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

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

A is for… Activism

I blame the Baptists.

And my brother.

And Brian. Especially Brian.

So maybe this section should come under B, actually.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Actors Alphabet for blog

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

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

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

Author photo by James Melia.

‘Write with your heart as well as your head’: Jemma Kennedy on getting started as a playwright

JemmaKennedy_blogFor playwright and screenwriter Jemma Kennedy, plays are something of a paradox: carefully structured works of studied, practised craft, but also filled with unstudied, creative instinct. For a script to truly come to life, it must encapsulate both these qualities.

In this extract from Jemma’s book The Playwright’s Journey, she reflects on her own path as a writer, and how you, too, can embark on the voyage towards getting your play onto the page, and then to the stage.

Craft alone cannot make a good play.

Anyone can pick up Aristotle’s Poetics (the book every playwright is told to read) and teach themselves how three-act structure works, or take a course on the mechanics of theatrical dialogue, narrative and stagecraft. But the double bind of being a playwright is that once you’ve perfected your play on paper, its work is only just begun. A dramatist’s real apprenticeship only truly begins the moment their texts start to be performed, if not to a paying audience, then at least to a roomful of students or peers or theatre folk. Like a bungee-jumper, you leap off a platform into thin air and hope your cord holds.

For while plays are constructs, they are also made of organic matter. Thoughts and feelings, experiences, intuition, emotional intelligence. These are the things that make a play come alive, first on the page and then on the stage. You might call it spark, or voice, originality, energy – the unique DNA that is found in any individual playwright’s work, and which starts with their creative instincts. These instincts are, in a way, the direct opposite of craft, and they cannot be learned by rote. If you’re currently writing a play yourself, I’ll bet that you’re not staying up all night hunched over your keyboard or working through your lunch-break simply because you want to practise crafting a dramatic form. It’s because you have a burning desire to tell a story and communicate something about human behaviour.

I never studied theatre formally myself. I learned to write, as most of us do, by trial and error. Watching plays. Reading plays. Studying their structure. Discussing productions with friends and colleagues. And slowly, tentatively, starting to write myself. It was hard. I had readings, I got commissions, I was invited to theatre-writing groups. More often than not, the plays didn’t make it on to the stage, beyond a rehearsed reading. It took ten years from writing that first play to having my first main stage production, and along the way I have learned some pretty good lessons. Incidentally, I never made it through the first chapter of Aristotle’s Poetics. But I have sat in the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, and looked at the stage where Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, among others, debuted their plays. Thousands of bottoms have worn the marble seats smooth.

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‘I learnt to write by trial and error’ – Jemma Kennedy in rehearsals for her play Genesis Inc., which premiered at Hampstead Theatre, London, in 2018 (Photograph by Manuel Harlan)

Over the last decade I’ve also taught many hours of playwriting. To BA and MA students; to adult learners; to young writers; for new-writing theatres, on residential courses, universities, up mountains and by the ocean. I’ve also run a long-running class for developing writers, which I went on to teach at the National Theatre in London – and it’s these classes which have formed the basis for my book on playwriting, The Playwright’s Journey.

The book guides you through the entire life-cycle of your play. Part 1 begins with the very first spark of a new idea, through getting that out of your head and onto the page (with guidance on technical aspects of the craft such as character, structure, constructing scenes, writing dialogue, and so on). Then, once you’ve written your play, Part 2 focuses on the practicalities of (hopefully) having your script turned into a show – including some practical advice about how to navigate this exciting but sometimes baffling process. I hope the book will encourage you to interrogate your creativity and explore your connection to your material, while finding ways to harness them to writing craft. In other words, to explore the process of playwriting via the heart as well as the head.

As a teacher, and now in The Playwright’s Journey, I offer no hard and fast rules for what a good play is, or should be, or how it should be written. Creativity is a fluid, mysterious thing, bubbling up from our unconscious minds. It can’t and shouldn’t be forced into formulaic shapes. You must allow yourself time to daydream, to feel your way through your writing process, as well as applying craft to those base materials. Then you can find and harness the patterns, rhythms and devices of theatrical narrative – and of language – in order to tell your story. Your play may be a ‘well-made play’ in the traditional sense; it may be a one-woman show or a devised piece of performance or an adaptation of a literary work or anything in between. Whatever it is, I hope to share some knowledge and experience that will help you to keep going and finish the draft that might one day make it on to the stage.

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This is an edited extract from The Playwright’s Journey by Jemma Kennedy – out now, published by Nick Hern Books. Save 20% on your copy when you order direct from the Nick Hern Books website here.

Jemma Kennedy is a playwright and screenwriter. Her work has been seen internationally, including at Hampstead Theatre and the National Theatre, London, where she has been both playwright-in-residence and teacher of playwriting.

‘He was a giant in the world of theatre’ – a tribute to Peter Brook

PeterBrookblogPeter Brook, who has sadly died at the age of 97, was one of the most influential and important figures in twentieth-century theatre – described by the Guardian as ‘one of theatre’s most visionary and influential thinkers’. The New York Times called him ‘a director of scale and humanity, who left an indelible mark’.

Brook’s long and extraordinary career was filled with remarkable achievements, including productions of Titus Andronicus (1955) with Laurence Olivier, King Lear (1962) with Paul Scofield, and The Marat/Sade (1964) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970), both for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Moving to Paris in the 1970s, he established the International Centre for Theatre Research and the International Centre for Theatre Creation, producing events which pushed at the boundaries of theatre – such as his legendary adaptation of epic Indian poem The Mahabharata (1985) – and continued to direct as recently as 2019.

Brook was also a celebrated writer about theatre. NHB have been proud to be Brook’s publisher for the past twenty years, releasing new books such as The Quality of Mercy and Tip of the Tongue, plus the first-ever ebook and audiobook editions of his seminal The Empty Space.

Here, we’re paying tribute to a much-loved and respected NHB author with an extract from The Quality of Mercy, focusing on the story behind one of Brook’s first-ever productions – but first, NHB’s founder and publisher, Nick Hern, remembers his own decades-long relationship with his ‘old old friend’…

Peter Brook was responsible for my getting booed at the National Theatre. I was chairing a Q&A on the occasion of the publication of The Shifting Point [in 1988] and had had to call time on a very rich session. The audience, hungry for more, vented their disapproval – very loudly. It was like that whenever I accompanied Peter on a book tour. It was like being with a rock star: everyone wanted a piece of him. And rightly so, of course. Though small in stature, he was a giant in the world of theatre.

