‘One of the great artistic privileges of my life’: Conor McPherson on writing and directing Girl from the North Country

Fresh from his acclaimed TV debut Paula on BBC Two, award-winning Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s latest project sees him weave the masterful songs of Nobel Prize laureate Bob Dylan into a poetic, haunting tale of love, loss and obligation set in Minnesota during the Great Depression. As Girl from the North Country premieres at the Old Vic Theatre, London, McPherson reflects on how he found the inspiration for the show, and his deep respect for Bob Dylan’s skills as a musician and writer…

Maybe five years ago I was asked if I might consider writing a play to feature Bob Dylan’s songs. I initially didn’t feel this was something I could do and I had cast it out of my mind when, one day, walking along, I saw a vision of a guesthouse in Minnesota in the 1930s.

I had been in Minnesota twice in the years leading up to this – both times in the dead of winter. The friendliness of the people, the dry frozen wind, the vast distance from home, these things had stayed with me. And I saw a way Mr Dylan’s songs might make sense in a play.

I was invited to write down the idea I had seen and send it to Bob Dylan. A few days later I heard back that Mr Dylan liked the idea and was happy for me to proceed. Just like that.

Ron Cook rehearsing Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

And then I received forty albums in the post, covering Mr Dylan’s career. While I owned Dylan albums already, like Desire and Blood on the Tracks, and loved many of his songs (often without knowing he’d written them) performed by hundreds of artists from The Byrds to Fairport Convention, I had no idea of the real search he had been on his whole life.

It strikes me that many of Mr Dylan’s songs can be sung at any time, by anyone in any situation, and still make sense and resonate with that particular place and person and time. When you realise this you can no longer have any doubt you are in the presence of a truly great, unique artist.

Working on our production of Girl from the North Country, sometimes I would wake in the night with a Bob Dylan song going round in my head. The next day I would come into rehearsals and we’d learn the song and put it in the show. Did it fit? Did it matter? It always fit somehow.

Many books have been written in an attempt to explore this universal power. Even though Mr Dylan will say he’s often not sure what his songs mean, he always sings them like he means them. Because he does mean them. Whatever they mean.

Sheila Atim rehearsing Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Every time I hear these songs I see a picture like I’m watching a movie. Sometimes it’s the same, sometimes it’s different, but you always see something.

Like Philip Larkin, like James Joyce, Mr Dylan has the rare power of literary compression. Images and conceits are held in unstable relations, forcing an atomic reaction of some kind, creating a new inner world.

But let’s talk about his musicality. Spending time with his music has taught me a few things: Firstly, writing something that sounds original is rare, but writing something that sounds original and simple at the same time is the mark of genius. Anyone can keep making things more complicated, but to keep a song simple, like it somehow always existed and would have surely been written by someone, someday… try writing that one.

Secondly, Mr Dylan always goes through the right musical door. Listening to a Bob Dylan song is like being in a room you’ve never been in before. It’s full of characters and images and tons of musical atmosphere. But then Bob changes the chords, moving through a bridge or a chorus, and a door opens up in that room, so you go through that door into another room – but it’s always the right door.

Thirdly, Mr Dylan sings about God a lot. Sometimes God appears as an impossible reflection of yourself. Sometimes as someone you could never know. But however God appears, however Mr Dylan begs for mercy, you understand that cry.

The company rehearsing Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Anyway, I write this on the eve of moving from the rehearsal room to the theatre. Whatever happens next I have no idea. All I can say with any certainty is that having had Mr Dylan’s trust to create a piece of work using his songs has been one of the great artistic privileges of my life.


This introduction is taken from the published script to Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, which includes the full text of the play plus the lyrics to all of the Bob Dylan songs featured in the production.

Get your copy via our website at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – here.

Girl from the North Country is at the Old Vic, London, until 7 October 2017. Tickets available here.

Author photo by Mel Melcon.

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‘There is so much left to discover’: Jason Warren on creating immersive theatre

As a director, Jason Warren has staged immersive theatre productions in a variety of styles and settings – from relocating Shakespeare to a seedy nightclub, to turning school buildings into a quarantine facility for survivors of a widespread plague. Here, he shares his own passion for the form, his hopes for his new book Creating Worlds, aimed at those looking to make this type of work, and reflects on what the term ‘immersive theatre’ actually means…

Immersive theatre has been my obsession for a long, long time. My belief in its potential comes from my background. I didn’t grow up reciting Shakespeare, I didn’t go to theatre school straight after completing A levels and I certainly never had teenage aspirations of directing at the National. As an artist, my influences have often come from outside the theatrical canon. I believe theatre can make us feel how I did when I first listened to my favourite album as a teenager. I believe it can draw us in like the most choice-laden role-playing video game. I’m convinced it can rouse passions and make the audience express them like the fiercest political argument after too many beers.

If you ask five artists what immersive theatre is, you might get five different answers, but something that most people would agree on is that it’s a form that gives the audience greater access to the performance. Whether through roaming freely around the space or talking directly with the characters, these productions invite the audience to take a greater role, to be more involved, to become part of the artistry rather than just spectators. Despite that common purpose, however, if you’ve been to a few immersive theatre shows you’ll know that they often have very few similarities to each other.

I’ve been to interactive stories where I was locked in a room with twenty-five other people forced to make a moral decision that would change the story; controlled a small island as I struggled to remain independent against the superpowers trying to coerce me into giving up my uranium; been chased by shadowy creatures in the dark underneath London; and watched my mythological parents descend into a murderous feud. All of them were heralded as immersive productions, and none of them bore any resemblance to each other. There was no one type of space unifying the productions. In some the audience were confined to one room, in some they were free to roam. Sometimes we could affect the story, at others we were purely spectators. All of them, however, are immersive.

MSND photo

Photograph from Jason Warren’s production of #MSND, adapted from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare – CLF Arts Cafe, London, 2013

There are common threads I see in all productions that we call immersive. All are (or try to be) innovative in two areas: the role of the audience and how they use the theatre space. Within these threads there’s endless variations in both intention and success, but we can make certain general assumptions. It’s unlikely that the audience will be sat down in rows facing a stage. We probably don’t expect the audience to stay silent throughout then applaud at the end. The actors are not, in all likelihood, separated from the audience by an invisible ‘fourth wall’ at the edge of the stage. The problem is that we can point at endless examples of productions that are not immersive, and sometimes it seems like the form is defined by negatives; that by identifying everything that isn’t immersive, we can use what’s left behind as our definition.

I think this is unhelpful. To me, immersive theatre is about the certain spirit with which we make a performance. A production becomes immersive when it is made by a company who will experiment with the theatrical format in ways that are designed to drag the audience further in. So if you’re thinking about creating your own immersive work, let us agree to drop the debate about definitions and genres. Your production will be immersive, because you have decided it will be. All being well, it will be unlike any immersive theatre we’ve yet seen.

