Nick Hern on his conversations with Arthur Miller

HernToday, 17 October 2015, marks one hundred years since the birth of one of the twentieth-century’s greatest playwrights: Arthur Miller. In this extract from Mel Gussow’s book Conversations with Miller, which is published in a new Centenary Edition to celebrate the occasion, publisher and NHB founder Nick Hern shares his own memories of Miller – of his fierce intellect, but also of tennis matches, a shared love of cars, and helping to keep his reputation alive…

‘But you can’t call it Timebends, Arthur. That makes it sound like a science-fiction novel!’ It was 1985 and we were, of course, discussing Miller’s autobiography, which, as drama editor at Methuen, I had commissioned him to write.

‘Listen, Nick,’ he answered in his implacable drawl. ‘No one much liked Death of a Salesman as a title either. They said nobody would come to a play with death in the title, and who was interested in salesmen anyway?’

Well, there was no answer to that, and the autobiography was duly published – as Timebends – on 5 November 1987. Arthur liked hearing that this was – appropriately – Fireworks Day, just as he liked other quirky British-isms. Once when he and Inge [Morath, Miller’s third wife] and I were playing hooky from a conference in his honour at the University of East Anglia, we came across a signpost to the Norfolk village of Great Snoring – which provoked Much Grinning. And he would insist on referring to my own place of residence as Chiss-wick, always accompanied by a twinkle in the eye and that grin that would split his face in half. The last time I saw him alive – in November 2003 at the 92nd Street ‘Y’ in New York, where he had just given a public interview to a packed and (for him) overly reverential audience – the first thing he said to me was, ‘Hey, Nick, do you still live in that funny place, what was it?’ ‘Chiss-wick, Arthur?’ ‘Yeah, that’s it, Chiss-wick!’ And that grin again, totally belying his eighty-eight years.

Hern, Miller & Bigsby

From left: Nick Hern, Arthur Miller, Christopher Bigsby

I first met Arthur Miller in the winter of 1983. Chris Bigsby [Miller’s biographer] had alerted me to the fact that there were some unpublished plays that pre-dated All My Sons, which he, Bigsby, was seeking to persuade Arthur to allow to be published. I put it to the powers that be at Methuen that if they stumped up for Chris and me to go on a transatlantic fishing trip, the catch might be some unpublished Arthur Miller. To their credit, they duly stumped up – and eventually they got their money back. But it wasn’t as simple a decision as it must now seem.

The general perception throughout the seventies was that Miller had gone off the boil, had not written anything much since After the Fall, and that even that play was badly flawed, being a self-seeking justification of his treatment of Marilyn Monroe. Americans, I think, actually blamed him somehow for her death, however much that ran counter to the facts. In Britain he was admired – and endlessly prescribed on O and A level syllabuses – as the author of The Crucible and Salesman, but otherwise he was pretty much a blank, past his best, possibly even dead. Far from it, of course.

As I got to know Arthur better, it emerged that not only were there the forgotten plays from the thirties, there were also much more recent plays which had had largely unregarded premieres in the States in what we would call the provinces ­– and then slipped from sight. So, back in London and with Arthur’s very active co-operation, I was able to publish in 1984 – for the first time anywhere in the world – The Archbishop’s Ceiling, and a double-bill of one-act plays, Two-Way Mirror, which brought the Arthur Miller canon up to date and which led eventually to the British premieres of these plays at the Bristol Old Vic (1986), and the Young Vic (1989) respectively. The covers, at Chris Bigsby’s suggestion, were adorned with arresting Escher drawings, another of which appeared two years later on the cover of a second double-bill, Danger: Memory!, published in advance of its world premiere at the Lincoln Center. It is now difficult to credit a situation where the recent work of a writer of the stature of Arthur Miller could as it were be lying around unpublished and unperformed. But such was the slump in his reputation.

