The ‘X Factor’ Actor

The Acting Book

John Abbott has enjoyed a varied career in theatre – as an actor, director, educator (namely, Head of Acting at ArtsEd) and author. He has written three books for NHB on theatre, and his latest – The Acting Book – is published this month. John identifies charisma as one of the most important attributes for the modern actor – but what exactly is ‘charisma’? Here, he demystifies the notion…

Lately I’ve found myself shouting at the television more and more often: ‘“ConTROversy” not “ContraVERsy”!’ I yell. Or: “A road map is something that shows you all the roads in an area, you idiot. It gives you thousands of different ways of getting from A to B. What you mean is a route! Something that tells you the best way to get where you want to go!”

But the thing that drives me round the bend is Louis Walsh bouncing up and down behind his desk when he rejects the public’s favourite X Factor contestant and defends his decision by shouting, “But it’s a singing contest, Simon!”

No, Louis. It’s not. The clue is in the title of the show. The contest is to find a performer with the X Factor. That indefinable something that touches an audience’s imagination. Bob Dylan would never have won a singing contest based on the quality of his voice. Neither would Frank Sinatra. Nor Kylie Minogue.

In fact, almost no one on The X Factor has the X Factor. Yes, they can be trained to sing like Rihanna or Adele or Jessie J, but there is always something missing. Very few contestants on reality TV shows have sustainable careers because that special something – that X Factor – is hard to find. It’s elusive. Let’s call it what it is: Charisma.

They say that trying to explain Buddhism is like trying to explain Beauty. Or Love. Or Happiness. Once you begin to analyse it, you’ve already missed the point. You know it when you experience it, but try to explain that experience to someone else and it just comes out wrong. Charisma is like that.

We’ve all seen charismatic actors. We go to see a play or a film just because they are in it. No other reason. We want to see them. You know who the charismatic actors are. And although there are a lot of brilliant actors in the profession and we can teach committed students how to act like them, can we teach the students how to become charismatic actors?

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Ten years ago, Jane Harrison (now the Principal of ArtsEd) and I set about writing a document that would establish the academic credentials of the acting course we were teaching at ArtsEd. Lots of drama schools do it. They get their course validated by a university so their students can get a bachelor’s degree. We were lucky enough to get involved with City University, and I knew we were talking to like-minded people when the Dean of Validation, Steve Stanton, questioned one of the sentences in our proposed document: “You have used the word ‘heart’ when assessing a student’s creative commitment, but surely a heart is just a machine that pumps blood round the body. Wouldn’t it be better to use the word ‘soul’?” (Yes indeedy! Thanks, Steve.) ArtsEd logo

When you write a course document that needs to be validated by an academic institution, you have to come up with assessment criteria in order to give each of the students a mark for their performances. Some aspects of a performance are easy to assess: Have they learnt the lines? Is their character believable? Could you hear them? Did they look confident? And so on. But time and again you come up with the same problem because there are some actors you just want to watch. They draw you in to their performance. They could stumble over their lines and their characterisation could be flimsy, but when they are on stage they… what is it? They nourish you. They excite you. They make your heart flutter. They take you out of yourself. They thrill you. They have charisma.

So we wanted to add ‘charisma’ into the list of assessment criteria for performances and in order to do that we had to define it to some degree. Here’s what we came up with:

‘Charisma –

The students are assessed on their ability to:

  • Use their own personal qualities as a performer to convey plot, character and mood.
  • Display an understanding that personal focus and concentration is engaging for an audience.
  • Demonstrate a positive use of their unique qualities as a performer.’

One of the jokes we often tell ourselves is that if we could teach students to be confident and sexy we wouldn’t have to teach them anything else because that’s what people want to see in an actor. But actually ‘sexy’ isn’t quite the right word, because the quality we are referring to is something that appeals to both sexes. Perhaps ‘appealing’ is a better word. Or ‘charming’. Or ‘engaging’. (I’m using the thesaurus now, but you can see where I’m coming from).

Whichever adjective you choose, there is no doubt that confidence is the driving force behind them all. An agent once said that ArtsEd students were ‘confident without being arrogant’ and that was the biggest compliment we could have got, because confidence without arrogance is sexy, appealing, charming, engaging and, of course – charismatic. I do think it’s possible to teach ‘confidence without arrogance’ (and I’ve touched on an approach to that in The Acting Book when I refer to the ‘Confidence Trick’).John Abbott at ArtsEd

We don’t teach our students to act in any particular style or expect them to become disciples of any special methodology. All we do is introduce them to a collection of styles and methodologies and let them choose what suits them best. It’s what I do in The Acting Book as well, which outlines the course at ArtsEd and the different techniques and approaches that all actors, at every level, should be familiar with. It’s knowledge of these techniques that gives the students confidence. Our aim is to empower them, not enslave them. If drama teachers can help acting students to value their own unique qualities and then show them how to realise their personal artistic vision, then we will be on our way to training students to become truly charismatic actors.

