‘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.

Paul Harvard: Do You See the Singers Act? – Acting Through Song in Les Misérables

Paul Harvard photoWith Les Misérables enjoying award nominations and critical acclaim in addition to its box office success, most critics are praising the emotion on display in the film. In this piece, Paul Harvard, musical director, composer and author of new book Acting Through Song, asks why that isn’t always the case.

The barricade has been erected, the battle-lines drawn. It seems the recent film adaptation of Les Misérables – after its popular victory at the box-office in its opening weeks – has left a whiff of gunpowder in the air. As filmgoers have braved the cold weather to keep the popcorn flowing, an intriguing fight has taken shape, not involving the students of revolutionary France, but between the critics of the UK’s national press.

Reviewers have not always been kind to Les Misérables. Famously, they nearly disembowelled the show when the stage version first opened at London’s Barbican Centre in 1985. It was only because producer Cameron Mackintosh screwed his courage to the sticking-place, and trusted the voice of popular opinion, that the production transferred to the West End, allowing it to survive and grow into the global juggernaught it is today.

In contrast to its theatrical premiere, Tom Hooper’s admirable film version has largely received the praise it deserves. Some commentators have picked on the close proximity of the camera, or the odd performance, but a majority of the reviews have fallen between the grudgingly positive and the downright ecstatic. However, one forthright piece – by the Evening Standard’s David Sexton – stood out for adopting a harshly different tone.

Mr Sexton is plainly not a fan of the film. But in his article he not only takes issue with Les Misérables, but with the entire musical-theatre genre. He declares himself to be one of those people who ‘can’t bear musicals at all’, a genre he describes as ‘embarrassing and stupid’. The crux of his argument is that we don’t have sung conversations in real life, so to do so on the stage, or on film, is silly. He argues that, because he values music and drama so highly, to combine the two in a musical devalues both as a means of expression.

It is unsurprising that Cameron Mackintosh decided to refute Sexton’s opinions last week in his sharp, sarcastic and witty manner. What is perhaps more intriguing is that Lyn Gardner of The Guardian also felt compelled to write an article rebutting Sexton whilst defending the musical as an art form. So who is right? Is the musical simply an awkward hybrid that should never be viewed as high art? Or does it have more merit than it is sometimes awarded?

In my book Acting Through Song I argue strongly for the latter. I contend that rather than undermining the genre, the unique combination of music and drama in musical theatre is the reason why it can be so compelling. Music is a powerful form of expression. The most universal of mediums, it transcends cultural and social barriers, reaching out to everyone. It has the ability to move the audience very directly, bypassing their intellectual responses and appealing to the emotions. And this is what makes musical theatre so special: by placing music at the heart of the storytelling, it provides the opportunity to combine the power of drama and music to create a potent means of expression.

Hathaway as Fantine (photo)

‘truthful, raw and committed’ – Anne Hathaway as Fantine

But if this is the case, why do people like Sexton frequently dismiss musical theatre? I believe it is because for the material truly to come to life, for the combination of music and drama to seem organic rather than contrived, then the standard of acting must be exceptional.

Take ‘I Dreamed a Dream’. For students of music and drama, it may seem at first glance that the component parts of this song are unremarkable: a serviceable, if uninspiring lyric, set to a catchy tune with a generic pop-ballad accompaniment. You might not expect this material to resonate greatly. Yet in the film the sequence is cinematic dynamite; in the screening I attended it wrung the packed house emotionally dry. So what was the magic component that made this song so arresting? It was the performance of Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Because her delivery was so truthful, raw and committed, the music became heartbreaking and the lyrics poignant.

Compare this with Russell Crowe’s work as Javert. His performance has come in for much criticism in the past few weeks, mostly concerning the quality of his singing. But whilst he doesn’t have an outstanding voice, I don’t consider his singing to be the main problem. His vocal delivery is competent; the real issue is his inability to act successfully through song.

Crowe is a very fine actor whom I rate highly. Yet when he sings that ability seems to ebb away. Watching his performance in Les Misérables it is like he has a miniature critic sat on his shoulder, whispering to him whilst he is singing: ‘What are you doing? You sound awful! You look really stupid!’ And consequently he appears stupefied during his songs. Despite having arguably better material to sing than Hathaway, his performance has none of her impact.

Russell Crowe as Javert (picture)

‘he appears stupefied during his songs’ – Russell Crowe as Javert

I believe that many students of musical theatre, and indeed some professionals, suffer from these attacks of self-consciousness when they sing. Their heads become so full of their own self-criticisms that they no longer trust their instincts and follow their impulses – which is the worst mistake any actor can make. This problem manifests itself in different ways. Some inexperienced actors become leaden and unable to make any spontaneous choices; those with more experience often fall back on a set of ‘performance tricks’ that suggest a pretence of good acting but is really just a fake and contrived substitute for the real thing. Some commercial theatre is riddled with this kind of performance.

To free themselves from their self-consciousness, and learn to act truthfully and spontaneously, the musical-theatre performer needs to learn to focus outside of themselves whilst they are singing, so they can respond organically to the other actors, or their imaginary circumstances. In short: they must learn to master the skills of the classical actor.

But why isn’t this automatically the case? Why are these skills not always in evidence? I believe that acting does not always receive a high enough priority in the education of our musical-theatre performers. No matter how much weight is given to it in prospectuses of drama schools, it sometimes ends up being the poor cousin in the reality of the training. I think this is an error. Acting must be explored in all its nuance and detail – as it is the thread that weaves the art form together. Only when a singer acts through their songs does the work truly come alive. The most respected colleges do strive to make acting central to their work, but I believe that there still needs to be a shift in the focus of our musical-theatre colleges – so that acting is always placed right in the foreground.

Acting Through Song (jacket)

Acting Through Song, £12.99

That is why I believe Hathaway’s performance is so important. As odd as it may sound, when I think of her Fantine, sobbing in the docks of Paris, I can’t stop smiling, because the power of emotion she conveys in that potentially forgettable song demonstrates to the next generation of musical-theatre actors the standards of acting that they can, and should aspire to.

NHB are delighted to publish Paul Harvard’s new book Acting Through Song. To order your copy at a special 25% anniversary discount – no voucher code required – just click here.