So yes: immersive theatre is a vast and diverse field, taking in work of many kinds. My new book Creating Worlds, however, is not a dry analysis of this form, nor a rundown of performances that have happened in the past. It’s written for theatre-makers, artists and students who want to create this kind of work. It’s also for those who are interested in the guts and ideas that fuel the performances they love. If it inspires you to create your own performances and is enjoyable to read, then I will have achieved my aim.

The joy of working in immersive theatre is that there is so much left to discover. Creating Worlds is the fruit of my experiments and projects over the last few years, but I’m also truly excited about the discoveries yet to be made. It’s a privilege to be working in a field that’s so uncharted, where every project is an opportunity to do something truly innovative. Through monumental mistakes and totally unexpected successes, I’ve ended up with a philosophy on what makes good immersive theatre. My aim with the book is to help you craft your own beliefs – and to create responsive and rich worlds of your own.

CreatingWorlds.jpgThis is an edited extract from Creating Worlds: How to Make Immersive Theatre by Jason Warren, out now.

To buy your own copy for just £10 (rrp £12.99), use code WORLDSBLOG when ordering at http://www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/creatingworlds (offer valid until 31 December 2017).

‘She has made us all raise our game’: Rufus Norris introduces All Change Please by Lucy Kerbel

Rufus NorrisTonic Theatre founder Lucy Kerbel’s new book, All Change Please: A Practical Guide to Achieving Gender Equality in Theatre, is an eye-opening look at why theatre continues to struggle to reflect the gender balance of the world it seeks to represent – and what can be done to fix that. Here, Rufus Norris, who as Director of the National Theatre has committed to making the organisation gender equal, pays tribute to Lucy, her new book and Tonic’s work, and ponders his own role as a gatekeeper and the responsibilities that brings…

Story has always been the lens through which the human race has understood itself, and the work of the storyteller – though transient – can be seismic in the moment and profound in its historical and political impact. Those storytellers, however, have almost entirely come from just one half of humanity.

‘Achieving gender equality in theatre is a no-brainer,’ says Lucy Kerbel – and in her illuminating new book All Change Please she lays out the ethical, creative, political, commercial, social and artistic arguments for why and how the historical imbalance of voice and practice must be addressed.

Her experience and knowledge as a show-maker from the factory floor roots her insight, guidance and encouragement, making it deeply practical and un-sensational. Consequently, her informed strength is twofold: it empowers action, converting weary frustration or unfocused anger into measurable and long-lasting practice. At the same time it disempowers the denial, driven by a throng of mere details, that has stunted what should be a leading example of brilliant diversity: the theatre.

As someone who railed against the gatekeepers for much of my early career, I now find myself in the privileged but often challenging position of being one. The endless deadlines, crises, triumphs and unexpected clattering obstacles are constant distractions from a simple truth: that the gatekeepers’ main responsibility is to look at why they are letting who they are letting through the gates. The work that the National Theatre have been doing with Tonic Theatre is enhancing our understanding of this with both nuance and vision.

Lucy Kerbel, director of Tonic Theatre and author of All Change Please (photo by Helen Murray)

Lucy Kerbel, director of Tonic and author of All Change Please
(photo by Helen Murray)

In fact, Lucy Kerbel’s work through Tonic has become increasingly pivotal in helping the entire industry, through organisations and individuals, raise its game. As she points out, we are the theatre industry; it is alive in us, and will develop or stagnate under our collective stewardship. So it is timely and invaluable that she has added to that well-researched insight with her book.

In it, she ranges across history, unconscious bias, the inevitable elitism of the freelance path, the multiple ways of taking action and responsibility, self-assessment, even the exit chat at the end of a project, and in doing so breaks down the insurmountable into a staircase of constructive progress.

For the open-minded, Lucy provides both tools and imperatives. For the sceptical – and here I include myself – she calmly and completely punctures the myths both of the theatre-maker as deep-thinking and reconstructed occupier of the moral high ground, and of the arts as the front line of all things visionary. And she reveals, step by step, the deep-rooted self-selection that has underpinned where we find ourselves today.

All Change Please will, I hope, have a breadth of readers – the cynic, the impartial, the supporter, the activist. She answers the cynic, informs the impartial, converts the supporter into an activist and equips them all; not in a rallying cry of anger-fuelled idealism, but in a calm, pragmatic and clear-eyed way. She talks about the ‘what’ coming before the ‘how’ – knowing exactly what you want before trying to illuminate how best to achieve it. What she herself wants is inspiringly clear, and the work of Tonic – and this excellent guide as an aspect of that – is a crucial part of how it will be achieved.

FormattedThe above is taken from the Foreword to All Change Please: A Practical Guide to A Practical Guide to Achieving Gender Equality in Theatre by Lucy Kerbel.

Eye-opening, empowering and inspiring, the book explores why change matters, its benefits – artistic, commercial, ethical and social – and how, with everyone’s help, we can actually achieve it. It also includes provocations to help you consider your current practices and their effects, challenge unconscious biases and identify opportunities for change, plus strategies and tools to help you decide where best to focus your efforts, to convince others why change matters, and to achieve meaningful, lasting success.

To get your copy for just £7.99 (rrp £9.99), visit the NHB website now.

‘A Field of Dreams’: Joyce McMillan on Theatre in Scotland

Joyce McMillan, lead drama critic at The Scotsman, is an unrivalled authority on modern Scottish theatre and a leading thinker and writer about Scotland. Her new book, Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams, is a collection of more than three decades of her writings about theatre, selected by theatre director Philip Howard. Here, in his introduction to the book, Howard explores the connections between McMillan’s career and the recent cultural and political renaissance in Scotland, as well as her unfailing ability to detect a great new play. And, below, we present some choice excerpts from her writings, ranging from her review of the 1987 Edinburgh Fringe, to the launch show of the National Theatre of Scotland…

Philip Howard: Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams traces Joyce McMillan’s journey from self-taught, passionate contributing writer to the short-lived Sunday Standard (1981-1983), to her current life as the chief theatre critic of The Scotsman. No other critic in Scotland covers as much ground as she does in her working week, or has done for so many years. And so the premise of the book is simple: gather all of the most insightful material from over the past three decades, add new essays by McMillan herself to underscore the narrative – and what you have is a history of modern Scottish theatre, reported from the frontline. The volume is not a hit parade. While the vast majority of landmark theatre productions in Scotland have been covered, it was important also to acknowledge McMillan’s footfall across the whole country and celebrate the truly national portrait that emerges.

McMillan’s first reviewing jobs were for BBC Radio Scotland in the 1970s, talking about Edinburgh Festival shows for Festival View, presented by Neville Garden – and she credits the inspiration of this annual cultural spectacle as a determining factor in her ambition to write about theatre. In 1978 the great Allen Wright at The Scotsman commissioned her to cover a production of The Good Person of Szechwan for him in St Andrews, and she soon became his second-string reviewer. When the Sunday Standard was founded in 1981, McMillan set her sights on becoming their principal theatre critic, and, despite the newspaper lasting only two years, it is here that she begins to find her voice, or, as she puts it, ‘This is where the dialogue with myself really starts.’ There followed ten distinguished years as the Guardian’s Scotland theatre critic (1984-1994) and three at Scotland on Sunday (1994-1997), where for the first time she was writing a longer weekly column, essay-style, covering all the week’s theatre openings, and exploiting her skill in detecting wider cultural resonances and thematic links between the work. After a lightning-quick spell as an arts writer for The Herald in 1997, she started in 1998 at The Scotsman, and it is in this current incarnation as a critic and political commentator that she has become defined as a leading thinker and writer about Scotland.