The Shifting Point was only his second book, some twenty years after his groundbreaking The Empty Space. So new was he to the business of publication that he got a fit of the giggles when I first sat him down in a bookshop to sign copies. He soon got the hang, recognising the commercial value of ‘author appearances’, and was still valiantly signing copies of his last book though nearly blind by then.

We resumed our author/publisher relationship with Evoking Shakespeare, which arrived unheralded but with a handwritten note: ‘I don’t suppose you’d be interested in publishing this – it’s very short!’ I was indeed interested, and there followed in due course three more books, all subtitled ‘Reflections’: The Quality of Mercy (on Shakespeare), Tip of the Tongue (on language and meaning) and Playing by Ear (on sound and music). Also two of his last playscripts, Battlefield and The Prisoner.

As an author and a man, Peter was always the soul of kindness and generosity. On meeting – and dining with – my wife for the first time, he inscribed her copy of his latest book: ‘To my new old friend’… I shall really miss my old old friend.

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Peter Brook’s ‘Reflections’ trilogy of books, all published by NHB


This is an edited extract from The Quality of Mercy: Reflections on Shakespeare by Peter Brook.

It was not easy to leave England just after the war, especially as one needed a special permit to carry the tiniest allowance of cash that even the simplest travel needed.

I had just done my first production, Love’s Labour’s Lost at Stratford [in 1946], and was preparing to follow it with a Romeo and Juliet which I wanted to be young and full of fire. In those days, it was an accepted legend in the English theatre that only a mature actress in her forties could attempt to play Juliet. I hoped to smash this tradition by casting two very young actors as the star−crossed lovers. Above all, to get them to speak their lines with their own sense of truth. This meant being free from the established rules of verse-speaking.

My real interest was to discover the climate of the play, so my first trip was to Tangier to get a direct taste of the dust and blazing heat out of which fights and passions arise. This was an exciting revelation. The story did not belong to the polite world of Stratford and the genteel West End plays.

Next, another first. To Italy. This meant a beeline to Verona.

Despite the charm of any Italian small town, the comic side prevailed. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘the commercial side’. As a child, I had been taken to Lourdes. This had left a distasteful memory of how the young Saint Bernadette was being exploited. In the narrow passage leading to the shrine, there were rows of shops each claiming to be more authentic than its neighbour and proclaiming ‘Founded by the true family of Bernadette’ or ‘We are direct descendants of Bernadette’. In Verona, it was very similar. Every corner struggled to exploit Romeo and Juliet – ‘Here is the Capulet residence’, ‘This is where the Nurse went to market’, ‘Welcome to the fencing academy where the Montagues learned to use their swords’, and ‘Visit the exact spot where Mercutio died.’

One beautiful house had a sign saying ‘Birthplace of Juliet’. I went in. It was lunchtime. I was alone, but for a very distinguished elderly Italian who was my guide. His speech was beautifully delivered as he followed me from room to room. Juliet’s bed, the closet where the Nurse slept, the famous balcony, the parents’ wing where the family dined. And then down a narrow stone stair into the cellar. Here my guide pointed to a large stone slab! ‘This is where they brought Juliet’s corpse; it was through this narrow opening that Romeo came – you can imagine the painful sight that confronted him – his lifeless bride. He clasped her in his arms.’

The guide leaned respectfully across the cold slab. ‘We have here a dagger – the actual one – and, after kissing her – ’ the guide mimed the action – ‘and taking the poison from her lips, Romeo took his own life.’

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Today, Casa di Giulietta (‘Juliet’s House’) in Verona is a popular tourist attraction

It was a fine performance, one he clearly repeated day after day. He then led me up the stairs to the front door. I was so struck by his well-schooled intelligence that I could not restrain myself. ‘Tell me,’ I asked, ‘you are such an educated person. How can you bear day after day to tell these tales as though you believe them – when you know they haven’t the least root in truth? In England,’ I said, ‘we all know there were no such persons as Romeo and Juliet.’

He paused. Then with exquisite courtesy he replied, ‘Yes, indeed, it’s true. And here in Verona we all know there was no such person as Shakespeare.’

* * *

I returned to England. The journeys were over, and the practical work on Romeo and Juliet began. I had two marvellous collaborators: Rolf Gérard, who would become my close friend and designer over many years; and an outstanding Catalan−Swiss composer, Roberto Gerhard, who had just made a striking debut with a score for a radio version of Don Quixote. Both at once felt the heat and passion of the play. The set that gradually arose was little more than a blazing orange stage cloth, like a bullring.

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Peter Brook’s production of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1947 (photo by Angus McBean © RSC) 

Together, with a very dynamic instructor, we plunged into rehearsal with our young cast, who were delighted to begin the day with dangerous rapier fights. We made many mistakes and learned many lessons, but when the first night came, the play unfolded to the Stratford audience on the hot orange stage. The audience were dismayed and taken aback. I was attacked for ruining the poetry and wasn’t invited back for many years.

A few days after the opening, the theatre had arranged a public question-and-answer session. When I arrived backstage, I was met by an anxious stage manager. ‘I must warn you,’ he said. ‘You’re in trouble. Prepare for the worst.’ I stepped into the arena. The good and loyal Stratford audience was there. A long silence was broken by a lady rising to her feet, clearly trembling with indignation.

‘I would like Mr Brook to explain to us why, at the opening night of Romeo and Juliet in the Memorial Theatre, there was no light – in the ladies’ cloakroom!’

This got a laugh, but the discussion was heated. And inevitably the press was damning. However, I was already beginning to discover that while praise is for a moment reassuring, the valuable criticisms are the ones that are clearly from an unbiased and intelligent mind. They make one think.

Despite the inevitable disappointment, gradually I saw all that Romeo lacked. There was plenty of fire, colour and energy­ ­­­­– which brought us a small minority of enthusiasts. But what was missing was an overall tempo, an irresistible pulse to lead from one scene to another. I had not yet learned that this was the basis of all Elizabethan theatre, and so began a long period of discovery. The theatre of the day, based on well-made West End plays, with their two intervals, had long lost all contact with the relentless Elizabethan rhythm. Each scene had to lead to another, never letting the audience go. Each scene had to be a stepping-stone for the next ­– there were no curtain breaks and pauses; no new scenery to get accustomed to. And not only did this demand a constant moving forward, it also made contrasts, unexpected changes of rhythm, tones, levels of intensity. In this Romeo I had worked scene by scene, each with its beginning, middle and end.

