West End Producer: ‘Traditions and superstitions’

WEP_6717_mattcrockettThough they’re perfectly sensible, sane and rational in every other possible way, theatre folk are a rather superstitious lot. So to mark this Friday 13th, theatre impresario and masked Twitter phenomenon West End Producer – who was himself born onstage during a performance of Titus Andronicus – delves into the murky, sometimes confusing world of theatrical traditions and superstitions, and tells you everything you should (and shouldn’t) do…

 

The Green Room
The green room is the place where actors and stage management sit, bitch and drink. It is a place of sanctity that offers a change of scenery from the stage and dressing rooms. Of course, most green rooms carry a ‘public health warning’ as they are never cleaned. But they are very important places and usually have a TV, microwave and kettle. Indeed, some green rooms even have a selection of magazines to keep people occupied. Magazines that comprise mostly of porn. Which is a sure way of keeping actors quiet during the interval.

GreenRoom

‘The green room – where actors and stage management sit, bitch and drink.’

There are many thoughts and theories about where the term ‘green room’ originated, but here is my favourite. In Restoration theatre – in the late seventeenth century – costumes were elaborate and very expensive. And they were never washed. So actors had to be extremely diligent in keeping their costumes clean. This is why Restoration plays are traditionally performed in specific poses and stances – with the arms outstretched and legs apart – so that costumes do not touch and rub, and get dirty. However, theatres are filthy places, and the very nature of performing in them resulted in costumes and actors getting dirty and sweaty. The task of keeping costumes clean was particularly difficult when a character was expected to ‘die’ on stage. The thought of having an elaborate ‘writhing around on the floor death’ used to terrify Restoration actors as it was a sure way of getting their costumes dirty. This is where the green room came in. The green room was used to store a lot of green material (rather like the baize on a snooker table) – and at the precise moment an actor had to die, someone would run on stage and lay down a piece of this material so the death could happen without the costume getting filthy. Because lots of these strips of green material were left in a room near the stage it became known as the ‘green room’.

The other reason it is called the green room is because if you are an actor who spends a lot of time in there you will be ‘green with envy’ that you aren’t spending more time on stage playing a bigger part, dear.

No Whistling On Stage
You should avoid whistling on stage – or indeed offstage – for fear of things being dropped on your head. This dates back to when the people who used to build sets and help with rigging were hired from ships and boats in port. And as anyone who has worked backstage will know, crew members delight in showing off all the different knots they know – knots which were passed down and learnt from sailors.

On ships, the sailors would communicate by whistling certain calls and tunes which meant particular things (like ‘drop the sail’) – and this is how sailors also communicated in theatres. So if an actor whistled on stage he could accidentally be instructing a sailor/crew member to drop in a piece of scenery.

However, there are times when this tradition can be rather useful – particularly if you are understudying someone and fancy a go at the role. Simply do a lot of whistling at the appropriate moment and hope that a sailor drops a nice bit of heavy scenery onto their head. Naughty, dear.

Macbeth
The play Macbeth is apparently cursed, and if anyone says the name aloud in a theatre it is thought to bring bad luck. To get around this, people call it ‘The Scottish Play’.

450px-FirstFolioMacbeth

Don’t say it!

It is cursed because apparently the witches’ spells are actual spells that Shakespeare copied down and used in the play. I find this rather hard to believe, and haven’t seen any actual evidence – unless, of course, the spell is to make the actors playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have an affair. In which case the spell definitely works, dear.

Another reason for this superstition is that Macbeth contains more sword fights than any other Shakespearean play – so there is more chance of an accident. It is also believed that shortly after the first production of the play, the actor playing Macbeth died. I have subsequently seen many actors playing Macbeth who looked like they were dying on stage night after night. Bless them.

Traditionally, if an actor says ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre they have to leave the building, do a 10K run, down two pints of cider, sing ‘The Circle of Life’ backwards, rub a copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare all over their naughty region, and defecate on a recently graduated drama student.

Pantomime Superstitions
In a pantomime it is considered bad luck to perform the whole piece without an audience – which means that it should never be fully performed before opening night. This can be something of a problem during dress rehearsals – when it is vital to do a full run. The way superstitious directors get around this is by not allowing the actors to say the final two lines of the show (which are traditionally rhyming couplets) until the opening night. This is fine if those two lines are easy, but a bloody nightmare if they’re not.

There is also the belief that the ‘good’ characters (Fairy Godmother/Genie) should only enter stage-right, and the ‘bad’ characters (Abanazar/King Rat) should enter stage-left. This is because in old theatres the baddie would make their first entrance rising from a trapdoor that was always on the left side of the stage. Also, in folklore, the ‘good’ side is always the right side – which explains why Ant is always on the left, and Dec is on the right, dear.

The Dress Rehearsal
There is a silly superstition that if you have a bad dress rehearsal you will have an excellent opening night. I understand the idea – that if the dress is a complete failure then nerves, energy and a desire to make it work will empower you to have a marvellous first show. Personally, though, I much prefer it if the dress rehearsal is a success. For one thing there is usually a photographer present, taking photos for front-of-house and marketing purposes – and we don’t want bad photos going front-of-house, otherwise what will the box office staff think? And secondly, I often invite industry friends to see the dress rehearsal – or ‘open dress’ as it is known – alongside colleagues, friends and theatre staff. It is a marvellous way of getting a true audience reaction – which is invaluable for the actors. It also provides the perfect opportunity for me to show off in front of all my friends, dear.

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Did you know ‘break a leg’ means ‘take a bow’?

‘Break a Leg’
The term ‘break a leg’ is said to actors so that people can avoid saying ‘good luck’ (which is considered bad luck).

The term itself refers to bowing, because when you bow you bend at the knees and ‘break’ the line of your leg. Hence ‘break a leg’ means ‘take a bow’.

It also refers to when audience members used to throw money onto the stage during the curtain call – causing actors to break the line of their leg by kneeling to pick up the money. I always think it such a shame that this tradition no longer happens – as most actors I know love getting on their knees for money.

It is also bad luck for actors to bow if they feel they haven’t performed well and don’t ‘deserve’ it. However, if this rule was followed properly there would be a lot of actors out there who would never bow at all. You know who you are…

WEP book

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting – £10.99

The above is an edited extract from West End Producer’s hilarious book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting (But Were Afraid To Ask, Dear). Packed with wit and marvellous indiscretion, full of gossip and insider knowledge, and with enough savvy advice to kickstart a career, it’s a practical – and sometimes deliciously impractical! – guide to everything you need to know about showbusiness.