The Acting Book is published by Nick Hern Books. For a limited period only copies can be purchased with a 20% discount (RRP £10.99). Plus, our blog readers can claim free UK p&p (international rates apply) by using the voucher code ‘ActingBookPP’ at checkout. Click here to purchase your copy. 

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Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with Peter Brook

Peter Brook

Director Peter Brook, 1925–

In Part Three of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews experimental theatre and film director Peter Brook.

Peter Brook has stimulated British theatre for fifty years—first, in his twenties, in the West End, then with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and for the last twenty-five years from outside the country. He disclaims any desire to escape from the insularity of British theatre, but his self-exile appears to have inoculated him against the infection of self-doubt, the vagaries of fashion, the attrition of parochial sniping, the weariness of careerism, and the mid-life crisis that affects most theatre directors (not always in midlife), which comes from repetition, from constant barter and compromise. But, he always stresses, nothing is achieved in the theatre that doesn’t come from the practical rather than the theoretical. I interviewed him in January 2000 in Paris at his own theatre, the Bouffes du Nord. He was wearing a tangerine sweater with an indigo shirt, and, sitting in the circle of his theatre against the terracotta walls, he glowed with well-being and undiminished enthusiasm. All his sentences had a shape; he spoke with no hesitations—no ‘ums’, ‘ers’, or ‘wells’—by turns grave, impish and passionate.

Is it our marvellous luck in the English theatre to have had Shakespeare?

Oh, I’m sure. Absolutely sure. Although one sees that the plays are still powerful in other languages and are done all over the world, they can never be as powerful as they are in the English language. And because of this it’s become part of the English nature and the English temperament. All theatres all over the world, all good theatres have their hero figures, their pivotal figures, and we’re lucky in having the best.

What’s his particular genius?

The genius is that everything comes together. He’s not a product of Elizabethan times, but he was totally influenced by all that was around him. It was a time of enormous social change, intellectual change, artistic experiment—a period of such dynamic force that he was open to all the different levels of life. He was open to all that was going on in the streets, he was open to all the conflicting religious and political wars of the time, and spiritually he was deeply involved in the vast questions that were there for all mankind at a time when the dogmas, the Church dogmas, were exploding. When there was a spirit of inquiry. And all his plays, which is what makes them so remarkable, correspond to the ancient Indian definition of good theatre, which is that plays appeal simultaneously to the people who want entertainment, people who want excitement, people who want to understand psychology and social reality better, and people who really wish to open themselves to the metaphysical secrets of the universe. Now, that he can do that, not only within one play and within one scene but within one line, is what makes Shakespeare remarkable and corresponds to something hidden in the English character. Of course, foreign views of England are always stereotyped, but from the inside one knows that the cold English are the most emotional people. The English who scoff at anything that’s in any way supernatural are in fact deeply inquiring poetically and philosophically, and are extraordinarily concerned about true ethics, about the truth, reality, and practicality of social structures. And the fact that Shakespeare contains all those questions makes him very English.

What you’ve said suggests that the English should be particularly drawn to theatre as a medium.

All the richness of the English inner life is something that so embarrasses the English that they can’t give light of day in everyday social behaviour to either philosophy, poetry or metaphysical inquiry. So the theatre is the only area where the hidden Englishness can reveal itself respectably.

Yet for three hundred years the Irish dominated the English theatre.

You could almost say the English as a whole daren’t let their inner richness appear in public, and do everything to hide this behind all sorts of facades, which have been heavily implemented by the whole class structure of England over hundreds of years. The Irish are the opposite. The Irish allow their deep natural poetry and imagination to come out, all the time. If you go into an English pub you may meet some enjoyable companions, but you’re not going to hear any sudden bursts of lyricism in the conversation. It’s hard to avoid them in Ireland. Anyone you meet there has at his disposal and on the tip of his tongue all the richness of his natural imagination. And that goes very naturally into Irish writing. Synge famously says that, to capture the extraordinary colourful dialogue that the theatre needs, you’ve only to lie on the floor in an attic and listen to what’s being said in the room below. That is the reason that what is rather condescendingly called the ‘gift of the gab’ is part of the natural healthy exuberance and ebullience of their essentially tragic experience. I’d compare it to what I’ve seen in South Africa. Within a deeply tragic human experience, a people have maintained their capacity to survive joyfully in tragedy, and to turn even the worst experience into something that can be shared with humour, with joy and with vividness. Those are essential theatrical qualities.