The money Methuen initially lost on these publications ­– as I’ve indicated, they weren’t exactly snapped up by an eager public – was partly offset by two paperback collections of his work, Miller Plays: One and Two. Miller’s London agent, Elaine Greene, who I think was having a bit of a spat with Penguin at the time, alerted me to the fact that paperback anthologies were not specifically covered in Penguin’s publication contracts for Miller’s plays. It was a loophole I was glad to exploit. Arthur and I discussed what to put on the covers. The series that the volumes were destined for had made a point of finding a correspondence between the writer and a particular painter. The covers of Pinter’s plays, for instance, all featured Magritte. For Arthur’s work, I suggested Van Gogh, whose Potato Eaters in particular seemed to capture some of the implicitly campaigning sympathy for ordinary people to be found also in Arthur’s plays. ‘Too gloomy,’ he pronounced. Somewhat floored, I suggested instead the painter he was most close to: his and Inge’s daughter, then barely in her twenties. And so it is that these editions carried original artwork by the now distinguished novelist and filmmaker, Rebecca Miller ­– probably her first ever professional commission.

I saw a lot of Arthur throughout the eighties. He would come over to London quite frequently – with or without Inge – to see various productions of his plays. I particularly remember driving him down to Bristol for the British premiere of his 1944 play, The Man Who Had All the Luck. It was a lovely day (we had the roof off the car), and we were ahead of schedule, so I turned off the M4 to show him one of my favourite spots, the stone circle at Avebury. Entranced by its magic, we lost track of time. With the result that we found ourselves careening down the motorway well in excess of the speed limit so as not to miss curtain up. Arthur loved it. He was a man’s man when it came to cars and had been emphatic in his approval of my upgrade from a Ford Orion to this BMW convertible. Whenever I turned up at his house in Roxbury, Connecticut, one of his first questions was always: ‘What car are you driving now?’

My trips to Roxbury became even more frequent than his to London. He and Inge (and Inge’s mother) were generous but unfussy hosts, and I would always stay over, sometimes for more than one night. Often there were dinner parties gathered round the huge oval cherry-wood table that Arthur had fashioned himself from trees grown on his own land. I never quite got used to finding Richard Widmark or Volker Schlöndorf or Martha Clarke also at the table. But informality was the keynote. Inge and her mother did all the cooking themselves, much of it again from produce grown in their garden – though ‘garden’ doesn’t really cover it. The only grandiloquence of which Arthur could ever be accused was his evident pride in the fact that he had gradually bought more and more acreage surrounding his home until he could say, standing on the hill on whose summit sat the rangy timber-built house, that he owned all the land he could see. As a boy from Brooklyn, whose parents had been devastated by the Depression, this provided an enduring sense of security.

Just down the hill was a pool: not the bright-blue, purpose-built job of American suburbia, but a natural depression in the hillside filled from an underground spring. It was the freshest water I’ve ever swum in, and I’m sure that regular immersion in it contributed to Arthur’s healthful longevity.

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Arthur Miller and his wife, Inge Morath, at their Roxbury, Connecticut house. Photograph: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

He also played a mean game of tennis well into his seventies. An enthusiastic but not very practised latecomer to the game myself, I remember facing up to his serve in a doubles game which happened to feature another playwright, A.R. (Pete) Gurney, as Miller’s partner. With his racket an improbable – and surely unfair? – nine feet in the air at the point of impact, Arthur would send the ball across the net at a frankly unreturnable angle and velocity. I wasn’t invited to play again.

But my most treasured memory is of the visits made during the writing of the autobiography. We fell into a routine. I would drive up from the city arriving in time for lunch, after which Arthur would produce the pages he’d written since my last trip. I would then retire to his study – which was a log cabin away from the house – and sit on its porch in the sunshine luxuriating in Arthur’s rich and multi-layered life story. After I’d finished I’d make my way back to the house and join in with whatever the family and that evening’s guests were doing until dinner time. Because the book was to be co-published with Harper and Row in New York and because they were going to employ an editor to work with Arthur on the detail, my role was the blissfully simple one of providing support and encouragement during the actual writing – and discussing the occasional ‘big question’ of structure or tone. But there was never anything I found problematic: the book seemed to flow from him fully formed. My memory is that what I read, episode by episode on the porch in Roxbury, was, apart from the odd correction of a date or a name, the book that was published as Timebends.