To get your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Dymphna Callery: we need a more playful approach to staging plays

Dymphna CalleryDymphna Callery’s Through the Body: A practical guide to physical theatre is beloved of a generation of drama students. But have we ghetto-ised ‘physical theatre’ in an unhelpful way? In her new book published today, The Active Text, she looks at how physical theatre techniques can be used to unlock scripted plays, and inject new life into even the most familiar of texts…

 

Recently, several productions drawing rave reviews have challenged notions of naturalism, or at least received ideas about naturalistic plays. The Flemish director Ivo van Hove’s extraordinary staging of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge is a case in point – it transfers to the West End this spring after a sell-out run at the Young Vic. In this production barefoot actors move within a minimalist black box set, perch on its edges rather than on chairs round a table in the Carbone apartment; the action is virtually underscored by Fauré’s Requiem with tension ratcheted up during family dinners by the ticks of a metronome. Van Hove has turned the play inside out; his streamlined aesthetic makes the words spoken more vibrant, the action more vital, the acting more resonant.

Luke Norris, Emun Elliott, Phoebe Fox and Mark Strong in A View from the Bridge. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Luke Norris, Emun Elliott, Phoebe Fox and Mark Strong in A View from the Bridge. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

It would be perverse to refer to van Hove’s production as ‘physical theatre’, yet it is clearly non-naturalistic. Or rather, is not naturalism as we tend to think of it. All the trappings of our received ideas about naturalistic style have been stripped away. Miller’s stage directions for the design that seem so integral to the play in reading do not feature; costumes do not reflect the 1950s when the play is set. And the tragic story and its brutal outcome are all the more powerful and poignant.

So is there a label to suit such a production style? Labels, rather like comparisons, can be odious – though attaching labels to distinguish styles is often considered important. They provide some kind of certainty, a sort of comfort blanket that tells us what kind of play we are considering. Uncertainty makes us feel uncomfortable. But methods of judging and defining style can be problematic, the criteria used debateable. And labels can certainly outlive their currency. Frantic Assembly get frustrated at being labelled physical theatre, for example. They prefer to describe their work as ‘exciting contemporary theatre for new audiences’.

A View from the Bridge: Phoebe Fox (Catherine), Mark Strong (Eddie) and Nicola Walker (Beatrice). Photo by Jan Versweyveld

A View from the Bridge: Phoebe Fox (Catherine), Mark Strong (Eddie) and Nicola Walker (Beatrice). Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Physical theatre is frequently considered distinct from text-based theatre. Yet many companies bracketed as physical theatre produce plays. Frantic Assembly, Kneehigh and Complicite are examples of companies who work with playwrights, use scripted texts and create work that tests the boundaries of stylistic conventions. However, their process depends on working collaboratively using strategies associated with devising rather than following the traditional routes associated with text work. And it is this way of working that underpins my new book The Active Text, an approach more akin to collective storytelling, rooted in an imaginative use of space and the kind of physical listening between players that means their attention is focused outwards.

We meet a play on the page largely through dialogue, and performance seems to rest on how we flesh out the words. Those words are often the starting point – picked over at a desk or sitting on chairs round a table. Character behaviour is analysed and conclusions drawn about them. Then the words they speak get fleshed out by adding actions once everyone pushes back their chair. Yet dialogue is what David Mamet calls ‘sprinkles on the ice-cone’. It is the dynamic and kinaesthetic signals embedded in the text that bring it to life, its image structure in performance is as powerful as the words spoken. A play should be an experience for the senses and the minds of an audience. Unearthing the fabric of actions and images that determine what happens – and what an audience will see – is where it begins. And in my experience that doesn’t start with a read-through or sitting in a chair.

A traditional read-through is not the automatic recourse of early rehearsals for many directors, and even when it happens, actors don’t necessarily read the part they’ve been cast. Many contemporary directors start with anything but the text. Actors who have developed a capacity for play thrive in this context. And ‘play’ is at the heart of the improvisatory channels to discovering the style of a play, one which may challenge received ideas about what a play is supposed to look like in performance.

When teaching acting and directing for scripted texts I find applying principles of ‘play’ produces far more energised and vital results than following the conventional path of studying characters and what they say. Using improvisation and games to dig into a play before dealing with dialogue, and searching out physical means of expressing any subtext takes players to a more vital level and elicits more energised performances. And everyone feels they are having fun even when the text under scrutiny is serious.

Through the Body: A practical guide to physical theatre

Through the Body: A practical guide to physical theatre

How do you start using the approach I’m talking about? The notion of unlocking text via playful means is what underpins the approaches to working with text that form the body of The Active Text. Those familiar with my previous book Through the Body will find the exercises framed in similar terms, addressing a group rather than an individual actor or director, with an open stage/spectator relationship in operation which both prepares actors for an eventual audience and provides opportunities for learning through watching.

There are thirteen plays referred to throughout for illustration purposes, including A View from the Bridge, Woyzeck and Antigone – plays readers may already be familiar with. They are all plays I’ve used in studio or workshop contexts, or directed, so the exercises have been tested out. There are references to productions that embody some of the ideas behind or have influenced the approaches suggested, and also references to playwrights, practitioners, directors and actors whose words offer valuable insights into the rehearsal process. Putting their ideas into practice has invigorated my rehearsals and workshops – and there’s nothing more rewarding than the surprise of discovering something new or different about a play you thought you knew.


FormattedThe Active Text: Unlocking Plays Through Physical Theatre by Dymphna Callery is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Visit www.dymphnacallery.co.uk for more details about her work.

West End Producer: ‘Let’s talk about panto’

WEP_6717_mattcrockettHo ho ho, dears, ho ho ho. Taken from his book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting, theatre impresario and Twitter phenomenon West End Producer gives you the lowdown on the festive theatrical staple that is pantomime, and tells you how to survive one…

Once a year a great theatrical tradition is practised in most theatres around the country. It is an event that has been passed down from father to child, from mother to milkman, from cross-dresser to giant. It is a marvellous, magical time when theatres actually make money. It is, of course, the Christmas pantomime.

Pantomimes are a hugely important event in a theatre’s diary. They are the show that sells far more than any other, and in many instances it is the success of the panto that allows the theatre to survive for the rest of the year.

Sadly, many people in the business look down on panto as an inferior form of theatre. It is not in the slightest. These people have just not seen a good one, or don’t really understand the joy of pantomime. Most people’s first venture into a theatre is to see a panto with their family at Christmas. Children have a wonderful time, and leave the theatre amazed by all the colours, effects and good honest fun – unless the panto has got Jim Davidson in it. In which case the child is put off theatre for life.

A panto is one of the hardest acting jobs it is possible to do. It will often involve more than twenty shows a week, living in the theatre, and cross-dressing on a daily basis. This can be a heavy burden on your voice, your physical stamina and your sex life. Many actors find that, after performing twenty shows a week, the last thing they want to do is an extra performance in bed. In fact, the best example of ‘suffering for your art’ is a pantomime at 10 a.m., dear.

Never trust a Buttons who is over the age of thirty-five. Many older actors who first played Buttons when they were eighteen are now still playing him at the age of sixty – which makes no sense whatsoever. It is very uncomfortable when the OAP Buttons tells the twenty-two-year-old Cinderella that he loves her. Unless, of course, the panto is being produced by the BBC – where this kind of thing is normal, dear.

