By Tamara von Werthern
According to the calendar on my desk, it’s been five months since I last sat down to write this column. I don’t know if I believe that – it seems like only yesterday we were hurriedly packing up the Nick Hern Books office and preparing to work from home, but also feels as if March was another lifetime. It’s hard to keep the days and dates straight, somehow.
One date that I don’t think any of us will ever forget is 16 March when, following advice from the UK government, theatres across the country immediately shut their doors – some announcing it less than an hour before that evening’s performance. In a statement issued that night, Julian Bird, Chief Executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, thanked ‘all of our audiences who have continued to support us for as long as they [could]’, and said ‘[I] hope we are able to welcome audiences back to our theatres before too long.’
My calendar insists that was five months ago.
At NHB, as usual we were preparing to publish new plays that were due to open at venues around the country, including at the National Theatre, Bridge Theatre, Royal Court Theatre in London and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. We had also just published plays that were in previews in London, Manchester, and Nottingham, gearing up for their press nights. Meanwhile, amateur companies, youth theatres, schools and other groups were busily putting the finishing touches on their productions of NHB-licensed plays, with dozens due to open that week alone. All of that was immediately swept away. Productions were cancelled, cut short or postponed indefinitely. Our list of upcoming publications emptied faster than an audience hurrying for the last train.
Of course, everybody connected to theatre has their own story of how the shutdown has affected them. It’s been heartbreaking to see so many organisations struggle with the impact of losing most of their income overnight, with thousands of staff being made redundant, some venues – like Nuffield Southampton Theatres – closing permanently and freelancers across the industry denied any meaningful financial help. It’s also been incredibly frustrating to see the government sit on their hands and let so much avoidable damage happen (though the £1.57 billion rescue fund has been announced, applicants have been told not to expect to receive any funding until the end of September at the latest, which will be too late for many). I know also how hard the extended shutdown has been for amateur companies, with productions needing to be abandoned, audience income lost, venues lying empty, and passionate people deprived of doing the things they love with their friends and peers. I don’t think any of us ever imagined this situation would last this long.
And yet, in the middle of all this devastation, theatre has continued, with companies of all types and sizes finding ways to keep going. The National Theatre at Home’s programme made sixteen previously recorded productions available to watch free of charge via YouTube, reaching more than nine million households (including my own), and dozens of other theatres and companies have joined them in uploading their work to enjoy from the comfort of your own sofa. Other companies have commissioned and created new work to reflect these strange times, such as Papatango Theatre Company’s Isolated But Open monologues, which are available to watch and read online for free. Youth-theatre organisation Company Three launched the Coronavirus Time Capsule, a project for groups of teenagers to create their own records of living through the pandemic by using prompts, exercises and games to make a short video each week, with more than two hundred groups getting involved around the world. The Old Vic Theatre has started Old Vic In Camera, a series of performances live-streamed from its empty auditorium. Leeds-based theatre company Slung Low has turned its venue, The Holbeck (the oldest social club in Britain) into a local support hub, running a foodbank, and co-ordinating volunteers to support the vulnerable as well as continuing to put on entertainment for their community. And of course, drama teachers and facilitators have found ways to adapt and keep running lessons even when they can’t see their students in person. I have never appreciated teachers more than in these past few months, trying to home-school my two children for the first time!
Amateur companies have been getting in on the act – pun intended – too. I’ve loved reading Sardines’ lockdown digests each week, with updates about everything enterprising societies are doing. From NHB’s end, we began inviting applications for online performances (both live-streams and broadcast of recordings) from May, and it’s been wonderful to see dozens of groups get involved with this adapted way of creating and sharing new productions – including one company that have so far produced an amazing three online shows in just a couple of months. We’re so grateful to all of the playwrights and their agents who’ve been incredibly open and understanding of the unprecedented situation we all find ourselves in, and have helped make these productions possible.
I think that part of the reason that theatres and theatre-makers have been able to rise to these challenging times is that adapting, problem-solving and overcoming adversity is what we do. Everybody who’s ever worked on a production in any capacity has had to deal with unexpected challenges and setbacks – unwell performers, forgotten lines, wobbly sets, costume malfunctions, tech mishaps, you name it – and work out a way to make sure things are still ‘alright on the night’. Nowhere is this more true than in amateur theatre, where tight budgets and stretched resources mean that everybody involved has to be even more resourceful and pull together to get things done. ‘The show must go on’ has always been a beloved theatre catchphrase, but the response to the pandemic has shown it to be a promise, too. I’m not sure any of us will remember 2020 fondly, but part of what will stay with me is my respect and admiration for all of you who saw what was happening, took a deep breath, and soldiered on.