What about the ‘revolution’ of 1956 at the Royal Court?

Oh, that was a real revolution. And the revolution can be called social in the sense that there was a very stratified class system in place. Something was emerging in the name of a lower class that was freeing itself from an intermediate class and refused to have anything to do with the establishment. And also freeing itself from what was rigid in the working-class ideology of the time. So this free-moving class, rising up in the social scale, wished to be heard, and in wishing to be heard it naturally wanted to be heard with a different language, with a different dynamic, in a different way from the established theatre. And as the established theatre hadn’t much going for it, there was every good reason to break all the conventions. When I did Romeo and Juliet, which was before that time, I had a very young actor playing Romeo very well. I wanted somebody very young, and during rehearsal he told me about his life, he talked about his origins: poor, working-class boy, who spoke with a regional or cockney accent. He talked about how hard he had struggled at drama school to learn to speak correctly so that he could go one day to Stratford and play a part like Romeo. And this seemed normal and natural because it was quite clear that he would be thrown out of the first audition if he came in and read Romeo with a regional or cockney accent. The big revolution starting with Albert Finney—an actor affirming his right to play the prince without sacrificing his own individuality, his own colour, his own personality, and saying: ‘The hell with it—if I’ve been born talking like this, I’m going to bloody well go on talking like this.’ And this was a big revolution in England.

So with Look Back in Anger what was shocking was the tone of voice and the accent rather than the form?

I think everything. It’s bewildering today to watch the gradual movement from the day when it was daring to say ‘bloody’, to the fact that today, if you don’t say ‘fuck’ every third line, your play most likely won’t be accepted. It was just about that time that ‘fuck’ was said for the first time on an English stage.

But you were constantly at war with the Lord Chamberlain?

Oh yes. I think that I was part of those who managed to get rid of him. And we got rid of him—after a long series of head-on attacks which got us nowhere—by ridicule. In the end we found different ways of making him not only a complete anachronism but a ridiculous anachronism. One day when I visited the Lord Chamberlain, he received me—because he was going on to a reception at the Palace—in full Palace uniform: we were sitting there discussing a play of Genet’s and whether or not these words would be suitable, and the anachronism was complete. But everything was interconnected: when there’s a gradual change it has its influence everywhere. And then there’re the landmarks: Look Back in Anger just was that shock landmark which dramatised the whole process of change that was going on all through the artistic life of the country and of the theatre.

In Britain, I don’t know if it’s true in France, there’s a gulf between people who feel that the theatre is for them and people who feel excluded from it. Do you have any idea of how we can dissolve that division?

I think that these are local issues. They can’t be solved nationally or by decree; they can only be solved event by event if the people are concerned by that. Here it’s been a question that we feel very strongly about, to which the answers are very simple. From the start we tried as best we could within our budget to keep our prices extremely low. And from the start we had the lowest prices in all Paris. When we did Carmen, you could see Carmen for thirty francs. That’s 3p—an incredibly small sum. And every production we do here, we do one or two free performances for the whole of the quartier, who are invited. We put up little notices: people from around are welcome to come. We’ve worked a lot with African and the North African people, around the theatre there’s an enormous African and North African population. We have done a great deal in the past. We’ve gone and played improvisations in hostels round here, and at the end of these things we’ve said: ‘This is theatre, you’re welcome, come to the theatre.’ And hardly ever have we succeeded in this way, although we’ve made very good relationships on the spot. None of the people we’ve invited come; that’s why it’s very good to raise the problem and one always comes back to it. The theatre worldwide has established this reputation that if you go through these doors you’re expected to behave in a certain way. That’s totally untrue. I think that in Covent Garden they’re now trying to make it appear that you don’t have to put on a black tie. Whether this will help to make it more accessible or not, I’ve no idea. I think the best answer is low seat prices, and recognising that the theatre has to pay for its sins. It’s no use saying: ‘Ah, but the same young people who you’re giving seats to at this very low price will go and buy a pair of shoes for three times the price.’ Because shoes haven’t let anyone down over the centuries and the theatre has.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with Peter Brook in 2000. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Don’t forget to visit the NHB blog EVERY DAY this week for more exclusive extracts from the book! Tomorrow’s post will feature actress Fiona Shaw on why all the great Irish writers such as Yeats and Shaw flee the homeland…


Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with John Gielgud

John Gielgud

John Gielgud, 1904—2000

Part Two of our week-long Talking Theatre Special is an extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with the late John Gielgud.

