A potted history of improvisation
£20 - £15
Captioned performance (Live speech to text)
Wednesday 15 March at 6pm
Audio described performance
Thursday 16 March at 6pm, preceeded by a Touch Tour
For audio described information on this performance click here
In conversation with Phelim McDermott
Activity at the National Theatre reached out beyond the walls of our building on the South Bank over the summer months. As we bid farewell to the temporary theatre in August, we saw the return of the River Stage with an eclectic range of performances and events in the sunshine – and rain – on the riverfront. We were proud to play a leading role in we’re here because we’re here which saw 27 theatres across the country and hundreds of volunteers mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme with a UK-wide performance art piece created by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, in collaboration with Director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris. Looking ahead, James Graham’s This House will open at the Garrick Theatre in the West End from November, following a run at Chichester Festival Theatre over the summer. This production had its premiere at the NT in 2012 to huge critical acclaim, so it is a great pleasure to see it return to the stage in association with Chichester Festival and Headlong.
In this issue, Denise Gough tells us about how she came to take on the lead role and achieve her Olivier award-winning performance in People Places & Things, and we hear from Music Director David Shrubsole on his work with the NT including, most recently, The Threepenny Opera. Finally, as work to bring the Drum Revolve back to life gets underway, we look back at the history of this extraordinary piece of machinery and celebrate some of its most memorable moments.
Denise Gough: Good Fortune and Hard Work
Denise Gough discusses her unorthodox route to the role of Emma.
(R)Evolving the Drum: The Origins of the NT’s Hidden Heart
We look back at a challenging history that began on the back of a napkin.
Facing the Music with David Shrubsole
Music Director David Shrubsole tells us about his eclectic range of work.
Making a Scene: 12 Facts about the Young Chekhov Set
We take a look at the realities of staging Young Chekhov in the Olivier.
Theatreworks: From the Green Room to the Boardroom
Sheila Chawla leads us though the NT's sector-bridging training programme.
we’re here because we’re here
We look back this extraordinary living memorial to the victims of the Somme.
A phone call to the National in 2014 led to a career-changing role for Denise Gough. Now, with an Olivier Award under her belt and before she returns to the National in January to join the illustrious cast of Angels In America, she talks with Sarah Crompton about the value of self-assertion, how she maintains perspective on her own success and why it was far from fate that brought her to the stage.
The force of Denise Gough's personality fills a room. She has a warm smile, welcoming manner and opinions on everything under the sun.
Not so long ago, she became convinced that the very strength of her character was preventing her getting work. She had been unemployed for an entire year and, despairing, decided to go back to basics to see what was going wrong. ‘I asked my agent to ring the National to see if I had a bad reputation. I had never worked here and I know I can be quite difficult for some people to work with because I am quite outspoken and all that stuff.’
That phone call changed her life. Out of it came the opportunity to audition for the lead role in Duncan Macmillan's People, Places & Things and two years later, Gough is sitting grinning with sheer pleasure at the turnaround in fortune that the part of the troubled addict Emma brought her.
From being on the verge of giving up acting for teaching, she finds herself clutching an Olivier Award for Best Actress, with the pick of future projects. ‘This play has completely and utterly changed the landscape of my career in the most amazing way,’ she says, rolling the words expansively in her Irish lilt.
You feel it couldn't have happened to a nicer or more deserving person. ‘I look back at my life and there is no way it should have happened,’ she says, with a laugh. One of 11 children, she grew up in Ennis, County Clare, and gained a taste for performance early. ‘But, when you come from a family of 11, the most important thing is that you are able to provide for yourself for the rest of your life – so being an actress isn't going to do that, is it? Or being an artist of any kind. It is a question of getting a proper job and then having it as your hobby.
‘I shaved my head in order to be taken seriously. I didn't want to play Irina in Three Sisters, I wanted to play Natasha.'
‘I don’t come from a place where you go to a school like Bedales where the arts is a real, vital and valid thing to do with your life. They keep the arts as a subject in very posh schools but they will cut it for the working classes, even though they say it is vital for your social skills and your understanding of people. It's only the rich who are allowed access to that. That's really sad. I know for me it saved my life really.’
