Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Everything That Went Into Writing My New Book (But Were Too Polite to Ask, Dear)

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the West End…

The masked man of Theatreland has returned. West End Producer’s new book is the ultimate guide to theatregoing, full of the hilarious advice and insight he’s become known for. Here, WEP reveals the blood, sweat and Dom Pérignon that went into writing his must-have theatrical masterpiece, and why the perils of going to the theatre means it’s a vital addition to your library…

Back in 2013, the lovely people at Nick Hern Books published my definitive guide to acting – Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Acting (But Were Afraid to Ask, Dear) – filled with invaluable information about training, performing, bowing correctly, and how to get ahead in showbusiness. It was a marvellous success, which made me feel all warm and bubbly inside – the same feeling I get after a particularly tasty bottle of Dom.

But then came the inevitable question: what next? Having conquered the literary world, I knew I wanted to write another essential theatrical tome – but how to overcome the ‘difficult second book syndrome’, and avoid penning a Love Never Dies to my Phantom of the Opera?

West End Producer, struggling for inspiration in his surprisingly smoky study 
(Photograph © Matt Crockett)

Then, one evening, towards the end of a particularly lengthy walk on Hampstead Heath listening to Elaine Paige warbling on my pocket gramophone (the iGram), I suddenly felt inspiration begin to stir and swell deep within me. And so I rushed home, drew the curtains in my mahogany-clad study, and started fingering my keyboard with vigour.

For a long time, I’d wanted to write a book about how to get theatregoing just right (a Goldilocks guide to the West End, if you will). It would be a practical manual covering absolutely everything – how to see the hits and not the shits, how to avoid neck pain and deep vein thrombosis in the balcony, and how to save precious pennies on tickets, so you can afford the overpriced interval drinks and souvenir programmes instead.

After all, going to the theatre is a richly rewarding but potentially perilous activity that can take months of planning to get right. The consequences of being ill-prepared can make even the most confident theatregoer feel like a floppy theatre virgin. There are just so many things to consider: how do you choose what to see? How do you avoid getting lost and ending up at Buckingham Palace instead of the Palace Theatre? How do you find your way to your seat without treading on an unsuspecting OAP? What’s the correct level of applause if you only mildly enjoyed the show? These questions, and many more besides, finally needed answering.

This is not Buckingham Palace, dear. (Photograph © Nigel Howard)

The result is my new book: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Going to the Theatre (But Were Too Sloshed to Ask, Dear) – which, reading it back now, really is a bloody long title. It’s taken a full four years to get it finished, but this couldn’t be helped. It’s hard to find the time to write in between going to press nights, disciplining actors, producing shows, and cuddling up with my Miss Saigon blow-up doll.

I also found this book a little more challenging to write than my first book, as it required extra research. I had to brush up on my knowledge of theatrical terms (dozens of which are explained in the book). I also attempted to use lots of words that contained eight or more letters – for example: proscenium, cyclorama, and shinging (shit singing) – and learn the names of every single theatre in the West End and beyond. Which takes rather a long time, especially as they keep insisting on building more of the bloody things.

As well as the wide-ranging West End knowledge and advice outlined above, I also wanted to have a little look at some of the greatest shows to have ever hit Theatreland – so scattered throughout the book, like used show-pants in Soho, are potted histories of some our most legendary musicals, plus suggested future casting and details of songs that didn’t quite make the cut (such a shame audiences at Cats were denied the pleasures of ‘God, I Have Another Furball’).

Elaine Page as Grizabella in Cats – other rejected songs included ‘Anyone Got Some Tuna?’ and
‘If I Can’t Find the Litter Tray (I’m Going to Pee in the Stalls)’

It also contains some of my most deliciously naughty-but-true tweets  – because over sixty thousand Twitter followers can’t be wrong….

When reading my book you will learn how to become one of my Theatre Prefects: protecting theatres from phone-users, snorers, and persistent latecomers. With you, my dear readers, forming an army of Prefects parading around theatres up and down the country, we may together finally be able to ‘Make Theatre Great Again’!