My lasting impression of Arthur Miller is of a man of impressive intellect and wisdom who was at the same time a ‘regular guy’. A conversation with Arthur was one of the most stimulating experiences life could offer. Because of his droll matter-of-factness combined with wide-ranging erudition, I constantly felt a step or two behind, but the effort to keep up made me a better, wittier, more articulate conversational partner. Or so it seemed at the time. Arthur ‘turned me on’ more than than anyone else I’ve met. Plus there was always his only slightly world-weary sense of the ridiculous. His accounts of his and Harold Pinter’s trip to Turkey to protest at the torturing of writers or of his ironic jousting in Lithuania with Tankred Golenpolksy (whom he suspected of working for the KGB and whom I had also encountered in Moscow the previous winter) were as full of laughter as of outrage. Everyone knows how seriously he took politics and world affairs, but he enjoyed pricking pomposity and nailing vanity. He had a good joke about Norman Mailer, who was apparently renowned for looking himself up in the indexes of other people’s books. Arthur told of one book where, anticipating Mailer’s attentions, the relevant entry read simply: ‘Mailer, Norman – Hi Norm!’

Though famous, Arthur was not so well-known that he was unable to move around without being recognised. He would and could take public transport when he wanted. He told a story of waiting for the scheduled bus to take him from the airport in New York to upstate Connecticut. He asked the young man at the desk to be sure to tell him when the next bus was ready to depart. The young man went back to his book. Time passed. It became clear the young man had become so engrossed in his book that the bus had come and gone without his noticing. Arthur went to remonstrate and saw the title of the engrossing book: The Crucible. ‘Isn’t that something?’ Arthur would say as he came to the punchline. And his face would fall in half with that infectious grin.

FormattedThe above is an extract from Conversations with Miller by Mel Gussow. The new Centenary edition, also featuring a Foreword by Richard Eyre, is out now.

Read a further extract from Conversations with Miller on the Guardian website.

This essay was first published in Remembering Arthur Miller, edited by Christopher Bigsby (Methuen Publishing Ltd, 2005).

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Edinburgh Fringe Report 2015 Part 2: The Final Reckoning

1143114837LOGO_ORANGE[1]The Edinburgh Fringe is over for another year, but how did our intrepid amateur companies get on performing plays licensed by Nick Hern Books? We hear from three of them as they recount the highs – and the lows – of mounting a production on the Fringe. (If you missed the first instalment, it’s available here).

pp posterPassing Places by Stephen Greenhorn
Great Child Productions

The fringe is an experience like no other.

3,314 shows competing for an audience over the 313 venues. It is a challenge to sell a show, regardless of whether you have a ‘name’ or a recognisable brand. So the process of promoting the show throughout the day to the throngs of potential audience members is tough.

With a show like Passing Places there is no issue with staying motivated. Our team came up with some fantastic ways to promote the show, including going out in character onto the famous Royal Mile to help tourists cross the busy road.

Passing Places cast members Andrew Dart, Ciaran Drysder and Brodie Cummins on the Royal Mile

Passing Places cast members Andrew Dart, Ciaran Drysder and Brodie Cummins on the Royal Mile

The show got respectable audiences each night of our six-night run and a decent 3★ review from the Edinburgh Guide.

We were lucky enough to be warmly welcomed by our wonderful venue, Greenside @ Nicolson Square. The venue’s staff and techs were monumental in helping us deliver every element of our production, particularly the Citroën Saxo which sat on stage throughout the performance. With a 10-minute get-in before each show, and a 20-minute get-out afterwards, it was no mean feat to assemble a car and full set within our slot. Staying to time was key, so it was crucial that everyone played their part to the full.

Director Tom Sergeant and castLiving together for a week, promoting a show and putting it on is an intense and draining experience, but I wouldn’t change anything about it at all. I’d fully recommend it to any theatre group thinking about broadening their horizons and exploring new audiences.

– Tom Sergeant, CEO of Great Child Productions


ff-posterprintresFoxfinder by Dawn King
Master of None

When performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, August can seem like both the longest and shortest month of the year. It’s weird. After the amount of planning that goes into a show (our own preparations for #EdFringe2015 began in 2014), it sometimes feels like you’ll never stop working on it.

