‘We hold on to hope for a better future’ – Matt Applewhite looks back on 2020

Unprecedented, extraordinary, difficult, relentless, seemingly unending… however you choose to describe it, one thing’s for sure: thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 has been one hell of a year.

For a theatre publisher like Nick Hern Books, nine months with a shuttered arts industry has been a challenge that’s forced us to adapt and find new ways of working and thinking – frequently inspired by the astonishing resourcefulness and stamina of people across the theatre community.

As the year draws to a close, NHB’s Managing Director, Matt Applewhite, reflects on a tumultuous twelve months, and looks ahead to how, amidst everything, we might even find some positives to take with us into a post-pandemic world.


How do you measure a year? For the characters in the musical RENT, it should be defined by love. T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons. And for those of us who have lived through the rollercoaster orbit of the sun called 2020? Stockpiled toilet rolls and squirts of hand sanitiser? Claps for carers? Hours on Zoom?

For the theatre industry, the year might be measured in the heartbreaking number of cancelled productions; the vast sums spent making theatres amongst the most Covid-secure buildings, only to be shut down again in this year’s dying days; or the innumerable halted careers and devastated livelihoods of the freelancers who are theatre’s lifeblood. Opening the aperture further onto a global and gloomier scale: the tragic death toll spirals inexorably upwards, each life lost representing another family deep in grief, broken hearted. Empty chairs at empty Christmas dinner tables. Regardless of where we live, it’s all ended in tiers.

There’s no cheering statistic (the US presidential election result excepted) by which to measure an impossible, incomprehensible twelve months. And no easy way to forget an unforgettable year, however much we might want to.

After closing the door to the Nick Hern Books office on 16 March, we pinned up a notice for visitors saying that we’d be working from home temporarily. In our wildest imaginations (and some of them are pretty wild), none of us dreamed that we wouldn’t be back in time to replace this ‘temporary’ sign with our traditional Christmas wreath.

‘In our wildest imaginations, none of us dreamed that we wouldn’t be back in time for Christmas’ – the
Nick Hern Books office, which has been closed since March

Over the ensuing week, we witnessed curtains fall at theatres across the country, with many of these cancellations having the same knock-on effect on our own publication schedule, with dozens of planned titles struck through. Surely the Edinburgh Fringe – then months away – would survive, we hoped? But alas, its cancellation led to more abandoned productions and publications; some plays that we’d known about and many others which now, heartbreakingly, may never see the light of the stage.

The craft and career books we’d planned for the year were similarly shelved – metaphorically rather than literally. How could we confidently publish practical theatre books serving an industry which was all but shut down, and with all educational institutions likewise suspended? Our amateur performing rights department was deluged, not in applications for new productions, but by requests to delay performance dates and process refunds. Whilst thankful that we still had books we could sell – albeit via a disrupted, creaking book supply chain – there was no doubt about the severity of the uncertainty and insecurity surrounding us and overwhelming everybody.

Those first few frantic weeks of lockdown were charged with adrenaline (a panic?) to establish home offices and schools, recalibrate plans, find ways to keep connected and protect our mental health – before a new routine, a different way of living, took root, and the sounds and smells of nature reasserted themselves. I didn’t read Anna Karenina, or declutter the attic, or bake banana bread. I did have surreal dreams, and suffer self-doubt, and bury a close relative. Occasionally I changed my clothes. I experienced a new silence and a sadness at the suffering unfolding around us, as the world turned, and the seasons passed, and people died.

With customary resilience and resourcefulness, the theatre industry rose to the challenges facing it, offering vital lifelines to as many freelancers as it could, and pivoting towards more digital work. All the world’s a screen. We also saw it as our responsibility to embrace this innovation as an essential means to survival – and our mission was to find ways to work with authors and their agents, with theatres and audiences, to collaborate, to stay connected, and to create.

The NHB Playgroup served up a free play to read online each week, followed by a Q&A with the playwright, sourced from readers’ questions and released as a podcast. We negotiated with playwrights and their agents to allow online performances, so that amateur theatre companies, like their professional counterparts, could continue to showcase their work.

The twelve NHB authors who kindly allowed their plays to be shared for free as part of The NHB Playgroup, and answered reader questions about them for our podcasts

We partnered with other organisations to help amplify their online offerings, such as the remarkable and far-reaching Coronavirus Time Capsule from Company Three and Papatango’s Isolated But Open monologue call-out, which was announced the day after the theatre shutdown and ultimately received over two thousand submissions, providing very welcome paid work for twenty writers and actors as well as producing ten stirring short films (with scripts available to read online for free). Staying lively and loud, engaged and engaging on social media – Twitter especially – continued to be an important priority.

And we’ve managed to publish at least twenty new titles since March, including a compendium of drama games to play socially distanced or online, which was written at breakneck speed and quickly sold through its first four print runs, plus several new plays receiving their virtual premieres, including Stephen Beresford’s Three Kings from the Old Vic, and Jermyn Street Theatre’s 15 Heroines, which featured the work of fifteen female and non-binary playwrights.

In each of these instances, we were fortunate to be an independent, relatively small, nimble-footed specialist publisher, doing our best to keep up, to keep our heads above water, and to keep on going. But what’s really sustained us over the 366 unrelentingly hard days of 2020 is the strength and inspiration, support and courage we’ve been able to draw on from remarkable individuals and companies across the entirety of the theatre industry, as well as the loyal readers who’ve continued to support us, never more so than during our #LoveTheatreDay Sale which saw us raise hundreds of pounds for the Theatre Artists Fund. To them all – and to all of my colleagues who have been beacons of good humour and grace, whether shouldering immense workloads or still experiencing the challenges of furlough – I offer endless gratitude, respect and love.

The snow globe on my desk/dining table is proving an unreliable crystal ball, and no one knows what the next 52 weeks will bring. However, it seems pointless to pretend that, even with glimmers of hope on the horizon, life will be returning to what it was BC (Before Covid) – but, perhaps, nor should we want it to.

We’ve experienced the power and potential of digital innovation, which I believe will be here to stay – or at least a hybrid of digital alongside live theatre. We need to throw a wider protective embrace around freelancers, and remain aware of the delicate, precious ecosystem we inhabit. We know that we can’t look to our woefully incompetent government for leadership or protection, so must seek opportunities to strengthen our working practices and networks, and shout from the rooftops about the vital, transformative importance of live performance.

‘I believe digital innovation will be here to stay’ – Andrew Scott in rehearsals for Three Kings by Stephen Beresford, performed live from the Old Vic Theatre, London, in September, and streamed worldwide
(photo by Manuel Harlan)

And we must never ignore the other seismic shifts witnessed this year, not least Black Lives Matter, which at long last must mean that systemic injustices are properly and permanently addressed. At NHB, we don’t underestimate our own role in all these challenges facing us.

Acts of unsung heroism or compassion, laughter, tears, tweets, coffee spoons, Zooms, or love. In whichever ways we each measure the 525,600 tumultuous minutes of 2020, we hold on to our optimism and hope for a stronger, better future. We look forward to next year.


Matt Applewhite is Managing Director and Commissioning Editor at Nick Hern Books.

From all us at NHB, thank you to everyone who’s helped us get through the chaos of 2020 – our authors, partners, readers, followers and friends. We wish you all a safe, happy and peaceful Christmas, and here’s to a brighter 2021.

‘I’ve vowed to keep on telling my story’ – Nathaniel Hall on First Time and tackling HIV stigma

In Nathaniel Hall’s hilarious and heartbreaking solo show First Time a hit at Edinburgh Fringe 2019 and on its UK tour, and now available in print – the theatre-maker and activist draws on his own life story to smash through the stigma and shame of HIV, and present an uplifting and inspirational guide to staying positive in a negative world.

Here, to mark World AIDS Day 2020, Nathaniel explains how the play came about, and how he hopes telling his story, and his other continued work, can help show that it’s not just possible to live with HIV, but to thrive with it.

First times are scary, aren’t they?

In 2018 I said something out loud for the first time. It was utterly terrifying. After fifteen years of living in secret, I came out to the world a second time. You see, the first time I ever had sex, aged sixteen, I contracted HIV. Let me take you back to the summer of 2003…

I was Head Boy at my comprehensive high school in Stockport, and I wasn’t out; in fact, I even had a girlfriend. But this Head Boy was also secretly giving head… to the Deputy Head Boy, no less. You know, I was desperate to go to the prom with him on my arm, but Stockport in 2003 really wasn’t ready for that, so a cream tuxedo was the next best thing. But it hadn’t arrived at the hire shop… two hours to wait in STOCKPORT. What a depressing place…

‘A cream tuxedo was the next best thing’ – Nathaniel Hall in First Time at Edinburgh Fringe 2019
(Photo © Andrew Perry)

I sat on a bench overlooking the shopping precinct to the M60 beyond. And that’s where I met him. He was older than me, mid-twenties maybe, tanned, bleached tips in his hair, ripped bootleg jeans… definitely gay. We chatted. It was validating. We swapped numbers, texted each other on our Nokia 5210s. He was so sweet, and my age wasn’t an issue to him, although, looking back, I think perhaps it should have been.