This is a typical Gough statement, announced without rancour but rather with great concern. She knows she was lucky. She left school at 15, and worked in pubs and restaurants in Ireland and then London. Then she got a scholarship to the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts. ‘Without the scholarship I wouldn't have been able to go. God knows how kids are doing it now.
‘I shaved my head in order to be taken seriously. I didn't want to play Irina in Three Sisters, I wanted to play Natasha. I wanted to play women who were active and going out to get stuff in their lives, not wandering around with a snow globe.’ She laughs as she speaks, but there's ardour beneath the humour. ‘That's a really easy thing to fall into if you are small, blonde and blue-eyed.’
She was utterly determined and, after a decade of steady progress, she won the Critics' Circle Best Newcomer Award for her performance in Sean Holmes' production of Desire Under the Elms. ‘That didn't alter things in the slightest. I had two more jobs, and then...’ She makes a downward gesture. ‘Silence. I don't know why. I think, spiritually, maybe it was to prepare me for this.’
The moment she read Macmillan's script for People, Places & Things, she knew Emma was the part for her. ‘My emotional connection to her was instant. I loved the fact that she was absolute in her humanity. There was no apology for her. She's desperately ugly at times, completely vile, incredibly funny, very sexy, strong, weak, fearful, fearless, all of the stuff that we are. And she’s a woman – that never happens.’
In some way, it felt that her year ‘in Siberia’ had prepared her for the part. ‘It took away all the “Like me! Like me!” attitude that I may have felt before, of trying to fit in. I just decided I am exactly what I am and if people find me dif cult to work with then let it be so. I have to stand by my decisions and who I am as an artist. That's what I did on this play and it just so happened that Jeremy Herrin [the director], Duncan and I formed this amazing triangle that worked beyond anything I have ever experienced before.’
While Gough is quick to point out that Macmillan's writing was the support that underlay her performance, it was nevertheless the devastating honesty of her acting, her willingness to hang herself out to dry emotionally, that made People, Places & Things an astonishing thing to behold.
Summoning that night after night was no easy feat, particularly when the production transferred from the Dorfman to Wyndham's and she was centre-stage eight times a week. ‘It took its toll, definitely. In between the shows I found it really difficult to sleep. But I looked after myself and that makes me feel that I am a theatre athlete.’
She giggles again, as she exes with pride at her endurance. It's clear Gough is enjoying the sensation of success. ‘It has been brilliant but what has been most brilliant is having the year out beforehand, because you know what's important. My life is the important thing. Throughout all of this time now I have to really stay grounded, remembering my mates, remembering my family and staying really close to it. Because you can get so swept up. Everyone wants you to get so swept up. Because that’s the nature of our business.’
In that spirit, she continues to support causes close to her heart, such as Equal Representation for Actresses, campaigning for a 50/50 gender split by 2018. She has no hesitation in continuing to speak out, both publicly and in the rehearsal room. ‘For a man it's all rock and roll but as a woman speaking up you are difficult and I’ve had particular people that I’ve worked with who just couldn’t understand my lack of desire to be pretty and sexy and desired by men in a production.
'Don't you tell me to stop standing up for myself.'
‘I fight against that vocally, because I have no choice if I feel as if I am being undermined as an artist, I can’t sit around with that. I remember being told really early on by somebody, “You need to stop. This is going to affect your career.” And I thought, don't you tell me to stop standing up for myself. Now it’s great because I am in a position where I don’t have to do anything. I can just work with the people I want to work with and that’s really exciting.’
Delight in her work rolls through Gough's conversation and she is particularly thrilled to be returning to the National next year to star in Tony Kushner's Angels in America, alongside Nathan Lane, Russell Tovey, James McArdle and Andrew Garfield, directed by Marianne Elliott. Her face lights up at the very thought. ‘Imagine that. My first day here, doing People, Places & Things, I felt I was going to cry all day. And I can tell you when I walk into the room with Marianne and Nathan Lane, I’m going to probably have a bit of a cry. It is so exciting and so brilliant.’