The big revelation came later when working in opera. In music, I saw that a series of notes is a world of infinitely tiny details which only exist because they are part of a phrase. A phrase in turn is inseparable from a driving forwards. Just as in a speech, a phrase is a thought that prepares and leads on to the next one. Only an insufferable bore goes on repeating a phrase long after we have got its meaning. A play of Shakespeare’s must be played as one great sinuous phrase, never ending before the very end.

When after two years of opera I returned to Stratford to direct Measure for Measure, I found that the immersion in music had brought me a new awareness of tempo and phrasing.

There’s an old cliché that Shakespeare could easily have written film scripts. Indeed, when a film is placed in the projector ­– to use the out-of-date jargon of the day – and the spools begin to turn, there is a movement, and with it the interest of the viewer is held. This has to be maintained till the end of the last shot. It applies to every category: art film, thriller, Western. They all were called ‘movies’. This led to the need to be free of the locked−in nature of the scenery that seemed so necessary at the time.

I was only asked back to Stratford when the direction changed many seasons later. This exile was clearly a stroke of fortune, as my approach had been transformed by so many experiences.

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Peter Brook (centre, front row) at a conference celebrating his career at the Institut Français, London, in 2019 – part of the launch of his final book Playing by Ear, published by Nick Hern Books


All of us at Nick Hern Books are saddened by the death of Peter Brook, at the age of 97. We’re honoured to have had the opportunity to share his wisdom and insights with the world. He leaves behind an incredible artistic legacy. RIP.

Photograph of Peter Brook by Régis d’Audeville.

‘Traditional Shakespeare makes me shudder’ – Andrew Hilton on keeping the plays fresh

Hiltonblog2_214x304Over the course of his fifty-year career, Andrew Hilton has directed dozens of Shakespeare plays to widespread acclaim – including from the Guardian‘s Lyn Gardner, who has called him ‘one of the great tellers of Shakespeare’. Hilton’s new book, Shakespeare on the Factory Floor, draws on these decades of experience, offering insights for theatre-makers, students and lovers of the plays. Here, he explains his approach to Shakespeare, and how to keep the work fresh for audiences today

Shakespeare on the Factory Floor is a by-product of my eighteen years running the theatre company Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol; we produced thirty Shakespeares, some Chekhov, Sheridan, Stoppard, Moliere and Middleton & Rowley, in annual two-play seasons with an ensemble company of anything from fifteen to twenty actors. I sometimes wonder why I didn’t begin it twenty years earlier (I was already 52), though in 1980 there would have been no Tobacco Factory Theatres and I would not have been able to call on so much talent from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School where I began teaching Shakespeare acting in the early 1990s.

At the Factory we wanted to offer not ‘traditional’ Shakespeare – the word makes me shudder – but productions we hoped were fundamentally true to his vision and intention. Though we edited, amended, sometimes even added text, we tried not to bend or distort, or to annex the plays to our own preoccupations. But we did interpret. Centuries of tradition cannot be scraped away to leave a ‘pure’ Shakespeare shining like newly unearthed gold; the traditions have to be overwritten, and worlds created for each play in which we can, to a degree, recognise ourselves. They have to have social and economic force and credibility; and everyone – from the leading characters to the tiniest bit-players – have to know where they belong in them and to have a more completely imagined life in them than ‘the two hours’ traffic of the stage’ will allow them to reveal.  These worlds might be Shakespeare’s own, as far as we can know and express it 400 years on; but they might also be ones he didn’t live to see.

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The Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production of All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare, performed at Tobacco Factory Theatres in 2016 (Photograph by Mark Douet)

In my time with the company, we moved plays into the commonwealth period, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Edwardian period and the inter-war years. I never ventured into the present century, and I explain why in the book – you can read an extract on this subject below.

The approach seemed to work. After an alarming beginning in February 2000, when it seemed we might run out of money within days of opening (we had no subsidy, only private investment), word got around and before long we were playing to over 90% in our 300-seater in-the-round studio. And, against my own expectations, London critics began to make the trip – and to do so repeatedly, which has to be the best testament to their enthusiasm.

The company has now ceased production. In 2018 it lost its long spring slot at the Factory – the economic foundation of its still unsubsidised work – and then came the pandemic to deliver the coup de grace. I don’t mourn it excessively; I think theatre should always be light of foot, that companies should come and go, and never risk outstaying their welcome. But I am pleased that a book has come out of it, and grateful to Nick Hern Books for taking it on. I hope it will be enjoyed equally by those who witnessed what we did during those eighteen years in BS3, and those who never had the opportunity.


Read on for an extract from Andrew Hilton’s book Shakespeare on the Factory Floor.

Is Ophelia portable?

I have seen at least one fine young actress struggle to make sense of Ophelia in a late twentieth-century court. Shakespeare’s Elsinore – as a high-status dwelling – seems to be typical of the period, with women few and far between. Gertrude must have one or two ladies-in-waiting, but there is no evidence that Ophelia has any. Her mother we must conclude is dead; and if, Juliet-like, she had a wet-nurse as a baby, she has been long ago retired. There is no reference to any female friend or helpmate of any kind. This is not just theatrical economy; it is a very likely scenario. Her virginity is (to put it crudely) bankable; her education limited; her access to society at large, and the freedoms of the town, nil. She is lonely while being fiercely protected.

This is the soil in which the chaos of her madness springs; naivety, grief and unmediated sexuality woven together in lethal combination. It is also a representative soil; representative of a fearful and puritanical society, one in which – in the higher echelons at least – unmarried men and women are kept apart, and a young woman’s sexual awakening is expected to begin after marriage, not before it.

Is there a parallel for this in the western world in the twenty-first century? I think not, and here I must demur from Juliet Stevenson’s recent call for all future Shakespeare productions to be in modern dress. Social dynamics matter; and they change over time, impinging radically differently on interpersonal relationships and the sense of self. Our experience of politics, law, religion, work, love and marriage, poverty and wealth, disease and death all change. The extent to which these changes matter varies hugely from one Shakespeare play to the next, and I have as often felt able to escape the traditional ‘Jacobethan’ moment in design as felt compelled to stick with it. At the same time, I think we must credit our audience with the capacity to recognise themselves through the prism of an earlier period; that the past is not such ‘another country’ that it cannot live vibrantly and potently in our imagination.