Anyhow, I hope you enjoy my new book. It will entertain, enlighten and excite even the most novice theatre spectator – and put the spice back into the theatregoing relationship of the most jaded regular. It’s the perfect present for anyone in your life (Father Christmas himself said so, dear).

So sit back, get yourself into something comfy, and prepare to find out everything you always wanted to know about going to the theatre.


Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Going to the Theatre (But Were Too Sloshed to Ask, Dear) by West End Producer is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

Buy your copy for just £8.79 (20% discount) from the Nick Hern Books website. All customers who purchase their book directly from NHB will also receive a free ‘Theatre Prefect’ badge.

Author photograph by Matt Crockett.

Facing the Fear: Bella Merlin on overcoming stage fright

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

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

 May 1st 2004: Last night at the National Theatre

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

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

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

What a nightmare!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 12th: First night at the Oxford Playhouse

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

May 14th: Third night at the Oxford Playhouse

I don’t believe it!

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

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

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

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

The talking cure

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Author photo by The Riker Brothers.

Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting: the first ten years

The Bruntwood Prize is the biggest national competition for playwriting. With prize money totalling £40,000, plus the chance of a production on a major stage, as well as publication by Nick Hern Books, it’s a fabulous opportunity for writers. Since its inception in 2005, over 11,000 scripts have been entered, more than £200,000 has been awarded to 22 prize-winning writers and 16 winning productions have been staged. Here publisher and NHB founder Nick Hern reflects on what makes the Bruntwood Prize so special, while below we introduce this year’s winners and catch up on the Bruntwood Story with Exeunt Magazine’s podcast…

HernNICK HERN: Memory is an unreliable friend, but it tells me that the first thing I did ten years ago on hearing the announcement of the brand new Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting was to write suggesting that part of the prize might be to guarantee publication of the winning play by Nick Hern Books. I was very taken with the essential premise of the award: that no entry should have been performed or published before and that all entries were to be submitted anonymously, the identity of the winning author only to be revealed after the judges had arrived at their verdict. In other words the work was to be judged on its merits alone and not according to the expectations aroused by the author’s other work – or lack of it. This seemed to go a long way to fulfilling every writer’s desire to know whether what they’ve written is really, intrinsically, even existentially any good!

Pretend You Have Big Buildings by Ben Musgrave, winner of the 2005 Bruntwood Prize

Pretend You Have Big Buildings by Ben Musgrave, winner of the 2005 Bruntwood Prize

Anyway, my offer to act as ‘publisher by appointment’ was accepted, and so I found myself at the ceremony awarding the first ever Bruntwood Prize to Ben Musgrave’s Pretend You Have Big Buildings. True to our word, we had the pleasure of publishing it when the Royal Exchange, also honouring their commitment to stage the winning play, premiered it on their main stage.

I’m not going to pretend to remember the chronology of subsequent winners, but together they amount to a seriously impressive collection of brand new plays, each of which might have remained in their author’s bottom drawer had it not been for the Bruntwood. Indeed, in at least one case, the play would not even have got as far as that drawer: it would probably never have been written. Vivienne Franzmann tells the story that, as a career schoolteacher, she had been saying for some time that she was going to ‘write a play’ – but never had. Then, hearing of the Bruntwood, and realising the deadline was only a couple of weeks away (alert: unreliable memory at work), she set to it. The result, Mogadishu, opened to loud acclaim in Manchester and proceeded to transfer to London, thereby launching Viv on a new career as a full-time writer.

Mogadishu by Vivienne Franzmann, winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Prize

Mogadishu by Vivienne Franzmann, winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Prize

I am as proud of each of the playwrights we have published thanks to their winning the Bruntwood as if I had discovered them myself: as well as Musgrave and Franzmann, there’s been Matt Hartley, Fiona Peek, Andrew Sheridan, Janice Okoh, Nayla Ahmed, Louise Monaghan, Katherine Chandler, Anna Jordan, Gareth Farr and Luke Norris. In the same way, we ‘take on’ each of our writers in the fullest sense, publishing not only the winning play but also standing by to publish their subsequent work as well, as has been gratifyingly the case already with Janice Okoh (who won with Three Birds and went on to write Egusi Soup) and Anna Jordan (who won with Yen, but whose Freak and Chicken Shop have been published subsequently).