When playing Snow White, never be fooled by your seven dwarfs. I have heard countless stories where the dwarfs convinced Snow White that she should sleep with them so they could all be truly close and comfortable. Never, ever do this. Unless you want to witness Grumpy feeling Happy.

Another ingredient of a successful panto are the ‘babes’. To be honest, I find the term ‘babes’ a little wrong, as the ‘babes’ are the young children who are brought in from the local dance school, and not the women who work in the local strip joint. I always feel uneasy calling these kids ‘babe’ and instead I call them the ‘little dears’. This term is useful, as it sounds both affectionate and condescending all at the same time. Whenever the ‘little dears’ are in or around the theatre they will be followed by some large ladies who have an abundance of facial hair. These are the kids’ chaperones. These ladies (and men) have the difficult task of keeping an eye on the children at all times and making sure no one goes within two metres of them. Naturally, it is very important that these children are protected and cared for in the theatre – particularly when there are men dressed as women, women dressed as men, and people called Dick. And because of this, the chaperone has to remind the children constantly that they are in a theatre – and it is not real life. They also have the important job of making sure that the adults keep their distance – and it is usual that in order to speak to the ‘little dears’ you have to send a letter, get it approved, be CRB-checked, sanitise your hands, go in front of the local council, and promise not to talk about burgers, chips or One Direction.

SantaWEP

‘Have a Merry Christmas, dear.’

A hugely important tradition at Christmas time is Secret Santa – where every member of the company buys a present for someone else anonymously. It is a lovely festive game that reveals what everyone thinks about their colleagues. There is usually a budget set of around £5 – although sometimes people spend a lot more or a lot less. People who spend less are the cheapskates of the company, and people who spend more are the show-offs. But, of course, if you are the lead in the show, you are legally obliged to spend at least three times the set amount.

The aim of Secret Santa is to offend as many people as possible. This can be done by buying inappropriate gifts, cheap gifts, or gifts that you were given the year before. I have seen many companies reduced to tears as a result of the Secret Santa gifts. It really is quite funny, and something which I always aim to witness. There are no real rules to it either – apart from making sure that everyone gets a present. There is nothing worse than a gift-less performer screaming and sobbing in the corner.

In approximately the second week of January most pantomimes finish – and many tired, withered, alcohol-sodden actors head back home. It is a sad time when frocks are hung up, greasepaint is packed away, and gurning is forgotten about for nine months. If you ever see one of these ex-panto actors wandering the streets, please do your bit and buy them a biscuit, a cake, or simply give them a smile. It’s not easy being an actor. And it’s even less easy being an unemployed actor in January.

Actors resign themselves to the fact that they won’t get any auditions during January – as this is the time when casting directors and directors sit at home watching DVD box sets whilst playing with themselves. And why not? We all need to do that once in a while.

When actors finish a show, it can be very hard returning to normal life. Particularly after you’ve been busting your gut for three months entertaining families across the country. Suddenly coming back to nothing can be very disheartening indeed, and is, in many respects, the hardest part of being an actor. I have seen it first hand, when ex-partners of mine took weeks to get over their post-show depression. And that is what it is – a form of depression, as you attempt to move on from the life you have been living.

I am always upset when I see unemployed friends of mine wandering aimlessly around London at the start of a new year. It saddens me deeply, so I do my bit and buy them a sausage roll. Actors love a bit of cheap meat in flaky pastry, dear.

WEP book

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting – £10.99

The above is an edited extract from West End Producer’s hilarious book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting (But Were Afraid To Ask, Dear). Packed with wit and marvellous indiscretion, full of gossip and insider knowledge, and with enough savvy advice to kickstart a career, it’s a practical – and sometimes deliciously impractical! – guide to everything you need to know about showbusiness.

To get your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Merry Christmas from all of us here at Nick Hern Books!

West End Producer: ‘The secret to first-night presents’

WEP_6717_mattcrockettIn this second extract from his new book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting, theatre impresario and Twitter phenomenon West End Producer lifts the lid on the thing that can make or break any actor’s career: the first-night present. 

Many people in the industry get their priorities all wrong. As soon as they get offered a job they spend the next few months preparing for the role, doing research and learning their lines. Whilst this effort is not completely wasted, it is certainly a shame that they don’t spend more time concentrating on the real priority. Namely, the first-night present.

The first-night present is a tradition that dates back many, many years – to one of the most memorable and theatrical nights ever. That first Nativity performance when Jesus was born in a stable was a monumental piece of theatre. It was lit so beautifully by the Star of Bethlehem, and had a wonderful set designed by shepherds. And when the Three Wise Men presented Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh, it marked the beginning of the ‘first-night present’ tradition.

A first-night present can change everything. People are judged on many things – the most important being the size, value and originality of the present. Of course, now that times are hard and some actors are forced to take work that pays as little as £0 a week (or minus figures if it’s a ‘profit share’), it may become necessary to remortgage your house to participate in this touching and important discipline. And I think, in time, you will realise it is money well spent.

When choosing a present it is essential you consider what is expected. There is no point buying someone a bra and panties as this could be deemed inappropriate. However, if the bra and panties are branded with the show’s logo then you could become the most popular person in your company. There was a time when all that was expected was a card. And in some companies this is still okay. But there will always be an air of disappointment and bitterness if everyone else goes to the trouble and expense of buying a gift and you do not. It can take years of buying drinks in the pub to make up for this error of judgement.

You don’t have to buy everyone a different present – and often this is a wise decision, as favouritism will then be judged on the expense of the gift. In fact, it can be very sweet and thoughtful if you get everyone the same thing. However, if you do this, you must make the cards personal.

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WEP with his Miss Saigon blow-up doll – apparently it’s been ‘surprisingly useful’…

No one likes a card that reads ‘It’s been great working with you.’ This smacks of insincerity and lacks any sense of personality – indeed, you could be writing the card to someone you’ve only just met. It is essential you remember something funny that happened in rehearsals, or if that fails, just make something up.

If you are extra keen on the present and card tradition you could take the ‘stalking’ route and find as much information about every cast member as possible by asking their friends and ex-partners, or by reading their diaries. Of course, this will take up a lot of time – and may result in you getting a restraining order, but you will be very well-respected for your ‘first-night initiative’.

Some of the most bizarre first-night presents I have received over the years include:

  • A full-body massage by six members of the male ensemble.
  • A pet snake called Cameron.
  • Fifteen signed copies of Craig Revel Horwood’s autobiography.
  • A year’s membership to the Fiddler on the Roof Appreciation Society.
  • A signed sculpture of John Barrowman’s willy.
  • The greatest hits of Marti Pellow.
  • A Miss Saigon blow-up doll (which has been surprisingly useful).

Never make the mistake of only buying for the cast. This is highly inappropriate and will get you a bad reputation with everybody else involved in the show. There are so many people to buy for – backstage crew, wardrobe, dressers, stage-door keepers, lighting designers, resident directors, musical directors, cleaners, wig-makers, writers, second cousins of the director, the director’s children, the musical director’s wife and, most importantly, the producer. Be certain that no one is left out. Obviously it is most important to buy for the director, casting director and producer – as they are the ones who will be hiring you again. This is essential to remember – always be thinking of your next job, dear.