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Shakespeare on the Factory Floor: A Handbook for Actors, Directors and Designers by Andrew Hilton is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

Save 20% and get your copy for just £13.59 when you order direct from the NHB website here.

How to learn an American accent – top tips from a leading voice and dialect coach

RebeccaGausnell_214x304Rebecca Gausnell is a voice and dialect coach who’s worked on film, TV and theatre productions around the world, helping actors give convincing performances that not only sound authentically American, but connect the voice to the character they’re playing. In this extract from her new book, Mastering an American Accent: The Compact Guide, Rebecca offers some top tips on how you too can learn to use an American accent with confidence in auditions and performance.

It is not always obvious how to learn an accent. Some people are good mimics, but most require structured practice to hone the skill. And yet, during this work, actors can run into opposing objectives. The muscles of the mouth must move precisely, but without undue effort. The rhythms and melodies of an accent must be attended to, but not to an extent that overpowers the words being spoken. The accent is drilled tirelessly so that it may eventually be invisible in performance. Ultimately, the actor aims to embody an accent in every way – weaving pronunciation, muscular action, vocal musicality and an awareness of culture seamlessly into character and performance.

Here, and in my book Mastering an American Accent: The Compact Guide, I hope to dispel misconceptions around learning a new accent. You can learn a new accent – and the process can be fun.

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Rebecca Gausnell working with actor Rhys Ifans on the set of Berlin Station

What is ‘General American’?

In the entertainment industry and linguistically speaking, ‘General American’ is the term used to describe a group of vowels, consonants, grammar and vocabulary typical of many people from the United States. General American is often abbreviated to ‘GenAm’. General American is a purposefully vague term because the accent is considered to be non-regional. Bizarrely, this means that General American is an American accent from nowhere. This is different to other accents in the United States that tend to be classified based on region or by the ethnic group from which the accent originates.

Because of its non-regional features, General American is often considered a standard accent in the United States. In fact, the accent is sometimes called General American or Standard American interchangeably. That is not to say that the accent is neutral or more valid than other American accents. However, the accent does carry a level of prestige in the United States. A General American accent is typical of most-likely educated, often white, usually middle- to upper-middle-class Americans from around the country. But that doesn’t mean that all General American accent speakers fit neatly into those boxes.

The key here is the regional ambiguity of the accent. The accent expresses that the speaker is American without saying where they are from in the United States. A person could be from California or Vermont yet still speak with the universal features of the accent. In fact, the accent has been referred to as a ‘newscaster’ accent because TV anchors, regardless of the state, often speak with the accent. The accent also dominates American film and television today and is often called upon for American auditions.

The General American accent is more of a continuum of accents, not a single unified sound. It is an umbrella term that encompasses the most widespread American accent. Different speakers of a General American accent may sound slightly different from one another, because a person’s voice is influenced by many factors, including age, gender and lived experience.

Listen to this recording of General American voices speaking the same text to hear this in action.

Mastering an American Accent coaches the general patterns that make up a General American accent. However, specificity is key. Keep in mind that the perfect American accent does not exist. Every speaker is different, and it is the actor’s job to find an American sound that suits the character. Instead of searching for perfection, I would much prefer that the main features of the accent are present and that the accent sits comfortably in your mouth and voice.

Understanding an Accent

When working on an accent there are three distinct areas of practice:

  1. The mouth setting of the accent. This can be understood as the shape and position taken by the muscles of speech when speaking in the accent.
  2. The sounds of the accent, made up of vowels
  3. The music of the accent, which includes the rhythm, the stressing, the melody, pitch, volume, pace, vocal quality and the intonation patterns particular to an accent.

All three of these elements combine to form the technical side of learning an accent and each can be actively trained.

An accent’s mouth setting is the foundation of the entire accent, and a good place to return to if you hit roadblocks. I can assure you that if the accent’s mouth shape is off, the desired accent will be difficult to achieve with ease. The mouth setting is comprised of the muscles of the mouth and face. It includes how the muscles shape the voice and sounds coming out of the mouth. The mouth’s setting forms the basis of the entire accent, so I encourage you to give time and space to finding it in your own muscles. The next step is explore the consonants and vowels or the sounds of the General American accent.

The final technical step involves the music of a General American accent – the rhythm, stressing, melodies and intonation patterns of the accent. Admittedly, the music of any accent can be difficult to practise as there are few definitive rules. However, our ears tend first to identify accents based on the overarching music of a voice. This is why mastering the music of an accent can go a long way in convincing your audience. It can also be vital to feeling confident when performing in the accent.

There is one final piece of the puzzle to any accent, which is the inherent culture of the accent. This includes consideration of the people who speak with the accent, along with the accent’s geographical and historical background. We always hope that this element is already embedded in the character through compelling and accurate writing on the part of the playwright. However, it is the actor’s job to bring that character to life in a truthful manner. Keep in mind that in order to sound fully American you will also need to embody an American character in performance. An accent is more expansive than the sum of its parts. The lived experience of a character should always be considered when developing your performance.

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Orlando Bloom and Sophie Cookson in rehearsals for the 2018 Trafalgar Studios revival of Killer Joe by Tracy Letts, on which Rebecca Gausnell worked as a dialect coach – Bloom’s performance was praised by the New York Times for his ‘husky-voiced insouciance and pitch-perfect accent’ (Photo © Marc Brenner)

The Art of Learning an Accent

I encourage you to approach learning an accent in four ways:

  1. Conscious Listening
  2. Conscious Feeling
  3. Conscious Voicing
  4. Conscious Visualising

The act of Conscious Listening comes into play because you cannot reproduce a sound you cannot hear. It is only through listening that you can begin to approach an accent and understand it fully. Often the accents to which we have been most exposed prove the easiest to recreate. Even your own natural accent developed due to listening to your environment, your parents and your peers. Conscious Listening gives you exposure to the target sounds and music of the accent in order to reach this level of mastery.

Accent work concerns the muscles of speech, so Conscious Feeling develops awareness around these muscles so they can move with ease and precision in the accent. Take notes as you go on how the target sounds feel in your mouth. You may even want to assign a shape or picture to that feeling so that you can recreate the sound in the future. You could also find it useful to use a small personal mirror or a smartphone camera on selfie mode to see the mouth at work when making a new sound. Having those shapes in the mind’s eye will help develop and clarify an accent so that you can hit the target sound every time.