So Here We Are by Luke Norris, winner of a 2013 Judges Award

So Here We Are by Luke Norris, winner of a 2013 Judges Award

As the Bruntwood has grown in reputation and renown – and, it has to be said, in the generosity of the prize money on offer – my sense is that more established writers are submitting their work. In the early days we used to joke about a situation where Tom Stoppard, say, submitted a play – anonymously of course – and failed to win… Now, it seems, something like that really could happen, though, to the writer’s relief, only the administrator of the prize would ever know! Our latest winner, in fact, has already broken the mould in some respects: Luke Norris was already a performed and published playwright when he submitted – and won with – So Here We Are.

In its ten years, the Bruntwood Prize has already gifted a rich panoply of new plays to the world. So here’s to its next decade – and to ten more years of splendid if unreliable memories.


KatherineSoper

Katherine Soper, winner of the 2015 Bruntwood Prize (photo by Joel C Fildes)

Congratulations to Katherine Soper on winning this year’s Bruntwood Prize with her play Wish List.

Katherine, who currently works in a perfumery on Regent Street in London, was announced as the winner of the 10th anniversary Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting 2015 on 17 November.

Wish List is Katherine’s first play. She said: ‘This is the best boost of writerly confidence I could imagine.’

Congratulations also to the recipients of the four Judges’ Awards: Chloe Todd Fordham, James Fritz, Alan Harris and Kendall Feaver.

Find out more about the Bruntwood Prize at www.writeaplay.co.uk.


PODCAST: The Bruntwood Story

In this episode of Exeunt Magazine’s podcast Pursued by a Bear, produced in association with Nick Hern Books, Tim Bano takes an in-depth look at the Bruntwood Prize, following the progress of scripts from submission to shortlisting by speaking to judges, readers and writers.

Featuring interviews with: Michael Oglesby, Anna Jordan, Sarah Frankcom, Suzanne Bell, Andrew Haydon, Megan Vaughan and David Mercatali.

Podcast presented by Tim Bano. Produced by Tim Bano and Annegret Marten.

Drama Online: the Netflix of Theatre

DO_On BlackThis week saw the launch of the Nick Hern Books Collection on Drama Online, a groundbreaking new educational resource for reading and studying drama. Here, NHB’s Digital Editor Tim Digby-Bell explains how it works, and how it sheds new light on familiar plays.

Finally, it’s launch week. We’ve been working hard preparing a selection of our plays for Drama Online, the amazing new platform for anyone studying drama. For more than twelve months we’ve been planning, editing, revising, checking, drinking cups of strong coffee, fretting, and then doing some more editing. It’s all been worth it, though. It’s a thing of wonder, and it’s open for business.

Drama Online is a joint venture with other leading theatre publishers including Bloomsbury, Faber and Faber and L.A. Theatre Works, and incorporates archival material from the Victoria and Albert Museum and The American Shakespeare Center. As the name suggests, its focus is very much drama, and the place very much online. It’s essentially a subscription service aimed at schools, universities and libraries, giving instant online access to the best of world drama alongside a range of scholarly works for criticism and context. There is also a range of tools for exploring and analysing plays in new and extremely useful ways (more about those later).

Because it’s all online, students can access the plays they’re studying at any time of the day and night, without having to wait for a copy to become available. Think of it as a theatre-based Netflix. ‘Want to come round to my place for some Drama Online and chill?’ is now an actual thing.

Deep_Blue_Sea_title

Drama Online – The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan, from the Nick Hern Books Collection

There are some 1,900 plays already available, with more being added all the time. You’ll find everything from Aeschylus to the present day, with a full range of classic drama, the complete Arden Shakespeare Series, modern classics and the latest work from contemporary playwrights. The Nick Hern Books Collection comprises 400 titles, including classic plays by writers such as Molière, Gogol, Strindberg and Alfred Jarry, the works of Terence Rattigan, modern classics by Caryl Churchill, Conor McPherson, David Edgar and Howard Brenton, and some of the most exciting new writing from the likes of debbie tucker green, Lucy Kirkwood, Jack Thorne, Steve Waters and Enda Walsh. With a Drama Online subscription, you have the whole pantheon of drama in English at your fingertips.