Eventually we went back to his for my ‘first time’. He pulled out a safer sex pack but just took the lube. I stopped him, I may have grown up under the shadow of Section 28, but I wasn’t stupid. He reassured me, a clean bill of sexual health, and I trusted him. After all, it was my rite of passage; he was older and wiser, surely?

My fate was sealed.

I found out I was HIV+ two weeks before my seventeenth birthday. Just a child, now forced into a very adult world. Then I boxed up what had just happened and put it high on a shelf. I told a few lovers, fewer friends, no family. Until fourteen years later in 2017, I caught myself in the mirror still awake two days after a house party. You see, I’d convinced myself I was simply living my best queer life: parties, sex, alcohol, drugs. All fun things if you’re actually pursuing them for fun. Not so much if you’re pursuing them to mask pain. You know, I look around at my community that is supposed to be celebrating pride, but behind closed doors so many of us are drowning in shame.

And who can blame us?

Throughout history we’ve been medicalised, criminalised, dehumanised, erased, beaten, tortured, killed. And now we’re emerging from one of the worst epidemics to ravish civilisation in recent history: 35 million people dead, 38 million (and counting) living with HIV, and my community, men who have sex with men, disproportionately affected. On the road to freedom and equality, it sometimes feels like one step forwards, two steps back, and it was so easy for them to weaponise this disease to fit their own hate-filled agenda.

‘Britain threatened by gay viral plague.’ ‘“I’d shoot my son if he had AIDS,” says vicar.’

Real headlines from the British tabloid press at the height of the early AIDS crisis.

And more recently, on the front page of a national paper in 2016: ‘£5000 a year lifestyle drug… what a skewed sense of values,’ they scoffed as they pitted access to PrEP (life-saving medication that stops people contracting the virus) against access to statins for old people (thankfully, after years of campaigning, PrEP is now available for free on the NHS in England, Scotland and Wales).

I was diagnosed with HIV aged sixteen, but it was the stigma and shame, not the virus, that led me to breaking point.

An exhibition of visual art made by school pupils as part of In Equal Parts, a community-led creative outreach project run by Dibby Theatre to tackle HIV stigma and shame (Photo © Dawn Kilner)

Staying silent about an HIV diagnosis only confirms to others that it is something to be ashamed of. It took me over a decade to get here, but let me tell you one thing right now…

It. Is. Not… Regardless of how you caught it.

When I caught a glance of myself in the mirror on that fateful day in 2017, I realised I had bought into the narrative of stigma, and in that moment I made a pact with myself to change the narrative, and to keep shouting the new narrative until people would listen. That was the catalyst that set the wheels in motion to create First Time.

But first I had to tell my family that for the past fifteen years I had held such a huge secret from them. It was a good job I did, because nothing could have prepared me for what was about to come…

I was commissioned to write and perform the show by Waterside Arts in Greater Manchester, in association with Dibby Theatre, in the lead-up to World AIDS Day 2018. And that’s when the press picked up the story. I performed four sell-out shows amidst a whirlwind of interviews for newspapers, magazines, television and radio.

Something about my story struck a chord with millions.

Even if they didn’t have HIV themselves, it unlocked parts of their own lives where they held shame, and for those with HIV, many finally felt relief at seeing an honest portrayal on their screens and stages. It was clear to us that the full impact of this show was yet to be made, so we took it to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019 and then on a national tour. It won two awards and enjoyed audience and critical acclaim in equal measure. From alcohol and drug-fuelled rock-bottom to award-winning writer and performer in the space of two years, it’s been one hell of a journey.

‘Something about my story struck a chord with millions’ – remembering the 35 million people who’ve died from HIV/AIDS during a performance of First Time (Photo © Dawn Kilner)

But First Time is more than just a play. It’s part of a growing confidence in the HIV community to live boldly and without shame. More and more people are talking openly about their diagnoses and, very slowly, the stigma is being removed from the virus.

I have used First Time as a vehicle for my HIV activism with creative workshops, outreach and education sessions in schools, charity partnerships, rapid HIV testing at venues and fundraising parties. In Equal Parts – a community-led creative outreach project tackling HIV stigma and shame – is now helping more and more people with their diagnoses and reminding all of us that we have a role in ending HIV.

I know, that as a white, cis-gendered male from a comfortable background, I write all this from a position of privilege, and that, for many people living with HIV, coming out publicly is simply not an option. So I’ve vowed to keep on telling my story – on their behalf – until it is safe for them to do so themselves. HIV healthcare has changed and is revolutionising the lives of people with HIV. And now another revolution is on the way: a generation of people not just living with HIV, but thriving with it.

You know, I’m really one of the lucky ones… I survived.

People often remark that what I’m doing is ‘remarkable’ and ‘brave’ but it’s not. Ordinary people do extraordinary things every single day. I’m just a kid from Stockport hoping for a day when saying you’re HIV+ is no longer considered a radical act.


This piece is taken from the Introduction to First Time by Nathaniel Hall, published by Nick Hern Books.

In addition to the full script, the published volume includes extensive material about HIV/AIDS and the themes and issues explored in the play, including several workshop plans which can be used with students and community groups. Order your copy at a 20% discount on our website.

First Time will return for a new tour in 2021, alongside In Equal Parts, an outreach project developed and delivered alongside the show. The project aims to educate everybody – regardless of HIV status – on modern HIV healthcare and prevention, de-stigmatise attitudes to the virus and empower people to understand their role in contributing to the UNAIDS goal of ending all new HIV transmissions by 2030.

To date, In Equal Parts has engaged over 5,500 people in creative workshops, talks, exhibitions, rapid HIV testing and fundraising parties, with over 18,000 people engaged online. See more about In Equal Parts here.

Author photo of Nathaniel Hall by Wes Storey.

‘It remains necessary’: Lucy Kerbel on five years of Platform

Five years ago, in 2015, we joined forces with Tonic Theatre, a fantastic organisation working to address the gender imbalance and achieve gender equality in theatre, to create and publish Platform: our series of plays for all-female or mainly female casts, commissioned specifically to be performed by young actors.

The initiative has been a huge success, with hundreds of performances of the plays having been staged around the world. As two new plays join the series – bringing the total to seven – Tonic director Lucy Kerbel reflects on how Platform came about, its impact so far, and why the continued demand for these plays shows why they are still very much needed… 

Five years on since Tonic launched Platform, there are now seven titles in the series – with two new plays, Bright. Young. Things. by Georgia Christou and Heavy Weather by Lizzie Nunnery joining the line-up this month.

All the plays are published by our partners Nick Hern Books and the reach they have had has been extraordinary. Platform plays have been performed by schools, youth theatres, colleges, universities, drama schools, and community theatre groups the length and breadth of the UK. They’ve also found their way on stage in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, New Zealand and the USA.

Production photos of Platform plays, clockwise from top-left: The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan, performed by Elmwood School, Ottawa, Canada; Red by Somalia Seaton, performed by Whitman College, Walla Walla, WA, USA; This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood, performed by Bath Spa University; Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy, performed by Arts University Bournemouth; The Glove Thief by Beth Flintoff, performed by Solihull School, Solihull; Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy, performed by Youth Theatre Masquerade, Msida, Malta

In fact, we worked out recently that a Platform play was being performed somewhere in the world every five days. That’s a huge achievement. It’s testament to their quality; all Platform playwrights have experience and a proven commitment to writing for younger people. They all wrote their plays informed by time spent with young actors as part of the development process alongside input from teachers and youth theatre directors about what makes plays both attractive and practical for young people.

The success is also a reflection of how much Platform is needed. Tonic initially launched the series having conducted research that showed us the majority of young people taking part in youth drama were girls, but the scripts they were working on were, in the main, written to be performed by men. Not only were there not enough roles for everyone who wanted to play a woman, but the girls and young women we met during our research told us the few that were out there tended to be ‘bit parts’ or what, to them, felt like hopelessly outdated stereotypes of femininity that they struggled to connect with.

We wanted to remedy this by providing a regular flow of new plays that responded to the young women showing up in school halls, drama studios and community centres week after week; to reward their commitment and provide material that lets them grow their skill through roles and stories that are demanding, complex, and fun to perform.

Members of the National Youth Theatre performing readings at the launch of Platform at the National Theatre Studio, London, in 2015 (photo by Nick Flintoff)

Most of all, we wanted young people to see that young women’s voices and experiences can be placed centre stage and can make for hugely compelling drama. Platform plays are all big, ambitious pieces dealing with topics as varied and chunky as grief, sedition, climate crisis, post-capitalism and information overload. They all somehow (and this is testament to the writers’ skill) do so in a way that is hopeful, often funny, and ultimately empowering.