However, 1st September sneaks up very quickly; it always seems premature (no matter how exhausted you or your company may be). This was certainly true this year. Despite having spent over a month rehearsing and performing in Scotland’s capital, we felt that we were interrupted mid-stride by the Fringe ending.

Promoting Foxfinder on the Royal Mile

Promoting Foxfinder on the Royal Mile

We’d had a hell of a month, though. Highs included receiving five-star reviews, climbing Arthur’s Seat, and our end-of-run party; lows involved some prop-based mishaps (our dead rabbits went missing in a smoking area one grizzly Wednesday evening), and being told to get a job while pitching the show on the Royal Mile. On a Tuesday morning. At 11am. By a man who wasn’t working either. And anyway, we were working extremely hard!

Foxfinder, with a running time of 90 minutes, is a big beast to perform, and we were competing with over 3,300 other shows for an audience.

Phil Jupitus lends a hand

Phil Jupitus lends a hand

In terms of generating audiences, though, we were fortunate to be working with an award-winning script already known to many; we had a strong base on which to build our production. We’re in no doubt that Foxfinder’s reputation was a great starting point for our marketing campaign, and contributed incalculably to the success of the production – as one reviewer stated, ‘The power of Dawn King’s script has already been recognised’. Putting our own stamp on it was another matter, but I think that,  ultimately, we succeeded.

The same reviewer went on, ‘theatre company Master of None add an exceptionally strong performance, and a haunting visual style. 5★’

– Hugo Nicholson, producer & cast member

Foxfinder Banner


PentagonForever House by Glenn Waldron
Pentagon Theatre

Well, we are all done!

Twelve amazing performances later and we have to say goodbye to this wonderful city and an awesome festival! Both cast and crew have really enjoyed bringing Forever House to life, and the feedback we received, both in person and on social media, was fantastic! All the hours of rehearsals, the workshops, trips and expenses have been more than worth it. And a massive thank you to ‘Phil’ – whoever you are – for our first 5-star audience review!

Transporting the set for Forever House through Edinburgh

Transporting the set for Forever House through Edinburgh

A demanding show like this was bound to have the odd hiccup or two. Our particular favourite is probably having to carry our red sofa along the Royal Mile and across town to complete our get-in on time! It’s fair to say it attracted a few odd glances!

Furniture seemed to be a recurring issue throughout the process: the production team had to stop itself laughing when our cupboard decided to fall apart during one of the performances! So huge thanks must go to our production team – I honestly don’t know what we would have done without Roisin and Claire. Staying up until 3am every night, sticking reviews to flyers, cleaning the apartment, fixing cupboard doors… there was an endless list of jobs, and our team always had it covered.

Cast and crew with author Glenn Waldron

Cast and crew with author Glenn Waldron (centre)

Forever House is such a clever play, both in that it maintains a simple structure, and yet says a lot about what identity means to people and the importance of ‘belonging’. All the actors worked incredibly hard to bring something fresh and new to each performance, always coming to myself or Freddie (my co-director) to ask how they could improve or what they could work on individually. The beauty of this play is that the awkwardness of its characters comes across so naturally, and a lot of our audience feedback reflected how much work had been put in by all of our cast.

The playwright, Glenn Waldron, who was incredibly helpful throughout the process, was kind enough to come and see our final performance in Edinburgh. It was lovely to hear how much he enjoyed our interpretation of his play, and he took the time to congratulate everyone involved. Forever House is a play we remain very attached to, and we will be keeping our eyes peeled for Glenn’s upcoming work. Working with Pentagon Theatre has been an absolute joy, and it has been a pleasure to direct this little gem of a piece.

– James Bowen, co-director


You might also be interested in…

indexUncaused Effects: Playwrights on playwriting. In this podcast sponsored by Nick Hern Books, Exeunt Magazine talks to nine playwrights at various stages of their career and at different points of the writing process.

The writers discuss all aspects of playwriting, from the first moment of inspiration to the inevitable struggles with the blank page and, finally, to the moment it all takes shape on the stage. Presenter Tim Bano asks what it means to be a writer, and discusses the state of new writing in the UK.