But of course, what we’re all hoping for is to be able to get back what we’ve lost, as soon as possible – and there have already been tantalising steps in that direction. Since the restrictions were relaxed in mid-July, we’ve seen outdoor performances start to take place. Leading the way was the beautiful Minack Theatre in Cornwall (a visit there must surely be on any theatre-lover’s bucket list), but since then more and more theatres and groups, both professional and amateur, have followed suit. Social distancing is still required for all involved, performers, crew and audience alike, which undoubtedly brings challenges, but also the opportunity for creative solutions. So if you’re able, this could be a great way to bring your members and audiences together while we’re still enjoying the hot summer weather, and is definitely something to consider. Whether outdoor panto catches on in December, only time will tell…
The next stage will be to resume indoor performances, which aren’t currently permitted – and, as I write this, have just been delayed by at least two weeks. In July, Andrew Lloyd Webber hosted a trial of what a socially distanced indoor performance might look like, by putting on a concert at his London Palladium featuring West End performer Beverley Knight. The need to keep audience members a safe distance apart meant the auditorium’s capacity was capped at about 25%, which makes it financially unviable for most professional theatres, which usually need to operate at around 65% to make the numbers work. For amateur theatres, who don’t have the same type of financial pressures, these calculations might be different – how many spectators might you need to make a socially distanced production worth it? Regardless of the money, though, the most important thing will always be to make sure your members and audiences feel safe, and so while there are options available for those who are keen to get going again sooner, it may be that we need to wait for an end to the pandemic for theatres to feel confident to fully start up again.
I really hope that happens as soon as possible, because what the ‘Year of Covid’ has shown is just how much we all need theatre, and what it adds to our lives. Theatres are spaces to bring people together, to enjoy a shared experience and travel as one to places and times that aren’t our own, and to meet people and characters we didn’t previously know. For those who are part of putting on a production, you get to experience another life from the inside, and be part of a team focused on achieving your shared goal of a brilliant show. With all of us sheltered inside our homes, not seeing our friends and family for weeks or months, and maybe only interacting with each other through our screens, these feelings of connection and unity is something that’s sorely missed.
The word ‘theatre’ comes from the Ancient Greek word ‘théatron’, which roughly translates as ‘a place for viewing’ – a reminder that this place, this sense of shared space, is at its heart. So for all of the wonderful ways that fantastic, enterprising, passionate theatre-makers have found to carry on even while their buildings are closed, ways I hope keep going as long as this all lasts, I for one can’t wait to join you there again.
Tamara von Werthern has been Performing Rights Manager at Nick Hern Books since 2005.
She is also a playwright, screenwriter and theatre-maker.
A few weeks ago I attended an event at the National Theatre, where the legendary director Peter Brook was in conversation with arts journalist Mark Lawson. Brook is ninety-four years old now, but is as busy as ever: the talk was to promote his new book, Playing by Ear, he’d just finished a world tour of his new play, Why?, and the previous weekend he’d been in Spain to collect a lifetime achievement award. He was in sparkling form, just as quick-witted and insightful as the man who started his directing career over seventy years ago.
Unlike many other professions, the arts doesn’t have a retirement age. Caryl Churchill, who’s eighty-one, has just had a Royal Court premiere of her new play Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp., which was shortlisted at this year’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Ian McKellen is still going strong at eighty – in fact he celebrated his landmark birthday by creating a one-man show, Ian McKellen on Stage, about his life and career, which he’s taken on tour to raise money for theatres across the UK – including brilliant amateur venues such as Questors Theatre in London, Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich, and Wigan Little Theatre. It finally finishes in January, after a four-month run in London’s West End.
Age is no barrier to creativity. Just like playing an instrument or painting, theatre-makers get better with practice – and the longer they’ve been acting, writing or directing, the more opportunities they’ve had to develop their craft. Older actors have also simply seen and felt more of life, which they can bring to the characters they portray. Harriet Walter played Cleopatra for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2006 at the age of fifty-nine and, as she writes in her book, Brutus and Other Heroines, drew directly on her “real experience of a woman on the cusp of old age, with all the contradictions that presents.” Older writers or directors working on a new script or production can mine not just their own past work, but also everything they’ve lived as people.
Older actors are well-represented in amateur theatre. Government research into the composition of amateur groups estimates that around 20% of members of amateur theatre groups are sixty-five or over, with roughly the same proportion giving their employment status as ‘retired’. Once they’re not stuck in an office for five days a week, retirees have more time to give to their passion – and amateur theatre groups are a brilliant place to meet and form friendships with people who share your interests.