WEP book

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting – £10.99

NHB are thrilled to publish West End Producer’s book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting (But Were Afraid To Ask, Dear). Packed with wit and marvellous indiscretion, full of gossip and insider knowledge, and with enough savvy advice to kickstart a career, it’s a practical – and sometimes deliciously impractical! – guide to everything you need to know about showbusiness.

To get your copy at a 25% discount – no voucher code required – click here (discount valid until 31 December 2013). Copies of the book ordered through our website will come with a free exclusive poster, available while stocks last. 

To read the first extract from the book, where WEP reveals how casting actually works, click here.

West End Producer: ‘Auditioning from my side of the table’

WEP_6717_mattcrockettWith his striking good looks, sharp wit and genuine love of the industry, theatrical impresario and anonymous Twitter phenomenon West End Producer has taken the theatre world by storm, amassing a devoted following. As his book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting is published, here’s an extract to whet your appetite, dears.

The casting process is a long, arduous and exhausting business, particularly for the people doing the casting! I equate it to building a rocket out of chocolate – it’s hard to do, but when completed is very tasty. Casting directors and directors feel immense pressure to make sure they find the right actors for the job, and in some cases feel just as nervous as the people they are auditioning. So how do we go about casting a show?

One of the most important things we have to remember is what show we are casting. It’s no good casting Othello if the show is actually Annie. This is a vital thing to remember, and one which I often have to remind my casting director about. I knew a director in the eighties who once assembled a fine cast of young actors, only to realise that he actually needed dancers as he was casting a ballet. What a silly prat.

So, after we’ve decided on the show, we have a few other decisions to make before the casting begins – we have to book a venue, book a lighting designer, have a set designed, assemble a front-of-house team, taste the ice-cream flavours, market the show, drink some Dom, go on a team-building weekend, read Craig Revel Horwood’s autobiography, and meditate. Basically we do everything we can to put off the chore of casting until Equity get in touch, slap our wrists and threaten to take our diaries off us unless we start. So, apprehensively, we do.

The next step is in the hands of the casting director. Casting directors are usually very nice people who like drinking far too much alcohol, and mostly during the day. The ones that don’t drink usually have other habits, which can’t be discussed here – but often end in them being discovered on a bench outside Waterloo Station at 5 a.m.

Jean Valjean teddy

WEP’s Jean Valjean teddy – “he ensures I am never ‘On My Own'”

The first thing the casting director does is to release a ‘breakdown’. This doesn’t mean he sends out photos of himself in tears, screaming in despair, and taking Prozac. It means he sends out an email of what roles are available. This is usually done through the Spotlight Link – and sent to most agents. Sometimes certain agents will be kept off the list, but only in extreme cases (if they haven’t bought me gifts for a long time).

For those that don’t know, the Spotlight Link is an online service that allows casting directors to email all agents about castings, and receive submissions in response. It is also widely used by actors who have managed to steal a casting director’s password – who use it to stalk and stare at other actors’ CVs.

Once the breakdown has been received, your agent will decide which of their clients are right for the part. This involves reading the breakdown – which can be tricky for illiterate agents (an alarmingly high number of them). Luckily these agents are very clever and have assistants or interns. These assistants only have one role: to read out loud to the agents. This avoids embarrassment, and proves invaluable experience.

When the agent has digested the information they will spend a few hours drinking tea, coffee or gin. Then suddenly they’ll get inspired and mix some vodka with Red Bull – and away they go! They look at photos of all their clients, and remind themselves whom they represent. Some people think it’s easy being an agent, but sometimes they have over twenty actors’ names to remember (and sometimes they have an Equity name and a real name, which confuses things even more). Once they’ve reminded themselves of their clients, the agents make honest, considered and well-informed decisions about which actors to put forward to the casting director.

Things they must consider are: Do they look right? Are they the right age? Can they do the accent? Can they walk in a straight line? Can they speak loudly? Can they tie their shoelaces? It is tough. And sometimes an agent gets incredibly upset and doesn’t know what to do – so decides by using the ‘Eeny meeny miny moe, pick an actor for the show’ technique.

Once this important decision is made, the casting director will receive an influx of actors suitable for the role. It is not unusual for a casting director to receive more than a thousand suggestions for one role: a huge amount. So the casting director then has to sift through all the submissions and decide which actors to invite for an audition. This is where it gets difficult. Do they bring in new actors who are unknown to them? Do they bring in actors they have employed before? Or do they bring in actors they fancy? Invariably it’ll be a mix of all three, with emphasis on the latter.

Then your agent is called and you get offered an audition. You are told an audition time, what to prepare, what role you are up for, and, if you are lucky, the venue for the audition. And then it’s all down to you.

WEP book

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting – £10.99

NHB are thrilled to publish West End Producer’s book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting (But Were Afraid To Ask, Dear). Packed with wit and marvellous indiscretion, full of gossip and insider knowledge, and with enough savvy advice to kickstart a career, it’s a practical – and sometimes deliciously impractical! – guide to everything you need to know about showbusiness.

To get your copy at a 25% discount – no voucher code required – click here. Copies of the book ordered through our website will come with a free exclusive poster, available while stocks last. 

Giles Block: ‘I see a voice’ – the clues in Shakespeare’s words

Giles BlockIn his role as ‘Master of the Words’ at Shakespeare’s Globe, it is Giles Block’s job to help both actors and audiences fully understand and enjoy Shakespeare’s words. As his new book Speaking the Speech is published, Giles reflects on how he came to work with the language, and how ‘trusting the detail’ can enable greater insight.

Today, before I sat down to write this, I was working at the Globe Theatre with actors from the cast of our upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So lines from that play are very much in my mind. At one point Bottom, cast as Pyramus in the play within the play, hearing his love Thisbe talking on the other side of the wall, says:

                                      I see a voice; now will I to the chink,
                                      To spy and I can hear my Thisbe’s face.

These lines, on the face of it, are ridiculous: has Bottom just got his words muddled up?

How can you see a voice?

But then, thinking about Bottom’s ‘I see a voice’ I said to myself, that’s exactly what we should all be able to do when we are looking at Shakespeare’s texts on the page.

In Speaking the Speech, one of my aims is to show how by learning to follow the way Shakespeare’s texts are composed – whether the lines are written in verse, or prose; whether the verse is rhymed or unrhymed; whether the phrases of which his verse speeches are composed, are contained within the run of his lines, or tumble over from one line into the next – it is possible to begin to ‘hear’ the voices of the characters, coming off the page towards you, as you scan Shakespeare’s lines with your eyes.  That is, if you know what clues to be looking out for.

I believe that it is by observing the ‘form’ that Shakespeare’s writings are cast in, that you will discover creative freedom.