Actor and director John Gielgud performed all the major Shakespeare roles, and was instrumental in introducing Chekhov to English audiences. In later life he acted in plays by Alan Bennett, Charles Wood, David Storey and Harold Pinter. I interviewed him on the stage of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, well before the start of filming the rest of the interviews—‘in case I drop off the twig,’ as he put it. He seemed then—the summer of 1998—to be eternal. He warned me that he was ‘just an actor’ who’d never had an idea in his head, which was typically self-deprecating. No one could have mistaken Gielgud for an intellectual, but although his conversation was showered with actorly anecdotes, it was impossible to discount his mercurial intelligence and his extraordinary recall of theatre history, even if life outside the theatre had passed him by.

What was the theatre like that you encountered as a child?

Well, it was very much a theatre of stars. Actor-managers were beginning to die out, but I looked for the big names on the marquee, so I got to know the theatre very well because I stood in the pit and gallery and went whenever I could; my parents were very long suffering. They both went to the theatre quite a lot, but they were never in the theatre, although my mother had strong links with all her Terry relations [Gielgud’s great aunt, Dame Ellen Terry, was the leading Shakespearean actress of her times]. I was fearfully lucky because from the very beginning I got my first jobs through personal introductions and so I never had to sort of stand in the queue to get work. I was earning seven or eight pounds a week from quite early times, and I got scholarships at two dramatic schools, so I didn’t have to pay fees, I didn’t cost my parents anything, and I lived at home. I really had a very easy time those first ten or twelve years, and I learned a bit of hard work.

What did you think of what you saw in the theatre in those days?

I didn’t think then what acting really was like. I loved spectacle and I was immediately taken in by colour and groupings, and the childhood drama of the curtain going up and the lights going down, which would vanish from the scene in years to come. I think that it was spectacle and romance and love scenes and people waving capes and looking out over balconies and things that appealed to me so much.

What was the social mix in the audience?

It was very much divided.

Upper-middle-class?

Very much. I mean, the stalls and dress circle were the middle-class and aristocratic public, and then there was the upper circle and the pit and gallery, which were the cheap parts, which hissed and booed or applauded on the first night and were very important for the commercial success. And there were enormous commercial successes: plays that ran a year. And things like Chu Chin Chow that ran three and four years.

Did you see Chu Chin Chow?

Yes, I never stopped seeing it.

The theatre at that time wasn’t was all light comedy, was it? It was also the age of Ibsen and Shaw.

Yes. I was in great difficulty because all my life I’ve been so stupid and flippant. I never cared to think of what was going on in the world or in the two wars, which I in a way lived through. But I had such a childlike adoration of the theatre and of actors and actresses and the ones I met in my parents’ house. My own relations were all very exciting to me and they lived this make-believe world. But when it came to Ibsen and Shaw I rather jibbed; I hadn’t got the appetite for dialogue and I found them very talky. I never got over that. I never have got over it. I’ve never really liked plays that are entirely talk.

You and Olivier must have been fiercely competitive at the time when you first worked together.

I was by then just becoming a leading man; my name was bigger than his, and without knowing it—we were very friendly, always, we got on extremely well—I had a feeling that he rather thought I was showing off, which indeed I was.

Well, he probably was as well.

Yes, but his showing-off was always so dazzling. [chuckles] My showing off was more technical and was more soft and, oh… effeminate, I suppose.

I’m surprised you say that because I would have characterised it the other way round, that his showing-off always seemed to me to be ahead of his interest in playing the truth of a character.

Well, I think his great performances were mostly comedy. I was never so impressed by his Oedipus or the Othello, which were two of his greatest successes. But I was enormously impressed by The Dance of Death and by Hotspur and Shallow and Puff [in Sheridan’s The Critic], and Richard III of course. And I loved working with him, the little that I did. But I always thought he went behind my back and directed the actors his way. When he played Malvolio for me at Stratford with Vivien Leigh as Viola, I was certain that he’d gone away and told her how he thought it ought to be played and that she was torn between the two characters trying to work with her.

Did you feel hurt when the National Theatre started and Olivier didn’t bring you into the company initially—and then only asked you to do Oedipus with Peter Brook?

Yes, I was a bit hurt, but I always had so many other sorts of offers. I’m not, funnily enough, very jealous, I never have been. I had great ambitions but I was never jealous. And I was always surprised to find that some actors were very jealous.

When the new National Theatre started, Peter Hall took you into the company.