Conscious Voicing might also be described as mimicking or copying the sounds aloud with heightened awareness. Speaking in the accent aloud is important in order to begin rooting the accent in your own voice and body. A big mistake actors can make is practising the accent in silence. Although it may seem safer to stay quiet, you will master an accent by taking it on the road. Practise out loud in order to make strides towards a fully realised accent.

Conscious Visualising allows you to see and feel the accent at work in your own body. It may also give you the space to create your own images to aid the Listening, Feeling and Voicing work. Conscious Visualising will be different for everyone, but it can be an imaginative process that connects the accent to the body, breath, and voice. Perhaps you consider the elements of character – such as movement, pacing or breath – and begin marrying these with accent work. The ways into Conscious Visualising are infinite, and are something I look at in depth in Mastering an American Accent.

To be clear, you are not responsible for thinking about all of these points all of the time while practising an accent. There may be certain ways of working that you favour, and the preferred way will be different for everyone. Having an idea of your own learning styles can go a long way when undertaking a new skill. I suggest you experiment with all four approaches in order to create a well-rounded way in to learning an accent.

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L-R: Zawe Ashton, Kit Harington and Noomi Rapace, three more of the many well-known actors Rebecca Gausnell has coached in her prestigious, international career

Practising an Accent

Think of a new accent as choreography for the mouth. By working on foundational movements, the dance becomes easier to the dancer. Speech is equally physical. What is different is that you speak every day, and these are muscles that you use and engage with ease already. You have reason to be confident when working with the muscles of speech through the technical sections. The biggest mistake I feel actors make in performing with an accent is a lack of technique to solidify the work. I promise that technique will only strengthen your ability to integrate the accent into your voice and your performance.

There are many artists who may be opposed to the idea of drills. This is usually out of a fear that the drills will be done in a rote way and will lead to bad habits. However, you can avoid this by approaching drills with attention and connection. Using them wisely will free you from thinking about the accent in performance. Not unlike an athlete doing reps in a gym, drills build and prepare the muscles to work with ease. And just as the athlete completes their workout with alertness and precision, I encourage you to attend to accent drills with the same level of aliveness.

It is through conscious drilling that the muscles learn to respond. That’s why Mastering an American Accent contains drills and exercises to allow you to practise each new concept in isolation. These concepts are gradually expanded and applied to longer extracts from American plays.

Accent work is best approached little and often. There are many moving parts to an accent, and the brain and mouth muscles can easily get tired. Ten minutes daily over the course of a week can be more effective than a single one-hour practice session. Do not discount the role of repetition in voice work. It is only through repetition that we achieve mastery.

Embrace a sense of play and discovery in the work ahead. Children mimic voices all the time and have no hang-ups about getting them right or wrong. I encourage you to take on this same mindset when practising. Through play comes ease and freedom – freedom from self-doubt, from judgement and from self-critique.

A native speaker of an accent has found ease in their speech through years of practice. If you are coming to it later in life, the best place to begin is at the beginning. Do not worry if a concept doesn’t click on your first try. Meet the work with openness, and confidence will follow.


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This is an edited extract from Mastering an American Accent: The Compact Guide by Rebecca Gausnell – out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

Save 20% and get your copy for just £7.99 when you order direct from the NHB website here.

‘He doggedly pursued his unique vision’: a tribute to Robert Holman

Over the course of a career spanning almost fifty years, Robert Holman garnered a reputation as an extraordinary playwright, who influenced many of today’s most renowned dramatists. His plays, which have been staged at leading venues including the Royal Court, Chichester Festival Theatre, Bush Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Traverse Theatre, Lyric Hammersmith, Donmar Warehouse and Manchester Royal Exchange, combine close observation of the way people behave with a thrilling and often fiercely uncompromising mastery of dramatic form.

Here, to mark the sad occasion of Holman’s death last week, NHB’s founder, Nick Hern, pays tribute to a true writer’s writer, who will be much missed.


Robert was a ‘playwright’s playwright’. Simon Stephens was not alone in saying in 2015 ‘His is the name I most often offer when anybody asks me who my favourite living writer is.’ Which makes me, as publisher of fourteen of his plays, glow with pride.

I was there in 1974 in the audience at The Cockpit off Edgware Road for the very first of his plays to reach the stage, The Natural Cause. I loved the play but, having only been in publishing for five weeks, I lacked the confidence to take on this 22-year-old unknown. Mercifully, I got a second chance ten years later, publishing Other Worlds alongside its Royal Court premiere ­– and indeed every play that followed. I once asked him to sign a stack of his published work: he dedicated each one with a different message, but, round about the seventh, the best he could manage was ‘Not another bloody play!’ He was modesty incarnate.

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The Cockpit in Marylebone, London, which staged the 1974 premiere of Robert Holman’s first produced play, The Natural Cause 

He always evinced surprise that anyone was interested in his work, and it’s true that box-office success consistently evaded him. Indeed, Other Worlds held the record at the Royal Court for the lowest attendance at a mainstage play: an average of 18% over a three-week run. But despite such setbacks, his reputation among his peers remained undented, the commissions kept coming in, and his doggedness in pursuing his unique vision kept him writing.

A couple of years ago, NHB published a collection of his earlier work, including, at last, The Natural Cause. He wrote what was, for such a private person, a gratifyingly revealing Introduction, an excerpt from which follows this. It is very ‘Robert’. I will miss him badly.

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Robert Holman Plays: One, a selection from Holman’s first decade of playwriting, published by NHB in 2019


Robert Holman speaks about his early days as a playwright and what he believes are a writers’ responsibilities, in this edited extract from his introduction to Robert Holman Plays: One.

Mud is the first play I wrote that had an interval. I was twenty-one. I left Yorkshire when I was nineteen and stayed with a school friend in Camden Town. I slept on an air bed. One night a bullet came through the window, made a little hole in the glass, and passed over my head. A prostitute lived below, but I never found out what the bullet was about. In the kitchen in Camden Town, in a notepad and then on the portable typewriter my parents bought me, I wrote a play which a few months later went on in a lunchtime theatre in Edinburgh. It lasted nearly an hour and was my first professional production. The play was a sort of fantasy about an old man visiting a graveyard at night, and the critic of the Scotsman newspaper said it was clearly written by a bitter old man. I was still only nineteen. I have wondered if I might one day write about the bullet in Camden Town, but a play has not come along.