I’ve been at the Globe since 1999. My role there is to try and make the text sound clear, and expressive, and be delivered as spontaneously as possible.  My ultimate aim is that audiences should come out at the end of the performances and say – ‘It was so clear, I understood every moment… but you’ve modernised it, haven’t you?’ – and I shall be able to reply, ‘No, that’s just as Shakespeare wrote it.’

I never thought that I would ever write a book. From my school days onwards I knew, vaguely, that Shakespeare was important to me. It was fun to be appearing in his plays, both while I was at school and at university; and the fun continued once I became a professional actor. Ten years later, it became an even more engaging experience, once I had become a director, and began directing some of his plays as well. Much, much later, when I heard that Sam Wanamaker was planning to build a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, I thought, ‘how much I‘d like to be a part of that’…

Mark Rylance

‘Giles deepened my love for Shakespeare and for the way we all speak. I trust you will have a similar experience reading his book.’
– Mark Rylance, from his Foreword

Each year I work at the Globe with probably about an hundred actors – including, for my first seven years there, Mark Rylance, who kindly wrote the Foreword to this book. But I also work with probably a couple of hundred students each year, and I know there are so many more actors and students I’d like to reach out to. I realise now that this book, which I never thought I’d write, may well enable me to do that.

Who is this book for?

While clearly I’d like young and aspiring actors to be drawn to it, it’s written with actors of all ages in mind: all those who are still curious and young in spirit (as actors as a group tend to be). But as Shakespeare touches so many more than those who are simply part of the theatrical community, it’s also for those interested in reading more about Shakespeare, the development of his writing, and his working methods.

Everything I say in the book is about ‘getting back to Shakespeare’ – trusting him, seeing exactly what he writes, and how he writes it. The greatness of his plays lies in the detail, and in the detail lies the richness and the contradictions of the array of characters he has created for us to play, and to be entertained by.

Bottom’s ‘I see a voice’ isn’t simply an anomalous one-off. It reminds me of other lines Shakespeare wrote including these closing lines from his 23rd sonnet:

                                      O learn to read what silent love hath writ:
                                      To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

Speaking the Speech

Speaking the Speech, £14.99

‘Seeing’ voices, or ‘hearing’ with your eyes, may be an important step in speaking the speech with conviction.

Nick Hern Books is thrilled to publish Speaking the Speech: An Actor’s Guide to Shakespeare. To order your copy at a special 25% discount, click here – no voucher code required.


Thomasina Unsworth: ‘peeling off the labels’ – why I wrote Becoming an Actor

Photo of Thomasina Unsworth Thomasina Unsworth teaches at Rose Bruford College, one of the UK’s leading drama schools. In this blog piece, she explains her frustrations at the labelling of students, and how that inspired her to write her enlightening new book.

My youngest daughter came home from school the other day in a miserable state. During swimming lessons her class had been divided into three groups: Jellyfish, Dolphins and Sharks. The Jellyfish, a shivering clutch of four sub-standard swimmers, were left in the shallow end to learn the basics, while the other children bobbed and ducked in the deeper water, superior species. Afterwards all the talk was of Jellyfish, Dolphins and Sharks. My daughter, hair still dripping from the pool, dripped too with shame.

Why do we have to label our children? What good does it do to attach titles to things? The jellyfish tank is my absolute favourite exhibit in the London Aquarium. The water glows pink and blue and one can be mesmerised by the slow clenching and unclenching of frondy tentacles. However, to a child who is battling for self-esteem and a place in the group, being labelled as a jellyfish may not seem so appealing.

Labels stick. Labels define. I spend my days teaching people who come wearing their labels to classes. ‘I’m slow’; ‘I don’t feel things intensely’; ‘I’m an extrovert’; ‘I’m a clown’; ‘I’m a bit mad’; ‘I’m a good girl’; ‘I’m a troublemaker’. The list is endless, but in that roll call of behavioural attributes my students lay out their perceived inadequacies and in doing so they shore up their limitations. How can they be open to an exercise when they know that they ‘over-think things’? How can they relate to that character when they know that they ‘would never behave that way themselves’? Get rid of the label and you liberate the student.

I am fed up of an education system that increasingly marginalises the arts. The arts feed imagination. They allow one to go beyond oneself, and do not concern themselves with the reductive policy of nailing things down in order to be neatly labelled. I am fed up of league tables and target ladders and numbers that tell someone how they are doing rather than words. I am fed up that in actor training we are now expected to grade our students, to attach a number to a name so that that person leaves thinking that they are worth 52% as an actor. What good does this do? It is a nonsense, a damaging nonsense.

An actor is not just a jellyfish.

I see the damage more and more in those I teach. They are fearful of getting things wrong. They care more for a number than a comment. They arrive ossified by their past experiences of school. Over the years I have noticed that the actors I train are, by and large, becoming increasingly result-orientated. Doing it ‘right’ is valued more highly than the simple experience of engaging in the ideas and exploring the possibilities. They have become attached to their labels, they are confused by open-ended questions, they want to know exactly what they should do to be good next time, as if actor training can be reduced to a set of equations: N+1=great acting.

Training to be an actor can be a bewildering time, even without this set of obstacles. When I went to college I felt unprepared, and I wished that I had been better informed. I arrived with lots of preconceptions about what the experience would be and was confused initially by how different the reality of the training was in comparison to my fantasy version of it. Had I been better informed I think I might have got a lot more out of my training. With this in mind, I set out to write a book that would help any aspiring actors to negotiate the obstacles – both those that face you at drama school, and those you will encounter in your first year as a professional actor.

The resulting book, Becoming an Actor, is intended as a handbook to accompany your training. It also contains a lot of exercises that will be useful not only for acting students, but also for teachers. I wanted to offer both actors and teachers a simple set of exercises together with the thinking behind them, uncomplicated by jargon or constrained by dogma. Training to become an actor is a valuable, important process, worth engaging with for its own sake. I hope the book will encourage actors to value their life experiences, and to hold on to what interests and fuels them, throughout those potentially dark days of unemployment.

The exercises in Becoming An Actor are varied. I do not believe that there is only one way of doing things, and hopefully actors and teachers will be able to be selective as they go through them. There is a great deal of emphasis put on working to release the actor from self-consciousness. Practitioners such as Meisner, Bella Merlin and of course Stanislavsky crop up regularly. However, Becoming An Actor also looks at ways of exploring extensions of, and departures from naturalism. The second half of the book concerns itself with auditioning and professional preparation and life beyond drama school. I hope that all this will provide the reader with a straightforward guide that asks them to engage in ideas before looking for results. I hope that it is both practical and thought provoking.

Becoming an Actor, £10.99

Becoming an Actor, £10.99

Above all, I hope that this book goes some way towards freeing those actors from the labels that have been attached to them, so that they can be as fluid and flexible in their responses as the movement of those frondy tentacles attached to the body of that jellyfish.

NHB are thrilled to publish Thomasina Unsworth’s Becoming an Actor. To order your copy with 20% off click here – no voucher code required.

