reach beyond the small screen.

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‘Working online requires a different skill from the actors’ – behind the scenes at a rehearsal for The Weir

Strangely, I’ve rarely been so nervous before a performance as I was before The Weir. While working together it really felt as if we were creating something special, but we were such a small and fragmented group that it was hard to know if the feeling we had tried so hard to create – of being together in one space – would carry through to the audience. In the end, the brilliance of Conor’s writing, the talent of the actors and their belief in the world we created, shone through and for that one night we had a terrific success. The audience reaction was certainly amazing; with many people saying how they felt that they had been in Brendan’s small bar for the evening, and had really connected with the characters and the way they talked to each other so naturally. Better still, it was an evening that not only raised much-needed funds for the theatre, but one that gave members of PTC an opportunity to do what they love.

And that is the main reason I’d recommend doing a play online. It might not be entirely the same as live theatre, but it can be special – and with thought, commitment, and great writing, you can really recreate the thrill of making theatre, building a story and a world on screen to share with an audience until we are all able to get up in front of them again live on stage.


Here are some other amateur theatre groups on their experiences of creating a production using NHB’s Online Performances scheme…

‘We’re so grateful for the advancement of technology and the ability it has provided to keep people safe and still create/share our art. We loved that we were able to tell this beautiful story to more than just our community in Savannah, GA; we were able to share this production with audiences all over the country! We heard multiple times how grateful and excited our virtual audience was that they could safely enjoy live theatre from their homes and support the arts, as well.’ Hannah Chiclana, Producer/Actor, on Front Porch Improv’s production of Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons by Sam Steiner

‘It was an opportunity to explore how digital theatre could be more than just a recording of a live event. Adjusting to a rehearsal process done completely over the internet, where you don’t get that immediate rapport, took a few sessions to get used to, but actually did give the actor the opportunity to be completely immersed in that character’s world. The feedback was amazing. The audience really invested in the concept, we reached far out of our local area, raised over £300 for charity, and one audience member said that it had helped him understand the struggles that young people go through online.’ Sabrina Poole, Director, on Hard-Nosed Cow’s production of Original Death Rabbit by Rose Heiney

‘We decided to go online as we are a busy community theatre who do at least twelve live shows a year, and we wanted to keep our theatre alive. We had previously done some recorded shows online but “going live” seemed the nearest we could get to our stage performances – it felt like more of a connection with the audience. The feedback was very positive, and we learned so much which has been helpful for subsequent productions. My advice to anyone thinking of tackling an online production is to plunge in and just do it!’ Liz Carroll, Producer, on Progress Theatre’s production of Fucking Feminists by Rose Lewenstein and The Nightclub by Chloe Todd Fordham

‘When it came to doing online shows this year, there was no hesitation. We had over 300 members already missing out on a year of normal college, so if we had the option to give them some sort of outlet in Drama we were going to take it. Every rehearsal we learnt something new, about people’s microphones, how people’s backgrounds should look, different Zoom settings… Despite missing the aspect of human interaction, the cast and crew still managed to form a great bond, staying on to chat after rehearsals and play games. Directing this production was an experience I will cherish from my time in college.’ Clara Mooney, Director, on DCU Drama’s production of Start Swimming by James Fritz

‘What was initially a daunting undertaking for the cast turned into an enlightening experience that allowed the company to work together in new, creative ways, under difficult circumstances, and learn a number of important skills as part of the process. The result has encouraged company members to re-conceive parts of their practice and consider how online performance can have a place in their work in the future.’ Nicholas Holden, co-director, on Bathway Theatre Company’s production of Darknet by Rose Lewenstein


We’re still inviting applications to license Nick Hern Books plays for amateur online performance – thanks to everyone who’s taken advantage of this initiative so far, and agreed to share their experiences with us for this post.

Licences are available for both livestreamed performances and broadcasts of recorded productions, with hundreds of plays by many of today’s most exciting writers available to perform. Head to our website to see more, and start the search for your perfect Online Performance.

‘We hold on to hope for a better future’ – Matt Applewhite looks back on 2020

Unprecedented, extraordinary, difficult, relentless, seemingly unending… however you choose to describe it, one thing’s for sure: thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 has been one hell of a year.

For a theatre publisher like Nick Hern Books, nine months with a shuttered arts industry has been a challenge that’s forced us to adapt and find new ways of working and thinking – frequently inspired by the astonishing resourcefulness and stamina of people across the theatre community.

As the year draws to a close, NHB’s Managing Director, Matt Applewhite, reflects on a tumultuous twelve months, and looks ahead to how, amidst everything, we might even find some positives to take with us into a post-pandemic world.


How do you measure a year? For the characters in the musical RENT, it should be defined by love. T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons. And for those of us who have lived through the rollercoaster orbit of the sun called 2020? Stockpiled toilet rolls and squirts of hand sanitiser? Claps for carers? Hours on Zoom?

For the theatre industry, the year might be measured in the heartbreaking number of cancelled productions; the vast sums spent making theatres amongst the most Covid-secure buildings, only to be shut down again in this year’s dying days; or the innumerable halted careers and devastated livelihoods of the freelancers who are theatre’s lifeblood. Opening the aperture further onto a global and gloomier scale: the tragic death toll spirals inexorably upwards, each life lost representing another family deep in grief, broken hearted. Empty chairs at empty Christmas dinner tables. Regardless of where we live, it’s all ended in tiers.

There’s no cheering statistic (the US presidential election result excepted) by which to measure an impossible, incomprehensible twelve months. And no easy way to forget an unforgettable year, however much we might want to.