Luckily there’s lots of fantastic new writing out there, both comedies and dramas, with great parts for older actors: Goodbye to All That by Luke Norris, Trestle by Stewart Pringle and Halcyon Days by Deirdre Kinahan are all brilliant scripts with warm, funny older roles at their centre. Alecky Blythe’s verbatim play Cruising shares hilarious and moving real-life stories of pensioners seeking passion – some of which are downright saucy! Caryl Churchill’s award-winning Escaped Alone is a disturbing but also laugh-out-loud drama featuring four female friends, specified in the script as all being ‘at least seventy’. The Children by Lucy Kirkwood is a gripping drama about three nuclear scientists in their sixties. Some plays offer fascinating opportunities to play with perceptions of age: Seventeen by Matthew Whittet focuses on a group of teenagers thinking about what lies ahead in their lives, with all the roles played by actors in their seventies.
Also, don’t be afraid to be bold with your casting, whether that means playing around with age or gender. After Cleopatra, Harriet Walter feared she’d never get the chance to tackle a leading Shakespeare role again – but has since started playing male characters such as Brutus, Henry IV and Prospero, with great success. Glenda Jackson played Lear to rave reviews in London and New York. Going the other way, a few years ago David Suchet took on Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Similarly, casting against age can have wonderful results: Patrick Stewart was sixty-six when he played Macbeth in Rupert Goold’s production, and one review called it ‘probably the finest performance of his career’.
And why just limit this to the classics? There are surely lots of contemporary plays just waiting for bold casting choices, which can give performers unexpected opportunities and maybe shine new light on a script and role we thought we knew.
Ultimately, actors are just actors. No one ever feels their age. At one point in Ian McKellen’s live show, he ‘plays’ an eighty-year-old – or at least, the version of eighty he played when he was thirty, complete with bent back, rasping voice and faltering delivery. This couldn’t be more different from the actual man performing his show night after night with unstoppable energy. So forget retirement. Keep acting. Keep creating. And if you need help or suggestions on finding the right script to showcase your talents, don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Tamara von Werthern is Performing Rights Manager at Nick Hern Books.
She is also a playwright, dramaturg and theatre-maker.
Stage adaptations are a tradition as old as theatre itself. The earliest surviving plays; Ancient Greek tragedies such as The Oresteia, Antigone and Medea, were usually dramatisations of oft-told myths. Many of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, for instance Hamlet, King Lear and Othello, were based on earlier works by other writers. As Piers Torday points out in his interview in this issue on his new version of A Christmas Carol, “when Dickens published ‘his little Christmas book’ in 1843 it took just six weeks for the first adaptation to reach the stage”. And look at many of today’s biggest West End hits – The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, The Woman in Black, Les Misérables, Matilda and The Lion King, to name a few, are all based on pre-existing material.
There are many reasons why companies are attracted to adaptations. Like a revival of a well-known play, the stage version of a popular novel or film comes with name recognition and an in-built fan base. These days, when people have so many different options for how to spend their time (including just staying in on the sofa and watching Netflix) adaptations can be an easier sell and help companies guarantee the all-important ‘bums on seats’. This can be particularly true at Christmas when families are looking for things to do together. Stage shows of beloved classics such as The Jungle Book (adapted by Jessica Swale with original songs by Joe Stilgoe), or Lucy Kirkwood and Lawrence Boswell’s Beauty and the Beast, offer a brilliant, family-friendly alternative to the traditional panto.
Adrian Lester as Othello in the
National Theatre’s 2013 production.
Photo: Johan Persson
So it’s no surprise that for many companies, adaptations form a core part of their programming. For performers and directors, too, it can be great fun to take on a story and characters they already know, or have seen portrayed by famous actors in a previous version. Who wouldn’t want to have a go at bringing P.G. Wodehouse’s classic characters to life in Jeeves & Wooster in ‘Perfect Nonsense’, or don the iconic cape and fangs for Dracula?
Even if a play is based on well-known source material, adaptors can still put their own stamp on it and create something new and different. Sometimes this can mean shifting the focus of the original. Piers Torday’s Christmas Carol: A Fairy Tale puts Ebenezer Scrooge’s sister Fan at the heart of the action (a twist my daughter declared made it ‘100% better’ when we went to see it at Wilton’s Music Hall over Christmas), turning it into a fantastic opportunity for a lead female performer. Similarly, Ella Hickson’s Wendy & Peter Pan – always a big hit with amateur and youth-theatre groups – reworks J.M. Barrie’s story to put Wendy at its heart, introducing a modern feel without losing any of its charm. Isobel McArthur’s Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) irreverently riffs on Austen to create a hilarious pop musical with six women playing all the parts, keeping the spirit of the novel whilst at the same time offering something totally new.
A different, very popular approach is to send-up the source material lovingly, taking a plot that audiences already know but playing with the challenge of squeezing such a big story on stage. Steven Canny and John Nicholson’s hilarious, fast-paced The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of our most-licensed shows year after year, for exactly this reason. The 39 Steps and Ben Hur, both by Patrick Barlow, are other great examples. In her adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, Laura Eason somehow manages to pack in a globe-trotting adventure complete with trains, steamers, a balloon, an elephant and over fifty characters – it sounds impossible, but dozens of companies have pulled it off with aplomb.