For more information on Rose Bruford College, click here.

‘You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught’: Engineering the Future of British Musicals

Julian Woolford With homegrown musicals such as Matilda and London Road wowing audiences and critics alike, some are saying it’s a golden age for British musicals. But any creative industry needs to invest in training for the future, and Britain lags well behind the United States in opportunities for budding writers of musicals to learn their craft. Here Julian Woolford, a successful writer and director of musicals, lecturer in writing musicals at the University of London and author of How Musicals Work (and How To Write Your Own), argues that it’s time for a change.

When I was in my early twenties I drove one of those ultimate student cars, the 2CV. It felt like a souped-up shopping trolley crossed with a deck-chair, and had an engine that sounded like a squealing hair-dryer. It got me around, and really came into its own for the three days of British summer when, with its soft roof rolled back, it felt like you were living in the south of France.

My dad was a design engineer for Ford and was always happiest tampering around with a car, so when the under-chassis of my 2CV was rusting through, he told me that it would be a simple job to strip the car off and rebuild it on a new one. For months the car sat in pieces in my parents’ garage as he took it all apart and put it back together again. He was determined that I should learn how the car worked so that I could maintain it in the future; accordingly, he would only work on it if I was with him. It was his mission to show me how the clutch worked, how the electrics all fitted together, and how the engine actually made the wheels go round.

My dad’s fascination with how things work must have been passed on genetically. When I began to study (and write) musicals I began to wonder why some musicals were the equivalent of a Jaguar XJS, purring their way into the audience’s heart, while others were clapped-out bangers that couldn’t get out of the garage. Of course musicals are an art-form and not a mechanical construction; but just as Alan Ayckbourn calls playwriting a ‘crafty art’, the writing of musical plays is both a craft and an art.

Musical theatre in the UK is big business and one of our major exports. The Phantom of the Opera, a British musical, is the most commercially successful single piece of entertainment ever created. Over the past thirty years, British writers have proven that West End musicals can dominate on Broadway as well as at home. However, exclude the shows written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Elton John and the British productions (by Cameron Mackintosh) of works by Boublil and Schönberg, and the list of hits is depressingly short. What’s more, these men are all in their sixties, and coming to the ends of their careers.

At present the West End is dominated by their works and by compilation shows of varying quality (from the still appealing Mamma Mia! to the still appalling We Will Rock You) and the two most notable new musicals of the last year have been written by teams who are new to the form: Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s Matilda and Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe’s London Road.

What is painfully obvious is that, with the sole exception of the Cameron Mackintosh supported team of Stiles and Drewe (Betty Blue Eyes, Mary Poppins), the UK is not producing new writing teams who are both committed to musical theatre and of sufficient calibre to sustain the industry in the future.

There was massive investment by the Arts Council in the 1990s and 2000s in new playwriting in the UK, and it seemed then that every producing theatre in the country had to have a new writing department. But very little of this money found its way into new musicals, which were seen as too commercial to benefit in this way. Recently, there has been a partial about-turn in the Arts Council’s thinking, and last year they came up with a modest amount of money to invest in the long-running writers organisation Mercury Musical Developments (MMD), and the fairly new Musical Theatre Network (MTN), which aims to be the UK equivalent to the influential National Alliance for Musical Theatre in the US (although it remains to be seen if it will be more than a talking-shop). 2CV Haynes Manual

But consider the size of the industry. As far back as 1997, the Wyndham Report, an economic impact study on musical theatre by the eminent economist Tony Travers, found that the total economic impact of the West End was £1.075 billion per annum and that West End theatregoers spent £433 million on restaurants, hotels, transport and merchandise in addition to the £250 million they spent on tickets. The West End theatre contributed a £225 million surplus to the UK’s balance of payments in 1997 and, as net currency earner for the UK, West End theatre is similar in size to the entire UK advertising, accounting and management consultancy industries, and far larger than the UK film and television industry. By 2011, when a much smaller study was carried out, West End musicals saw combined ticket sales of £400 million per annum (which brings in around £70 million to the Treasury in VAT alone). Using the same multiplier as Tony Travers we can therefore estimate that musical theatregoers are now spending something in the region of £692 million on restaurants, hotels etc and that the industry is now worth nearer £1.85 billion. This figure does not take into account the huge amount of touring product of all scales, nor the regional producing houses (who have a slender record in developing new musicals), nor the thriving London Fringe scene, nor the busy amateur and schools scene.

Yet no industry can sustain itself in the long run without providing training and inspiration for the creative minds that will take it forward.

In the UK, excellent training in musical theatre for performers is now provided by drama schools and conservatoires, and in the last twenty years there has been an explosion of courses for producers, directors, choreographers and musical directors. But there is precious little training for those who spark the creative process: the writers of musicals.

Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota and General Motors didn’t establish their positions in the motor trade by waiting for great design engineers to suddenly appear from thin air. They trained the best minds in the necessary skills and crafts, and then let them deploy their own creativity and inspiration. More obviously, the fashion industry is awash with courses for aspiring designers, along with mentoring schemes and apprenticeships. The musical theatre industry, by not offering training to those who can create the international hits of tomorrow, is jeopardising its own future.

The increase in funding for new playwriting in theatres led to a number of playwriting courses being founded within established educational institutions, such as the one set up by David Edgar at Birmingham University. These, however, have not yet included musical theatre writing. There is a school of thought within the industry that successful new musicals will be written by those with no knowledge of the form, and that the successes of Minchin, Kelly, Cork and Blythe prove this to be true. But without training, the work of many young writers who aspire to write musicals is simply derivative; trying to emulate Sondheim, Lloyd Webber or Jason Robert Brown. In addition, the bookwriting in many of their works often ignores the basic principles of drama, and is lacking in structure and impact. Another shortcoming of the ‘let’s-find-someone-who-has-never-written-a-musical’ school of thought is that it wilfully ignores the way in which other writers new to the form have failed so miserably, among them Dave Stewart whose score for Ghost is the weakest element of that musical. No other industry would be so careless as to leave its future to the lottery of those rare and elusive ‘diamonds in the rough’.

There is currently only one place that musical theatre writers can learn their craft in a formal setting, and that is at Goldsmiths College as part of the MA in Musical Theatre. But that is a module in an academic course, and the students have only a small amount of teaching in this creative component. We urgently need a writing course in a conservatoire setting, where the best young creative minds can learn about and experiment with the form.

American writers, by contrast, have more options in their universities, and have benefited from more than fifty years of the legendary BMI Lehman Engel Workshop, the pre-eminent training ground for musical theatre writers. It offers a dynamic programme in which writers learn the basics of musical theatre dramaturgy and how to apply it to their own style. What is more, writers are invited to take part in the two-year course free of charge. Alumni from this course have created some of the biggest hits on Broadway, including A Chorus Line, Little Shop of Horrors, Nine, Once On This Island, Ragtime, Avenue Q, Next To Normal, and the current smash The Book of Mormon.