The podcast features interviews with: Tom Basden, David Edgar, Tim Foley, Catriona Kerridge, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Dan Rebellato, Stef Smith, Jack Thorne and Steve Waters.

And don’t miss out on this special offer on books by some of the playwrights featured in the episode.

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

Sandi Toksvig: Why I Wrote Bully Boy

As her play, Bully Boy, opens at the all-new St. James Theatre in London, Sandi Toksvig explains how her own sense of rage led her to write about the impact of a contemporary military occupation on the mental health of serving soldiers…

For someone who thinks of themselves as a pacifist I have written a lot about war lately. Perhaps it is not so surprising. We are all subjected to images of conflict every day as one faction or another shoots it out in Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or Sudan or any number of other distant places which come home to us through the television. At first my interest was mostly academic. I was working on my new novel, Valentine Grey. It concerns a young Victorian woman who, in 1899, decides to escape the confines of the drawing room by disguising herself as a man and going to serve in the second Anglo-Boer War. The war is interesting on many fronts, not least the fact that it was one of the first where the average soldier was literate. As a consequence, there are many contemporary diaries and I found I was able to march with the men as they battled across the veld. The stories were personal as some began to question what they were doing so many miles from home. As I studied the conflict, I realised that the war was not about morals or freedom but about money and influence, and it made me think how little has changed.

Photograph by Mike Eddowes

The Honourable Artillery Company in London provided many Boer War volunteers and my research there led to my being invited to a regimental dinner. As I sat chatting with soldiers serving today, my thinking turned from whole regiments in battle to individuals. Meanwhile, my partner, a psychotherapist, was dealing with a number of returned veterans in a private mental-health facility. She was enraged by their treatment and came home each day in a state of distress.

I began to read about the effect of war on the individual. In particular, Dave Grossman’s book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, which had a huge effect on me. Some of the facts were astonishing. In Vietnam, it took an average of 50,000 rounds of ammunition to kill one enemy soldier. The truth is if the Americans had really wanted to be efficient on the battlefield, they would have been better off with bows and arrows. The US troops, it seems, were reluctant to kill anyone, and when they returned home anywhere between 400,000 and 1.5 million veterans of that war suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. I read about every war’s legacy amongst combatants of all nations – divorce, marital problems, tranquiliser use, alcoholism, joblessness, heart disease, high blood pressure, ulcers and of course, tragically, suicide.

Photograph by Mike Eddowes

I was already appalled by the Bush/Cheney strategy of ‘All-them-ragheads-look-alike-to-me’ which conflated 9/11 and Iraq; of the average member of the public’s inability to distinguish between Afghanistan and Iraq, and my rage grew. I thought about the young men I had met who had been sent to do an incomprehensibly difficult job by their nation and who, in many instances, had not been cared for properly when they returned home, broken inside. I wondered where the movies might be which celebrate the returning veteran and yet explain his vulnerable emotional state? I had so many questions. How is it possible that one in ten prisoners in England and Wales once served in the armed forces? What has gone wrong that half of all GPs are unaware of official guidelines on how to diagnose mental-health trauma because of battle scars from the front line?

When Patrick Sandford, artistic director of the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, said he wanted to commission a play from me it was as if Bully Boy poured out of my head. Part of the problem with an issue as complex and distressing as soldiers’ mental health is getting people to engage with it. I have always believed that the theatre is a wonderful forum for confronting difficult subjects. ‘Theatre’ comes from the Greek word ‘theatron’ meaning ‘place for seeing’. It is a communal place where we come together for an exchange of ideas; where we can explore experiences which may have nothing to do with our daily lives but which touch our humanity.

There is much more to say than can be covered in a single play. In the end, I focused on a tale of just two men, but I am not unaware of the stories that remain untold. The truth is most Iraqi children now suffer from psychological symptoms. According to a study of 10,000 primary-school students in the Shaab section of North Baghdad, seventy per cent of children are suffering from trauma-related issues.

Bully Boy (£9.99)

I remain full of rage on behalf of the young men who have been sent to do older men’s political bidding. I am appalled that George Bush and Tony Blair colluded in misinformation to the public. Bush quit drinking – it would have been better if he had quit lying. Meanwhile, Tony Blair ended up fantastically rich and, irony of ironies, a peace envoy.