The fact that all of them locate girls and young women at the centre of these big topics, and that demand for them has been so extraordinary, is evidence of how much Platform remains necessary. It also creates fire in our bellies to find the next brilliant plays in the series.


Matt Applewhite, Managing Director of Nick Hern Books, on Platform’s role in helping drive forward necessary change…

In the seven years since Lucy and I first began talking about Platform, the world has witnessed enormous change. In some ways for the better; in many ways not; and in others which we’re only starting to grapple with – and not before time.

Platform has and will continue to play its part in driving forward that change, with creative ambition, open-hearted optimism, and far-sighted political purpose. It’s an honour to publish and license the plays, amplifying and giving voice not just to their writers’ remarkable words, but also to the thousands of young women (and men) who have performed them around the world.

These seven fantastic plays would sit proudly on any stage, and are proof (not that any more is needed) that theatre for young people is a force for urgent, positive change. I encourage – urge – you to read and perform them.

The seven Platform plays so far


Nick Hern Books is proud to publish and partner with Tonic Theatre on Platform. Seven plays in the series are now available to read and perform – see more about each via the links below.

The Platform plays are also licensed for performance by Nick Hern Books; visit our website to start your licence application.

 

‘A hero, a leader, a true warrior’ – a tribute to Larry Kramer

We’re saddened to hear the news of writer and activist Larry Kramer, who sadly died on 27 May 2020 at the age of 84. Nick Hern Books is proud to publish his passionate, vital play The Normal Heart, set during the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York in the 1980s. Here, we celebrate Larry Kramer and his work – read the text of a letter given out to audiences at performances of The Normal Heart, the story of his first play, and a personal tribute from NHB’s Managing Director, Matt Applewhite

A copy of this letter was given to every member of the audience – often by Larry in person – as they left the theatre after the 2011 Broadway revival of The Normal Heart.

A Letter from Larry Kramer

PLEASE KNOW

Thank you for coming to see our play.

Please know that everything in The Normal Heart happened. These were and are real people who lived and spoke and died, and are presented here as best I could. Several more have died since, including Bruce, whose name was Paul Popham, and Tommy, whose name was Rodger McFarlane and who became my best friend, and Emma, whose name was Dr Linda Laubenstein of New York University Medical Center. She died after a return bout of polio and another trip to an iron lung. Rodger, after building three gay/AIDS agencies from the ground up, committed suicide in despair. On his deathbed at Memorial, Paul called me (we’d not spoken since our last fight in this play) and told me to never stop fighting.

(Left-right) Paul Popham, Rodger McFarlane and Linda Laubenstein, who are all depicted in The Normal Heart

Four members of the original cast died as well, including my dear sweet friend Brad Davis, the original Ned, whom I knew from practically the moment he got off the bus from Florida, a shy kid intent on becoming a fine actor, which he did.

Please know that AIDS is a worldwide plague.

Please know that no country in the world, including this one, especially this one, has ever called it a plague, or dealt with it as a plague.

Please know that there is no cure.

Please know that after all this time the amount of money being spent to find a cure is still miniscule, still almost invisible, still impossible to locate in any national health budget, and still totally uncoordinated.

Please know that here in America case numbers continue to rise in every category. In much of the rest of the world, like Russia, India, South-east Asia, and in Africa, the numbers of the infected and the dying are so grotesquely high they are rarely acknowledged.

Please know that all efforts at prevention and education continue their unending record of abject failure.

Please know that there is no one in charge of this plague. This is a war for which there is no general and for which there has never been a general. How can you win a war with no one in charge?

Please know that beginning with Ronald Reagan (who would not say the word ‘AIDS’ publicly for seven years), every single president has said nothing and done nothing, or in the case of the current president, says the right things and then doesn’t do them.

Please know that most medications for HIV/AIDS are inhumanly expensive and that government funding for the poor to obtain them is dwindling and often unavailable.

Please know that pharmaceutical companies are among the most evil and greedy nightmares ever loosed on humankind. What ‘research’ they embark upon is calculated only toward finding newer drugs to keep us, just barely, from dying, but not to make us better or, God forbid, cured.

Please know that an awful lot of people have needlessly died and will continue to needlessly die because of any and all of the above.

Please know that as I write this the world has suffered at the very least some seventy-five million infections and thirty-five million deaths. When the action of the play that you have just seen begins, there were forty-one.

I have never seen such wrongs as this plague, in all its guises, represents, and continues to say about us all.

Larry Kramer, New York, 2011

Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks (left) and John Benjamin Hickey as Felix Turner (right), in the 2011 Broadway revival of The Normal Heart (Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)


A piece by Larry Kramer from 2013 anthology My First Play: An Anthology of Theatrical Beginnings.

I sat in my short pants at a makeshift card table in our front yard on a lovely afternoon in spring in suburban Maryland and wrote in longhand about baseball players. I hated baseball and I hated my father (who called me a sissy) so I guess I was trying to please him and I ran out of steam after but a few pages. I guess I was eight or nine, maybe ten. The next ‘first’ play was a pageant I wrote for the Cub Scouts about I can’t even imagine what and remember only that it was a hit, particularly with my mother who said some- thing to the tune of, ‘I didn’t know you could write, dear.’ I was however old Cub Scouts are, twelve maybe.

My first real ‘first play’ was something called Sissies’ Scrapbook, which I wrote when I was in my early thirties (after my Women in Love film adaptation), serious stuff, following four Yale roommates through the years. It was done in a workshop at the old and first Playwrights Horizons, where it seemed to go down very well (people actually cried, which is what I wanted, and I fully remember the power of that feeling: I wrote something that made people cry).

However, upon its transfer to off-Broadway under the title of Four Friends, Clive Barnes of The New York Times wrote, ‘With friends like these you don’t need enemies,’ and we closed on opening night. So wounded did I allow myself to be that I didn’t write another play for many many years. I was to learn much later that Barnes not only arrived a half-hour late but was drunk, now a matter of public record. Imagine that: the chief drama critic of The New York Times was a drunk. I wonder how many other playwrights never wrote another play because of this. Now I look back and see how much time I wasted, that the playwright who just won a Tony at age seventy- seven had many more plays within him that he should have written had he not been such a sissy.

My First Play: An Anthology of Theatrical Beginnings, compiled by Nick Hern, 2013


Matt Applewhite, Managing Director of Nick Hern Books, shares a personal tribute to Larry Kramer, whom he recounts meeting in 2011.

The 2011 revival of The Normal Heart did not strike me as a history play (even though it chronicles a dark period some three decades earlier) nor just a masterpiece of dramatic writing (even though it is) – but one of the most vital, important and relevant plays of our time, crystal clear in its insight, its humanity, its righteous anger. A clarion call to action.

Stumbling out of a matinee performance onto West 45th Street, with tears still hot on my cheeks, I called its author, whose work we already published but I’d never yet met. ‘Let’s meet for coffee,’ he rasped, and thirty minutes later I was in Larry’s book-lined apartment at the bottom of Fifth Avenue, overlooking the Washington Square Arch.

For several hours I was entranced by his staggering mind, more engaged and alive than that of a man half his seventy-five years. He hadn’t softened or mellowed over the decades. And why should he? For a true warrior, the fight is never over. A better day is always worth fighting for – and Larry was unfaltering in that aim, through his art, his activism, with uncompromising ferocity, sincerity and courage.

Over the subsequent years he asked me to send him new British plays and books about the theatre. His apartment may not have had space for more books – but his mind did. It was as boundless as the Great Plains. He was a hero, a leader, a champion – not just for LGBTQ+ people, but for anyone who cares about our world. We are lucky to have had him.


Nick Hern Books is proud to publish Larry Kramer’s passionate, polemical drama The Normal Heart.

Author photo courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival.

Discover the Most-Performed Plays of 2019

What a fantastic year 2019 was for NHB! We were shortlisted for an award at the IPG Independent Publishing Awards; celebrated awards success for loads of our authors including Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Antony Sher, Frances Poet and Lynn Nottage; launched our new series Multiplay Drama (which is up for a prize at the Music and Drama Education Awards), and of course published over one hundred fantastic new plays and theatre books.