She wasn’t born to it. There were visits to the theatre as a child – her first memory is of a Kenneth McKellar Christmas show at the Alhambra, Glasgow – but she was never an enthusiastic amateur audience member, or certainly not for very long. A half-completed PhD at the University of Edinburgh on the tragedies of Ben Jonson crystallised for her the indivisibility of theatre and politics, and she talks interestingly about her new passion for theatre at that time stemming from her disenchantment with the direction of British politics, i.e. towards the right, and a conviction that theatre is one place where you might find ‘an alternative truth about what it means to be human’. And perhaps it is this wide-angle lens on theatre and parallel enquiry as a political writer which explain her tenacity and longevity. Of course, she’s not the only theatre writer to apply herself to political writing – think of Fintan O’Toole, for many years political columnist and chief theatre critic of The Irish Times – but McMillan’s career is coinciding with the very period where Scotland is remaking itself more energetically than ever before. The ground is fertile.

It is surely the goal of any critic, certainly in terms of legacy, to contribute in some way to the evolution of the art form itself, Kenneth Tynan in England and America in the 1950s and ’60s being the iconic example of this. McMillan has far too long a working life left for it to be possible to make this kind of retrospective analysis, but certain themes do emerge from her critical writing which arguably have tuned with the times, if not influenced them: for example, an obstinate insistence that the director of a classic revival must know very precisely why they are reviving an old play rather than making a new one – her sympathy for directors who also have to run monolithic theatre buildings does not extend to them programming plays just because they feature in compendia of ‘the 100 greatest plays’. Predictably, as a leading political commentator, she will despise an unthinkingly or lazily apolitical interpretation of a play, reserving her greatest spleen for the ‘Loamshire’ play (as Tynan did before her), or self-absorbed new writing that makes no attempt to connect with the public sphere. But then – in a wonderfully contradictory way – she will often surprise us by enthusing about something shamelessly sentimental, entertaining or romantic, as long as it’s beautifully executed. Most importantly of all, she has, to my knowledge, an almost unblemished record in never having failed to spot a great new play; and, rare among critics, she has the ability to watch an unsuccessful new play and detect whether it’s the playwright or director at fault. This can make for uncomfortable reading. (‘Philip Howard’s Traverse production seems to fall stillborn on to the stage’ on Grace in America by Antoine Ó Flatharta, Scotland on Sunday, 1 May 1994 – sticks in the mind.)

She isn’t shy of skewering some sacred cows: the empty heart of the RSC’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1990); the reactionary flippancy (Travesties, 1987) and bourgeois self-satisfaction (Rough Crossing, 1996) of Tom Stoppard. And occasionally she deploys a devastating ability to take hold of a superficially successful production – think Bill Bryden’s The Big Picnic (1994) or the Brian Cox The Master Builder (1993) – and then, like a drone or laser, zero in on its fatal flaw. But McMillan is also bold in finding something to commend even in work of mixed success, and stick her neck out to champion unfashionable work which she suspects her colleagues might dismiss. Perhaps this is because she knows it’s easier to write a bad review than a good one, intellectually easier to puncture than to validate. And so there are plenty of roses among the barbed wire – and an unswerving commitment to shout praise from the rooftops where it is due, and celebrate the art form in all its mad messy glory (Macbeth on the Isle of Inchcolm, 1989).

The book works chronologically rather than thematically, and yet is divided, unevenly, into three parts telling three essential stories of how Scottish theatre has grown in confidence over the decades: the road to 1990, the year of Glasgow’s reign as European Capital of Culture, which marked a generational change in how that great city viewed itself and was viewed by the world; the 1990s and early years of the new millennium, which witnessed an extraordinary explosion in self-confidence among both new and older Scottish playwrights, leading to, finally: the birth and hegemony of the National Theatre of Scotland, bringing the role of our theatre culture as close as it has ever got to the heart of the nation. The vast majority of entries in the book are reviews; the rest are feature articles or programme notes. New linking pieces by McMillan range throughout the volume, providing additional context.

Students of theatre criticism may enjoy the underlying portrait of a critic teaching herself to be the best, from the passionate newcomer at the Sunday Standard in the early 1980s, trying to find her style but never missing a political beat, through mounting confidence, occasional fierceness of judgement and an increasingly fine writing style, to the older, authoritative and interestingly more mellow critic that we have today. She testifies to the collegiate atmosphere of theatre criticism in Scotland, where being part of that ‘public conversation’ helps ensure that the genre faces outward – and guards against the lonesomeness of the profession.

Students of theatre literature may read the book as a collection of essays on English language playwriting, from the twentieth-century greats (Coward, Osborne, Pinter, etc.) to all the leading Scottish playwrights, from John Byrne and Liz Lochhead to David Greig and David Harrower. And ultimately, it is as a writer about Scotland and about what the art form of theatre can tell us about Scotland that distinguishes McMillan’s work: her piece ‘Theatre and Nationhood’ (1991), written for Tramway’s Theatres and Nations season which heralded the permanent opening of Glasgow’s key Capital of Culture venue from 1990, is a defining essay on Scottishness, written against the backdrop of the dismantlement of the Soviet Union. Sometimes it’s in the critique of a theatre production which would not be taken as seriously by the rest of the Scottish theatre community (even if they had seen it), that she writes most flawlessly about the culture of the nation – for example, Accounts in Town Yetholm (1991) or Bright Water on Easdale Island (2007). The combination of this panoramic view, political acuity, and the ability to marry the head and the heart, has sealed her reputation far beyond Scotland’s borders.

Joyce McMillan: By chance – or perhaps for reasons I barely understood at the time – it was at an important moment of transition in Scottish politics and cultural identity, at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, that I felt myself drawn, perhaps almost driven, to become a theatre critic in Scotland. I was already almost thirty, I had no history of interest in theatre beyond an academic one, and like many people who grew up in the 1960s, I saw theatre as an old-fashioned art form, already half-dead on its feet.

Yet in the late 1970s, I was suddenly gripped by the power of the shared experience of theatre, by the idea of it as a place where ideas could be made flesh, and could be tested against the real reactions of the audience. Perhaps it was a reaction to the repetitiveness, and frequent intellectual rigidity, of the left-wing and feminist politics in which I was vaguely involved. Perhaps it was an unconscious response to the coming of Thatcherism: an insistence that somewhere, even if only in a series of small darkened rooms, a serious collective life would continue through this age of individualism. Or perhaps it was something in Scottish theatre itself, evolving fast and freely after a long age of quiescence and marginalisation. If Scotland’s professional theatre tradition had been limited and interrupted by centuries of official Presbyterianism, that very history – or rather the lack of it – meant that it entered the late twentieth century with relatively little baggage, and an exhilarating freedom to reinvent itself, in forms that were both popular and experimental.