And, as if that’s not enough, you also get some really impressive tools to work with. At a keystroke you can call up Character Grids, Words and Speech graphs and Part Books for any play. For instance, if you want to compare the number of words spoken by different characters in a play, act by act, or even scene by scene, you can quickly and easily generate a table that lays it all out for you. If you’re performing a play, you can call up a Part Book showing just the lines spoken by your character. If you want to see plays set in London, or in nineteenth-century Paris, or written during the Belle Époque or the Spanish Golden Age, you can call up a list, and cross-refer to your heart’s content.

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Character Grid for Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, from the Nick Hern Books Collection

WordsTable

Words and Speeches table for Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, from the Nick Hern Books Collection

The platform is designed to give you a simple but powerful set of tools to break down any play, making them easier to study. It might all sound a bit Orwellian at first, but start using it and you find it both incredibly useful and really quite addictive. The plays in the collections are all interconnected: every play is connected to other plays via their themes, characters, settings and genres, allowing faster analysis and deeper insights into the works themselves.

Beyond that, the site provides you with every bit of information you could possibly need about each title – including insightful introductions and expert analysis, production history, performing rights information to enquire about staging the plays, and even links to places where you can buy the good old-fashioned print editions (remember them?).

So if you’re studying plays at school, college, drama school or university, you absolutely must have Drama Online. Ask your librarian or resources manager to get a subscription immediately. If they say no, then stage a non-violent protest citing the fact that the first thing any totalitarian regime does when it comes to power is to ban access to the theatre. But do check if you already have a subscription before you do any of that – it could save you some embarrassment.

Having worked on preparing Drama Online for many months I can genuinely say that it’s an exciting new way to read and study plays. It’s the future, right here.


For more information about subscriptions, trials and pricing, visit: www.dramaonlinelibrary.com/pages/how-to-subscribe.

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

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

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

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

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

Darcey Bussell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Read extracts from the book on the Guardian website.

Girls centre stage: Lucy Kerbel on building a new canon of writing for young actors

Good roles for young female actors are in short supply, so Tonic Theatre set out to change that by commissioning a series of new plays with mainly or entirely female casts for schools and youth theatre groups to perform. As the first three plays in the Platform series are published by Nick Hern Books and made available for performance, Tonic’s Lucy Kerbel explains why things have to change, and how you can get involved…

Commissioning and publishing a range of new plays for young actors which put girls and their stories centre stage is something I have wanted to do for a long time and, since Tonic Theatre was formed in 2011, it is an idea I have been looking to get off the ground. Tonic exists to support UK theatre to achieve greater gender equality in its workforces and its repertoires; essentially our mission is to catalyse a culture-shift in how theatre thinks and works, so that talented women are given the same levels of support and opportunity as talented men.

While it has pretty big aspirations, Tonic is a tiny organisation; we have one-and-a-bit members of staff, no core funding, and a very modest financial turnover. Because we have such limited funds and capacity, we have to use these wisely and consequently are extremely strategic about where we target our efforts. I spend much time looking to identify ‘pressure points’ – places where, with a bit of work, a far bigger ripple effect can be achieved. For this reason, much of our work to date has been focused on partnerships with some of the largest organisations in the country, because if they change, others will follow. But youth drama has always been clear to me as one of the greatest pressure points of all. It is the engine room of the theatre industry; tomorrow’s theatre-makers (not to mention audience members) are to be found today in youth-theatre groups, university drama societies and school drama clubs all over the country.

The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan

The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan

If we can challenge their assumptions about the role of women’s stories, voices, and ideas in drama, then change in the profession – in time – will be immeasurably easier to achieve.