Yes, but he gave me a very flat year—Julius Caesar and that old part in Volpone—so I really had no fun at all. I hated the National Theatre building: I hated that feeling of being in a sort of airport. And the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s like a nursing home. [laughs]

It’s hard for us to believe that there was ever a time when Shakespeare wasn’t very popular, in the same way it’s hard to imagine there was a time when Mozart wasn’t very popular.

It wasn’t till John Barrymore came from America and did Hamlet with a complete English cast—except for two characters, I think—that suddenly it was box-office.

You did the film of  Julius Caesar directed by Joe Mankiewicz, which I admire enormously. Do you regard that as a successful translation of Shakespeare to the screen?

I think it’s one of the best. I saw it again after many years. It isn’t bad at all, except for the last part of the battle, which was done for tuppence in the last two to three days. But the main part of the film I enjoyed very much, and they were all very sweet to me. I got on excellently with Brando and with Mankiewicz, and the girls were very charming, and it was very exciting to be in Hollywood and see all the stars and I made quite a lot of money, and it was a new experience altogether.

Did you help Brando with his performance?

One day I did. He only had one scene in which I appeared with him. We worked on that one day, and he said: ‘What did you think of my performance?’ And I said: ‘I don’t want to discuss it.’ And he said: ‘Oh.’ ‘Let me think about it,’ I said. The next week I wasn’t working, and they came to me and said Brando had just done the speech over Caesar’s body and ‘It’s so wonderful you must come and see the rushes.’ So I went and saw them, and I didn’t like what I saw at all, but I naturally didn’t say so. But he then said, would I help him with the speeches in the scene we had together. And so I did. I didn’t know he was really listening, but the next morning he’d put in all the things that I’d suggested to him immediately. He was bright as a button. But I would have loved to have worked with him over some of the rest of it. They were all so pleased with him, but naturally I didn’t interfere. I didn’t want them to think I was teaching them how to speak Shakespeare.

What’s always struck me about the way you speak Shakespeare is that you always let the meaning lead.

You’ve got to be awfully sure of your material. I’ve found a great deal of Shakespeare very hard to follow and very difficult to act. But if a part appealed to me pictorially then I immediately grabbed it and that was all. I’ve never lost my very childish attitude towards the theatre, which is so-called make-believe romance, or pretending to be somebody else and having people round me who were also in the same kind of dream world.

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with John Gielgud. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Don’t forget to visit the NHB blog EVERY DAY this week for more exclusive extracts from Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People! Don’t miss tomorrow’s post featuring experimental theatre impresario Peter Brook – on why theatre is so important to the English.

Spotlight: LONDON VIA LAGOS – a festival of vibrant new plays linking Nigeria and the UK, at Oval House Theatre

London Via Lagos festival logoThe London via Lagos festival at Oval House Theatre in Kennington, running until 10 July, celebrates contemporary British Nigerian playwriting with two exciting new plays by Arinze Kene and Lydia Adetunji. Here, exclusively for the NHB blog, the authors tell us about what inspired them, and how they went about writing their plays.

Arinze Kene: on Little Baby Jesus

I would describe Little Baby Jesus as an original narrative through the eyes of ‘young London’. It’s about three inner-city teenagers. It has three separate timelines, which all start to intertwine and come together as we discover our three main characters have a lot more in common than was originally apparent.Little Baby Jesus jacket

‘Identity’ was a big theme that kept coming up in the rehearsal room – ‘identity’ and ‘individuality’. All the characters in the play are struggling to find themselves. By the end of the play, they are very different people from when they started out on their journey.

For me, growing up was all a battle between who I was inside and who I thought I should be – in order to fit in. It went from the trainers I wore right down to the type of girls I was meant to fancy (In Little Baby Jesus, in Kehinde’s case, it’s mixed-race girls, or ‘mixed-race-girl syndrome’). I dumbed myself down a lot to fit in, and don’t believe I gave up the front until after my teens – luckily there was still enough ‘me’ left to salvage.

Here’s a line that came up in rehearsal on ‘not being yourself’: you can front all you want but eventually you’ll crash and burn’.

Akemnji Ndifernyen (Rugrat)

Akemnji Ndifernyen (Rugrat) in rehearsal for Little Baby Jesus. Photo by Robert Day

So Little Baby Jesus looks at the inciting incidents which force our characters to grow up and not shy away from being themselves.