So, at the beginning of 1982, I began to set out my stall as the Sunday Standard’s main theatre critic. In the big world beyond theatre, there were three huge arguments in progress. There was one about the future of the British left, after Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979; in theatre, that was often articulated through my arguments with, and about, John McGrath’s 7:84 Company, and its sister company Wildcat Stage Productions. There was an argument about feminism, a fraught coming-to-terms with the huge revolution in consciousness that had taken place during the 1970s. And, of course, there was the argument about Scotland: rousing itself after the failed home-rule referendum of 1979, and once again setting out to redefine and reshape itself. At the time, the Scottish Arts Council was funding around fifteen major professional companies in Scotland, including the building-based ones in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Perth and Pitlochry; and, in 1981, it had also decided to fund an initiative by the actor Ewan Hooper to launch a new Scottish Theatre Company, dedicated to creating Scottish-made shows for mainstage theatres, and – in some respects at least – to pursuing a more traditional Scottish repertoire than could be found at the Traverse or the Citizens’. It was through the work of the STC, and my often sceptical reactions to it, that I began to evolve my own ideas about what the word ‘Scottish’ could and should mean, in the late twentieth century; and about our evolving relationship with the standard repertoire of English-language theatre.


Extracts from reviews collected in Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams

Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off
Little Lyceum, Edinburgh
The Guardian, 13 August 1987

Like the official Festival, this year’s Fringe seems to be all about Scots and Russians, with a generous sprinkling of Americans and other, more exotic visitors; the English Fringe – as represented by shows like Hull Truck’s Teechers, playing at the George Square Theatre to large crowds of off-duty educational face-workers, or by the charming It’s a Girl from the Duke’s Playhouse, Lancaster, or even by an oddly laid-back and giggly Jenny Lecoat at the Assembly Rooms – seems in strangely subdued mood. Perhaps, like the Labour Party, English alternative theatre has reached a point where it must rethink its entire politics; at any rate, these soft-centred, well-staged, witty, humanistic and utterly predictable shows look like the last gasp of a Fringe culture that’s reached the end of its line.

MQS2.inddIn Scotland, though, things seem slightly different – rougher, harsher, more colourful and cosmopolitan, shot through with a kind of brash, nothing-to-lose energy. In the official Festival, the energy blisters through the strange, heightened, ritualistically foul-mouthed new-speak of Iain Heggie’s A Wholly Healthy Glasgow, and shouts from the canvases at the Vigorous Imagination exhibition of new Scottish painting at the Modern Art Gallery. And it’s reflected with terrific, show-stopping force in Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, a ferociously iconoclastic re-examination of Mary Stuart’s life and its significance – in sixteenth-century Scots and standard English, fierce poetic monologue, stylised movement and sharp, almost improvised dialogue – that’s been one of the brilliant high points of this first Fringe week. Specially commissioned by the young Edinburgh-based touring company Communicado, performed at the Lyceum Studio in the very shadow of Mary’s castle, it simply blasts to smithereens the heavy, obscuring deposit of romantic claptrap that has gathered around the story down the centuries, and instead draws the most dramatic and uncomfortable parallels between the sacrifice of Mary in her day, and the myriad sexual, political and religious deformities that still plague the Scottish psyche now.

The Guid Sisters
Tron, Glasgow
The Guardian, 3 May 1989

It’s one of the myths of our civilisation that, whereas middle-class culture is international and universal, working-class culture is somehow local and parochial, a matter of ‘Cockney slang’ or ‘Glasgow humour’. It’s a comforting idea, in that it reduces the common experience of the millions of human beings who were drawn into the cities in the industrial age – their courage, their humour, their resilience in the face of unrelenting poverty and drastic overcrowding – to a matter of ‘local character’; it makes a private civic joke of an experience that was, in fact, central to the development of industrial capitalism everywhere from Chicago to Kraków.

guidsisters&othersOne of Mayfest’s most striking achievements, as a festival dedicated to presenting the best of Scottish ‘popular’ theatre alongside similar work from Europe and overseas, has been the consistency with which it has blasted that myth that the Glasgow experience is somehow unique, idiosyncratic. And now, in that tradition, the Tron Theatre’s Mayfest production of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-sœurs – a play born in the turbulent Québec of the 1960s, and now translated into a pithy, fierce, foul-mouthed urban Scots by Bill Findlay and Martin Bowman – offers us a portrait of a bunch of worn-out housewives in a Montréal tenement that matches the experience of generations of Glasgow women in almost uncanny detail.

Macbeth
Inchcolm Island, Firth of Forth
The Guardian, 15 August 1989

The rain drove, the wind blustered, the witches heaved up from the bowels of the ship as if they had risen from the water itself, to screech and whirl across the decks with their knowledge of evil and doom in the offing; never in my life will I forget the sound of the words ‘Though his bark shall not be lost | Yet it shall be tempest-toss’d!’ snatched from the mouth of the chief witch by the wind and echoing away across the steel-grey waves. […] See Macbeth on Inchcolm – the wind whipping, the gulls screeching, the old capital across the stormy firth climbing grey and smoky towards its skyline – and you’ll never want to see it anywhere else.

Theatre and Nationhood
for Tramway, Glasgow
25 August 1991

It seems strange to be writing about theatre and nationhood on a weekend when one of the two greatest nations on earth is disappearing before our eyes. Nations are like Tinkerbell in Barrie’s Peter Pan: they only exist so long as we believe in them. For reasons too complex to explore here, people have been withdrawing their belief from the idea of the Soviet Union for decades now; and this weekend, that unbelief reached a critical mass. In that sense, nations are fictions, man-made communities conjured up and defined, on the shifting human surface of the earth, within the minds of men and women. If we feel Scottish, then Scotland is, despite 284 years of union; if people no longer feel like Soviet citizens, then the combined power of the party, the KGB and the army command cannot keep the USSR together. And it’s because nationhood is this kind of thing – an intangible sense of community, subject to change and flux – that theatre often plays such a vital part in expressing and defining it. Theatre is, at its best, a forum where people come together to discover, through their live response to the same event, the feelings and experiences they share with other people; and a sense of national identity is a shared feeling, or it is nothing.

Rough Crossing
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Scotland on Sunday, 16 June 1996

Kenny Ireland’s Royal Lyceum production of Tom Stoppard’s Rough Crossing is the kind of show that makes me feel vaguely ashamed of having any connection with theatre at all. Freely adapted from a Hungarian comedy by Ferenc Molnár, Rough Crossing is a coy little spoof on the genre of 1930s musical comedy, set on an ocean liner crossing from London to New York, and featuring all the usual clichés, from a slightly ageing diva of a leading lady to a scene-stealing drunken steward. Since the plot concerns the tribulations of a pair of musical-comedy writers trying to finish off their latest Broadway opus, the text is also stuffed with self-referring witticisms about the playwright’s art, obviously fascinating to Stoppard, less so to the rest of us.