‘Sir Laurence wanted an open stage, one room theatre, capable of providing “full scenic possibilities”, and of operating in repertoire with frequent production changeovers. The action should take place, in his words, “in the audience’s space, backed by infinity.”’
I’m at the NT Studio talking to Richard Pilbrow, the award-winning lighting designer and author who sat on the NT’s first Building Committee, and whose company, Theatre Projects Ltd, was chosen in 1966 by architect Denys Lasdun to be the stage and lighting consultant for the new National Theatre. The NT Studio sits alongside the Old Vic Theatre, original home of the NT Company, and the space in which Pilbrow lit the NT’s rst production: Laurence Olivier’s 1963 Hamlet with Peter O’Toole in the title role. It’s a fitting place to meet the man who journeyed with the NT from day one.
Richard Pilbrow explains the challenges of the technical brief for the new auditorium. Theatre Projects had to work out how to make anyone or anything appear on stage from anywhere, with no curtain to screen the moment, and an exposed thrust stage. ‘In a wide, open space, how do you change scenery? You bring it down from above and up from below.’ With the audience partly surrounding the performance space, placement of scenery in intersecting lines across the stage would be problematic, leading to poor sightlines and reduced audibility, and it would be confining for the director. Olivier wanted this auditorium to house ground- breaking productions – ‘confining’ was not an option.
The issue of lowering scenery onto the stage was solved with a design for a highly advanced computerised ying system that could bring the scenery down at any angle, thereby maintaining the openness of the stage. Raising sets from the under-stage without using traditional right-angled traps and elevators would, however, prove signi cantly more complex.
In 1968, Pilbrow and his partner at Theatre Projects, Richard (Dick) Brett, travelled to some of the great European theatres that were renowned for their innovative stage engineering. In Vienna, they visited the Burgtheater and met a team from Waagner-Biro, builders of ‘the Burg’s’ famous drum revolving stage. This bespoke mechanism is a deep cylinder within which rectangular elevators enable scene changes. The elevators drop scenery into the under- stage cellar, new pieces are loaded in and then brought back up – a brilliant design for the Burgtheater with its end- on staging, but not a solution for the thrust stage of the NT’s new auditorium. The problem of scenery cutting across the space would still exist, and a rectangle within a circle is a poor fit. There would be too much dead space.
‘We believe that such a drum together with the [flying] grid proposed could make this stage one of the most advanced in the world.’
In a 1969 memo, NT General Manager Tony Easterbrook wrote to Olivier: ‘[...] it appears that this Theta Drum is the most satisfactory form in that it is the most exible and capable of handling the most complex types of scene changes. We believe that such a drum together with the [flying] grid proposed could make this stage one of the most advanced in the world.’ The contract was put out to tender, and the lowest bidder was selected. ‘Ay, there’s the rub’ O’Toole had prophetically declaimed on the Old Vic stage six years earlier. Nothing like this had ever been built before.
The landscape of the building world in the early 1970s was grim, with high energy prices and inflation pushing companies to offer increasingly competitive contracts. As a result, the NT hired sub-contractors who had tendered too low, and ended up taking additional jobs in order to stay a float. This meant that their workers moved between projects, resulting in lengthy delays. A building workers’ strike in 1972 targeted large UK projects, including the NT, and in 1974 the nation went down to a three-day working week. Plibrow recalls the ‘chaos’ of a construction period that spanned years, as disgruntled workers sabotaged each other’s work, cutting wires and stealing furniture. Lasdun had originally intended the building to open in 1972. By 1974, director designate Peter Hall wrote: ‘It is a nightmare of the first proportions. And an unbelievable farce. I am feeling quite well... because I’m so angry.’ Even when the company forced access into the building in 1975, the stages were still unfinished, and the actors were occupying the spaces during the day with contractors made to work overnight.