Beyond this strategic interest in youth drama, I was convinced that girls were getting a raw deal and I found that troubling. Having worked previously as a youth-theatre director, I was familiar with the regular challenge of trying to find scripts that had adequate numbers of female roles for all the committed and talented girls that wanted to take part. In nearly all the various youth-drama groups I worked in across a five-year period, there were significantly more girls than boys. However, when it came to finding big-cast, age-appropriate plays for them to work on, I was constantly frustrated by how few there seemed to be that provided enough opportunity for the girls, its most loyal and committed participants. When looking at contemporary new writing for young actors to perform, one could be mistaken for thinking that youth drama was a predominantly male pursuit, rather than the other way round.

Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy

Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy

Aside from the practicalities of matching the number of roles to the number of girls in any one drama group, the nature of writing for female characters was something I struggled to get excited about. While there were some notable examples, often the writing for female characters seemed somewhat lacklustre. They tended to be characters at the periphery of the action rather than its heart, with far less to say and do than their male counterparts, and with a tendency towards being one‑dimensional, rather than complex or vibrant, funny or surprising. Why was it that in the twenty-first century the quality as well as the quantity of roles being written for girls still seemed to lag behind those for boys so demonstrably?

Keen to check I wasn’t just imagining this imbalance, Tonic conducted a nationwide research study looking into opportunities for girls in youth drama, focusing on the quantity and quality of roles available to them. The research was written up into a report, Swimming in the shallow end, and is published on the Tonic Theatre website. Not only did the research confirm my worst fears – more depressingly, it exceeded them. While many of the research participants were vocal about the social, artistic and emotional benefits that participation in youth-drama productions can have on a young person’s life, so too were they – to quote the report – on ‘the erosion to self-esteem, confidence and aspiration when these opportunities are repeatedly held out of reach… [and] for too many girls, this is the case’.

But despite the doom and gloom of the research findings, there remained an exciting proposition; to write stories that weren’t currently being put on stage, and to foreground – rather than ignore – the experiences, achievements and world-view of young women, perhaps the group above all others in British society whose situation has altered so dramatically and excitingly over the past hundred or so years. Tonic commissioned writers I was most fascinated to see respond to the brief set to them: a large-cast play written specifically for performance by young actors, with mainly or entirely female casts and in which the female characters should be no less complex or challenging than the male characters. I asked them to write in such a way that these plays could be performed by young people anywhere in the country, and that there should be scope for every school, college and youth-theatre group performing the play to make a production their own.

This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood

This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood

At Tonic our hope is that the first Platform plays – The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan, Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy and This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood – will be just the beginning of a longer trajectory of work for us. Although it entails further fundraising mountains to climb, we plan to commission and publish more plays over future years. Our aspiration is that over time Platform will become a new canon of writing for young actors and one that puts girls and their lives centre stage. I dearly hope that they will be taken up by groups all over the country and performed for many years to come.

‘Drama is an important tool for building confidence and empowering young people. Platform will give girls opportunity to access these benefits as much as their male counterparts.’ – Moira Buffini

A few words from NHB’s Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

Tamara von Werthern

We’re incredibly proud and excited to be supporting Tonic Theatre’s important work in addressing gender inequality in the theatre. I’m sure these plays will be picked up and performed by youth theatres, schools and drama clubs across the country, as they really do address an urgent need for more good parts for young women. I’ve been asked so many times to recommend plays that offer young women strong roles, and it’s wonderful that now we can start licensing three new plays that fit the bill exactly. I urge everyone who works with youth theatre or teaches drama at a school to pick up these plays and give them a go!”


All three Platform plays – The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan, Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy and This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood – are published on 11 June 2015 by Nick Hern Books.

Buying from an educational institution or youth group? You can get all three Platform plays at a special discount price – head to the Platform website for more information.

The plays are all available immediately for amateur performance. To apply for performing rights, visit the Nick Hern Books Plays to Perform website or contact our Performing Rights Department.

For more information about Tonic Theatre, visit www.tonictheatre.co.uk.

Lucy Kerbel photograph by Slav Kirichok

With a little help from my friends: Amelia Bullmore on her play Di and Viv and Rose

Actress and playwright Amelia Bullmore had a West End hit earlier this year with Di and Viv and Rose, a warm and funny play about three women and their enduring friendship. As the play is made available for amateur performance, she recalls the moment that inspired her to write it, and explains why, for her, it’s a story that can only work on stage.

