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Tailor-made theatre

Sir John Gielgud used to wear a three-piece suit to rehearsal. When asked he would explain that acting is a serious profession – much like banking, lawyering or civil serving – and that theatre practitioners should dress accordingly. There is, surely, no small irony in the fact that actors are chameleons by nature, and that Sir John might just as readily have found himself in a suit of armour, a toga or a dress by lunchtime, but the underlying point is a serious one. Many emerging companies struggle with presentation. We’re supposed at once to tick the ‘young creatives’ box (how many actors own multiple suits and ties?) and the ‘young professionals’ box (for which at least one suit is needed), and our daily routine can vary from scripting new material in our front rooms to being handed the keys to a 400-seater playhouse and suddenly lamenting the lack of suitable clothes to paint in.

One of the things that draws me – and, I suspect, many of us – to the theatre is its mercurial quality as a workplace. We seldom know from day to day what the next few hours will hold. This makes long-term planning difficult. Here at Reverend, we’re working on a season of four plays, of which ‘Kingdom,’ ‘Dracula’ and a soon to be announced story about crime and punishment are the first three. I couldn’t have told you when we started what the fourth piece of the puzzle would be – indeed, even now, we’re not entirely sure (although the prospects are exciting!) Each piece of work a company does helps shape the company’s identity as a whole. This is because theatre artists are artisans – we are makers – and whether we’re reinventing the classics or staging something fresh, the emphasis should always be on the novelty – the newness. We used to have a slogan: “Telling old stories in new ways.” We dropped it – partly because it was hammy; partly because we didn’t feel it was the best way articulate what we were doing any more – but the underlying ambition is still something we stick to.

The greatest writers in the theatre have also tended to be poets, and the two crafts go hand in hand (most of the best poetry is, in some sense, dramatic). The word poet, of course, derives from the Ancient Greek word for ‘maker’ or ‘crafter’ – and so, indeed, we are all craftsmen (and women). Before training to be an actor I spent some time studying medieval literature, and I still take on occasional students from time to time (some of whom have, over the years, themselves gone into the theatre – and, in the spirit of Gielgud, I make no apology to their parents, who keep asking them when they will be getting a ‘proper job’). Whenever I teach poetry I insist on students articulating a text out loud. When we hear ourselves speak we perceive a new dimension in a text not always accessible to us as silent readers. When we hear others speak, more colours still seem to shine through. This is why the best poetry – the best theatre – never gets tired. I have seen maybe a dozen Hamlets to date, and am still achingly excited to see Maxine Peake’s new take on the role in Manchester next month. I never saw Gielgud’s, but the famous story of him bounding into Olivier’s dressing room after the latter great actor had debuted his interpretation, and accosting him with the words, “congratulations, but it’s still my role” somehow rings true. There is a real technical skill in converting the words on the page into life on the stage, and the longer I practice in this field (a turn of phrase perhaps more commonly used by doctors and lawyers, but no less applicable to the actor for whom practice is all important), the more I am convinced that the profession of actor is as serious, demanding, rewarding and engrossing as the job of cabinet minister.

If this were a campaigning column (and I’m conscious that this blog can sometimes resort to politics, but in this case I’ll refrain) now would be the time to decry the poor state of funding for theatre and the chronic level of unemployment and underpayment experienced by actors. But while I’m all in favour of public subsidy for the arts, I also think it incumbent on us, as theatre-goers and practitioners, to recognise the basic economics of supply and demand. We now see thousands graduate from acting training courses in this country every year, and there are no jobs for them. Ironically, given how this column started, the same imbalance now plagues the legal profession, with too few pupillages for trainee barristers. Susan Elkin articulated this imbalance in ‘grass-roots theatre’ most effectively in a column for The Stage back in June, and Lyn Gardner made a similarly nuanced contribution to the debate on her own blog shortly thereafter. I have much sympathy with both these points of view. It does strike me, however, that Gielgud had a point when he donned his tailored suit in the morning. If we are to address the problems within the theatre sector we must recognise that they are as much commercial as they are creative – indeed, perhaps more so – and that they require us to be business professionals, as well as poets, if we are to solve them. British theatre continues to push boundaries on stage, but behind the scenes the culture is one of ‘safe’ programming; relying on established names; consolidating spending and production in London and leaving the under-funded ‘regions’ to fend for themselves.

Good commerce is a creative art. As Ms Gardner says, actors and producers must acknowledge the ‘business’ end of showbusiness. Reverend now has monthly meetings where we discuss the commercial implications of each new project alongside the creative, as two sides of the same coin. We recognise that the British state isn’t coming to bail us out anytime soon, and that if theatre is to thrive we need to make the case that it is a serious art form, as essential to our civic society as the NHS, Legal Aid and Parliament. That responsibility cannot be shirked, and if it means diversifying our portfolios (and even learning a bit of business jargon) then so be it. Gielgud was a consummate professional who rose to champion his profession. Today’s theatre industry obliges us all to follow his lead.

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