I am thrilled to have penned this piece for Southampton, and that it has gone on to a new life in Northampton and become the opening production at the new St. James Theatre in London. North, south, I need people to pay attention – not to me but to the men whose voices deserve to be heard.

NHB are very excited to be publishing Sandi Toksvig’s play Bully Boy. To order your copy with 20% off click here – no voucher code required.

Bully Boy is currently playing at the brand new St James Theatre as the opening play in their first ever season. Click here to buy your tickets.

Tamara von Werthern

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

“This is a great play for two strong male performers, one in his forties to mid-fifties, and one in his early twenties, who will both be on stage throughout the piece. It’s a moving story about the damage war does to anyone who participates in it, in whatever capacity, and deserves to be seen widely, so please pick it up and put it on, if you can!”

Birth of the ‘Rules’ by Andy Nyman

Andy Nyman

illustration © Jemima Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golden Rules of Acting - magnets

A ‘Golden Rules’ magnet anyone?

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

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

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

I Am Shakespeare: by Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance

photo: Simon Annand

As actor Mark Rylance returns to Shakespeare’s Globe to play the title part in Richard III and Olivia in Twelfth Night, he reveals how his interest in the controversial Shakespeare authorship debate – the subject of his first play I Am Shakespeare, published this month by Nick Hern Books – led to the charge that he had betrayed Shakespeare. Nothing could be further from the truth, he argues in an introduction to the play, together with an extract presenting the case for one of the leading contenders.

The Big Secret Live ‘I Am Shakespeare’ Webcam Daytime Chatroom Show was created in the summer of 2007 for the Chichester Festival Theatre. Greg Ripley-Duggan produced the play, and subsequent to our run in Chichester, organised a brief tour to Warwickshire, Oxford and Cambridge University, amongst other places. This was not unlike taking a play that questioned Robert Burns’s identity as a poet, to Scotland. But, for some reason, the Shakespeare authorship controversy pierces deep to the heart of identity for some people, wherever you play. It was the extreme reaction of otherwise reasonable people that inspired this play. Their efforts to repress my curiosity, and frighten others away from the mystery, were funny in retrospect but extremely trying at the time, especially when I was Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London between 1995 and 2005.

I say that the play was ‘created’, as I had only written the first act and some of the second when the cast gathered in the Soho Laundry to begin rehearsals that summer. Under Matthew Warchus’s excellent direction, which included many improvements and developments of the script and idea, we then created the play. All of the original cast, especially Sean Foley who played Barry, improvised lines and situations, which I later included in the text. I am indebted to this spirit of adventure and collaboration, which, by the way, has always been my image of an aspect of the creation of the Shakespeare plays as well.

I Am Shakespeare (jacket)

Needless to say, I love Shakespeare – the work and the author – more than any other human art I have ever encountered. I have made my living, in many more ways than an actor’s pay check, on Shakespeare, since I was sixteen years old (which was thirty years ago at the time I wrote this play). I do not believe, as was charged against me at the Globe, that I am biting the hand that fed me. I am attempting to shake it. The fact that Shakespeare’s work will all disappear from the universe one day is more awe-inspiring to me than my own death.

Extract from I Am Shakespeare…

Act One Scene Three

The First Guest Ever: William Shakespeare

[Frank, a schoolteacher aged around fifty, has just begun the weekly broadcast of his chat-show about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, which goes out live via webcam from his garage in Maidstone.] There are two knocks on the door.

FRANK. Who’s there?

SHAKSPAR. Frank.

FRANK. Who is it?

WILLIAM SHAKSPAR enters.

SHAKSPAR. Hello, Frank.

FRANK. Who are you?

SHAKSPAR. Who do you think I am?

FRANK. Who do you think you are?

SHAKSPAR. No, who do you think I am? And more to the point, why do you think I am anyone other than who I actually am?

FRANK. What?

SHAKSPAR. Why do you do it, Frank?

FRANK. Why do I do what?