If we are going to secure a future for the British musical we need to train writers for the future and do so quickly. We must not only train them in songwriting, but more importantly, in theatre and storytelling, all the while encouraging them to find their own distinctive voices.

I am not necessarily proposing that universities and conservatoires are uniquely placed to provide this training. My dad never went to university; he was educated at a time when the sons of bus drivers didn’t do such things, and certainly couldn’t afford them. He began as an apprentice at 14 years of age and had a series of mentors who educated him and encouraged him to think for himself. What I learned about cars from my father was a form of apprenticeship, and whilst I didn’t devote my life to vehicles I still have no qualms about changing a spark plug or swapping a tyre. It is no accident that the greatest living musical theatre writer, Stephen Sondheim, undertook an apprenticeship with the greatest musical dramatist of all time, Oscar Hammerstein II. How wonderful it would be if the older generation of British-based writers – Lloyd Webber, Elton John, Don Black, Tim Rice, Boublil and Schönberg – would mentor younger writers and help them to improve their work. American writers can already benefit from this as a good deal of the Advanced course of the BMI Workshop is moderated by established members of the Broadway community.

How Musicals Work by Julian Woolford

How Musicals Work (£12.99)

Having taught the Goldsmiths course for the past four years, I wanted to write How Musicals Work as a guide for those young writers, to be a kind of Haynes manual for the musical. It includes more than fifty exercises that I have set my students in class. Do them all and it is as close to doing the course as you can get without enrolling. But it is not a substitute for the courses, mentoring schemes and apprenticeships that we so urgently need. I learned a lot from my dad because of his passion for cars, and my 2CV was a much better runner after we had stripped it down; I am hopeful that we might yet get some vintage musicals from the readers of How Musicals Work!

NHB are thrilled to publish Julian Woolford’s How Musicals Work. To order your copy with 20% off click here – no voucher code required.

‘Goldsmiths Festival of New Musicals’, the showings of the final projects for the Goldsmiths MA in Musical Theatre, is at the Tristan Bates Theatre, Tower Street, London from 12th–15th September.

Julian is appearing alongside Ruthie Henshall and Tom Chambers at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on 14th October 2012.

Overcoming artistic ‘burnout’ by Russ Hope

Russ HopeForging a career in theatre directing is no mean feat, and for every director who reaches the peaks of success, there are many burnt-out casualties littered along the roadside. In an aim to avoid his own creative burnout, Russ Hope shadowed eight of the UK’s most exciting young theatre directors, with unprecedented access to that most mysterious and alchemical of places: the rehearsal room. His new book, Getting Directions, records the processes, practices and personalities he encountered, and suggests how other emerging theatremakers can avoid their own artistic exhaustion.

I am writing this the day after the start of the London 2012 Olympics and I am still in thrall to Danny Boyle’s spectacular Opening Ceremony. In interview, Boyle explained that the performance, which involved 10,000 volunteer performers, would celebrate ‘the best of us’: the formation of the NHS, the importance of ordinary people – factory workers, enlisted soldiers – in shifting the gears of British history, and the power of popular music to unite communities, from rock ’n’ roll to grime. That Boyle’s definition of ‘the best of us’ annoyed a few commentators on the political right may only have made him smile.

But to present an ‘impartial’ view of British history would not only be boring; it would be impossible. Stories are about choices, and staging any event means making a thousand editorial choices, big and small, from what to include and what to remove, to whom to cast and where to place the cameras. Whatever your politics, there is no denying that Danny Boyle is a director who is confident in his aesthetic taste and moral judgment. He wants to affect the audience and holds opinions about his subject matter. These qualities are, I would argue, prerequisites to any claim to being an artist, particularly the latter, without which, one is merely an imitator.

In constructing the ceremony, Boyle embraced in spectacular style the challenges of a particular brief, venue and set of circumstances, forging Olympics rings in the air and depicting the Queen skydiving into the stadium alongside Daniel Craig’s James Bond. Even if the stories are eternal, the toolbox is always specific.

Let us look back a few years. It is the mid-nineties, and Danny Boyle, then a successful theatre director, is preparing his first feature film, Shallow Grave. On the other side of London, I am eight years old and writing my first song, my dad’s acoustic guitar laid flat across my lap. Its opening lines were:

‘Cruisin’ with my baby
Café beside me, maybe
We might stop
For a hamburger today.’

My dad came into the room and, as kindly as he could, suggested that I consider writing about some experience closer to home: I was too young to drive, too young for a romantic relationship, and had never yet called a woman ‘baby’. Aside from its decent effort at scansion, there is little in the song worth saving.

I recall this because, despite the temptation to do so, it would be a mistake to ridicule my past self. At the time I had been listening to The Beach Boys and Chuck Berry, and their style and form had rubbed off on me.When, years later, I shifted my focus away from music and towards the theatre, I began in much the same way, with imitation: watching actors, and dissecting plays and stories with a keen eye.

Great Expectations - Great Expectations

Rehearsing Great Expectations, directed by Nikolai Foster (Chapter 4)

It is by using theory and practice that we learn how to design any kind of entertainment to fit the unit of time with which we have been entrusted by an audience. With repetition, we gain clarity over the type of work we wish to create, and we develop and enhance the dexterity and lightness of touch it demands of us. With each production, we pre-empt problems that little bit quicker, and solve them with less friction. With some luck, the hit-rate settles into a consistent level.

A career in the theatre, however, holds many dangers. It is a difficult industry in which to make a living: notoriously bleak employment statistics paired with low wages can be offputting at best and crippling at worst. While the internet has arguably democratised music and film, theatre remains a gloriously (and infuriatingly) people- and resource-intensive process. Only a few years out of university, an emerging theatre director might see his or her friends settling into graduate schemes and degree-conversion courses, and wonder whether the obstacles are worth their reward. For these reasons, my passion appeared to burnout some years ago. Occasionally, news of hard-won successes would reach me through texts or chats or Facebook, but each week I would hear too that some friend or acquaintance was moving on.

Getting Directions - rehearsal shots

The rehearsal room for Dick Whittington and his Cat directed by Steve Marmion (Chapter 2)

We burnout because we have lost sight of what we want for ourselves, or because the reasons that brought us to this career no longer reflect who we have become. There are a few options in such a scenario. In my case, I decided to take a sabbatical. I swore off theatre for six months, refocusing the use of my time to books, friends and cooking. When I was ready to re-enter the world, I emailed Matthew Dunster, a director I admired, to ask if it might be possible to shadow him for the duration of a production upon which he was about to embark. Matthew was gracious with his time, granting me full access to the production, all the way from its inception through production meetings and rehearsals and performance through observation and hours of one-on-one interviews.

Following this, I posed the same question to other directors, and soon I had gathered enough material and experience to formulate an idea using my observations of directors at work.