Nonetheless, work on the Drum progressed slowly. At five storeys high, the sub-contractor Mole-Richardson erected the frame in a field, but frozen rainwater warped the skeleton. By the time it was ready to be installed, the process of inserting this monster into the heart of the building was no mean feat. With 175 tonnes of machinery mounted on dozens of small wheels, it quickly transpired that they were bearing the enormous load unevenly, and the bottom of the Drum’s frame began to flex. It would take years of engineering before the full effects of the Drum could be revealed in the Olivier, and so for over a decade following the NT’s opening, it worked as a backstage freight elevator, and occasionally a simple at revolve. The Olivier was failing to deliver the ‘full scenic possibilities’ envisaged by the man after whom it was named.
It wasn’t until Howard Davies’ 1988 production of The Shaughraun that audiences would finally see the Drum put to full use – a production that Richard describes as an ‘unforgettable moment of wonder’ after years of waiting. This might never have happened, had designer William Dudley not been overheard by two stage engineers in the staff canteen, whilst bemoaning the Drum’s ineffectiveness. They revealed that they had actually fixed it ve years before, but no one knew because they were afraid it would be used and then fail. Dudley asked for a private demonstration and saw for the first time the full capabilities of the Olivier Theatre.
Ask long-standing audience members to share their favourite NT productions, and frequently they will reference ‘Drum shows’. Nicholas Hytner’s 1990 production of The Wind in the Willows is often cited, as is his 2003 two-part staging of Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. More recent audiences recall Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein (2011) or Polly Findlay’s Treasure Island (2014). And then of course there was a puppet named Joey who galloped onto the revolve in 2007’s War Horse and went on to make NT history.
The Drum Revolve, like the theatre in which it is housed, had an uncertain beginning. Over the years since The Shaughraun, sporadic works have been undertaken to keep the Drum in action. There have been periods when it hasn’t been used for anything more than storage, but there have been many more moments when 1,150 people have collectively gasped at seeing Olivier’s dream made reality.
The Drum Appeal
It is the physical and metaphorical heart of the NT, but the Drum is now in urgent need of restoration and repair. To maintain the Olivier as one of the most advanced theatres in the world, we need to modify this 1970s computerised giant in order to meet the expectations of 21st-century theatre-makers and audiences. We will make the Drum more energy and cost efficient, and update the operating system that has become unpredictable in recent years. To do this, we need to raise £350,000.
Thanks to the generous response from our audience, and major gifts from The Linbury Trust, the Mark Pigott KBE Family, Anthony Skyrme and Marcia B Whitaker we have made great headway. There is, however, still a way to go and we need your help to reach our goal.
To donate towards the Drum Appeal, please visit nationaltheatre.org.uk/drumappeal
While The Threepenny Opera has quite literally put him centre stage in the Olivier Theatre, David Shrubsole has been integral to many of the NT’s most successful productions in recent years as composer, orchestrator and Music Director. Midway through its run, we caught up with him to find out more about the musical challenges of Brecht and Weill’s masterpiece, the sheer breadth of work he has been involved with during his career and a surprising link to Rufus Norris.
‘Although we didn’t know each other when we were growing up, a lot of my background is closely linked with Rufus. I joined the Worcester Swan Youth Theatre which Rufus had also been part of four or five years before me. I got involved because I had been a chorister and a member of a youth orchestra and wanted to do something different. They immediately asked me if I wanted to be a Music Director, even though I had no idea at the time what one was. However, I jumped in at the deep end and decided then that this was what I wanted to do.
‘I also went to Kidderminster College of Further Education where Rufus had previously studied theatre studies on the same course as me. In fact, the head of the course came to see The Threepenny Opera recently and the three of us managed to meet up after the show and talk about all things Brecht.’
After graduating from Trinity College of Music, David Shrubsole conducted a number of West End shows including Carmen Jones, Chess and the rehearsals for Miss Saigon, before working at the NT for the first time on Trevor Nunn’s production of My Fair Lady. He also began a relationship with the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, which led to further progression in his career.
‘Up until that point, I had always been the original conductor on shows but at Sheffield Crucible, where we did A Chorus Line and Ain’t Misbehaving, I was orchestrating for the first time and having a say on how we did things in the rehearsal room with the director. This fed back into my work at the NT because it meant that I wasn’t just conducting, I was arranging.