I decided to write Di and Viv and Rose in 2009 when I saw a woman’s calves that were just like the calves of a friend, Anne, who I hadn’t seen for months. The lurch of longing to see her (prompted by the calves) was so strong that, later, I thought: I’d like to try and catch that in a play.

I was acting in a production of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests that transferred from London to Broadway. I’d agonised about going (could I possibly abandon ship for four months?) and made a hash of deciding – telling my family that I definitely wouldn’t go and then realising I definitely had to. I made a calendar showing when they could visit me, in half terms and holidays, and when I’d visit home (all the actors in the production had young children so the performances were cannily scheduled to allow us two mini-trips back). It was an unforgettably good adventure.

Tamzin Outhwaite, Samantha Spiro and Jenna Russell in the West End production of Di and Viv and Rose, 2015

Tamzin Outhwaite, Samantha Spiro and Jenna Russell in the West End production of Di and Viv and Rose, 2015

The calves I saw that were like Anne’s were in New York. They didn’t even belong to a stranger. Their owner was a woman I was working with and had arranged to meet. Regardless of this, my brain dream-ishly converted her into Anne and my chest duly lurched. I’d been braced for missing my family while I was away but hadn’t bargained on just how powerfully I’d miss friends.

I began to think about trying to catch the ardour of female friendship and also to wonder how I might catch the quality of enduring friendship. Thirty-odd years in two hours. When the thing you want to say is so obvious – Friendship is a Good Idea – you’d better say it entertainingly. The good news is, entertainment sits naturally in every friendship worth its salt.

I went to visit a friend in Liverpool not long ago. She said she’d meet me off the train at Lime Street station but I couldn’t see her in the crowd on the concourse. I skated my eyes past a couple locked in a passionate embrace – give the lovers some privacy – but then stole another look and realised it was my friend hungrily kissing a life-sized statue of Ken Dodd. For a joke. For my delight. I laughed my head off. I laugh now when I think about it. Sometimes, on my way to see a friend, I’m close to laughing in anticipation of the laughing I know we’re going to do. (Before I go on I want to say that I sometimes recognise the person I’ve arranged to meet more or less instantly. I should also say that my eyesight’s not great).

Gina McKee, Tamzin Outhwaite and Anna Maxwell Martin in the Hampstead Theatre production, 2013

Gina McKee, Tamzin Outhwaite and Anna Maxwell Martin in the Hampstead Theatre production, 2013 (Tristram Kenton)

Delight isn’t the only thing friends exchange, of course: anguish, doubts, bulletins and beefs are traded too. There are some gloriously talkative men about but my hunch is that women are more likely to have grown up being told stories, often by women, about other peoples’ lives – neighbours, relatives, friends of friends – and are more likely to thrive on the continued collecting and sharing of these stories. Given that we’re all cruising or hurtling towards our doom (and we don’t know which) it’s a source of comfort and diversion to be tuned into hundreds of other peoples’ trips, past and present. Small stories, but in aggregate, a vast database of how life can be lived. I know stories about my friends’ cousins. People I’ll never meet. I find that entirely worthwhile.

The recruiting of a friend – that period of enchantment and first exchanging of stories – needed to be in the play I wanted to write, I decided. As did the particular potency of friendships made when you first leave home: ‘second family’ friendships. The first time you rely on people you’ve chosen, rather than people you’ve been dealt and who’ve been dealt you. These intense young friendships are ones in which almost every kind of loving impulse can be played out – worship, protection, guidance and encouragement as well as the darker impulses to quash and control.