The idea for the play first originated as a poem in 2006, before I began writing plays. It’s inspired by a school trip, a pilgrimage that I went on when I was 14. We were on a long ‘religious walk’ (a compulsory outing at my Roman Catholic secondary school) and I and my two friends got lost. I always wanted to write about it and firstly it came out as a RAP (Rhythm And Poetry) – “lost on a pilgrimage, yet attaining the virtues of a pilgrim”. Then, in 2009, I was assisting with a workshop at the Young Vic, working with youths from pupil referral units, and the consistencies of the workshop disturbed the “quicksand part of my mind” and the idea came to the surface. Every evening after the workshop, I’d walk to the South Bank and write for about three hours, then get home and scribe for another two. It literally poured out of me. I had things I was meant to be doing but I was a slave to the idea. In the summer of 2010 I went to Paris for a week to finish writing the play (I ♥ Paris). I’d sit outside a café and spend 30 minutes people watching, then 10 minutes writing – repeating this all day for a week. In the evenings, I’d go out to a hip hop club, or have drinks with friends – just so’s I could detach myself from it and come back fresh the next day with a new look. I finished writing it in Paris, but it went through some more drafts after that.

Seroca Davis (Joanne) & Fiston Barek (Kehinde) in rehearsals for Little Baby Jesus

Seroca Davis (Joanne) & Fiston Barek (Kehinde). Photo by Robert Day

Before I wrote plays I was into live music. I still am. Music is my first love and is an inspiration behind a lot of my ideas. There’s often something light playing in the background while I’m writing. I love listening to Terence Blanchard or Tania Maria when I’m writing dialogue. I feel like my writing is poetic and rhythmic because of this. I also listen to a lot of hip hop and love the wordplay. I read Langston Hughes poems over and over again. I’m also a fan of A. Van Jordan. I think this is what gives me my edge.

I would say that this is the first thing I’ve written that I really love through and through. It’s so inspired by things that I went through when I was growing up that certain parts make me feel uncomfortable and others will never stop making me laugh. I’m happy to share these ‘inside jokes’ and such.

Fixer image by Chris Hondros

'Fixer' – photo by Chris Hondros, photojournalist, 14 March 1970 – 20 April 2011.

Lydia Adetunji: on Fixer

The central character in Fixer is Chuks, a Nigerian man who works as a go-between for foreign journalists who come to the country in search of a story. At the start of the play, a militant group has attacked a new oil pipeline, and Chuks becomes entangled in the competing demands of the militants and the reporters who are there to cover the story. It’s about Chuks’ personal dilemma, but takes in themes like corruption and how far people will go to compromise their principles.

Fixer started as a short play that won the Almeida Theatre’s WRITE competition in 2006, when it was not much more than a few scenes where a couple of journalists try to buy up a fixer. That evolved into something that brought together various interests – I’d spent time in Nigeria as a child and wanted to explore the struggles of everyday life there. And having worked in journalism I was interested in the role of fixers in getting news stories. An early version of Fixer played at the HighTide theatre festival in 2008, and since then the emphasis of the play has shifted more strongly onto Chuks and his dilemma.

My years working as a journalist have definitely shaped the way I work, which tends to be quite research intensive. But it has also influenced the themes I gravitate to – those points where cultures collide in an increasingly globalised world, and why systems work the way they do. I think many of the ideas in Fixer have significance beyond Nigeria – it explores how people are buffeted by interconnected forces far outside their control. But drama and characters come first, and I do want the audience to be entertained as well as stimulated. Fixer jacket

Oval House Theatre, BEcreative and Spora Stories present London Via Lagos – a festival of new British-Nigerian plays, celebrating the work of African-heritage, UK-based, world-class playwrights. Little Baby Jesus is playing to 15 June, and Fixer from 21 June – 10 July at Oval House, south London. For 2-for-1 tickets to see Fixer between 24 – 30 June, use the promotional code JOURNALIST when booking online or by phone (Tel: 020 7582 7680) through the venue.

Nick Hern Books proudly publish the playscript for Arinze Kene’s Little Baby Jesus and Lydia Adetunji’s Fixer. To purchase your copies with free P&P (UK customers only) click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout.

And for the chance to win a pair of tickets to see one of the plays, enter our May 2011 newsletter competition by clicking here!

TERENCE RATTIGAN special

Dan RebellatoAs the plays of Terence Rattigan once again take centre stage during his centenary year, Dan Rebellato, academic, playwright and editor of the NHB Rattigan collection, argues that Rattigan has been unfairly cast as the writer of stuffy, conservative drama, and that his plays are consummate in their emotional power and sensitivity.

How did I first come across Terence Rattigan’s work? Aged 12, I was Taplow in a school production of The Browning Version. I got to start the play, which was a bonus; I ate a chocolate, got taught how to grip a golf club, and had to speak bits of Ancient Greek, which was nicely show-offy; also I was textually obliged to take the piss out of the older boy playing Crocker-Harris. I thought it was a hoot and was surprised when we took our curtain call on first night to see members of the audience in tears.