We know that you’ve been incredibly busy yourselves, as we licensed thousands of performances of Nick Hern Books plays over 2019! We’ve crunched the number of performances across the year to find out which were your favourites. Let’s take a look and get inspired by our Top 10 Most-Performed Plays of 2019, in reverse order…

10. The Children by Lucy Kirkwood
Cast: 2f 1m

The Children performed by Criterion Theatre, Coventry, England, in January 2019
Photo: Criterion Theatre

New to our Top 10 is Lucy Kirkwood’s pressingly topical tragicomic The Children, following two ageing nuclear scientists in an isolated cottage on the coast, as the world around them crumbles. This beautifully written three-hander was named Best Play at the 2018 Writers’ Guild Awards. ‘Sly, gripping, darkly funny… this is sci-fi kitted out with real people, real dilemmas, real scope’ The Times

Loved this play? Take a look at: Foxfinder

9. Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne, adapted by Laura Eason
Cast: 3f 5m, doubling (very large cast possible)

AROUND THE WORLD, Caldicott School, November 2019, Neale Blackburn

Around The World in 80 Days performed by Caldicott School, Slough, England, in November 2019
Photo: Neale Blackburn

Laura Eason’s celebrated version of Verne’s classic novel packs in more than fifty unforgettable characters. This imaginative adaptation was written for an ensemble cast of eight, but can be performed by a much larger cast – making it perfect for any theatre company or drama group looking for a high-spirited adventure. ‘Bursting with imagination, this exuberant whistle-stop tour through Verne is a trip worth making’ The Stage

Loved this play? Take a look at: The Three Musketeers

8. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted by Steven Canny and John Nicholson
Cast: 3m

HOUND, Stockton Heath Methodist Amateur Drama Society, May 2019

The Hound of the Baskervilles performed by Stockton Heath Methodist Amateur Dramatic Society, Cheshire, England, in May 2019
Photo: Stockton Heath Methodist Amateur Dramatic Society

A gloriously funny makeover of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most celebrated Sherlock Holmes story, from the hit comedy team Peepolykus. The Hound of the Baskervilles is an energetic spoof, offering abundant opportunities for silly comedy and slapstick for three male performers. ‘A masterclass in madcap energy… a fun and fresh Sherlock Holmes romp’ The Stage

Loved this play? Take a look at: Dracula: The Bloody Truth

7. Di and Viv and Rose by Amelia Bullmore
Cast: 3f

Di and Viv and Rose, Questors, June 2019, Carla Evans 01

Di and Viv and Rose performed by The Questors, London, England, in June 2019
Photo: Carla Evans

A firm favourite with amateur companies, this warm and funny play about friendship offers three great roles for female performers. Crackling with wisdom and wit, Di and Viv and Rose is a humorous and thoughtful exploration of a relationship spanning 30 years. ‘Brims over with warm, effervescent humour and sharp perceptiveness’ Independent

Loved this play? Take a look at: Little Gem

6. Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale
Cast: 5-7f 7m

NELL GWYNN, Masquerade Theatre Company, October 2018 01

Nell Gwynn performed by Masquerade Theatre, Kent, England, in October 2018
Photo: Masquerade Theatre

Holding a place in our Top 10 ever since its release, this explosive, extravagant, warm-hearted comedy is an unending delight. Boasting a large cast and a charming lead role for a female performer, Nell Gwynn won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. ‘Bawdy and brilliant… a wonderful, warm-hearted and generous piece of theatrical history’ The Stage

Loved this play? Take a look at: Anne Boleyn

5. The Railway Children by E. Nesbit, adapted by Mike Kenny
Cast: 5f 6m, doubling (6f 9m)

The Railway Children performed by Ysgol Bae Baglan, Port Talbot, Wales, in July 2019
Photo: Ysgol Bae Baglan

This story of a prosperous Edwardian family who nearly lose everything captures the anxieties and exhilarations of childhood with great tenderness and insight. Mike Kenny’s imaginative adaptation of the much-loved children’s classic offers three plum roles for young performers, and is eminently suitable for schools, youth theatres and drama groups. ‘This glorious adaptation never for a moment runs out of steam’ Guardian

Loved this play? Take a look at: The Machine Gunners

4. Bull by Mike Bartlett
Cast: 1f 3m

Bull performed by the Woodhouse Players, Leytonstone, England, in March 2019
Photo: Woodhouse Players

Storming on to the list in the first year of its performing rights re-release, Mike Bartlett’s razor-sharp play about office politics and playground bullying has been an instant hit with amateur companies. Witty and unflinching, Olivier Award-winning Bull offers ringside seats as three employees fight to keep their jobs. ‘Short, slick and emotionally unflinching… delivers a decisive punch’ The Stage

Loved this play? Take a look at: Contractions

3. The Thrill of Love by Amanda Whittington
Cast: 4f 1m

The Thrill of Love performed by Anglisten Theater, Augsburg, Germany, in December 2018
Photo: Anglisten Theater

A gripping, female-led drama about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Holding a place in our Top 10 for the fifth year running, The Thrill of Love dramatises an absorbing true story and takes a fresh look at the woman behind the headlines. ‘Tense and engaging throughout… a triumph’ The Stage

Loved this play? Take a look at: Machinal

2. Ladies’ Day by Amanda Whittington
Cast: 4f 1m

Ladies’ Day performed by Hyde Heath Theatre Company, Bucks, England, in June 2019
Photo: Richard Caslon

Amanda Whittington’s fantastic, female-led plays always hold a deserving place in our Top 10. This high-spirited comedy about four likely lasses from the Hull fish docks on a day trip to the races has been a hit with amateur companies for years. With its warm heart, relatable soul and fabulous roles for women, it’s not hard to see why. ‘Exuberantly up-to-the-minute comedy’ Guardian

Loved this play? Take a look at: The Nightingales

1. Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale
Cast: 8-10f 8-14m

Blue Stockings performed by the Department of Drama, NYU/Tisch School of the Arts, New York, USA, in May 2019
Photo: Justin Chauncey

Jessica Swale holds the top spot in our Top 10 list for the third year running. Her moving, comical and eye-opening historical drama Blue Stockings is a defiant story of four young women fighting for education against the backdrop of women’s suffrage. ‘Cracking… leaves you astonished at the prejudices these educational pioneers had to overcome’ Guardian

Loved this play? Take a look at: Emilia

Check out more of our popular titles over on our Most Performed page, rounding up our Top 20 Plays to Perform. From Andrew Bovell’s bold and complex family portrait Things I Know To Be True, co-produced by renowned physical theatre company Frantic Assembly, to the explosive, award-winning teen drama Girls Like That by Evan Placey, to Ella Hickson’s twist on J. M. Barrie’s classic, Wendy & Peter Pan, which puts Wendy firmly centre-stage, we hope that these hit plays will inspire your search for your perfect next play to perform!


Congratulations to all of our wonderful authors who have made it into the Top 10 this year, and to all of you whose performances have been such a success. And thanks to all the companies who provided us with photos of their amazing productions. It’s always a pleasure to help so many of you stage ambitious, accomplished and triumphant productions of the fantastic plays on our list, and we hope to continue to work together for many years to come.

We have over 1,000 plays available for amateur performance on our website, where there’s a handy Play Finder tool to help you find the perfect play to perform. Our friendly and knowledgeable Performing Rights team is available to discuss your requirements with you in person (email us at rights@nickhernbooks.co.uk, or give us a call on 020 8749 4953). And make sure you sign up for our newsletter to get notifications of the latest releases.

Whatever your plans for 2020, we hope to hear from you soon!

Nick Hern Books at 30

This year, Nick Hern Books celebrated thirty years of theatre publishing. As the year draws to a close, we take a look at some of the things that have made it a year to remember…

We published 100 new plays over the year, two-thirds of them by female writers.

They included the exhilarating debut play from Natasha Gordon, Nine Night, which premiered at the National Theatre in April, went on to win the Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright Award, and is now in the West End.

Featuring alongside Nine Night on many critics’ review-of-the-year lists were Ella Hickson’s The Writer, which premiered at the Almeida Theatre in April, and Annie Baker’s spellbinding John, which had its UK premiere at the National Theatre in January.

Arinzé Kene followed up his acclaimed performance in Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country with a play of his own, Misty, performed by Kene at the Bush Theatre in March before transferring to the Trafalgar Studios in September.

There was Josh Azouz’s unsettling Buggy Baby at The Yard in March; Joe White’s ethereal family drama Mayfly at the Orange Tree in April, along with Chris Bush and Matt Winkworth’s headline-grabbing The Assassination of Katie Hopkins at Theatr Clwyd, winner of Best Musical Production at the UK Theatre Awards; Stephen Karam’s The Humans at Hampstead Theatre in August; Alexis Zegerman’s Holy Sh!t, opening the renovated Kiln Theatre in Kilburn in September; Nina Raine’s Stories at the National Theatre, debbie tucker green’s ear for eye at the Royal Court, and Iman Qureshi’s Papatango Prize-winning The Funeral Director at Southwark Playhouse, all in October; Jessie Cave’s Sunrise at Soho Theatre in November; and, in December, Mike Bartlett’s Snowflake at the Old Fire Station in Oxford, as well as Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse.

In January, we published a collection of plays from the annual VAULT Festival in Waterloo, as well as a selection of award-winning monologues from the inaugural Heretic Voices competition. In June, there was a volume of short plays by and about women, from the Women Centre Stage Festival. And in July, we published Vicky Featherstone’s selection of monologues, Snatches: Moments from 100 Years of Women’s Lives, as well as a collection of plays by Stephen Jeffreys, who very sadly passed away this year.