After closing the door to the Nick Hern Books office on 16 March, we pinned up a notice for visitors saying that we’d be working from home temporarily. In our wildest imaginations (and some of them are pretty wild), none of us dreamed that we wouldn’t be back in time to replace this ‘temporary’ sign with our traditional Christmas wreath.

‘In our wildest imaginations, none of us dreamed that we wouldn’t be back in time for Christmas’ – the
Nick Hern Books office, which has been closed since March

Over the ensuing week, we witnessed curtains fall at theatres across the country, with many of these cancellations having the same knock-on effect on our own publication schedule, with dozens of planned titles struck through. Surely the Edinburgh Fringe – then months away – would survive, we hoped? But alas, its cancellation led to more abandoned productions and publications; some plays that we’d known about and many others which now, heartbreakingly, may never see the light of the stage.

The craft and career books we’d planned for the year were similarly shelved – metaphorically rather than literally. How could we confidently publish practical theatre books serving an industry which was all but shut down, and with all educational institutions likewise suspended? Our amateur performing rights department was deluged, not in applications for new productions, but by requests to delay performance dates and process refunds. Whilst thankful that we still had books we could sell – albeit via a disrupted, creaking book supply chain – there was no doubt about the severity of the uncertainty and insecurity surrounding us and overwhelming everybody.

Those first few frantic weeks of lockdown were charged with adrenaline (a panic?) to establish home offices and schools, recalibrate plans, find ways to keep connected and protect our mental health – before a new routine, a different way of living, took root, and the sounds and smells of nature reasserted themselves. I didn’t read Anna Karenina, or declutter the attic, or bake banana bread. I did have surreal dreams, and suffer self-doubt, and bury a close relative. Occasionally I changed my clothes. I experienced a new silence and a sadness at the suffering unfolding around us, as the world turned, and the seasons passed, and people died.

With customary resilience and resourcefulness, the theatre industry rose to the challenges facing it, offering vital lifelines to as many freelancers as it could, and pivoting towards more digital work. All the world’s a screen. We also saw it as our responsibility to embrace this innovation as an essential means to survival – and our mission was to find ways to work with authors and their agents, with theatres and audiences, to collaborate, to stay connected, and to create.

The NHB Playgroup served up a free play to read online each week, followed by a Q&A with the playwright, sourced from readers’ questions and released as a podcast. We negotiated with playwrights and their agents to allow online performances, so that amateur theatre companies, like their professional counterparts, could continue to showcase their work.

The twelve NHB authors who kindly allowed their plays to be shared for free as part of The NHB Playgroup, and answered reader questions about them for our podcasts

We partnered with other organisations to help amplify their online offerings, such as the remarkable and far-reaching Coronavirus Time Capsule from Company Three and Papatango’s Isolated But Open monologue call-out, which was announced the day after the theatre shutdown and ultimately received over two thousand submissions, providing very welcome paid work for twenty writers and actors as well as producing ten stirring short films (with scripts available to read online for free). Staying lively and loud, engaged and engaging on social media – Twitter especially – continued to be an important priority.

And we’ve managed to publish at least twenty new titles since March, including a compendium of drama games to play socially distanced or online, which was written at breakneck speed and quickly sold through its first four print runs, plus several new plays receiving their virtual premieres, including Stephen Beresford’s Three Kings from the Old Vic, and Jermyn Street Theatre’s 15 Heroines, which featured the work of fifteen female and non-binary playwrights.

In each of these instances, we were fortunate to be an independent, relatively small, nimble-footed specialist publisher, doing our best to keep up, to keep our heads above water, and to keep on going. But what’s really sustained us over the 366 unrelentingly hard days of 2020 is the strength and inspiration, support and courage we’ve been able to draw on from remarkable individuals and companies across the entirety of the theatre industry, as well as the loyal readers who’ve continued to support us, never more so than during our #LoveTheatreDay Sale which saw us raise hundreds of pounds for the Theatre Artists Fund. To them all – and to all of my colleagues who have been beacons of good humour and grace, whether shouldering immense workloads or still experiencing the challenges of furlough – I offer endless gratitude, respect and love.

The snow globe on my desk/dining table is proving an unreliable crystal ball, and no one knows what the next 52 weeks will bring. However, it seems pointless to pretend that, even with glimmers of hope on the horizon, life will be returning to what it was BC (Before Covid) – but, perhaps, nor should we want it to.

We’ve experienced the power and potential of digital innovation, which I believe will be here to stay – or at least a hybrid of digital alongside live theatre. We need to throw a wider protective embrace around freelancers, and remain aware of the delicate, precious ecosystem we inhabit. We know that we can’t look to our woefully incompetent government for leadership or protection, so must seek opportunities to strengthen our working practices and networks, and shout from the rooftops about the vital, transformative importance of live performance.

‘I believe digital innovation will be here to stay’ – Andrew Scott in rehearsals for Three Kings by Stephen Beresford, performed live from the Old Vic Theatre, London, in September, and streamed worldwide
(photo by Manuel Harlan)

And we must never ignore the other seismic shifts witnessed this year, not least Black Lives Matter, which at long last must mean that systemic injustices are properly and permanently addressed. At NHB, we don’t underestimate our own role in all these challenges facing us.

Acts of unsung heroism or compassion, laughter, tears, tweets, coffee spoons, Zooms, or love. In whichever ways we each measure the 525,600 tumultuous minutes of 2020, we hold on to our optimism and hope for a stronger, better future. We look forward to next year.


Matt Applewhite is Managing Director and Commissioning Editor at Nick Hern Books.

From all us at NHB, thank you to everyone who’s helped us get through the chaos of 2020 – our authors, partners, readers, followers and friends. We wish you all a safe, happy and peaceful Christmas, and here’s to a brighter 2021.

‘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.