Flash forward a decade or so and I’d begun a PhD looking again at the theatrical revolutions of 1956. Armed with a revisionist historiography, I’d noted that the success of the Royal Court, Look Back in Anger and so on, was so overwhelming that it had cast the twenty or so years beforehand completely into shadow. I have always been interested in post-war British theatre, reading voraciously plays, histories and books of reviews; but apart from An Inspector Calls, The Mousetrap and my vague memory of being in The Browning Version, I knew next to nothing about that era and I wanted to find out whether it really was sentimental, conservative and, in Arthur Miller’s famous – but presumably not all that well informed – remark, ‘hermetically sealed off from life’.

Browning Version & Harlequinade jacket

Browning Version & Harlequinade by Terence Rattigan

It was a wonderful adventure in research. The drama of the forties and early fifties was so little a part of my theatre education that going into the archives and research libraries to find the plays, magazines and debates of the time I felt –  and PhD researchers often report these feelings – like Howard Carter coming across the tomb of Tutankhamun. Play after play dazzled me with its originality, its strangeness, its political sophistication, its formal elegance and beauty, its unfamiliar playfulness with the audience. It was, I thought, a radically different theatre, with its own rules, and as much of a claim to serious attention as the remarkable work done at the Royal Court.

Chief among these discoveries was Terence Rattigan. Re-reading The Browning Version I could now see why the audience was crying: it’s a perfect miniature – still perhaps the finest one-act play I know – and one that aches with yearning and a profound sense of the pain and humiliation in the very tiniest moments of casual disregard. In the same summer I read him chronologically through the forties and fifties – Flare Path, While the Sun Shines, The Winslow Boy, Love In Idleness, The Browning Version, The Deep Blue Sea, Separate Tablesand with each play my eyes widened further, my jaw dropped lower at his technical accomplishments, and the ever-greater emotional richness of his work.

Flare Path jacket

Flare Path by Terence Rattigan

The journey from apprentice to master is almost inexorable. Flare Path is elegant, heartfelt, sincere and warm, full of empathy, a patriotic melodrama perhaps, but one finely wrought for its audience. By the time you get to The Deep Blue Sea, Rattigan is writing as challengingly and profoundly about human feeling as anyone in the century. It’s telling that critics reproved Rattigan for not killing off the Count in Flare Path, who returns miraculously before the final curtain and also for not killing off Hester Collyer, whose suicide is threatened throughout The Deep Blue Sea. But in 1942, he was too conservative for the critics. A decade later, the critics had become too conservative for him.

A play on the page is one thing, of course, and on the stage it’s another.

I approached Karel Reisz’s 1993 Almeida production of The Deep Blue Sea with some trepidation. What if the play didn’t really stand up in production? Perhaps the carpentry would become too apparent when real actors have to play those lines? As it happened though, the production in its original setting (for it lost a little something when it transferred into the West End, and more still when it was refitted for TV) was the finest Rattigan production I’ve ever seen. More than anything else, this was the production that secured Rattigan’s reputation for the twenty-first century.

From the very beginning, as the neighbours let themselves into Hester’s flat, I was shocked by the horror of the story unfolding before me, the slowly brutal estrangement of Hester and Freddie. In the last moments before the interval, Hester is getting her lover ready for his interview, polishing his shoes, adjusting his collar. Freddie breaks the news that he’s leaving her and makes to go, grabbing his shoes. ‘I haven’t finished them,’ she screams, a detail filled with her desperation. I found myself convulsed with tears.

After The Dance jacket

After the Dance by Terence Rattigan

One of the great pleasures of editing these new editions for Nick Hern Books has been the chance to spend weeks and weeks in the company of these beautiful plays. Thanks to the superbly archived Rattigan Papers in the British Library, I’ve been able to trace the emergence of these plays through successive drafts, letters to friends, arguments with directors and actors, and their rise and fall and rise again through successive productions.

Does Rattigan have anything to tell us now about how to write plays? Sure he does. It’s important to distinguish his techniques from the inflated shorthand about the ‘well-made play’. Rattigan never followed the well-made play rules slavishly, he had his own sense of how to tell a story. There’s no ‘obligatory scene’ in After the Dance; there is nothing nineteenth-century about the structure of Cause Célèbre; Hester doesn’t follow Paula Tanqueray into a convenient grave. Rattigan’s real dramaturgical genius is to generate fathoms of subtext that the actor and the audience can fill. He knew the value of a simple sentence – ‘I haven’t finished them’ – that can bring an agonised gasp of understanding from an audience.