It was also a year of major revivals, with Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s superlative musical Caroline, or Change at Hampstead Theatre in March, and now in the West End; in May, Winsome Pinnock’s Leave Taking at the Bush, and Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe at the Trafalgar Studios with Orlando Bloom; Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal at the Almeida and Rona Munro’s Bold Girls at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake, both in June; David Edgar’s Maydays revived by the RSC in September, alongside his new one-man show, Trying It On; and Martin Crimp’s Dealing with Clair at the Orange Tree in October, thirty years after it premiered there in 1988 – when it was the second play ever published by Nick Hern Books!

Dealing with Clair by Martin Crimp (left, the 2018 edition; right, the original 1988 edition, also published by Nick Hern Books)


Awards

Many of our playwrights won awards this year, and we’ve got space here to mention only a few…

Jez Butterworth’s magnificent play The Ferryman won Best New Play at this year’s Olivier, Critics’ Circle and Whatsonstage Awards.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins won Most Promising Playwright at the Critics Circle Awards for his plays Gloria and An Octoroon, while Andrew Thompson won Best Writer at The Stage Debut Awards for In Event of Moone Disaster.

There were awards aplenty for the revivals of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Stephen  Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies.

And at the Writers Guild Awards, Lucy Kirkwood won Best Play for The Children, Sarah McDonald-Hughes won Best Play for Young Audiences with How To Be A Kid, and Caryl Churchill was recognised for her Outstanding Contribution to Writing.


Some key stats….


Essential theatre books

This year we published Antony Sher’s account, in his own diary entries, paintings and sketches, of his portrayal of King Lear for the RSC. Year of the Mad King follows his classic of theatre writing, Year of the King, in offering a close-up study of a great actor at work on one of Shakespeare’s most challenging roles ­– a fascinating read for actors and theatre-lovers.

Amongst our other publications, there were invaluable resources for actors, including a selection of audition monologues from the National Youth Theatre, and a series of vocal warm-ups on CD from the National Theatre’s Head of Voice.

We published books on Brecht and Ibsen, as well practical guides to puppetry, verbatim theatre and long-form improvisation.

For budding playwrights, there was an indispensable career guide, Being a Playwright, from the team behind new-writing theatre company Papatango, destined to guide and inspire a new generation of playwrights.

Being a Playwright authors Chris Foxon and George Turvey with (centre) NHB Managing Director Matt Applewhite


30 Years / 30 Plays

In July, we published 30 Years / 30 Plays, a fabulous book of postcards featuring a selection of covers from some of the most successful plays published by NHB over our first thirty years.

Copies quickly sold out at HQ, though there may still be a few available from other retailers.


Birthday Party

Also in July, we joined many of our authors and friends for a party at the Royal Court Theatre, to celebrate the anniversary of the company’s launch in July 1988. There were speeches from NHB author Jack Thorne (whose completely delightful speech is reproduced on our blog here) and the Artistic Director of Kiln Theatre, Indhu Rubasingham, as well as from NHB Publisher Nick Hern and Managing Director Matt Applewhite. It was wonderful to bring together some of our newest authors with those who have been with Nick Hern Books since the very beginning.

Jack Thorne, Indhu Rubasingham, Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite at Nick Hern Books’ 30th birthday party at the Royal Court Theatre in July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)


Amateur Theatre Fest

NHB author Mike Bartlett (right), interviewed by Matt Applewhite at Amateur Theatre Fest 2018 (photo by Ben Copping)

On 8 September, a capacity crowd gathered at The Questors Theatre in Ealing for an all-day event of talks, workshops and performances focussing on amateur theatre. Taking part were over four hundred actors, directors, producers and many others involved in amateur theatre up and down the country. Highlights included the keynote speech from actor and NHB author Simon Callow, interviews with NHB playwrights Jez Butterworth, Amanda Whittington and Mike Bartlett, and masterclasses from actor Oliver Ford Davies, director Stephen Unwin and fight director Roger Bartlett. Thank you to everyone who came and made it such a success!

Nick Hern Books is one of the UK’s leading licensors of amateur performing rights, and we look forward to helping more amateur drama and youth theatre groups find their perfect play to perform, over the years ahead.

Nick Hern Books staff at Amateur Theatre Fest 2018 (photo by Ben Copping)


Playwriting Then and Now, National Theatre panel event

We staged a panel event at the National Theatre on 8 November with NHB playwrights Howard Brenton, Conor McPherson, Alecky Blythe and Natasha Gordon, to explore how playwriting has – and hasn’t – changed over the 30 years of Nick Hern Books. It was a lively event, attended by many budding and emerging playwrights, who came away full of hope and inspiration, even if there was a consensus that playwrights still face daunting challenges when it comes to making a living from their work.

Clockwise from top row centre: Alecky Blythe, Howard Brenton, Conor McPherson, Nick Hern, Natasha Gordon


Anniversary Interviews

Over the course of the year, we published a series of Anniversary Interviews with some of our leading authors and playwrights, specially commissioned for our blog. Launching with Harriet Walter on the unique challenges facing actresses, particularly in finding mature roles for women in the Shakespeare canon, the series included interviews with playwrights Rona Munro, Lucy Kirkwood, Jack Thorne and Howard Brenton.

Drawing the series to a close this month, NHB’s Publisher Nick Hern and Managing Director Matt Applewhite reflect on the company’s thirty-year history, and what lies ahead. Catch up with all the interviews, over on our blog.

Left to right: NHB authors Jack Thorne, Lucy Kirkwood, Harriet Walter, Howard Brenton, Rona Munro


And finally…

Thank you to everyone who has come along to one of our events this year, or who has bought a book from us. We look forward to seeing more of you in the next thirty years. But for now, have a very happy Christmas, from all at Nick Hern Books.

The Nick Hern Books team at the anniversary party, July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Rounding off our Anniversary Interviews series, theatre journalist Al Senter talks to Publisher Nick Hern and Managing Director Matt Applewhite about thirty years of Nick Hern Books, and what lies ahead for the company…

In the thirty years since it came into being, Nick Hern Books has grown into a considerable force, not just in theatre publishing – where it’s undoubtedly a leading player – but arguably in the whole ecology of theatre in the UK and beyond. Without Nick Hern Books, the livelihoods of many playwrights, and consequently many theatres, would be severely diminished.

And yet, while he is hugely liked and respected amongst playwrights and their agents, and in the world of theatre professionals in general, the company’s Publisher, Nick Hern, keeps a relatively low profile. He’s not to be found on Wikipedia, and some people still confess a degree of surprise when they learn that Nick Hern is in fact a real, living person.

I know for sure that he is, because I recently met up with him, along with the company’s Managing Director and Commissioning Editor, Matt Applewhite, at their offices in Shepherd’s Bush in West London, not far from the venerable Bush Theatre, one of London’s great crucibles of new writing.

Nick is in his seventies now, but his commitment to the theatre and to his company is undiminished. He came to theatre publishing from academia, joining Methuen as Drama Editor in 1974. When he left Methuen to set up his own theatre imprint at Walker Books in 1988, it was Sebastian Walker who came up with a name for the fledgling imprint. ‘I was at a bit of a loss about what to call it,’ recalls Nick. ‘Sebastian said, “I call my company ‘Walker Books’, so you’ll be Nick Hern Books”. I thought it rather self-aggrandising, but I’ve got used to it now.’

Nick Hern (left) and Howard Brenton at the launch of Nick Hern Books in 1988

For five years, after leaving Walker Books and setting up as a self-financing limited company, Nick ran things out of his back bedroom. But now, after thirty years, it’s thankfully on much firmer footing. In 2013, Matt Applewhite was appointed as the company’s youthful and enterprising Managing Director, and the two continue to work closely together, along with a core team of eleven staff. They have every intention that the company will embrace another thirty years and more of theatre publishing. ‘We’re prepared for the future,’ says Nick, ‘whatever that will bring.’

Matt first joined the company in 2003 as Editorial and Production Assistant, not long after getting a good degree from Cambridge and finishing a Masters at RADA. Nick recalls how, when his future employee turned up for interview, it was in the middle of a torrential downpour. ‘He was like a drowned Bob Cratchit!’ he recalls. ‘But it was clear that, of the ten or twelve people we interviewed, he was head and shoulders above the opposition.’ They connected immediately.

Matt spent his childhood in Chichester, getting his first fix of drama at the esteemed Festival Theatre, and sometimes venturing up to London. ‘Chichester is a great place to grow up – if you like theatre,’ he says. For a while he had ambitions to become a stage director, ‘But I think I lacked the courage to cope with the challenges of being a freelance. On the other hand, I wasn’t absolutely smitten at the time by the idea of going into publishing. I eventually settled for giving the job six months, maybe a year, and seeing where that got me.’