[…] The trouble is that Stoppard, like many who have embraced Britishness as an adopted nationality, knows only one element of British culture, namely the manners, language, and style of the English upper-middle class; and in this play, he does not even attempt to achieve the moral seriousness and philosophical depth that make that narrow social focus relatively unimportant in most of his work. The result is a sad little joke of a show that sprays messages of class and cultural exclusion around the auditorium like some kind of theatrical bird-scarer.

Home
National Theatre of Scotland
The Scotsman, 27 February 2006

It’s half-past six on a chill February evening in Aberdeen, and a new era in Scottish theatre begins, not with a bang, but with the familiar rattle of a small hopper bus, carrying an audience of excited theatregoers out to the edge of the city. Waiting for us in the Middlefield estate are twenty actors, young and old, professional and community; and six unoccupied flats on the same low-rise staircase, each with a nameplate on the door featuring the word ‘Home’.

For ‘home’ was the theme chosen by the National Theatre of Scotland for its unique launch event, featuring ten site-specific shows in ten locations all over Scotland. […] The new company has achieved a dazzling geographical reach, and a real sense of connection with local communities that has both enabled those communities to re-examine their own story, and given them a new voice on the national stage. It’s been a start, in other words; and, taken as a whole, a brave and imaginative one, designed to smash and rearrange many hostile Scottish preconceptions about theatre. But there are still many miles to travel before Scotland can begin to take this long-neglected art form back into its heart, and into its sense of what home is, and what it might become.


FormattedThe above extracts are taken from Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams by Joyce McMillan, edited by Philip Howard.

The book is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £11.99 (RRP £14.99) click here.

Join the author and a distinguished panel of critics and theatre makers at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, to discuss the remarkable journey of modern Scottish theatre, and to explore the directions it might take in the years to come. Theatre in Scotland: Reflecting the Nation is at the Traverse, 29 June, 7.30pm. Tickets available here.

Photo of Joyce McMillan by Chris Hill.

Facing the Fear: Bella Merlin on overcoming stage fright

Stage fright afflicts many actors, and has the power to drive you away from the stage for months, years, or even a lifetime. In her new book, Facing the Fear: An Actor’s Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright, performer, author and teacher Bella Merlin shows you how to meet the challenge – or simply how to prepare yourself in case that day should ever come. Here she recalls her own experience of stage fright, and what it taught her about how to deal with it.

In 2004, I was smitten with an overwhelming bout of stage fright. It was very near the end of a five-month run of David Hare’s powerful verbatim play The Permanent Way, directed by Max Stafford-Clark for his company Out of Joint in collaboration with the National Theatre. I’ll let my production journal reveal the pride and fall:

 May 1st 2004: Last night at the National Theatre

The last night at the National and the end of something very special. I’ve never before felt so strongly that performing a play could be so important. The audiences have been incredible, with all kinds of eulogies – from critics, public, theatre professionals, stage-door staff and ushers. It has been extraordinary.

It’ll be good to get out of London, though. Not that I’ve been nervous, not that it’s ever worried me who’s in and what they might think. But who knows? – There might be a sense of ‘pressure off’ among us all, so that we can finish this long run with some playful fun.

May 5th: First night at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Courtyard Studio Theatre

What a nightmare!

Tonight I had every actor’s worst possible scenario. I get midway through a sentence – and my brain shuts down. All those thoughts I’d had about being out of London – the pressure off and the fun on – couldn’t have been further from the truth. Earlier in the day during the tech rehearsal, my fellow actor Matthew Dunster looked out into the auditorium of the intimate Courtyard Theatre, where the front row is barely a foot from the stage. ‘God, they’re close!’ he said. ‘This is scary!’ I didn’t think anything of it at the time, apart from being surprised that any of us should find anything scary so far into the run.

Then – during the show – I walk to the front of the stage in the role of the Investment Banker and, as always during this moment, I address a member of the audience. ‘Well, I don’t know about you, but I can only work when I feel the hot breath of a competitor down my neck.’ Well, that’s what I’m supposed to say…

Instead, I manage to say, ‘Well, I don’t know about you…’ but then, as I look at this man on the fourth row, I can see the whites of his eyes. ‘Wow!’ I think. ‘You really are close, aren’t you?’ And at that moment, any connection to the play is cut in my brain. I have no idea what I’m supposed to say next.

Strangely, I don’t get the mad pumping of adrenalin that I’ve had in the past when I’ve momentarily tripped over a word. No heart pounding, no instant sense of fight or flight. Just a feeling of floating away… Into oblivion… As if I’m in a dream and nothing really matters… In this fleeting moment, it doesn’t matter that I’m eyeballing a total stranger and saying whatever nonsensical words come out of my mouth. It doesn’t matter that Max Stafford-Clark and Ian Brown (Artistic Director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse) are watching, and his casting director, and a full house of audience from Leeds. It’s just me and this kind of floating-away feeling.

The moment maybe lasts a split second, yet it seems like a thousand years. Somehow I retrieve the next line and manage to get to the end of the scene seemingly in control. But all the time, I just want to slip into this strange kind of fainting place. I get off stage feeling totally, utterly spaced out.

And then it hits. The shakes and the palpitations kick in. It’s as if my legs from pelvis to knee don’t exist – it’s just thin air. My peripheries have vanished. I can’t feel my hands. Maybe I’d experienced some kind of ‘connection overload’ out there. What I mean is that in the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, I hadn’t really been able to see the eyes of the person whom I’d picked out in the audience for the Investment Banker’s ‘hot breath of a competitor’ line. Here, however, the guy on the fourth row was as clear as daylight. And he was looking straight back at me. There was a true connection, and maybe the electrical currents of that connection overloaded my brain, giving me a moment of meltdown. Who knows? Whatever…

 Bella Merlin performing in The Permanent Way by David Hare (photo by Geraint Lewis)

Bella Merlin performing in The Permanent Way by David Hare (photo by Geraint Lewis)

May 12th: First night at the Oxford Playhouse

I’m just so glad to be back in a bigger space. You’d think this verbatim play would be perfectly designed for intimate studio spaces, but I’m so much happier now that we’re back in the big theatre of the Oxford Playhouse. Apart from anything else, I can’t see the audience!

May 14th: Third night at the Oxford Playhouse

I don’t believe it!

It’s the last time Sir David Hare is going to see the play and I do it again! I fuck up! I’m shocked and appalled at myself. This time it was a stupid fluff, and again as the Investment Banker. What is it with that character? She’s supposed to be calm and confident. Instead of saying, ‘In fact, you can hardly get out of the country without using something I’ve had my finger in,’ I say, ‘In fact, you can hardly get your finger… out of… something I’ve had my finger in…!’ In that split second, my brain does a million somersaults as I strain to bring everything back to the present tense. But what a load of bollocks came out of my mouth! And I know what Sir David is like! I know he won’t let me off the hook!