Anna Maxwell Martin, Gina McKee and Tamzin Outhwaite in the Hampstead Theatre production

Anna Maxwell Martin, Gina McKee and Tamzin Outhwaite in the Hampstead Theatre production, 2013

Although the play begins with the characters, aged eighteen, at university, sharing a house, I didn’t want the actresses playing them to be eighteen. The actresses are the age their characters are at the end of their story. They report back from middle age to be their young selves. I’ve been asked if I’d like to adapt Di and Viv and Rose for television or to write it as a film but in my mind it’s a play, and a play only, because of this conceit. Not just because in a theatre an audience is likelier to make the leap of belief – that these women are girls – but also because my experience of growing older is that you are the same but different. You are the girl and the woman. You don’t so much shed as keep on adding. If you age at roughly the same rate as your friends, you don’t only feel largely the same, but also (almost) appear to each other as largely the same. The other reason why it’s a play and a play only for me is that what the audience witnesses, live – the feat of joint endeavour – is what it’s about.

Since its original run at Hampstead Theatre, Di and Viv and Rose has since been picked up by A-level drama students – real 18-year-olds – who have to think themselves older as the play unfolds. There’s no time for wigs or latex. Everyone’s too busy running around backstage fetching bicycles and tearing costumes on and off.

Publicity image for the Hampstead Theatre production, 2013

Publicity image for the Hampstead Theatre production, 2013

I couldn’t have written this play without my female friends. I don’t mean that I consulted them. I mean that they run through it. Things they’ve said. Things they’ve shown and taught me. No particular real friend is portrayed in the play. Even if I’d wanted to plug in a real person (which I emphatically didn’t), real people are no use. You have to fashion characters who’ll give you the specific kinks and tussles you need in order to write the story that says what you want to say. It’s the same with real events, although a crumb of partial knowledge (one of those stories heard, maybe) can be what you choose to invent around, according to your design. I don’t mean don’t research facts, by the way. Definitely research facts.

The continuum of mutual, intimate knowledge is a valuable thing. When you ask after an old friend’s mum or dad – a mum or a dad who, long ago, made you up a bed on the family sofa or chatted with you or ran you to the station – that’s an informed enquiry. It has weight for both the asker and the asked because it has context. In mid-life, this continuum’s especially consoling because, glancing either forwards or back, you’re likely to notice people you love heading towards departures of one kind or another. And if you were ever in any doubt about the commonplace brutality of luck and lack of it, enduring friendship lays that bare, too. I’ve got a friend I used to be put in a cot with, fifty years ago. I’ve got friends who didn’t make it to fifty. I’ve got friends who go from strength to strength. I’ve got friends who are terribly ill. That’s life. All I’m saying is, don’t attempt it alone.

Tamara von Werthern

Here are a few words from NHB’s Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

Di and Viv and Rose is a gift for any theatre company looking for a play with substantial roles for women. It’s such a wonderful, heart-warming tale of friendship lasting throughout three women’s lives, great fun to perform and great fun to watch. If you have previously enjoyed performing Ladies’ Day, Be My Baby or Little Gem, then Di and Viv and Rose will be for you. And if there are three wonderful women in their mid-thirties to late forties who happen to be part of your theatre company, they’ll thank you for giving them these wonderful characters to play.”


This article was originally published in The Independent. Di and Viv and Rose by Amelia Bullmore is published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.

To apply for amateur performing rights, visit the Nick Hern Books Plays to Perform website or contact our Performing Rights Manager.

 

John Hollingworth on writing – and rewriting – his first play, Multitudes

John HollingworthWhen actor John Hollingworth started writing his first full-length play, he had little idea it would take so long to reach the stage. No bad thing, though, when the result is Multitudes, currently at the Tricycle Theatre – and ‘as urgent and immediate as the morning headlines’ (Guardian). How did he do it? In this interview, first published by IdeasTap, he explains how plays can benefit from the development process without losing any of their impact or relevance…

How did the commissioning process work with Multitudes?

I’ve been lucky. The process started at the National Theatre Studio in 2010 when the ever-generous Purni Morell [then head of the NT Studio, now Artistic Director of the Unicorn Theatre] offered me some space. I fashioned a very early draft from this writing time, tried it out on some friends and was rewarded by Purni with a two-day workshop slot. I approached Indhu Rubasingham [theatre director, now Artistic Theatre of the Tricycle Theatre] to direct it, having worked with her as an actor on Women, Power and Politics [a season of short plays staged at the Tricycle in 2010].