Once he’d started working at Nick Hern Books, however, Matt realised that theatre publishing was the perfect fit. ‘I’d spent my whole youth watching plays and buying theatre books, so nothing had really changed.’ Over the next few years, he tackled just about every job it’s possible to do at NHB. Within that time he spent six months at Currency Press, Australia’s chief publisher of plays, having swapped jobs – and lifestyles – with his opposite number there, which included living in a flat just a stone’s throw from Bondi Beach. The experience gave him a new perspective on theatre publishing, and NHB’s association with Currency Press remains strong. ‘The world of theatre publishing can be insular, with rival publishers competing for the same small pool of talent,’ says Matt. ‘But being immersed in a very different theatre culture is a great reminder that there’s equally important work going on elsewhere. It’s vital to remind ourselves of that, especially at times like the present.’ NHB prides itself on having a list of contemporary playwrights that spans the globe, and Matt is particularly pleased to have so many talented Australian playwrights on the list, including Joanna Murray-Smith, Andrew Bovell, Tommy Murphy and Melissa Bubnic.

NHB playwright Jack Thorne, Indhu Rubasingham (Artistic Director of the Kiln Theatre), Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite at the Nick Hern Books anniversary party, July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

There’s something of a family atmosphere about NHB. It’s a small, tightly knit company, with employees who are noticeably passionate about the theatre. Many of them have been with the company for over a decade. What’s the secret? ‘There’s no secret, really,’ says Nick. ‘Though certainly, when we take someone on at Nick Hern Books, the most important thing is that they like theatre. If what you really want to do is get on in publishing, you’re probably better off elsewhere.’ Matt agrees. ‘In many ways, I think of us as part of the theatre world, working alongside theatres, if you like. We do a lot of things differently from a conventional publishing company.’

For one thing, much of the company’s publishing schedule is dictated by the theatres that produce their authors’ work. ‘When I first started in theatre publishing,’ remembers Nick, ‘plays were being published some months after their premiere. I’d come from teaching in the provinces, and what we needed most was immediate access to the plays that London was seeing. So I wanted to speed the whole process up. And I’m pleased to say that it’s now more or less expected that a playtext is available on opening night.’ ‘Which means we have to move fast,’ adds Matt, ‘because understandably our authors want to be able to make changes to their text as late as possible in the rehearsal process. We have to go from final text to finished copies in a matter of days – sometimes less than that. I don’t know if many conventional publishing companies would be able to compete with the turnaround times we can achieve.’

Another difference is that the company handles the licensing of amateur productions of its plays. ‘It was something I wanted to do from the start,’ says Nick, ‘to extend that relationship between the play on the page, and its future life on the stage. We have an in-house Performing Rights team actively promoting the plays we publish to the amateur community, which includes students and drama schools, as well as the many, many amateur groups who do brilliant work. It has become a huge part of what we do. Amateur theatre is really flourishing at the moment, which is so pleasing.’ ‘And authors like it too,’ says Matt. ‘It means their plays have an ongoing life, which is so important. We’re publishing plays not just as a record of the first production – but also as a blueprint for future ones.

Nick Hern Books’ staff at Amateur Theatre Fest, a one-day event for amateur theatre practitioners at Questors Theatre, Ealing, in September 2018 (photo by Ben Copping)

For their own part, Nick and Matt have a relaxed and informal working relationship. It’s easy to see why Nick and his wife Jane were mistaken for Matt’s parents while they were visiting him during his stint in Australia. ‘I already saw him as my successor,’ says Nick. Matt claims to have learned everything he knows about publishing from Nick, and in return, Matt has overseen the expansion of the company’s activities into ebooks, apps, audiobooks, and online publishing, alongside developing an enviable social media presence. ‘We’ve got further plans in that direction,’ says Matt. ‘It’s hugely important to connect with new readers, and especially new generations of drama students, who are using exciting new platforms to access our titles – and we want to support them in doing that.’

Matt Applewhite interviewing NHB author Mike Bartlett at Amateur Theatre Fest, September 2018 (photo by Ben Copping)

Can Nick point to other examples of Matt making a difference to the firm? ‘Yes. I’d always assumed that in a publishing company, design and typesetting was something you outsourced. But Matt assured me that it would be much quicker and more efficient to take these functions in-house. And he was right.’ ‘It’s about being able to respond quickly when you’re up against a tight deadline,’ says Matt. ‘And knowing that your designer or your typesetter is focused on the job, and not squeezing you in between other assignments.’

Both insist that there’s never been a cross word between them. ‘Nick operates with a combination of charm and iron,’ says Matt. ‘The authors he’s worked with all know that he’ll be candid with them about their work. They expect and appreciate that. And it’s the same in the office. Though he’s yet to wield the big stick!’ ‘We have the same taste in plays,’ adds Nick. ‘We talk about plays in the same way, even though we’re from very different generations. And we trust each other’s judgements. He has a great understanding of the work of younger theatre-makers – he really gets them. Yet the fact that NHB has survived for thirty years means I must have been doing something right.’

Nick Hern with NHB authors Howard Brenton (left) and Nicholas Wright (right), July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

Are there ever any differences between them? ‘Matt is much more collegiate that I am,’ says Nick. ‘He seeks consent from the rest of the office, whereas I’m much more autocratic. However, I do look around me at organisations where the leadership is ageing but where they are simply not preparing for the future. I feel incredibly relieved and happy that NHB’s future is assured in Matt’s hands.’

‘There are some differences between us,’ admits Matt. ‘But I really value the fact that Nick is still very much involved with the running of the business. He’s so knowledgeable about plays and playwrights, and he still goes to the theatre more than anyone I know. His indefatigable, undimmed passion for it is inspiring.’

So, no regrets? ‘Occasionally I wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t got the job at Nick Hern Books, and gone into theatre-making instead,’ confesses Matt. ‘But actually, I think I can make more of a genuine contribution to theatre in my current role, through publishing the plays that people will go on reading and performing, and the books that make such a difference to other theatre-makers learning their craft. That’s the contribution we all make at Nick Hern Books.’ Apparently, he still has the advert for the Editorial and Production Assistant role that he cut out from The Guardian’s Media section, sixteen years ago. ‘Sometimes I wonder where I’d be now if I hadn’t bought The Guardian that day!’

Nick Hern interviewing NHB author Jez Butterworth at Amateur Theatre Fest, September 2018 (photos by Ben Copping)

As for Nick, he’s spent most of his career working behind the scenes, the midwife to other, starrier careers. Does he ever crave the limelight himself? ‘Not really. I did a bit of acting when I was at university. I have no great desire to inflict myself on the public.’ Still, he can certainly rise to the occasion when it calls. At the recent Amateur Theatre Fest – a day of talks and workshops for anyone involved in amateur theatre, organised by Nick Hern Books as part of their thirtieth-anniversary celebrations – one of the headline speakers was the playwright Jez Butterworth, whose plays, including Jerusalem and The Ferryman, are published by NHB. When Nick followed Butterworth onto the stage in order to conduct the interview, there was a second roar of approval – this time for the publisher who has brought so many great plays to so many different stages, simply by putting them in print.

The Nick Hern Books team, July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)


 

The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews series includes interviews with Harriet Walter, Rona Munro, Lucy Kirkwood, Jack Thorne and Howard Brenton. Catch up with them all here.

Photograph of Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite by Dan Wooller.

Remembering Stephen Jeffreys

This week saw the tragic passing of playwright and NHB author Stephen Jeffreys. Known for works including hit historical romp The Libertine, he was also a caring and supportive mentor to an entire generation of writers. In this edited introduction from a recently published collection of Stephen’s plays, his wife, Annabel Arden, pays tribute to the life and career of a much-loved figure. Plus, publisher Nick Hern shares a few words on a man he was proud to not only call an author, but a friend

Stephen Jeffreys was born on April 22 1950 and spent his childhood in Crouch End, North London. His father’s family ran a business making billiard tables, where he himself spent a short time working after university and which he immortalised in his play A Going Concern. According to family legend his great-grandfather taught the Pankhurst sisters how to play billiards. His mother’s family were originally from Ireland. The house Stephen grew up in, 45 Weston Park, had been acquired by his paternal grandfather in 1936, and three generations as well as many lodgers lived there in a very particular post-war austerity. It was a childhood full of eccentric characters, English humour and stoicism. His monologue Finsbury Park (commissioned by Paines Plough for their 2016 series of Come to Where I’m From, and performed by Stephen himself) captures the essence of this. The house remained inhabited by his sister, the writer and journalist Susan Jeffreys, and Stephen later returned to share it with her, bringing myself and his two sons Jack and Ralph to this almost mythical extended family home. It was known to all as ‘The Chateau’.

