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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Natasha Gordon: ‘resilience has brought you this far’

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Don’t lose heart. We need you.

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


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

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

Conor McPherson: A flash, an image, a feeling – the mysterious art of playwriting

McPhersonAs his modern classic The Weir receives its first major UK revival at London’s Donmar Warehouse, playwright Conor McPherson reflects on the creative process, and how hard it all seems to explain.

The best plays come in a flash. An image, a feeling, and that’s it. You know these ideas because they are the undeniable ones that won’t let go. They pull you in and compel you to start scribbling notes. If you are a playwright and you have one of these on the go, you know you have a responsibility. To what? Something that doesn’t exist? But the good ideas feel like they do exist. They’re just beyond view, and you’re trying to capture them with glimpses that may or may not be accurate.

So many things can go wrong along the way between the vision and its presentation on stage – missed beats in the writing (or too many beats), the wrong cast, wrong director, wrong theatre or just the wrong time. Any and all of these may consign your hard work to the ‘Who Cares?’ file. And you know you are playing Russian roulette – it all comes down to those couple of hours on opening night. But you keep the faith and you pull the trigger. What else can you do?

The Weir 2013-2A.indd

The Weir is now on at the Donmar Warehouse, London

You start scribbling. Worry, issues of control, and even, ironically, a sense of longing to be free of the process, all propel you to write your first draft. Subsequent drafts can never quite fix all the problems, yet neither can they prompt the same exhilaration. Many playwrights I’ve talked with agree that the best moments are often those tentative notes when the ghosts first present themselves in your mind. They are so insubstantial, yet bear their complete mysterious history within. This is when playwriting is at its most private and, paradoxically, when the play is at its most beautiful. The more real you make it, the less magic it retains. You are aware of this but what can you do? You keep going. Always writing at the very edge of your limitations. And your limitations are not necessarily a bad thing. Your limitations are in fact what give you your unique voice. But it’s hard to view your limitations in a warm light when you’ve just read over your work and it makes you embarrassed.

The truth is nobody really knows how to write a good play. You just do your best to avoid writing a bad one. The rest falls to fate. Joe Penhall once said to me, ‘Who knows if the magic is there and – even if it is – will the bastards see it?’, which I think sums up the car crash of hope, despair and paranoia that accompanies artistic creation.

And the enemy of art is not the pram in the hallway, it is self-consciousness. When you are young you know nothing, least of all yourself. You write plays quickly, perhaps in a matter of days. As you grow older – and if you’ve managed to survive some decades of playwriting – you may gain a little wisdom. But you lose your recklessness. Why? Because, like the ageing stuntman, you know exactly what’s at stake each time you do it. Further, you are no longer new. Everyone knows what you can do and they have certain expectations. So you go the long way round, trying to surprise everyone. But going the long way round kills spontaneity.

And what’s wrong with that? Well, Neil Young’s late producer, David Briggs, said that the best way to record music is the simplest way. You get the mic as close to the sound as you possibly can and just record it as it is. ‘The more you think, the more you stink’ was his mantra. Neil Young’s albums are full of first takes – often the very first time the band have ever played the song – because that’s where the magic is. Neil Young calls it, ‘the spook’. In other words, you’ve got to be careful not to perfect what you are doing to the extent it has no soul left. Perfect is not best. Okay, so he’s talking about rock ’n’ roll, but there’s something in that for playwriting too.

McPhersonPlays3.indd

McPherson Plays: Three, £14.99

So if there’s anything I can see that’s worth passing on, it’s this: it’s as important to forget what you’ve learned as it is to learn.

This piece is an extract from the Foreword to Conor McPherson Plays: Three, a new collection covering a decade of playwriting, which is available now. It includes acclaimed plays such as The Seafarer as well as two previously unpublished works: The Birds and The Dance of Death. To order your copy at a special 25% discount – no voucher code required – just click here.

The Weir is playing at the Donmar Warehouse, London until 8 June (a tie-in edition is available here). It will be followed by a new Conor McPherson play, The Night Alive, which will also be published by Nick Hern Books.