‘My career is now equal parts composing, conducting and orchestrating. What’s been lovely for the last 12 years at the NT is that along with the big shows I have been involved with, such as The Magistrate and She Stoops to Conquer, it has been great to move between rehearsals for really diverse productions such as London Assurance and The White Guard. It is a very privileged position to be a part of rehearsals with the likes of Howard Davies, Peter Gill and Trevor Nunn, to name but a few of the directors I have worked with.’
More recently, Shrubsole played a key role as Music Director for both the stage and film versions of London Road with full involvement from the earliest workshops. ‘I don’t think I have ever had more important input into a show than I had with London Road. The real question at first was: how do the actors learn it so that the music is not a problem?
‘The good thing about London Road, as opposed to other new work, is that you could not rewrite it because it is verbatim. However, I spent pretty much 12 months working out how we were going to learn it. I remember on one Saturday that I spent nine hours working out the schedule for a four-week rehearsal period. We also learnt it all backwards, which was something a piano teacher taught me when I was 18.
‘Casting for London Road was hugely important. We knew we couldn’t have anybody who was going to have a nervous breakdown in week three, so they were all absolute music theatre royalty and had musicianship and tenacity, having been on West End stages.’
In The Threepenny Opera, David Shrubsole plays a prominent role on stage, although this took time to evolve in the rehearsal room. ‘Rufus wanted the band to be central in the show but in quite a lot of pre-production and rehearsals I kept asking where I was going to be. It would have felt odd for the band to be on stage and for me to be on a monitor. Bit by bit, it just happened and Rufus decided that we all had to come on stage and just stand there. It now seems completely natural and Brechtian that we do this and I really feel that it fits in with the production that we come out and look at the audience.
‘I had done The Threepenny Opera before at Manchester Youth Theatre and it has been great to revisit it properly. All the musicians are having a ball. One of the joys has also been to work with Simon Stephens on the lyrics. We have had wonderfully intense hours of sitting across a desk, grappling with rhymes, scansion and whether we need to use a long or a short vowel.’
As with London Road, casting for this show provided a number of challenges as Shrubsole explained.
‘This was a hard show to cast, particularly the women, because we are not allowed to change the keys of the songs. The Kurt Weill estate [Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Inc] is very strict about this. The show also comes from an era where women sang in different parts of their voice. If Kurt Weill was alive today, who knows what keys he would be writing in. The estate is very protective, partly because of orchestration. If you drop a fifth, the orchestration changes completely. The casting was a long process as we could not have people who were daunted by the material or who were fearful of it.’
Aside from his work at the NT, Shrubsole continues to work on a wide range of sometimes surprising projects. ‘The other day, I was writing music for The Diary of Anne Frank and then I went straight onto SpongeBob SquarePants. This is how eclectic it gets.
‘I really believe that orchestrating somebody else’s work makes me a better composer and composing makes me a better orchestrator. Doing Music Director roles for 25 years has also made me a better orchestrator and composer, and working on 30 to 40 plays has given me an insight into drama that most people who work purely in music theatre do not get. It is a privilege to have had the experience of such a wide breadth of theatre but ultimately, it is all about finding a solution for whatever is required. It is about making it happen with the least effort and making sure that the music never becomes the problem.’
The Young Chekhov trilogy opened to overwhelming acclaim at Chichester Festival Theatre last year and found a second home at the National from July. Three plays, Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull, in translations by David Hare, offered audiences a unique chance to explore the birth of a revolutionary dramatic voice, whilst marathon three-show days were testament to the stamina of cast, production team and spectators alike.
Eight hours of drama, in a single theatre, across a single day, may seem more suited to Greek amphitheatres than modern venues, but just as the theatre at Epidaurus inspired the design of the Olivier and Chichester Festival Theatre, so the idea of an ensemble cast willing and able to work in repertoire is part of the ethos of the National Theatre to this day. So much for the staying power of the cast and the crew, but what about the set that supports them in exploring ‘the birth of the modern stage’?