Sure enough, he’s backstage after the show in the middle of a conversation – and suddenly he sees me. ‘And as for you!’ he booms down the corridor. ‘Oh, no – could you tell?’ I wince. ‘Of course I could tell! It was a load of rubbish!…’ And off we all troop into the Yorkshire night. And the knight goes off to the station to catch the last train back to London. And yes, yes – I’ll never work in British theatre again…!

My stage fright grew worse in the final two weeks of the run. I came down with chronic laryngitis and could barely be heard. It was as if my body didn’t want me to go out onto the stage and into the spotlight any more, but, with no understudies, I had no choice.

As it turned out, I wasn’t alone in feeling performance anxiety so very late in this long run, and little by little some of the other actors spoke of how uneasy they were feeling. It was then I began to realise that sharing our fear-based stories brings with it a kind of talking cure.

The talking cure

It takes courage to be an actor. It takes even greater courage to admit how terrifying it can be. Yet the very act of admitting it can be transformative. Describing the actor as An Acrobat of the Heart, the writer, director and acting teacher Stephen Wangh writes, ‘It takes real courage to say, “I am afraid”, so in the act of naming it you are already converting the fear into usable energy.’ Certainly sharing my ‘shameful’ secret with some of my fellow actors was an important part of dealing with the situation. That said, not all of them wanted to talk about their experiences. And it’s true that the small amount of literature that exists about stage fright tends to stem from psychologists and theatre scholars, rather than the actors themselves. There’s something of a conspiracy of silence. Which isn’t surprising. We all know that stage fright is an irrational fear. After all, the audience and the performance situation can’t (usually) harm us. So the damaging force has to be our own inner messages. In fact, all too easily stage fright can feel like some sort of mental illness, or what German scholar Adolph Kielblock (back in the 1890s) called, ‘the result of a morbid state of the imagination’. That’s almost the scariest part of the fear: we’re doing it to ourselves. And if we’re not careful, we start perpetuating our own downfall. Our morbid imagination conjures up all sorts of catastrophic conclusions that wholly outweigh any rational assessment of the situation – like ‘I’ll never work in British theatre again…!’

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‘It takes real courage to say, “I am afraid”’ – Stephen Wangh

The thing is that, whether we realise it or not, we’re going to talk about our stage fright anyway. If we’re not going to talk about it out loud to others, we’re going to find ourselves talking about it over and over and over in our heads. In fact, there aren’t many healthy options when it comes to dealing with stressful situations. Sometimes we pretend they don’t bother us. Sometimes we try to avoid them. Yet both of these strategies (according to writer Taylor Clark) ‘are destined to fail’. Clark suggests that if we try to control our emotions or we try to avoid the stressful situation, we actually keep our fears alive – because then a significant part of our thoughts is taken up with worrying about how we’re going to avoid it. It’s a downward spiral. Worrying may have the short-term pay-off of making us less afraid, but in the long term it traps us in a cycle of anxiety. This cycle of anxiety is perpetuated by the fact that the voice in our head (‘the Fear Voice,’ as sports psychologist Don Green calls it) doesn’t just talk – it literally poisons us. It leads our brain to create more stress chemicals such as cortisol. And these stress chemicals increase our physical state of alarm – and so the situation simply grows worse. Our inner Fear Voice is chemically – as well as psychologically – unhealthy. So we might as well talk about our stage fright out loud!

Yes, indeed, talking about our anxieties has been scientifically proven to help. It’s known in psychology as ‘flooding therapy’. Every time we confront, describe and relive our thoughts about a negative experience, we find that ‘the very act of disclosure lessens these thoughts’. So by putting our feelings into words, we actually change how our brain deals with the stressful information. (Not least because we’re producing less cortisol.) It’s also known as ‘mindful noting’. And the very act of translating our stressful feelings into words (or mindfully noting them) is almost more therapeutic than understanding them. As we try to put the chaos of our feelings into logical sentences, we find ourselves unpicking that chaos, like knots in a string. And then we can be more objective about what we’re feeling, whether or not we actually understand it. (‘I feel afraid – though I’ve no idea why – but at least I feel better for naming it “fear”.’)

Of course, it’s very difficult for us as actors to confess that we’re experiencing anything that might in any way impede our work as professionals. Jobs are hard enough to come by without directors or casting directors getting a whiff that we might be afraid of what we do. Yet if we don’t talk about it, our Fear Voice keeps us alone with our fear, and coping with a fear alone can be difficult and distressing. As biophysicist Stefan Klein puts it: ‘Loneliness is a burden for spirit and body. Getting support is normally one of the best ways of dealing with stress.’ So rather than churning our anxieties over in our heads, we should share our fears out loud. That way, we can change our damaging inner monologue and, thus, reduce our stress hormones. This is pretty important for us as actors, as stress hormones do two unhelpful things. They undermine our immune system (and no actor can afford to be ill) and they affect our memory (and absolutely no actor can afford to lose their memory!). As I explore in my book, Facing the Fear, loss of memory and stage fright are intricately interwoven. So talking about our fear might actually improve our memory, which in turn will reduce our stage fright. Seems like a no-brainer to me!

It’s important to remember that many actors never suffer bad stage fright. Most of us experience a lively adrenalin buzz – and that’s perfectly normal, if not actually rather helpful. The point of Facing the Fear is to dispel the unhelpful nerves. If you’ve never suffered from stage fright, reading the book is a chance for you to get to know what your fellow actors might be going through. And there’s no need to worry that by knowing all the ins and outs of stage fright, you’re somehow going to provoke it. In fact, the opposite is true. A certain performance buzz can be a benefit to any actor. Not only that, but, if you read my book, you’ll see that any unnecessary stage fright can ultimately be overcome. In fact, the monster is rather funny when you look it in the eye. It need be no more frightening than Shrek!


FormattedThe above is an edited extract from Facing the Fear: An Actor’s Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright by Bella Merlin, published by Nick Hern Books

To buy your copy for £10.39 (RRP £12.99) plus P&P, visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

Bella Merlin discusses her book in a National Theatre Platform on 7 June 2016 at 5.30pm. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the National Theatre website here.

Author photo by The Riker Brothers.

‘It’s not so much about the gift, but the graft’ – Lyndsey Winship on Being a Dancer

Winship, LyndseyIn her new book Being a Dancer, dance critic and arts journalist Lyndsey Winship shares invaluable advice and insight taken from exclusive interviews with twenty-five leading dancers and choreographers, including Carlos Acosta, Matthew Bourne, Darcey Bussell and Tamara Rojo. Here she reflects on her own personal love affair with dance, and what compiling the book has taught her…

As a kid, I loved to dance. I did it everywhere, all the time, in public, in private. I went to classes every week without fail, for over a decade: ballet, tap and modern.

Previously, if you’d asked me why I didn’t become a professional dancer, I’d probably have said: “I didn’t have the right body.” Ballet, in particular, is notoriously prescriptive about the necessary physique for success and I wouldn’t be the only one who found they didn’t have the genetic inheritance for the job.

