Learn to recognise theatrical success.
White, working-class kids take note. Dream Big - or else!
This will be one of the stranger blogs you might read about success. But let’s face it - the arts is a strange business.
And, with the Creative Producers Club (www.CreativeProducers.Club) and our new Theatre Training initiative coming next year, I’ve been thinking about how important it is that you are as prepared as you possibly can be for the challenge. And, now, as old and bruised by this beautiful business as I am, I want to make sure you don’t make the cock-ups I made.
Because I now know I had massive success with my first ever play - Henry V - Lion of England. But at the time I had no idea. And I let everything slip through my fingers!
It might be worth qualifying this. Because I also now know the reason I didn’t recognise success was due to my background. As a working-class kid born and bought up on a council estate, theatre was not on our radar. I’m sure things would have been different if it was, perhaps. But that’s for another blog post!
Here’s what happened to me anyway, because whatever scale of theatre you are writing, directing or producing, I think you need to be aware of what success might look like. Especially if you’re a council estate kid like me.
So. It is to the Edinburgh Festival of 1992 I want to take you. Or actually, before that.
1. ‘Let’s face it’, I thought back in the late years of last century, ‘Shakespeare is incomprehensible shite’. I’d been to see “The Merry Wives” at the RSC because ‘Bergerac’ was in it. No idea what was going on. But I knew the world rated Shakespeare, so when I heard on BBC2 one Saturday afternoon that Henry V was on, I decided to give it one last shot. And it worked. It was Ken Branagh’s version. He gave much of the text a modern emotion. Frankly, I was relieved. But having been switched onto Shakespeare and having seen the film I thought there was another, more accessible way of telling the story. I decided to write it. For one person.
I wrote my version of ‘Henry V’ with no great ambition and after the pub when the TV finished (it did in those days) over a period of a few months. I figured I could probably perform it myself if my radio career crashed, even though I wasn’t ‘officially’ an actor. I was a radio presenter and producer on a freelance contract. Even in the days when pop radio was making documentaries and I won a Sony Award - like a radio Oscar - for the station, it was a bit like being a footballer, but with much less money. You know the gig is going to finish eventually.
2. I realised I probably needed an actor to get the show on its feet. I was right. First success. I got a mate, Rob Stanson, from amdram. He’d been to the Actors Centre in London for a year. In fact he was the only young male actor I knew. Then another pal from amdram, Trish, reminded me her artist partner, Robb, also wrote music. I ditched the band ‘Imagination’ (opening track, ‘Just an Illusion’!) and Robb wrote a superb score for Henry. More success.
3. I hired the small puppet theatre at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham for £50 for the first show. Plus technician.
4. It turns out actor Rob was casually matey with Jasper Carrot’s management, Starward. They came and saw the show at the mac and approached us in the bar afterwards. They offered to take us to the Edinburgh festival. Success! Why? I think they fancied Rob Stanson as a talent - but mainly they were impressed we’d had a standing ovation at the end of our show in Birmingham at the mac! I’d thought people were running for the bar!
We got to the festival. I’d never been to the Edinburgh Festival before either, so didn’t know what to expect. I was a bit peeved that Starward were not going to pay us a fee. Although it was not going to cost us anything! Like I say, I’d not been to the festival before..!
5. We had a five bedroom flat for the three of us, overlooking the Meadows. I started to think we might have done okay when I met other theatre companies who’d had to pay accommodation, venue fees, marketing, flyers and poster and a host of other things. One theatre company was sleeping on the dirt floor of a barn 12 miles outside Edinburgh. They were grovelingly grateful when we allowed them to sleep on our (carpeted) floor!
6. We were getting audiences of around 40. I was disappointed but now know that was even more success for an unknown new play. The average audience in Edinburgh was four!
7. In 1992 no reviews carried ‘stars’! Hard to imagine now, but true. But our reviews were all straight raves. They would have been mainly 5 star reviews. “Highly recommended.” “A theatrical tour de force’” And reviews from good publications. The Scotsman, The List, The Stage, etc. We used to joke that we’d got another “theatrical Tour-de-force”. I assumed that was normal. I know now it was another great success.
8. I had no real idea what we were to do after Edinburgh, because I’d never thought about it. This was a show I’d written for me to perform, remember? Although I was so blown away by the energy and democracy of the fringe, I was forming plans to try and do something similar in Birmingham. Maybe. So when we had approaches by many - dozens - of bookers and producers I didn’t really know what to do with them. I often referred them to Rob, the actor, for a chat! Even so, I still had a bunch of business cards from interested venues and organisation from around the world. More success!
I stuffed the business cards and contact details in an envelope. About week Three I then lost the envelope one night after a boozy session with the venue staff!
The one person I do remember whose card I had was the then head of arts for the new South African Government. I know because I saw him five years later in Stratford-upon-Avon - when he remembered me! He told me he was keen we should have toured South Africa. He couldn’t afford the RSC because much of his budget had been transferred into building new housing for the people of the townships, so we were the answer to his creative prayers. Had the writer/director not got a bit pissed and lost his details…!
This is not an exercise in navel gazing, or me telling you how great I am (obs I am!!) so much as a cautionary note.
It’s also inspired by a friend who has recently won a theatre award - and doesn’t really appreciate he has! This award was so out of reach, he’d not thought through what would happen IF the impossible happened and he actually did win!
So in 1992 I’d written a play. It was for me to perform if things went wrong at work. Perform it myself and earn the odd £50. Within just FOUR MONTHS of finishing the final draft of my first ever play, we’d gone from my front room in Birmingham, to the mac, to the Edinburgh Festival and we could have taken off around the world if I’d realise what I had to do.
I had and have no regrets, because I might have frightened myself to death if I’d realised what could happen. And as I’ve mentioned, I’d no theatrical ‘DNA’.
But in such a tough business I respectfully suggest you should insist to yourself that you must dream big. Then when it happens, as surprising as it will be, you’ll know how to maximise your success and not just be puzzled and amazed by it.