Spotlight: playwright CONOR McPHERSON

Conor McPherson

Conor McPherson

Playwright Conor McPherson – ‘a writer who can make inarticulacy sound poetic’ (Evening Standard) – returns to the theatre this month with the premiere of his new play The Veil at the National Theatre. We’ve published the playtext along with a striking new edition of his earliest works, McPherson Plays: One, which includes a new foreword by the author. In this extract from the foreword, McPherson looks at why in the nineties the monologue form became so dominant in Irish theatre.

The nineties in Irish theatre will probably always be associated with the monologue. Almost every successful new play that emerged from Ireland at the time had an element of direct storytelling. It was as though the crazy explosion of money and stress was happening too close to us, too fast for us, making it impossible for the mood of the nation to be objectively dramatised in a traditional sense. It could only be expressed in the most subjective way possible because when everything you know is changing, the subjective experience is the only experience.

Production photograph of The Veil, by Conor McPherson, National Theatre, September 2011

Hannah Lambroke (Emily Taafe) and Grandie (Ursula Jones) in The Veil at the National Theatre. Photo by Helen Warner

I would suggest that the hunger for this kind of highly personal work was unprecedented because the whole phenomenon of living in Ireland at the time was unprecedented. It has been argued elsewhere that a secular need flooded the space left by the disgraced Catholic Church and a contemporary dearth of true political leadership. We still had souls, but we just couldn’t trust anyone with them any more. Thus monologue theatre flourished because it was a mirror which took you inside your own eye. The work had to become more private and the humour more painful in order to reflect the mood of an audience who didn’t feel like they were living in a sustainable reality on any level. Big old ‘state of the nation’ plays simply couldn’t have reflected that feeling, I don’t think. The dramatic problem was far subtler than before so the successful plays of the time took a subtler approach.

The Seafarer production at National Theatre, 2006

Jim Norton (Richard), Michael McElhatton (Nicky), Ron Cook (Mr. Lockhart), Conleth Hill (Ivan) in The Seafarer at the National Theatre, 2006. Photo Catherine Ashmore.

As young writers, we knew of Beckett’s great monologue plays and Brian Friel’s iconic Faith Healer, but these were examples of a form rather than the norm. When one considers the tumultuous time in which this form re-emerged and became almost ubiquitous it doesn’t feel like mere coincidence, and I would contend that to dismiss such a sea change in Irish drama is to ignore how well it charted the peculiar history of the Irish mind for its time. And all the more so when one considers how organic and unconscious this movement was. It just happened. The more Ireland’s economic fortunes appeared to catapult us into a twenty-first-century orbit, the more our theatre seemed determined to return us to an almost ancient mode of storytelling.

The Veil: playscript

The Veil (£9.99)

For myself, I haven’t written a monologue play for well over a decade now. This year I am forty and consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to have worked as a playwright for the last twenty years. The hard-won perspective of the intervening time shows me that I thought I was free and independent back then, but now I know I was struggling with history just like everybody else. I used to find it so difficult to even think about my own past work. I always felt the need to look away into the future. But as I enter middle age I look back with a more forgiving regard. I read the very first line of the first play in this volume, which says: ‘I think my overall fucked-upness is my impatience.’ It was true then, and it’s true now, and probably not just for me. And maybe that impatience drew me to the monologue form. Because it could take you right where you wanted to be so fast and keep you there because it just felt real.

Conor McPherson, 2011

Jacket: McPherson Plays 1 (collection)

Mcpherson Plays: One (£12.99)

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Conor McPherson’s latest work – The Veil – is currently running at the National Theatre until 2nd November – click here for more information and to purchase tickets. His earlier play, Dublin Carol, will run at the Trafalgar Studios in London’s West End 8-31 December 2011 (a Donmar Warehouse production), click here for more information and to purchase tickets. 

The NHB publication of The Veil and the new edition of McPherson Plays: One (with a new author Foreword) are available now to purchase. To order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).