But since putting together my book, Being a Dancer, my answer to that question has changed. Sure, I didn’t have the natural turnout or flexibility or proportions of a Darcey Bussell or a Sylvie Guillem. But the real reason I didn’t become a dancer is because I didn’t want it enough. I wasn’t willing to put dance ahead of everything else.

Darcey Bussell

Darcey Bussell, one of the contributors to Being a Dancer
Credit: Johan Persson / ArenaPAL

In the course of interviewing twenty-five successful dancers and choreographers for the book, and quizzing them about the ins and outs of their profession, from training to auditions to first nights, the abiding wisdom is that you’ll only make it as a dancer if you’re willing to dedicate yourself entirely to it. If you have to do it. If you can’t live without it. “It has to be like breathing,” Arlene Phillips told me. “I need to dance to breathe.”

Many of the dancers I spoke to were told at some point that they didn’t have the chops to make it professionally. But instead of meekly bowing their heads and hanging up their shoes, rejection only spurred them on further. Ballerina Melissa Hamilton, for example, when not accepted to the Royal Ballet School, took herself off to Greece for a year to train privately, then stormed her way to a gold medal at a major international ballet competition and straight into the Royal Ballet company. It’s that kind of single-minded tenacity that gets you on stage at the Opera House, not the fact of having beautifully arched feet.

I realise now that the real reason I didn’t become a professional dancer was because I didn’t work hard enough. I did my classes, yes, took my exams, but as Cassa Pancho, director of Ballet Black says, that’s not enough, because the physical demands of dance are so high and the competition so great. “If your leg doesn’t go high enough you need to do something about it,” she says. “Don’t wait for it to get up there – it’s not going to do that.” She recommends “floor barre, pilates, strength training, fitness training, endurance training, every day…” Say goodbye to your social life.

The discipline to work on the things you’re not good at is what marks out those who’ve made it to the top. Like West End choreographer Stephen Mear, a champion tap dancer as a teenager who turned up at dance school in London only to find he was bottom of the class at ballet and made himself do fourteen ballet classes a week until he was at the top. Fourteen classes a week! That’s a commitment most people don’t have.

Kenrick 'H20' Sandy, one of the contributors to Being a Dancer Credit: Francis Loney/ArenaPAL

Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy, one of the contributors to Being a Dancer
Credit: Francis Loney/ArenaPAL

So I didn’t become a dancer (although I still dance all the time in private, less frequently in public these days), but as a journalist and critic I now have a front row view on the professional dance world. I speak to dancers and choreographers often and it seemed like a good idea to ask some of them to share their experiences and advice for the next generation, hence Being a Dancer. There are scores of books of advice for actors, on training, technique and auditions, but hardly anything for dancers. So it seemed like it was time to rectify that.

The book was put together relatively quickly. I did the interviews over the course of  four months, grabbing people between rehearsals, sometimes for an hour over coffee, sometimes for a quick chat on the phone, grilling them about the big things – ambition, stardom, injury – and the little things – what snacks they eat, how they do their make-up, how they tie their ballet shoes, what time they go to bed. It was a huge transcribing job (every journalist hates transcription) but it was fascinating to listen back to everybody’s stories, all their very different paths to the stage, and their often differing views on the best route to success.

Dancers aren’t always asked for their opinions – that’s the result of it being a mute art form, I think – but the dancers and choreographers I spoke to for Being a Dancer were thoughtful, curious, driven people. Being a dancer at the highest level requires a unique combination of elite athleticism, military discipline, star charisma and artistic soul. But the main thing I learnt from compiling this book is that while some people might be born with talent, turning it into success is not so much about the gift, but the graft. Even if I’m too late for my own dancing career, that’s actually quite an inspirational idea.


Being a Dancer Being a Dancer: Advice from Dancers and Choreographers by Lyndsey Winship, featuring advice and insight from twenty-five leading dance professionals, is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

‘Fascinating, insightful and highly readable, this is a book to add to your collection’ – Dancing Times

Read extracts from the book on the Guardian website.

Louise Dearman and Mark Evans on their Secrets of Stage Success

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Louise Dearman (Wicked, Cats, Evita) and Mark Evans (Ghost, The Book of Mormon) are two of the biggest musical-theatre stars working today. As they launch their new book Secrets of Stage Success – answering all your questions on how to follow in their footsteps – they recall some key moments in their glittering careers…

Mark headshotI remember exactly how I felt the moment I was about to step foot on stage for the first live show of Eurovision: Your Country Needs You back in 2009. This was a reality TV programme on primetime BBC One, in which Andrew Lloyd Webber and the BBC were searching for the UK’s entry for the Eurovision Song Contest to be held in Moscow later that year. I had gone through the audition process, and was offered a place in the final six acts that would perform live on television. Eurovision has a bit of a stigma attached to it, and the UK had experienced many years of doing very badly in the contest, so my agent and I had to consider if performing on the programme would be a wise move for me. We decided that no matter what the outcome, getting the national exposure on TV was a great opportunity – providing I did a good job on every live show.

So I really felt the pressure before the first Saturday night broadcast. I still clearly remember it was 10 January 2009, and a lot of my family had come down to the studio in London to support me. The atmosphere backstage was so tense, it would have been so easy to let the pressure get to me. I was standing with the other five acts backstage, and could hear the floor manager counting down: ‘Going live in 5, 4, 3, 2… here we go.’ Presenter Graham Norton’s voice boomed around the studio with a pre-recorded introduction, whilst the monitors, which showed what was being broadcast to the TV audience across the UK, played a montage of the audition process. The voice-over explained how six acts had been selected and how ‘Tonight is the night that you at home decide who stays and who will be the first act to go.’ Then the show’s opening music and titles were played really loud – and my adrenalin was pumping. Here I was, about to be on TV as myself, which is so different to what I was used to as an actor playing a character, live in front of seven million viewers. The show cut to Graham in the studio, introducing the acts one by one, and about five seconds before he called my name, I caught a glimpse of my family and friends in the audience, each wearing identical ‘Vote for Mark’ T-shirts and holding banners plastered with ‘Good Luck, Mark!’ and photos of my young nieces. In that split second, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of being totally supported, and I filled to the brim with determination. I went out there and had one of the best nights of my life.

Lou headshotMy career has been a gentle but steady climb up the ladder of success. I have been in the ensemble, I have been a swing, I’ve understudied roles, played small roles in large productions, and big roles in small productions – but my ultimate aim was to play a lead role in a big West End musical.

I was playing Cinderella in pantomime in Milton Keynes, and one day between shows I was getting a bite to eat in the shopping centre when my agent called me:

‘Hello, darling. What are you up to?’

‘Just between shows, grabbing food, why?’

‘How would you feel about playing Galinda in Wicked?’

‘Aaaaaaaaaaaargh! You’re joking!!’

Then followed tears of joy, and a lot of screaming. To be offered such a fantastic role in one of the biggest musicals in the world was an overwhelming experience. I skipped onto stage as Cinderella that evening!