The script turned out to be mortifyingly underwritten and she released the actors for the first afternoon while she and I talked through the structure and what wasn’t working. I went home, drank a silly amount of coffee and stayed up until I had two new opening scenes.

When Indhu later took over at the Tricycle she said she wanted to support the project. A seed commission – where a few hundred pounds is paid to a writer as gesture of professional interest – led to a full commission – where an amount you can live off for a few months is advanced – and then confirmation of full production. All in all I’d say that the process took four years.

Do you have any advice for writers on getting their first full-length play commissioned?

Get your writing out there. I was fortunate: some of my short plays were performed at Miniaturists at the Arcola, a shorts night at Soho Theatre and at a Midnight Matinee at The Tristan Bates Theatre. None of these experiences led directly to a commission but the experience of testing and improving work through rehearsal and performance improved my writing. I sent plays to the Bush and the Royal Court and received rejections that spurred me on to better my work.

Multitudes is a play about a clash of values in multicultural Britain, focussing on a Muslim family in Bradford. How did you research the play?

Multitudes

Multitudes at the Tricycle Theatre – photo by Mark Douet

I was working with David Hare when I started writing the play. I was inspired by his wrought verbatim method of taking things people have said and bending, hammering and bettering them into a sculpture that was definitively his.

I went back to Bradford, where I was at school, toting my dictaphone and door-stopped people. I had some interesting conversations but I was mostly just daunted and cold. Hunting down real things that people say was great ear-tuning for characters but I realised that I wanted to write a piece of fiction.

I began interviewing friends who are Muslim. The first person I sat down with was Asif Khan who has ended up being in the show. I got all my stupid questions out of the way and graduated from this to speaking to a couple of imams on increasingly-frequent trips back to Bradford.

I then went on to the tricky process of tracking down women who had accepted Islam. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this proved difficult. I met with two women in person and spoke with a third on the phone but many women were suspicious of my motives – what I might say about them and their personal, private decision.

Perhaps the best resource was Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives [a report published by the Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge in May 2013]. It’s brilliantly readable and can be downloaded for free. That and other books – the Qur’an most obviously – helped me to further understand the journey these female converts had been on. This understanding was deepened further by spending a day with new Muslims at the Islamic Cultural Centre at London Central Mosque.

Were you ever worried about writing about a non-white family?

Multitudes at the Tricycle Theatre

Multitudes at the Tricycle Theatre – photo by Mark Douet

I was anxious to begin with and I think that is entirely appropriate – if you’re putting words in people’s mouths then you have a duty of care that they are believable. The long development time on the play has allowed five workshops with different sets of actors – six including the cast – and each one provided a frank and invaluable forum to interrogate the play and identify what wasn’t credible or accurate. I’m grateful to the British Asian actors in those workshops – they corrected what was wrong and shared personal stories that went on to influence the play.

If writers like me – pink-white, middle class, university educated – write about pink-white people doing pink-white things then the dominant discourse of the last few hundred years inches inexorably onwards. It’s time to change that discourse.

Multitudes is set on the eve of a Tory Party Conference. Why?

The conference gives high stakes and a short, defined timeframe, which is useful. My brother-in-law has been a political advisor to various Conservative MPs for the past few years and that has afforded me a valuable insight into that world. Given that the Tories are the Establishment party and the play looks at notions of Britishness, there was a natural fit there too and I wanted to make Natalie – the female convert at the heart of the play – the daughter of the local Tory party chairman.

What was the hardest scene in the play to write? Why? And how did you overcome those challenges?

Technically the hardest scene to write has been the one right before the interval. It’s long and involved and combative and riddled with interruption points and I feel spoilt to have a fantastically-capable cast who have reacted so enthusiastically to my changes. There were a lot of rewrites, late nights and cold coffee at midnight, but to see the play come to life in the hands of such a great bunch of actors has been a gift well worth losing sleep for.


MultitudesThis interview was first published by IdeasTap.

Multitudes by John Hollingworth is out now from Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

The play is at the Tricycle Theatre, London, until 21 March.

Author photo by Mark Douet.

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.

800px-Curtain_Call_(4436751258)

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.