Tom Pye’s sweeping set fills every inch, upstage and downstage, holding the world of these three plays in a single landscape. With a lake that looks as though the Thames were slowly recovering ground from the South Bank, a grove of real trees and flooring that has a resume as prolific as any member of the company, the audience cannot help but feel that nature has literally taken root inside the brutalist terraces of the National. We take a closer look at the components that comprise Tom Pye’s vision and the practicalities that go in to such an epic repertory staging:
1. The lake contains 35,000 litres of water, enough to fill the fountains in Trafalgar Square. This sits in a vast tank around the Drum Revolve. The water is chlorinated, ensuring that it does not go stagnant and allowing the actors to walk through it.
|2. Whilst the show is out of rep, the water is kept in a vast tank backstage. The water will be here until October and, barring evaporation, will not be replaced across the run.|
|3. On-stage rain is used in The Seagull, which requires thousands more litres of water. This too is collected and recycled, but a separate system is required to ensure that it does not flood the lake – or the auditorium.|
|4. There are between 40 and 50 trees in the trilogy, ranging from saplings to fully grown birch and larch, chosen from a managed forest called The Goodwood Estate. It is more environmentally friendly to use these than false trees which could not be recycled at the end of their working life.|
|5. Much of the long grass has been reused from Moon on a Rainbow Shawl (2012) and King Lear (2014). Were it an actor, it would receive its own dressing room for its next production.|
6. Each and every plant is fireproofed and sprayed with binder to reinforce it and prevent wilting.
|7. The stage floor is made of wood from just south of Paris. Once the Young Chekhov run is over, it will be reused in another production or recycled.|
|8. The dirt mound is made from rubber crumb and foam, painted to look like mud. This means it does not degrade and retains the correct visual texture from the audience’s point of view. It also means it can be easily swept back together, rather than becoming part of the surrounding scenery.|
|9. Within the Drum Revolve, there are hydraulic lifts for various pieces of set. A lift called ‘The Toaster’ is used to move different flats in and out for all three shows; they move up and down like a toaster, hence the name.|
|10. The setting sun in The Seagull is created using a giant floodlight. This is on loan from the Welsh National Opera, for whom it was made as a bespoke piece.|
|11. The train track in Platonov is moved on stage, during the show. To achieve the desired visual effect, it is made from wood with a painted metallic effect added by the Scenic Art department.|
12. The island, made from polystyrene and covered in stage cloth, was recycled from As You Like It (2015). It has now played the part of a forest floor on two occasions.
The National Theatre’s Theatreworks training programme is proof positive that businesses have a lot to gain from supporting – and working with – the arts. Sheila Chawla, Theatreworks Account Manager, explores this relationship and how ‘treading the boards’ can help professionals to build confidence, communication and leadership skills and, ultimately, enhance their performance in the boardroom.
As soon as a participant walks into a Theatreworks session, they leave the office environment behind. Computers, desks and meetings are replaced with ‘tools of the rehearsal room’ – space for physical movement, listening and observation exercises. Treated as actors preparing for a play, participants are guided through a series of exercises and techniques usually reserved for capturing the essence of a character.
It is this unique and challenging approach that drew me to make the move to work at Theatreworks three years ago, and I haven’t looked back. Day-to-day, my job is to keep the programme running behind the scenes. I act as a liaison between businesses and our trained facilitators, helping ensure that each group of trainees gets the most out of their tailored experience. I also work to help the arts gain a foothold in the boardroom – developing ongoing support and forging mutually fruitful relationships. Arts education is a passion of mine and Theatreworks helps to further this through supporting the National Theatre’s Learning programmes.
A bit of history
Our professional actor and director facilitators have worked with more than 200 organisations since Theatreworks was established in 1997. In 2015 alone nearly 1,500 participants took part in training sessions.
So what’s the secret to Theatreworks’ ongoing success? Businesses of all sizes can benefit from working closely with actors and directors. Participants learn skills such as projecting their voices, moving confidently and giving – and taking – feedback effectively.