Finsbury Park by Stephen Jeffreys was part of Paines Plough’s Come to Where I’m From project

Stephen was educated in Crouch End, at Rokesly Primary School, and then at a boys’ grammar, the Stationers’ Company’s School in Hornsey, before going to read English at Southampton University. While there he revitalised the student theatre scene and took a company to the Minack Theatre in Cornwall, directing Indians, in which he cast all the Indians as women – an idea ahead of its time and setting the trend by which he gave great parts to women in all his plays. After his short spell in the family business and work as a supply teacher, he wrote Like Dolls or Angels, taking it to 1977 National Student Drama Festival, where it won the Sunday Times Playwriting Award. Later he would join the board of the NSDF, which he served on for many years.

A part-time job teaching theatre in an art college in Carlisle gave him time and solitude to write, as well as the experience of putting on enormous community plays combining street theatre with carefully staged disruption and spectacle, such as The Garden of Eden (1986) about nationalised beer performed by the people of Carlisle. While living in Carlisle he also spent time at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, where he met Gerry Mulgrew, Alison Peebles and Robert Pickavance, who would go on to found Communicado. Together with Stephen they formed Pocket Theatre Cumbria, which toured the north.

Round this time, Stephen decided to devote his talents to writing plays. His first big success came in 1989 when Valued Friends (with Martin Clunes, Peter Capaldi and Jane Horrocks in the cast at Hampstead Theatre) won the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Awards for Most Promising Playwright. There followed The Clink (1990) for Paines Plough, for whom he was Arts Council Writer-in-Residence from 1987–89; A Going Concern (Hampstead, 1993); and The Libertine, a considerable success at the Royal Court Theatre in 1994, where he began an eleven-year stint as Literary Associate, which brought him into contact with a whole generation of emerging writers. He also began giving writing workshops at the Court, which were attended by then little-known playwrights such as Simon Stephens, Roy Williams and April De Angelis.

The American premiere of The Libertine, directed by Terry Johnson at Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago, in 1996 with John Malkovich as Rochester, led to an ongoing association both with Malkovich and with Steppenwolf, where Lost Land, about Hungary at the end of World War One, was premiered in 2005, again with Malkovich in the lead. When The Libertine was made into a movie (released in 2005) starring Johnny Depp, it was Malkovich’s company that produced it.

Rosamund Pike (Elizabeth Malet) and Johnny Depp (Rochester) in the 2004 film adaptation of Stephen Jeffreys’ play The Libertine, for which he also wrote the screenplay

Meanwhile, Stephen wrote I Just Stopped By to See the Man (directed by Richard Wilson at the Royal Court in 2000), a tribute to the old-time blues singers of the Mississippi Delta, which was also staged by Steppenwolf and many other American theatres; and Interruptions (written while resident at the University of California, Davis, and staged there in 2001), which sprang from his fascination with the Japanese aesthetic principle of Jo-ha-kyu and his desire to create a particular narrative form to express our struggles with democracy and leadership. The Art of War (Sydney Theatre Company, 2007) was inspired both by the ancient Chinese military treatise by Sun Tzu and by Stephen’s own response to the Gulf War. In 2009 he contributed the first play (Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad) in the series The Great Game: Afghanistan at the Tricycle Theatre, London. This landmark series toured to the US and was performed to senior military personnel at the Pentagon.

Throughout his career, Stephen kept up a steady stream of adaptations. One of the earliest, in 1982, was of Dickens’s Hard Times for Pocket Theatre Cumbria. Two years later came Carmen 1936 for Communicado, which won a Fringe First and played in London at the Tricycle Theatre. He adapted Richard Brome’s seventeenth-century comedy, A Jovial Crew (RSC, 1992), and, in 2000, The Convict’s Opera (premiered in Australia at Sydney Theatre Company and in the UK by Out of Joint), based on The Beggar’s Opera but set on a convict ship heading for Australia. In 2011 his stage adaptation of Backbeat, Iain Softley’s film about The Beatles, opened in the West End, while his characteristically witty and erudite translation in 2013 of the libretto of The Magic Flute in Simon McBurney’s radical production has been performed all over Europe. And for the RSC he helped adapt their 2016 production of The Alchemist.

The Sydney Theatre Company and Out of Joint production of The Convict’s Opera by Stephen Jeffreys

As well as the one for The Libertine, Stephen’s other screenplays include Ten Point Bold, a love story set against the tumultuous political background of the Regency period, written in 2003 but so far unfilmed, and the biopic Diana, released in 2013, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and starring Naomi Watts as the Princess of Wales.

Ever since his experience as a selector for the annual NSDF, which involved him in mentoring and launching many careers, Stephen was steeped in the practicalities of theatre and relished collaborative creative relationships with young companies and young playwrights. He was also the ‘go to’ person for short celebratory plays for leaving dos, birthdays, weddings, etc., all of which made him a hugely popular and enormously well-liked figure in the theatre community.


Publisher Nick Hern pays tribute to Stephen Jeffreys…

My relationship with Stephen dates back thirty years, initially as his publisher, latterly as a friend. A nicer man and all-round gent you couldn’t hope to meet. Also a brilliant and inspiring teacher.

Having sat in on one of his famous writing workshops at the Royal Court, I immediately commissioned him to write a book. That was twenty years ago, but whenever we met in the intervening years – usually at Royal Court press nights with him in his trademark hat – he would assure me that progress was being made. When he got ill, progress suddenly became a matter of urgency.

The book was still incomplete – though in its final stages – when he died, and his friends and colleagues and above all his widow Annabel Arden are striving to complete it. Playwriting – Structure; Character; How and What to Write will be published in the next few months to sit alongside a volume of collected plays which came out in July.

Dear Stephen: he will be much missed by this country’s playwriting community as well as, of course, by audiences of the brilliant plays he wrote, and those – tragically – he never got to write.


All of us at Nick Hern Books are greatly saddened by the loss of Stephen Jeffreys. We’re incredibly proud to publish his work, and our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time.

Photograph of Stephen Jeffreys by Martin Argles.

‘Theatre in its purest form’: Cheryl Henson on the power of puppetry in an increasingly digital world

Puppetry is an artform with ancient roots, but contemporary applications – and the international success of shows like National Theatre hit War Horse proves that it has lost none of its magic.

Here, Cheryl Henson, President of the Jim Henson Foundation, reflects on how that ‘magic’ happens, and pays tribute to director and puppeteer Mervyn Millar, author of a new book, Puppetry: How to Do It

The magic of bringing a puppet to life fascinates me. The precision of gesture that conveys a puppet’s inner life can be breathtaking, immediately taking me out of everyday reality and into a world where anything is possible.

As the President of the Jim Henson Foundation, a grant-making organisation that supports puppetry, I have had the opportunity to meet a wide range of artists. In addition to supporting American puppeteers, our foundation produced an International Festival of Puppet Theater for a decade, presenting more than 120 shows from almost thirty countries in five festivals. We were the first in the United States to present Handspring Puppet Company, as well as many other extraordinary troupes.

A number of years later, I had the pleasure of meeting Mervyn Millar when he worked with Handspring on the National Theatre’s production of War Horse. The puppeteers in this show brought full-size horse puppets to life and interacted as real horses with human actors. The horses were extraordinarily lifelike. Although the puppeteers were in full view, the audience readily accepted the puppets as horses. With the success of War Horse, Mervyn travelled internationally to train new performers to do these roles. He worked with actors, dancers and movement performers to give them the skills they would need to be good puppeteers.

The cast of War Horse in rehearsals

‘The horses were extraordinarily lifelike’ – the cast of War Horse in rehearsals

Puppetry is an ancient theatre form rooted in various cultures throughout the globe. Yet, it is also a contemporary art form embraced by innovative theatre artists creating new styles and techniques. That combination of old and new brings a particular dynamism to puppetry.

A simple puppet can be surprisingly appealing in today’s technologically complex culture. The prevalence of digital media and the easy manipulation of perceived reality is commonplace these days. When what is real in our everyday world becomes questionable, ‘realism’ can feel untrustworthy. In contrast, puppetry can be very straightforward. The magic feels real because you can see exactly how it is done and still choose to believe in it.

Puppetry invites the audience to participate in the theatrical experience. The puppet is not alive. No matter how well it is manipulated, everyone knows that it is not alive. It is an object that appears to breathe, to see, to think, to react – to be an emotionally whole being with an unknowable inner life, just like us. But we understand that a puppet is doing none of these things. It is an illusion that the audience agrees to go along with. It is theatre in its purest form. The puppeteer cannot force the audience to believe. The puppeteer must cajole, convince and carry the audience into the shared illusion of believing in the life of the puppet. As Mervyn puts it in his new book, Puppetry: How to Do It:

‘Something is happening when the audience believes in the puppet, and invests in it emotionally, that they recognise as being close to religious or ritual action. But we should remember that it also has the opposite energy – of playfulness and irreverence. The puppet is like a little god, or a little miracle, but also “just” a toy. It reminds us of being a child – when we imagine our toys into vivid life. I hope that the emphasis in this book on the active part the audience play in imagining the character helps to reveal how it is they who are making this connection…’

Of course, this connection to the audience does not happen if the puppet is not believably performed. The manipulation of the puppet is everything. How one trains to manipulate a puppet can vary immensely, but the fundamental principles remain the same.