Getting Directions, the resulting book, grants unprecedented access to the rehearsal rooms and thinking styles of some of our most brilliant young directors, revealing some of the most diverse approaches to directing being used today. The directors involved are very different people, but I believe there are strong similarities in how they conceptualise their work and communicate with their teams, and in how seriously they take their responsibilities as both managers and as artists, making sense of their place within an industry and having something unique to say about the world.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Natalie Abrahami for Headlong (Chapter 3)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Natalie Abrahami for Headlong (Chapter 3)

The productions featured are nothing so grand as an Olympic Opening Ceremony, but they display similar levels of drama and diversity: Greek tragedy at the Gate; Tennessee Williams at the Young Vic; panto at the Lyric Hammersmith and a touring Dickens dramatisation to pick out a few. One of the book’s aims is to prevent creative burn-out by encouraging readers to consider adjusting their focus and ask new questions of texts, of companies and of people, most importantly themselves. It is a book about creative relationships, principles with which to approach problems, and good judgment.

Getting Directions by Russ Hope (£12.99)

Getting Directions by Russ Hope (£12.99)

Getting Directions does not promise quick fixes, but if you’re new to theatre, it could help you get your head straight in a challenging arena. If you have been around for a while, it may help you adjust your posture, reassess your motives, and teach you some new tricks along the way.

NHB are thrilled to have just published Russ Hope’s Getting Directions. To order your copy with 20% off click here – no voucher code required.

Birth of the ‘Rules’ by Andy Nyman

Andy Nyman

illustration © Jemima Williams

Andy Nyman’s The Golden Rules of Acting offers real-world advice on how to be an actor – written by a working actor with over 25 years’ experience. In irresistible pocket-sized paperback, packed with short, punchy bulletpoints and illustrated in colour throughout – it certainly gets the message across in a totally memorable way. In the words of actor and comedian Simon Pegg: ‘Christians have the bible, now actors have this book. At last, everyone is happy.’ Here, Andy – currently starring in Abigail’s Party in the West End – explains why he had to write the book.

I’ve wanted to be an actor ever since I was a boy.

That feeling was confirmed for me when my Dad took me to see Jaws at the cinema. I was 13 and the experience of that film shook me and awakened me to a couple of key facts:

  • Films aren’t just for watching; when they are great they can be a visceral experience. The jolts I suffered that day shaped a taste for dark material that has stayed with me throughout my career.
  • Seeing Richard Dreyfuss up there on the big screen allowed me to dream in a whole new way. As a stocky, glasses wearing, curly haired Jewish teenager, I was looking up at a stocky, glasses wearing, curly haired Jewish actor playing one of the leads in the most exciting movie experience I had ever had. Could this be true? Did this mean that if you weren’t a tall, thin, impossibly beautiful man you could still play leads in films? My world changed.

I pursued every acting opportunity I could. Amateur dramatics at Leicester’s excellent Little Theatre, drama classes with the teacher my brilliant Mum found, then off to do Drama A-level at Melton Mowbray college before getting into the Guildhall School of Music & Drama to do the 3-year acting course.

In the 30 years since doing those amateur shows my enthusiasm for acting has never waned, not once. I think I am blessed with a genetic make-up that means my default outlook is positive; I love what I do so much that the very pursuit of it keeps me excited.

My passion for acting borders on obsession. From the very earliest days I wanted to know what an actor’s life was like. I bought every book on acting I could lay my hands on. But something struck me as I read them. Whilst there was an abundance of material on how to act, how to create a character, the different schools of thought on methodology, styles of performance etc etc etc, I couldn’t find anything on what I really wanted to know: what was it like to actually be an actor? How did one survive in the business? How did one sustain a career?

When I finished drama school and entered the business there was still nothing that represented a real handbook of advice on actually existing as an actor – and I craved one. It suddenly felt more important than ever. I was now in the business and I wanted something that would hold my hand, guide me and tell me some of the potential traps that lay ahead and how to avoid them.The Golden Rules of Acting

The desire for that book never subsided, and over the ensuing years it simmered away in the back of my mind. In 2006 I jotted down a few thoughts I had on acting. I have always been inspired by books of quotes and often carry a pocket-sized book of quotes with me. I scribbled some bullet points down on the inside front cover of the quote book I had with me – it felt like a sensible place for them as I looked at the book so frequently. After a few days a couple more thoughts occurred to me and I noted them down in the same place.

I soon found that the act of noting these thoughts down had become habitual. Within a week I had started jotting down thoughts on a regular basis. Instead of using the inside cover of the pocket book, I now carried a pad and added new ones as they popped into my head. As I noted them down I began to recognise in them some of the important lessons I had learned about surviving as an actor.

Over the next 5 years I jotted, scribbled and noted thoughts as they came to me. I tried to write in the shortest, most pragmatic way I could. I didn’t want to be flowery, I wanted to cut to the heart of what I wanted to say. I kept being as honest as I could with myself – after all, why lie? It’s better to be aware of the truth and find inspiration in that than limit yourself with half-truths. This was always a personal project for me, a way of reminding myself of what mattered to me about the acting business.

I have a love of quirky design and images and realised that it would help if I could find images to accompany my ideas. I knew that the right image or design could really help me remember the point I was making; it somehow ‘anchored’ it in my mind. I also added into the mix many of the quotes that inspire me. The feeling that someone else had been there before me and done it – or even been there and failed – was a real comfort. I began to think of each point as a Golden Rule for me – something to abide by, something that I needed to remember and consider.

Once I had assembled my Golden Rules I carried them around with me, in the way I had my books of quotes. This served several purposes: not only did I enjoy reading them as entertainment, I found them useful in different situations – be that an audition or a rehearsal. Most importantly they reminded me that I was an actor, I was living the life that I had always dreamt of. This was something special, something to always protect and cherish.

When I started talking to Nick Hern about publishing the book I knew that I wanted to do something different with it. I wanted it to feel like the pieces of paper I carried around with me, full of odd images, scribbles and, hopefully, inspiring thoughts. I wanted it to be affordable and real-world, something that could act as an honest friend who has been through it, who understands and always tells it like it is.

I’m so excited that The Golden Rules of Acting is being published. To think that this could help and inspire working actors, drama students or simply those who want an insight into the challenges of an actor’s life is tremendously exciting.

I hope that the book will be something that can live in your bag or pocket, go with you to auditions, rehearsal rooms, sets and locations, or simply be there for you whenever you need it, like the best kind of friend, sharing your fears and your dreams. It’s the book I always wanted and could never get. Enjoy.

Golden Rules of Acting - magnets

A ‘Golden Rules’ magnet anyone?

NHB are thrilled to publish Andy Nyman’s The Golden Rules of Acting. To order your copy with 20% off (a steal at £4.79) click here – no voucher code required.

We have a small stack of Golden Rules magnets up for grabs – in fact, only 13 exist in the world! To win one, just add your own ‘Golden Rule’ at the bottom of this blog post (as a ‘comment’). The first 13 rules added win a magnet, it’s as simple as that. But make sure to also email info@nickhernbooks.co.uk with your full address.

In need of inspiration? Check out the @GoldenRulesBook twitter feed to read some fantastic rules that have already been shared.