Mud was written in Belsize Park. I had got there by way of Westbourne Park, where I had found a room overlooking the railway to Paddington. There were more very small spiders living around the window than I had seen before or since, as well as untroubled mice running across the floor. There was an old, broken wardrobe. The window was opaque with dirt. I put down my case, sat on the bed and looked about, got depressed, and stayed two hours. Back in Camden Town in desperation I rang my mother, wondering if I should go home to Yorkshire, but she had heard, from a distant relative, about a family in Belsize Park who sometimes had a room they let out. I went to Belsize Park for a week and stayed seven years. All the early plays were written there, in a bright room at the top of the house overlooking the garden, with Hampstead Heath nearby to walk across and the space to think. Sometimes in life we are most grateful for ordinary things, if giving someone a room to live in is ordinary. The room set the course for the rest of my life. The rent was a few pounds a week, and very often I did not pay it. I have struggled with money ever since, and it started then.

Mud was written in the evenings and in the early hours of the mornings, because I worked during the day on Paddington Station, selling newspapers and magazines. I was not a clever boy, but sometimes I had a good instinct about the best thing to do, and I was learning to trust myself. Intuition had told me to get an easy job, one where I did not have to think too deeply. If that sounds rude about the bookstall or the other people working there, I do not mean it to be. It’s the only ‘proper’ job I have ever had, and to begin with I did not tell them I was also trying to write. The first draft of Mud was written in longhand using the fountain pen I had sat my school exams with. I made it up as I went along, with no idea of where it might end up. I put down the things I saw in my imagination and wrote what I heard people say. The dialogue was character-driven and the people in the play led me. If there were days when they said nothing it was a nuisance, and I would do my best to look at the empty page for half an hour before putting away the pen. If too many days like this came one after the other, it would be frustrating and then I would get depressed. I longed for the skills of a proper writer. My writing was in charge of me, rather than me being in charge of it.

Mud was written when writing was a hobby of mine. There were two drafts of the play written in ink, the second one bearing very little resemblance to the first, because all I was trying to do was to get a sense of who the characters were, and this was changing as I wrote them. Men were becoming women, women men, someone of nineteen was becoming sixty and vice versa. At some point a consistency emerged, as much decided by them as decided by me. It was as if I knew these people as well as I knew anybody who was actually alive. By now I was typing the play. It was still changing as I went on, still surprising me. I would sometimes look at my watch and it would be past three o’clock in the morning. One day Mrs Bradshaw, who owned the house, came up the stairs with a felt pad to put underneath the typewriter because their bedroom was below, and the clatter of the typewriter keys was keeping them awake.

Other Worlds by Robert Holman, Royal Court Theatre, 1983, included in Robert Holman Plays: One

On Paddington Station we used to give rude customers as many small coins in their change as we possibly could. We wore badges with our names on. One day a stranger asked to speak to me. I expected to be told off or even sacked, but it was a theatre director, who asked if I might be free to write a play for him. He had wanted Howard Brenton, but Howard Brenton was busy and had told him about me. Still standing on the platform of the station, the director explained he had a slot. The play would need to be written in six weeks. Mud had taken me over a year to write and I was usually very slow. But who would say no to this? So, I said yes. I would be given money for writing, which I was not used to. When could I start? I said I could start straight away.

The Natural Cause was the play that began to turn my hobby into a job. I set the play in London not in Yorkshire, though when the characters said something I still heard my own accent. As with Mud I made it up as I went on. Some evenings I would write three or four pages and other evenings three or four lines, and then cross out most of it. I had to be taken in by what I was writing and get lost in it. Sometimes it would be like bashing my head against a brick wall. At the end of two weeks it dawned on me that there would not be a play if I was still selling newspapers because I needed every minute of the day to try to write. I spoke to the manager of the bookstall and told him what I was doing. He said to come back when I was finished, and if he had not managed to replace me, there would still be a job.

The Natural Cause was a worrying play to write. If writing is a hobby it matters little if there are days when you cannot do it very well. I had four weeks left to finish a play, and a day with nothing done is a day empty forever. I spent all one Monday walking up and down across the Heath, all the time wondering how I was going to lie my way out of writing the play. If I told the director I was ill that was better than saying I could not do it. Or I could just disappear. The rain started. It came down in heavy sheets and was soon penetrating the leaves and branches of trees, so standing under them was pointless. On Parliament Hill it looked as if London was drowning. As it got towards evening and lights came on, the city was resplendent. For less than a minute, in the hardest of the rain, London went turquoise, a colour I had not seen it go before or seen since. I stood on one of the wooden benches to get a clearer view, and decided it was better to write rubbish than to write nothing at all, and to work out the lies I would tell another time.

I am mostly a private writer, which means my plays mean different things to different people, even though the theatre is a public place. My plays are not driven by a single ideology or an idea, there is no right or wrong in them, or one easy explanation. They are about what you want them to be about, and this changes.

Royal Shakespeare Company poster for 1985 Barbican season, including Robert Holman’s Today

All plays are pieces of energy, and how they come about, the places they are written and in what circumstances, always says something about them. Today was written quickly. I did not have much time to think, and sometimes this is the best way to write, because thinking is inhibiting, if you are me. I still want to write a play where I do not think at all. Today was written in the moment, line by line, wherever the dialogue led me, rather than me leading it. It is a history play, but not one with an overarching idea or ideology. It is a play driven by the needs of its characters. I am simply not clever enough to write about history in an original way. If I might generalise for a moment, there is always at least one person somewhere in the world who is cleverer than we are. These are the people who come up with new thoughts about history – or anything else for that matter. On the other hand, our emotions, our feelings, are always slightly different and special to each of us. You might fall in love in a different way to me or be scared by very different things. Sometimes living is easy, but often it is painful. There are times when we feel alone even with friends about us. I was learning to try to write about all this and to know it is the stuff of life. If I have anything special as a writer, and you will decide if I have or not, it is writing characters who stay in the mind for an hour or two when the play is over; and they stay in the mind because the people in the plays are like you with your fears. They are my fears, too.

All my plays are a mixture of memory and imagination, and they have mostly used landscapes that I know well. I was born and brought up on a farm on the moors in north Yorkshire. Middlesbrough and the Tees Estuary, with the chemical and steel industry close by, were twenty miles away.