SHAKSPAR. Why do you get yourself in such a twist about who I am? Haven’t you got better things to do? You don’t need this to make you special. You should be proud of being just an ordinary good old teacher like your father, Tom.

FRANK. How do you know I’m a teacher? How do you know my father’s name?

SHAKSPAR. So what’s this all about? Books, books, books. Do you know there are more books about my play Hamlet than there are about the Bible? But then, I had a head start. There wasn’t an English Bible until a few years after Hamlet.

FRANK. Have you been sent here by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust?

SHAKSPAR. No.

FRANK. The Shakespeare Institute?

SHAKSPAR. No.

FRANK begins to speak.

No.

FRANK. Is this some sort of joke?

SHAKSPAR. You can’t fathom me, can you? Do you really think people have to be extraordinary themselves to do extraordinary things? I lived a thousand extraordinary lives in my writing – so many kings, lovers, murderers. They tired me out, Frank. But that’s not who I am.

FRANK. You dress up as William Shakespeare, break into my studio, hijack my show and then…

SHAKSPAR. It’s time you stopped, Frank. Please. Let it go. I don’t want to be man of the millennium. I just want a good millennium sleep. Every time you challenge me, some fool starts another penetrating biography: ‘Closer to Shakespeare’, ‘Shakespeare, The Player’, ‘Shakespeare, The Lost Years’, ‘Shakespeare for All Time’. Each one’s like an electric shock in my sleep, waking me up again. If I had known what it’s like to be a ghost, I never would have given them such small parts.

We see BARRY [Frank’s neighbour, age 35-45, a pop star who once had a top-twenty hit entitled ‘I’m a Sputnik Love God’] running round the outside of the garage.

FRANK. You think you can come in here, pretending to be William Shakespeare, sabotage my show…

BARRY rushes in.

Scene Four

The Interruption of the Neighbour’s Musical Genius

SHAKSPAR looks at the books.

BARRY enters, making sure he doesn’t forget a song he’s just composed in his head.

BARRY. I’ve got a song, Frank. After I rang you I went out with the guttering and BAM! I’VE GOT IT! After twenty-two years, my follow-up! ‘Long Green Summer Grass’. It’s got it all. Love in the afternoon. The great flood. It’s like a green love anthem. Sort of Al Gore meets Barry White!

SHAKSPAR. Hello, Barry.

BARRY sees SHAKSPAR.

BARRY. What are you doing?

FRANK. What are you doing?

BARRY. Who’s that?

FRANK. Yes. Who’s that?

BARRY. Why?

FRANK. Why what?

BARRY. What?

FRANK. Why?

BARRY. Why do something like this without telling me? Hiring a lookalike. I don’t think that’s very professional, you know, to keep secrets from your musical director. I thought we were working together on this. Oh, fuck it! Fuck it! I’ve forgotten the fucking song! I’ve forgotten the fucking tune! Look what you’ve done. I can’t remember it. It’s gone.

SHAKSPAR (singing).

Come on, baby, come on, baby, don’t say maybe,
When you’re way down, let me lay down –

BARRY. That’s my song!

SHAKSPAR (singing).

Lay down with you in the summer grass,
In the long green summer grass.

BARRY. That’s the song I just made up!

SHAKSPAR (singing).

I’m changing my drains down,
So, baby, when it rains down,
Ain’t no summer hose ban’s gonna turn,
Gonna burn, my long green summer grass to brown.

I thought the repeats helped the rhythm.

BARRY. Who is this guy, Frank?

FRANK. Why don’t you both just stop pretending. Get out. Go on, get out, the both of you.

BARRY. I never met the man before in my life! I swear on Brian May’s plectrum!

Scene Five

The First Interview Ever with William Shakespeare

SHAKSPAR. May I just finish this before I go?

BARRY. Do you know any more of my songs?

SHAKSPAR. Yes, but what I like best is that children’s book you’re working on.

FRANK. You never told me you were working on a children’s book.

BARRY. I never told anyone about Teddy and the Philosopher’s Guitar. What are you, like, a professional mind-reader? Is that your act?