With their pulling power, connection for both performers and spectators, and potential for re-invention and clever new takes, it’s easy to see why adaptations work so well. But alongside your adaptations, it’s a good idea to also introduce audiences to new plays, and show them something they haven’t seen before. Remember, every story was unknown once, and if you give them a chance in your programme then maybe a new play by a contemporary writer might just become your audience’s new favourite…
Whether you’re looking for adaptations or new plays, I’m always happy to talk and offer advice and suggestions. So get in touch, and happy programming!
Tamara von Werthern has been Performing Rights Manager at Nick Hern Books since 2005. She is also a playwright, screenwriter and theatremaker.
Contact her at: email@example.com or by calling 020 8749 4953
Years ago, I worked as an usher at the Royal Court Theatre. During my time there I was lucky enough to be around some truly amazing productions, but there was one premiere I remember all of the ushers particularly loving: Far Away by Caryl Churchill. It’s a powerful, insightful play by one of our greatest living dramatists, but something we ushers (mostly students and young theatre-makers) also really appreciated was its running time of just fifty minutes. Since we were paid by the shift, rather than by hours worked, it meant we got the full evening’s pay but were still home nice and early!
But ushers aside, how long an evening of theatre ‘should be’ is a matter of debate – one that’s resurfaced in recent months. The just-finished Donmar Warehouse revival of Far Away lasted just forty minutes, apparently leaving some audience members confused when the show was finished before 8.30pm. Conversely, the National Theatre’s current new version of Friedrich Dürrenmatt classic The Visit, adapted by Angels in America author Tony Kushner, runs at over three hours with two intervals – similar to the original production of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.
Of course, everybody will have their own preferred play length. Some may like a hour-long Edinburgh Fringe show, while others will settle for nothing less than three acts. But what does this mean for you, and programming choices for your next season? If you’ve fallen in love with a particular script, but worry it’s too short for audiences to feel they’ve had a full night out – or so long people may miss their last train – then don’t worry. There are a number of things you can do.
With a shorter play, one option is to stage two short plays in one night, creating a double bill with an interval in-between. This could perhaps be a lesser-known work by the same author – as the Old Vic did recently when they opened their revival of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame with the rarely seen twenty-five minute short Rough for Theatre II – so you can sell tickets off the back of the play everyone knows, but also give the audience a second portion to keep them satisfied. Alternatively, you could bundle together plays by different authors, with a thematic link, to create an evening about a certain topic or issue. Or you could hold a post-show discussion, featuring the cast, creative team or other invited guests, to talk about the subject matter.
Grouping short plays together to create a longer evening can have other benefits, too. For both amateur and professional venues, the theatre bar can be an important source of income, and so not having a mid-show break can mean a financial hit (it’s common in the professional world for venue managers to charge producers an additional fee to compensate for lost bar takings). This can also be a consideration when deciding to perform a show ‘straight through’ – say if it’s ninety minutes – or inserting an interval. For some plays, forcing in a break where it doesn’t naturally belong can disrupt the structure and momentum, so this is definitely something to consider on a case-by-case basis, for the overall good of the production.
Secondly, some plays are structured in distinct sections, meaning you can choose to stage as much as you need to fill your running time. Philip Wilson’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales is comprised of twelve fairy tales, ordered into two sets. You can perform all twelve tales, just one of the sets, or choose a mix-and-match approach and perform individual tales in any combination (with flexible licence fees to match). Eight by Ella Hickson and Queers, curated by Mark Gatiss, both consist of separate monologues, which can be performed individually, or all together, meaning the show can be as long or as short as you want it to be.
The final option is to make your own cuts to a play, bringing it down to the length you need. This is fairly standard with classics – Hamlet, for instance, is rarely performed today in its full original version. If the playwright has been dead for more than seventy years, then their works are considered in the ‘public domain’ and you don’t need to anyone’s permission to make changes. However, if the play or translation you are performing is under copyright – which will always be the case if you need a licence – then you must get approval before making any changes to the script as written, including cuts. Ask your licensor, who will then run the proposed edits by the author. Most writers are usually open to sensitive cuts and changes to their script if you have a good reason for them (e.g. time restrictions at a one-act play competition or a festival, or audience sensitivities around strong language), but it will be part of the condition of your licence that any changes are approved before a performance takes place. So please always check first!
As you can see, there is a lot of scope for making the play that you would like to perform suit the format of your evening, the requirements of the venue and your audience’s appetite – be those for a sumptuous feast or a smaller delicious bite. The ‘perfect show length’ is as long as you want it to be – so think about all these options, and get in touch if you want any more advice or ideas.
Tamara von Werthern has been Performing Rights Manager at Nick Hern Books since 2005.
She is also a playwright, screenwriter and theatremaker.