I had the pleasure of observing Mervyn Millar teach puppet manipulation using the techniques in the book when he came to the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, an annual gathering of international puppeteers that brings professionals and trainees together for an intense ten-day period of creative development. At this conference, I watched as Mervyn encouraged and inspired the participants to experiment with their choices, to pick up odd objects and combine them to create characters and give them movement: an old watering can and a wrench, a piece of hose and a bucket, a brass bell and some paper. All of them came to life before our eyes in new and unexpected ways. The atmosphere was calm and supportive, and the participants worked together to create unique characters.

Based on the workshops he developed for training performers for War Horse, as well as workshops like the one at the National Puppetry Conference, Mervyn has written his book to share his craft. With care and dexterity, he takes us through a basic training technique that uses simple materials like sticks and brown paper to focus attention on the movement that gives these objects the appearance of life. The exercises in the book are clear and easily reproducible for many different types of participants.

‘Giving these objects the appearance of life’ – one of Mervyn Millar’s workshops covered in his book
Puppetry: How to Do It (photo by Nick Arthur Daniel)

Although Mervyn’s book is aimed at training performers for live theatre, creating the illusion of life is a skill that can be used in the digital world as well. Digital media – video games, virtual reality, television, film, even social media – all contain manufactured reality in varying degrees. Creatures and characters within those realities can be brought to life by defined gesture and movement, just as puppets are. Whether through digital puppetry or motion capture, the human body and the human hand is still better at conveying movement that reads as life than any computer algorithm. Not only is the training outlined in this book beneficial for a range of performers, it could provide important skills for all sorts of jobs not yet invented in the creation of believable life in alternate realities.

By writing Puppetry: How to Do It and sharing the teaching techniques that he has mastered over many years, Mervyn has offered a wonderful gift to the field of puppetry. I hope that it will be used widely to introduce adventurous spirits to this dynamic art form.

The above is taken from the Foreword to Puppetry: How to Do It by Mervyn Millar.  Written by an experienced theatre and puppetry director, the book is a practical, accessible and inspiring guide to using puppetry in theatre – the perfect entry point for anyone looking to use puppets in their productions, to explore what puppets can do, or to develop their puppetry skills.

Get your copy of Puppetry: How to Do It for just £11.24 (that’s 25% off) – enter code PUPPETRYBLOG25 when ordering online here.

Cheryl Henson is the President of The Jim Henson Foundation and a member of the Board of Directors of The Jim Henson Company. The Jim Henson Foundation supports the creation of innovation contemporary puppet theater through grants to puppet artists and presenters. The foundation has given over 800 grants to over 350 artists.

Photograph of Cheryl Henson by Richard Termine.

Understanding the Mad King: Antony Sher on rehearsing King Lear

Leading actor Antony Sher’s new book Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries provides an intimate, first-hand account of his process researching, rehearsing and performing arguably Shakespeare’s most challenging role, Lear, in the acclaimed 2016 Royal Shakespeare Company production.

This extract, written during rehearsals only a few weeks before the production opened, takes us behind the scenes of the RSC, offering a window on director Gregory Doran and the cast’s sharp, insightful interrogation of the text – and how events occurring in the world outside fed into the production. Also included are a selection of Sher’s magnificent illustrations, which feature throughout the book.

Thursday 7 July 2016

When I walk into the rehearsal room this morning, I find one wall transformed. Covered with sheets of paper: some with images, some with text. It’s the research that Anna [Girvan, assistant director] has led, about the homeless in Shakespeare’s time. Much of it is from two books by Gamini Salgado: The Elizabethan Underworld and Cony-catchers and Bawdy Baskets.

Reading the extracts, I learn that the failure of harvests in the 1590s, and subsequent shortage of food, led to the Enclosure Acts, where people were thrown off common land and deprived of their livelihoods. Some turned to petty crime, while others took to roaming the countryside.

This is the population that Greg [Doran, director of King Lear and Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company] wants to represent, as a kind of chorus, in the production.

Prince Philip’s Lear

I go over to my bag, find a picture, and stick it up among the others on the wall. It’s the one of Prince Philip which I sketched about a year ago – showing him in some kind of discomfort during an official ceremony.

Good. Now the display shows both sides of the world we’re trying to create. The poor naked wretches and the burden of monarchy.

Oddly, both sides represent the Dispossessed.

Odder still, Lear has brought it on himself.

In rehearsals of the storm scenes, I confessed that I didn’t know what to do with ‘Blow winds’. I said, ‘Let’s take the reality. A man is shouting in a storm. You wouldn’t be able to hear him. He probably wouldn’t be able to hear himself. We’ve solved how to do it in performance – we’ll be using mics – but how do we rehearse? I can’t just stand here, yelling. I’ll strain my voice.’

Derek Jacobi as Lear

I mentioned the brilliant solution which Michael Grandage and Derek Jacobi found in their 2010 Donmar production. When you first saw Lear in the storm, you heard the full cacophony of it. But as he lifted his head to speak, all the sound was abruptly cut, and he whispered the speech: ‘Blow winds…’ It was, as Lear describes in his next scene, ‘The tempest in my mind’.

‘Couldn’t we borrow that?’ I suggested tentatively.

‘Absolutely not,’ said Greg; ‘Much too recent. And anyway, that was a chamber-piece production and that was a chamber-piece solution, and we’re not doing a chamber-piece.’

He then came up with his own, striking scenario for the scene. He suggested that maybe the winds aren’t blowing – yet – and the speech is a desperate plea (‘Blow winds, I beg you!’), not simply a description of what’s already happening (‘Yeah, go on winds, blow!’)…

…And so we created a narrative to the speech:

  • A subsidence in the storm prompts, ‘Blow winds…’
  • A flash of lightning prompts, ‘You sulphurous and thought-executing fires…’
  • A crash of thunder prompts, ‘And thou, all-shaking thunder…’

We can put these cues into rehearsals, we can create the other character in the scene – the storm – for me to play against.

Stage management made precise notes: they’ll find some recordings from stock (for now) to play when we next rehearse the scene.

For me this was, potentially, a solution to the hardest part of the role.

Olly as Edgar as Poor Tom

Then we moved onto the first Poor Tom scene. Oliver Johnstone [playing Edgar] really went for the mad tumble of language in his speeches. (It’s not just Beckett who owes a debt to Shakespeare, it’s James Joyce too.) I was also intrigued to note that Olly had a new range of movements – some of them twisted and jerky, almost like cerebral palsy – and new sounds too: mumblings and stutters. This was all from his ‘secret’ rehearsals with Greg. Which is a technique Greg used with the witches in Macbeth. He’d work with them privately, so that we, the rest of the cast, never knew what they were thinking or what motivated them. It made them more mysterious, more powerful.

I think, in fact, it’s originally a Mike Leigh method. I experienced it when I did his stage play Goose-Pimples (1980, Hampstead and Garrick). Each of the characters was developed separately, in one-to-ones with Mike, so that when he started to bring us together and create a storyline, we encountered one another as strangers. After all, in real life you know little or nothing about people you meet for the first time.

The Minimalist (Richard Wilson directing)

I remember that the long Goose-Pimples improvisations, and later the equally long Auschwitz exercises that Richard Wilson devised to rehearse Primo (2004, National Theatre and Broadway) can make your head go to a very funny place. I was angry with both Mike and Richard after the sessions – because of where they’d taken me – yet my anger was totally unjustified: I could’ve stopped at any point, and walked away. Except I couldn’t, really – it becomes a kind of self-hypnosis.

Today, I wondered how much Edgar loses himself in the Poor Tom disguise? But, of course, I wasn’t allowed to ask.

Olly had a question for me though, in the mock-trial scene: had Lear been planning this cross-examination for a while, ever since his daughters turned against him after the abdication?

‘That’s an interesting thought,’ I said; ‘There must’ve been people yesterday…’ (when the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War was published) ‘…who’ve become obsessed with the idea that Tony Blair should be put on trial for… what’s it called?… humanity… what’s the phrase?’

Someone suggested, ‘Crimes against humanity?’

‘Exactly!’ I cried; ‘That’s what Lear has been obsessing about. Except in his case, it’s crimes against the king!’


This is an edited extract from Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries by Antony Sher, published by Nick Hern Books.

Get your copy of the book for just £12.74 – that’s 25% off the RRP – by entering code SHER25 at checkout when you order via our website.

The RSC’s production of King Lear transfers to BAM, New York, from 7-29 April, before returning to Stratford-upon-Avon from 23 May – 9 June.

Illustrations by Antony Sher, photographed by Stewart Hemley. Author photo by Paul Stuart.