SHAKSPAR. In a way, I suppose I always was, but since I died…

FRANK. Listen, you Shakespeare Kissogram, lookalike fake, bald-headed bladder-faced Midlands Pranny…

BARRY. Hey, Frank, why don’t you give him a chance to explain himself.

SHAKSPAR. Because his mind is closed, Barry. He doesn’t want to know who wrote the plays. He wants to know he’s right. And I think he’s probably got some kind of hang-up about common people creating great works of art.

SHAKSPAR gets up to go.

BARRY. Now you’re talking.

FRANK. No I haven’t.

SHAKSPAR. I’m off now. (Speaking into the camera.) May I just say thank you to everyone, actors and audiences everywhere, for making my plays the big success they are. I never imagined they would last so long.

FRANK (also into the camera). Because he never imagined them in the first place.

SHAKSPAR. I think I might go up to Stratford-upon-Avon and visit the Birthplace Trust. What’s the best way to get there?

BARRY. How did you get here?

SHAKSPAR. I don’t know… something to do with the internet and the weather? Look, I’ve written something for you, Frank. Just to show you there’s no hard feelings. One of your favourite sonnets. You wouldn’t believe the money you can get for any old document connected to me nowadays.

SHAKSPAR puts it on the desk.

FRANK. Oh, very impressive. Phoney Elizabethan writing. You’ve been up all night rehearsing this.

SHAKSPAR. Don’t you want a handwritten sonnet?

FRANK. No, I don’t want your lousy homework.

FRANK tears it up and throws it in his face. Sniffs him.

By the way, I don’t know if your friends have told you, but you have got severe hygiene issues.

SHAKSPAR. I’ll make my own way. Fare thee well, Barry.

BARRY. Fare thee well, Will.

SHAKSPAR. I’m retired; I just want to be left alone, like Prospero. Let your indulgence set me free.

FRANK. If Shakespeare’s so like Prospero, why didn’t he educate his daughters?

SHAKSPAR. They didn’t want to be educated.

FRANK. Why didn’t he write or receive any letters?

SHAKSPAR. I conducted my business in person.

FRANK. Why did Shakespeare never write about his home town, Stratford?

SHAKSPAR. Which would you rather go and hear: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or The Slightly Embarrassing Day in the Life of John, Glove Maker of Stratford?

He goes out and they carry on talking around and out in front of the garage.

FRANK. People in Stratford had no idea he was a playwright?

SHAKSPAR. I kept myself to myself.

FRANK. Then, why was he so litigious?

SHAKSPAR. What’s any of this got to do with my work?

FRANK. That’s exactly my question.

BARRY. Will, you know you can see inside my head, can you see inside Frank’s?

SHAKSPAR. When? In the past, present or future? Once you die, your existence is not bound by time or space.

BARRY. What was Frank doing last Tuesday at, say, 11:37 in the morning?

SHAKSPAR. He was in a classroom, teaching my play, Romeo and Juliet, and he was just about to confiscate a mobile telephone from a young student named James who was texting a friend beneath his desk.

BARRY. What did the text say?

FRANK. It doesn’t matter.

SHAKSPAR. ‘Tosser Charlton is a dickhead.’ In the First Folio collection of my plays, Ben Jonson refers to the author as the ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’; there’s a reference to the author’s ‘Stratford Monument’, in Stratford-upon-Avon; and, my fellow actors, Heminges and Condell, also refer to me as the author. How do you explain all that? Why? If I wasn’t the author, why? Until you can answer that, you haven’t got an answer, you haven’t even got a question!

SHAKSPAR goes out into the evening.

NHB are proud to publish Mark Rylance’s debut play, I Am Shakespeare. To order your copy at the special price of £7.99 (rrp £9.99) with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the promo code box at checkout.

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

“This is a lively and very funny play anchored in the present but exploring the secrets of the past. It’s great for companies who have a number of strong male performers and enjoy performing in costume. It’s a light-hearted piece that asks fundamental questions about identity and the nature of genius, and will be enjoyed by all audiences, particularly those with some knowledge of Shakespeare’s work (though, as the extract above shows, it wears its considerable learning lightly). And those of you who have seen or performed Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem will more than likely want to read a stage play by the actor who was the original Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron.”

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?

*

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.