Wicked was a career-changing experience for me, and one I’ll always remember and appreciate. Of course, returning to the show, this time playing Elphaba, was equally thrilling and in many ways even more so. Whilst playing Galinda, I would often wonder what it would be like to trade roles and defy gravity just once – but I never in a million years thought it would actually become a reality. Ten months after leaving the show I was at home one evening and received a call from Petra Siniawski, Wicked’s Associate Director in the West End. She told me that they had been auditioning all week and after a long day, the panel were chatting and my name popped up: ‘Why isn’t Lou being seen for Elphaba?’

The Wicked creative team had got to know me very well in the two years I had worked with them; they had seen my numerous concerts outside of the show; and they thought I was more than capable of playing Elphaba. Additionally, it would be an incredibly exciting cast announcement: never before had an actress played the roles of both Galinda and Elphaba. I had a long chat with Petra and agreed to go in the next day to audition. I was terrified as I felt there was such a lot riding on this; the team I respected so much had put their faith in me and I had to deliver!

The audition went very well and a couple of weeks later I got the call from my agent who said, ‘Are you sitting down, Lou? They want you to play the green girl!’ I remember walking out of my front door onto the green outside my house in pure shock! It was happening, I was going to play Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West! That moment will stay with me for ever. I have the creative team of Wicked in London to thank for being so open-minded and thinking outside of the box. The show raised my profile and has opened so many doors. And I have the most wonderful group of fans from doing the show, who support me in everything I do.Galinda white bubbles

What should I do when things go wrong during a performance?

Unfortunately, there is not much advice to give for when things go wrong on stage. It will usually involve involuntary freezing and forgetting the English language or any sense of normal human behaviour at all. Both of us have made numerous mistakes on stage: we’ve made up lines of the script when we blanked, made random sounds that are more like animal cries, completely fallen over on stage and struggled to get back up, which reminds us of a time we worked together in Wicked

Mark headshotI was Fiyero, opposite Louise as Galinda, in the opening scene of Act Two, where pretty much the entire company are on stage as the citizens of Oz, looking to Galinda the Good for reassurances about their safety against Elphaba. Fiyero gets frustrated because none of what is being said about Elphaba is true, so he storms off the podium centre stage, and heads downstage-right for a quiet, emotional scene with Galinda.

So there we are, me and Louise, acting the scene (beautifully, even if we do say so ourselves!), and then I turned to do Fiyero’s dramatic exit, which involved running up some narrow stairs and continuing offstage. Off I went, missed my footing, tripped on a step, and landed in the full splits on the staircase. I struggled to stand up, pulling off bits of the leaves and branches from the scenery to help me, and when I finally managed to get to my feet, I just dropped my head down in shame and continued to run offstage. Two‑thirds of the audience were laughing out loud, and the entire company were trying not to lose it altogether.

Lou headshotI was left at the bottom of the staircase, looking up at where it had happened, desperately trying not to burst into laughter. Then I had to look at the company, who were all grinning at me like lunatics, and finish a very emotional part of the scene. When I got offstage, Mark and I fell about, laughing until our stomachs hurt, and almost missing our next entrance. It remains one of the highlights of my career.

The thing is, mistakes happen and that’s the joy of live theatre. It’s not like performing brain surgery where every single thing you do is a life-or-death situation. If you forget your lyrics or make a mistake, keep calm. It will somehow resolve itself, usually by trusting your instincts and getting yourself out of it – but at the end of the day, it’s just a show. The audience are unlikely to notice, and if they do (like in the case of Mark’s impromptu splits) then they love the fact they’ve seen something totally live, utterly unplanned and unique.

Wicked Funny

Mark headshotIt was such a big deal for me to head over to North America to perform in the touring production of The Book of Mormon – not just getting the role (though that was a big deal, of course), but the fact of living and working on the other side of the world, away from my entire support system: my family, friends, flatmate, agent, manager, doctor, osteopath, accountant, postman, window cleaner, bin man and the cat next door… It really did seem like I was kissing goodbye to so many things in my life, which was heightened because I was going to be in a touring show. A tour of that scale is like living in a bubble, and I’d be performing one of the most demanding roles in musical theatre, surrounded by a group of strangers I’d never met, for seven months. Little did I know that I’d end up being in the show for eighteen months, having an amazing time and visiting some incredible places.

I spent four weeks in San Francisco, rehearsing two or three afternoons a week, in advance of joining the existing company for the final five shows in that glorious city. The rest of the time I spent feeling anxious about whether I’d be able to survive the gruelling task ahead of me. I had many panic attacks and suffered really badly with anxiety and loneliness, to the point where I made myself sick with worry and developed a viral infection which left me in bed for seven days, completely helpless and feeling sorry for myself. I was in such a low place late one night that I called my agent, saying that if I didn’t feel better in a few days’ time I wanted him to get me out of the job and have me sent home. It was that extreme! Of course he calmed me down and helped me to deal with the pressure, as he’s such an incredible agent and friend.

Elder Price white bitsOur first performance was three days after Christmas Day 2012. We had our final rehearsal earlier that day with Trey Parker, one of the writers and directors of the show (and of course co-creator of the hugely successful animated TV show, South Park), and that night was my American debut, as Elder Price. The first Broadway show I ever saw was Next to Normal at the Booth Theatre, New York, in February 2010, and I remember promising myself that one day I’d be in a Playbill (the free theatre programmes given away at productions in the US). Now here I was, just two years later, leading a company of extremely talented performers. I felt so proud that all my anxiety disappeared and I was left with a healthy amount of nerves and excitement, ready to get on that stage and enjoy every second of a very special night.

Lou headshotSometimes something exciting comes along at exactly the right moment. One afternoon, when I was feeling pretty low because my tour had been postponed for reasons beyond my control, my manager telephoned.

‘Do you know the National Anthem?’ she asked.

‘Yes, of course. Why?!’

She explained that I had been invited to sing it before the Capitol One Cup Final – at Wembley Stadium, in front of 90,000 football fans, and millions more watching at home on TV! I thought she was joking at first, but she wasn’t.

On match day, I had a short rehearsal in the afternoon and then had to go to my dressing room and wait to be collected and taken to the pitch. I don’t remember feeling nervous as I was getting ready, just very excited, but when it was my time to go and sing, and I walked towards the pitch, I heard the immense wall of sound coming from the football supporters. I’ve never heard anything like it; it was almost primal and the sound literally went through me, my heart was racing!

What if I got the words wrong? What if I couldn’t hear the backing track I was singing along to? What if I passed out?! I’ve never been so irrationally nervous. I was taken by the arm and led to the edge of the hallowed turf, I waited for a nod from the woman looking after me and off I went. The fans cheered, the music started and everyone sang along.

It was the most thrilling, terrifying, overwhelming experience of my life – and something I’d love to do again one day.


FormattedSecrets of Stage Success by Louise Dearman and Mark Evans is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

Get a free, exclusive A3 poster when you buy the book from the Nick Hern Books website, while stocks last.

Watch Louise and Mark introduce their book on YouTube.

Illustrations by Mark Manley, www.markmanley.co.uk. Authors photo by Mark Yeoman.