The Overgrown Path by Robert Holman, Royal Court Theatre, 1985, included in Robert Holman Plays: One

The way my plays are written in the moment means that they will not be perfect. They can be strong because of the moment but also weak because of it. If I write a scene one morning it might be slightly different if I write it the next morning. It is down to luck, but I have learned more about the world from writing plays in this way than I have from anything else in life. I have surprised myself, and now and again I hope I have surprised an audience. If an audience does not know what is coming next, it is because I also did not know what was coming next. My writing involves a lot of trust. I have to trust myself that something interesting will come out of me next morning  and know that I can put it down using words. Words are everything. To trust oneself to find the right word is sometimes a challenge. The thing that matters most to me is the English language and how it can be used to tell a story.

A writer has no responsibilities whatsoever, other than to themselves, their integrity and intelligence. My plays are not about the world as it is, but about the world as I would like it to be and wish it was. In this way my plays are romances.


Robert Holman died on Friday 3 December, at the age of 69.

From all of us at Nick Hern Books: thank you, Robert, for allowing us to publish your beautiful, masterful plays.

‘He was a bit of a wonder’ – a tribute to Antony Sher

Equity RawsAntony Sher, who sadly died this week, was one of the most respected actors of his generation. Most closely associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company – with whom he performed many of the most famous roles in the Shakespearean canon including Richard III, Macbeth, Lear, Prospero, Iago, Falstaff, Shylock, Malvolio and Leontes, as well as other classical and contemporary roles, and for whom he was an Honorary Associate Artist – he enjoyed a hugely successful career on stage and screen that spanned nearly fifty years. He was awarded a knighthood in 2000, for services to theatre.

In addition to skill as a performer, Sher also possessed many other talents, including as an artist and writer. Nick Hern Books is incredibly proud to publish many of his books and plays, including Year of the King – his gripping account of his breakthrough performance in Richard III for the RSC in 1984 – which has gone on to firmly establish itself as a classic of theatre writing.

Here, to mark the sad occasion of his passing, we share an extract from Sher’s autobiography Beside Myself, in which he reflects how he first fell in love with performing. And NHB’s founder and publisher, Nick Hern, remembers his own relationship with Antony – as author, interlocutor, passenger and gift-giver…


This is an edited extract from Beside Myself: An Actor’s Life by Antony Sher.

I owe Esther Caplan my career.

Esther was known as Auntie Esther to all her pupils, though I had a special claim to this name, for my brother Randall had married her daughter Yvette. Esther was officially a teacher of Elocution. This word was more respectable than Acting and more comprehensible to any parents sending their little darlings for tutelage. To learn to speak nicely made sense; to learn to act made none. Who would anyone in Sea Point [a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, where Antony Sher grew up] become an actor? There was the Cape Performing Arts Board, which did occasional shows at the Hofmeyr [a theatre in Cape Town], and there was Maynardville, which did an annual Shakespeare in its leafy open-air auditorium, but there was little other theatre, no film industry whatsoever and television didn’t yet exist. There was some radio work, yes. In other words employment for about five and a half actors in Cape Town. It certainly wasn’t a career for me.

Esther had been an actress herself, during her youth in Johannesburg, and even worked with the most famous Jewish South African actor there’s ever been, Solly Cohen (later known as Sid James, the lovable Cockney of Carry On fame), but now she was a teacher: this had become her Great Role. She was an outrageously theatrical figure, Sybil Thorndike with a touch of Ethel Mermen thrown in. Tall, proud, big-bosomed, with a crash helmet of lacquered blond hair, skin darkly tanned and quite leathery, splashed with turquoise eyeshadow and bright-pink lipstick. She didn’t talk, she boomed and trilled. She didn’t walk, she strode. She didn’t gesture, she carved the air – thumb arched, forefinger splayed from the rest. Ballet dancers use their hands like this to compensate for not being allowed to speak. Esther was sometimes lost for words too, but only after emptying the dictionary: ‘Oh, my darling, that monologue was so outstandingly, brilliantly marvellous that… it was so superbly, fantastically, unbelievably amazing that… oh my darling, I don’t know what to say!’

She called everyone ‘my darling’. She was the warmest of warm springs; she bubbled, she gushed, she overflowed.

Given her style, the surprising thing is that she was fascinated by modern drama. By improvisation, by the Method School in New York, by the new plays coming from England by Osborne, Pinter and Wesker. So my first lessons in acting were not one might expect from a grand dame elocution teacher in some former corner of the empire – not Rattigan, Coward or even Shakespeare – but something altogether more contemporary.

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Esther Caplan (left) directing Antony Sher (centre), aged sixteen, in a production of The Bespoke Overcoat by Wolf Mankowitz

I quickly developed an appetite for my weekly visit to Auntie Esther’s studio: a bare room above some Main Road shops. I ceased to be Little Ant, hopeless at sport, mocked in the showers. Instead I became anyone I wanted to be.

At first the work was very private – just me and Auntie Esther – but I soon grew greedy for the next phase: a public audience.

Every year there was a local Eisteddfod [performing arts competition] in Cape Town’s City Hall. Along with Esther’s other pupils I entered several categories, Monologues, Duologues, and my favourite, Improvisation. You’d be given a subject, five minutes to think about it and then you were on. I used to cheat. I’d prepare situation, speeches and characters, usually based on favourite film performances – Oskar Werner in Ship of Fools, Harry Andrews in The Hill – and somehow adapt these to whatever subject I’d been landed with. No one seemed particularly fazed by the arrival of world-weary Viennese doctor or sadistic British RSM into a scene entitled ‘A quarrel on Clifton Beach’ and I did well; I won prizes.

In my penultimate year at school the English teacher, Quinn, mounted a production of the Whitehall farce Simple Spymen. I got one of the two leads: the Brian Rix role, the dupe, the clown. The gales of laughter that night were overwhelming; a storm of approval from the same people who’d scoffed at us in the playground. I was hooked.

The drug of laughter, the megalomanic thrill of the cheering crowd…

As I hear the tinny echo of cliché drift into the story, it strikes me that I’m not being altogether fair to myself. The attraction in acting is more deep-seated. I recall one late afternoon, finishing a game of Cowboys and Indians in the garden – me aged about ten or eleven – and my sister Verne unwittingly playing the critic again. She said, ‘You’re going to stop this soon, y’know, it’s puerile.’ I had no idea what the second half of her statement meant, but the first was unequivocal. You’re going to have to stop this soon. I remember staring at the churned black soil under a hedge where I’d been hiding and thinking how beautiful that place looked – a dark and dreamy place of make-believe – and how I didn’t want to leave it. Ever. Was there really no way to cheat fate: this inevitable business of growing up, of becoming sensible, of stepping politely on the earth instead of rolling in it? Was there no way of playing on?