Rattigan always used that theatrical understanding to generate emotional and sexual understanding. Look no further than Separate Tables’s final scene; it’s a scene all about alternative sexuality, liberalism, tolerance, and the rejection of prejudice. And it’s entirely conducted through small talk about the weather and horse racing. The audience member who doesn’t find themselves inwardly cheering like a mad thing has a heart of stone.

Cause Célèbre jacket

Cause Célèbre by Terence Rattigan

This year is Rattigan’s centenary. He would, I am sure, been gratified to see the flurry of productions that are marking the occasion. Deep Blue Seas in Yorkshire and Chichester (and a movie on the way), Flare Path, Less Than Kind, Cause Célèbre in London, In Praise of Love in Northampton, The Browning Version and Nicholas Wright’s adapted version of Rattigan’s unproduced screenplay Nijinsky in Chichester, and seasons of his work on radio, TV, film, and even a new exhibition on the playwright’s works at the British Library.  It’s clear that his critical rejection in the 1960s hit him very hard. In some ways I think it killed him. The esteem in which he is now held has been a long time coming and I think Nick Hern’s decision (brave in the early 90s) to republish the plays in individual critical editions has played a part in that. Thankfully though, this change in his critical fortunes began before he died; I say ‘thankfully’ because he was a man devoted to audiences, not slavishly trying to please, but always to engage with them, seduce them, shake and move them. So, when In Praise of Love and Cause Célèbre were, rightly, well received, it buoyed him.

The latter was still running when his death was announced in 1977. The next night, at the end of the curtain call, Glynis Johns (the actor playing Alma Rattenbury) stepped forward and asked the audience to join her in three cheers for the play’s author. ‘We decided against standing in silence,’ she explained. ‘He was, after all, a man who liked applause.’

Click here to view the full collection of Terence Rattigan plays published by Nick Hern Books. As a special offer to our blog readers, we are offering a 25% discount (with free p&p, UK customers only) across our full list of Rattigan plays. Simply add ‘Rattigan Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (your discount will be applied when your order is processed).

Click here to view the full range of events marking this year’s Rattigan Centenary.

PART 3: Bruntwood Playwriting Competition 2011

Vivienne Franzmann photo, 2008

Vivienne Franzmann receiving her award

VIVIENNE FRANZMANN…was a Drama teacher in London for twelve years. She left teaching in 2009 to pursue writing after winning the 2008 Bruntwood Playwriting Competition for Mogadishu. The play also won the George Devine Award in 2010.

What did it mean to win the Bruntwood Prize? The first thing was that it was a total shock. I never expected to be one of the winners and, it was, and has been, brilliant. My ambition was to write a complete and finished play and be able to type the words ‘The end’. I would often start to write and then get sidetracked by real life/work/food – juggling a full-time career as a busy secondary school teacher with a passion for playwriting is no easy feat! So initially I was just pleased to have completed a whole play. When I was shortlisted in the competition, I allowed myself to imagine what it would be like to win, but never felt it was a real possibility, so I just enjoyed the fantasy of it all. My overwhelming memory of the ceremony was that in the rehearsed reading, the audience laughed at the stuff I thought was funny, which felt great. And then later when they announced my name as one of the winners, my dad, who’s Australian leant over and whispered, “You fucking beauty!”

And then all the hard work and lots of rewriting began…..

Winning has given me the chance to do things I never thought I’d do and be part of an industry that I didn’t think I’d ever be part of – I thought I’d teach for the rest of my life. The Bruntwood is an amazing competition because it’s open to everyone and everyone has an equal chance and the Manchester Royal Exchange is a fantastic place full of talented people who care about new writing and want to find new writers. Being one of the winners gave me the chance to develop my play alongside some great people and really develop my skill as a writer. The prize money gave me time and space to get the play to a place that I wanted it to get to and I enjoyed the whole process. So sometimes it was hard, but mostly it was just bloody great.

Since the award ceremony in 2008, I’ve been commissioned by Clean Break and the Royal Court. I’ve got an agent. I’ve poked my nose tentatively into the world of telly and I won another prize in 2010, the George Devine Award. And I bought a dog and called her Mabel (she’s a fucking beauty!). So, in essence, winning the Bruntwood opened doors to me and took my life in a completely different direction – and it made me a writer.

Book jacket of Mogadishu

Mogadishu by Vivienne Franzmann

Mogadishu received its world premiere at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, January 2011: ‘the play has urgency and neatly balances rough-tongued adolescent rudeness with adult anxiety’ – Guardian. It will later transfer to the Lyric Hammersmith, London, opening on 3 March 2011.