Well, yes, there was, I discovered during that performance of Simple Spymen; yes, there were people – adult people – who did this for a living.

I decided I should go to drama school in London. When I told Esther she swelled her great bosom, gestured with balletic poise and boomed assurances: ‘You’re going to make it, my darling, I know you will, I promise you will. And in England, in London – the very heart of world theatre! Oh, it’s so incredibly, marvellously, fantastically exciting that… oh, my darling, I don’t know what to say!’

We started making enquiries about London drama schools and working on audition speeches.

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Antony Sher, aged eighteen, with his parents in Leicester Square, London, having just arrived in the UK to audition for drama school


NHB’s founder and publisher, Nick Hern, reflects on his forty-year relationship with Antony Sher. 

Tony was a bit of a wonder. A magnetic actor, of course, but also and equally an artist and author. I published five books by him, and in every case the vivid words were illuminated by equally vivid sketches. Also two plays, and a whole volume of his paintings and drawings. Furthermore, he was a delight to work with: punctilious, of course, but open to and eager for comment and improvement. If only every author were as receptive!

I first met him in 1980 in the wake of publication of his first, and most famous, book Year of the King. I had kicked myself for not having had the idea myself of asking him to keep a diary of his preparations for what turned out to be an iconic performance of Richard III. But the paperback rights were still available, so I seized them with both hands. Several equally illuminating diaries followed, on Falstaff, on Lear, on playing Primo Levi – and an eye-opening autobiography, Beside Myself.

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Antony Sher’s acclaimed Year of… books – capturing his experiences playing Richard III, Falstaff and Lear, respectively, for the Royal Shakespeare Company – are some of his many books to published by NHB

With each publication came obligatory appearances at ‘author events’, and I was flattered that Tony, rightly nervous of being interviewed by someone he didn’t know, would ask me if I’d step in. We began to refer to ourselves as the Abbott and Costello of the literary circuit. I was also his chauffeur (Tony didn’t drive and admitted to a total lack of sense of direction), and I would ferry him up and down the country to satisfy the many fans who would congregate at such events – often clutching an ancient, dog-eared copy of Year of the King for him to sign.

As I delivered him back home at the end of what was to be the last of such tours – for Year of the Mad King – we were met at the door by his husband, Greg Doran, clutching a bottle of Bollinger. ‘For you,’ said Tony, ‘for all your hard work’. If only every author were as appreciative!

'Nick Hern Books' party, 30th Anniversary, London, UK - 01 Jul 2018

Antony Sher (left), Nick Hern (centre) and Gregory Doran (right), Antony’s husband and Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, at NHB’s 30th birthday party at the Royal Court Theatre, London, in 2018


All of us at NHB are devastated to learn of the death of Antony Sher, who has died at the age of 72. May his memory be a blessing.

Photograph of Antony Sher by Paul Stuart Photography Ltd.

‘What a golden legacy he has left us’ – Nick Hern pays tribute to Stephen Sondheim

sondheimblogOver the course of a career spanning almost seventy years, the American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim unquestionably established himself as one of the most significant figures in 20th-century theatre. His works include some of the most beloved and renowned musicals of our time, which continue to be produced worldwide, and he has theatres named after him both on Broadway and London’s West End. He won multiple Tony, Grammy and Olivier Awards, an Academy Award, a Kennedy Center Honour and a Pulitzer Prize. When President Barack Obama presented Sondheim with the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the US’s highest civilian honour – in 2015, he praised him for ‘reinvent[ing] the American musical.’

Nick Hern Books has been proud to publish the book and lyrics to Stephen Sondheim’s work for over thirty years. Here, to mark the sad occasion of Sondheim’s passing this week, NHB’s founder, Nick Hern, pays tribute to one of the great artists of our time, and remembers his relationship with Sondheim and his work.


The peerless British premiere of Sunday in the Park with George at the National Theatre in 1990 was the spark. Until then, Sondheim’s work had not been published in book form. I had heard the recording of the Broadway production with Mandy Patinkin, which to my unsophisticated ear sounded pretty avant-garde, but thought, “Well, if the NT is doing it, I’ll do it”, and so the first of our many Sondheims came into being alongside the production.

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‘I thought, “Well, if the NT is doing it, I’ll do it”: the NHB edition of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George, published alongside the British premiere at the National Theatre, London, in 1990

After that we moved back in time to Forum (which I’d seen at its London premiere in 1963), A Little Night Music (also alongside the NT production) and Sweeney Todd (which we published with an engaging piece by Chris Bond, whose original play had been the inspiration for the musical, something always scrupulously acknowledged by Sondheim), as well as keeping pace with this extraordinary talent, right up to the ‘re-gendered’ Company, devised and first presented here in the UK a couple of years ago. All in all, we’ve published thirteen glorious musicals and one stage play.

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The NHB-published Company: The Complete Revised Book and Lyrics, released alongside the acclaimed, multi-award-winning 2018 West End revival – which switched the gender of several characters, including the protagonist Bobbie

It goes without saying how proud I am to be Steve’s UK publisher. One particular memory stands out. Sometime in the nineties, I went to meet him in his home in upstate New York. I arrived late and flustered, but Steve was the acme of warm hospitality. By way of calming me down, he showed me his newly acquired eighteenth-century crystallophone, a perfect embodiment of his musicianly curiosity. The purpose of the trip – my purpose, that is – was to persuade him to allow us to conduct and publish a sequence of interviews on the lyrics of the major shows. I remember saying – and I blush now at the memory – that the chief advantage for him was that the hard work of finding the ‘mots justes’ (yes, I was that pretentious!) would fall on the interviewer rather than on him. “Yes,” he replied with a light irony, “but I’d have to find the ‘mot juste’ myself first”. Of course he would! And just such a book finally came out in 2010…

As someone has already said, there is unlikely ever again to be a single figure who has wrought such a ground-breaking revolution in musical theatre. What a golden legacy he has left us!

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A letter from Stephen Sondheim, thanking NHB’s Managing Director, Matt Applewhite, for sending him copies of Company: The Complete Revised Book and Lyrics 


Stephen Sondheim died at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, on Friday 26 November 2021, at the age of 91.

From all of us at NHB: thank you, Stephen, for allowing us to publish your incredible work, and for the indelible mark you leave behind on theatre, music and our lives.

Photograph of Stephen Sondheim by Richard Avedon.

‘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.

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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!

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‘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.