While it can be a great employee benefit, team building day out or short session at a conference, Theatreworks is by no means just a bit of fun. It is challenging, hard work and very effective. Each experiential workshop is led by skilled practitioners who encourage participants to dig deep and step well outside their comfort zones. By applying tried and tested techniques from the rehearsal room everyone, from new recruits to top managers, is challenged to develop business-critical skills including communication, presentation and negotiation.
Delivering value and ‘magic’ to businesses
Kate Beales has worked with National Theatre Learning as a director and facilitator since 1996. When asked what drew her to Theatreworks she said, ‘I really enjoy the application of arts to the corporate sector and truly believe in the credibility of arts-based training. Participants always want to know what it’s like to work in the arts and our training gives them a taste of this – weaving it into the way we teach them valuable skills. I love that “ka-ching moment” when the people I’m training just get it. It’s magical.’
Immersive training with a unique perspective
Actor, creative director and Theatreworks facilitator, Al Nedjari is a huge proponent of Theatreworks’ immersive, experiential approach. ‘The National Theatre is totally different from a business venue. I’ve found it makes participants more receptive to taking a journey and gives them a sense that they can reinvent themselves.’
For example, new graduate recruits may be called upon to take up the persona of a VIP or well-known public figure to experience how poise, body language and confidence affect their bearing on others. Conversely, a business leader may be asked to portray a theatre usher dealing with a difficult customer to gain an understanding of status and its effect on communication and interactions.
Nedjari continued, ‘Theatreworks borrows ideas from rehearsing – getting people up and experimenting to discover new behaviours. It’s not just cerebral or theoretical; Theatreworks is all about the experience, which is why it works.’
Penguin Random House has been working with Theatreworks, initially engaging us to help support their leadership team. ‘The team really enjoyed working in a creative space with creative people from a different industry,’ said Nicola Halsall, Learning & Development Manager at Penguin Random House. ‘They found the on-stage approach offered a unique perspective and the training really pushed them while also providing a safe, motivational space for them to put new skills into practice. Our leadership team appreciated working with a director, for whom giving feedback is a huge part of their job, and learned valuable skills in a memorable way.’
Following the success of this workshop, Penguin Random House engaged Theatreworks to conduct a session focused on constructive conversations and opened it up to team members across all levels.
Keeping it relevant
Businesses are often surprised by how relevant theatre and the arts can be to the corporate world and how easy it is for programmes like Theatreworks to draw parallels between directing performances and running a business. Whilst being grounded in theatre, our facilitators are skilled in the art of business – many even run their own – and work closely with clients in advance to ensure the sessions deliver what they need.
Suzy McAllister works in marketing and communications at Accenture. She noted, ‘Some of our team can be a little cynical when it comes to outside training, but their feedback after Theatreworks was overwhelmingly positive. They were especially impressed with how the facilitator drew parallels between theatre and business, making the training relevant to them.’
Building effective teams
Cultivating trust is an essential part of any effective team in business, the arts or any other area of life. Working collectively through challenging problems is a great way to build rapport and strengthen relationships, something Theatreworks has at its core. While our workshops are not specifically aimed at team building, it is a distinctly advantageous by-product of our approach.
Paul Gentle is a programme director at The Leadership Foundation and has built Theatreworks training into the Foundation’s flagship programme for top-level management. ‘Theatreworks makes a huge impact in the area of emotional intelligence, something many training offerings shy away from. It engages participants in a courageous way and encourages people to open up. It never disappoints in bringing people together.’
On 1 July, following a week of bitter politics, a cultural event thrust the soundless past into chaotic social spaces and inspired raw, reactive emotion in the most everyday activities. This seemed not only poignant but startlingly relevant. But unlike the bluster and mud-slung rhetoric of the European vote, this piece of collaborative theatre arrived unheralded, camouflaged in secrecy, and walked mutely into all corners of the country at 7am, exactly 100 years after the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.
Ironically, the rest is history. The piece, entitled we’re here because we’re here, which in itself takes away any question of ‘Why?’, reached 221 million via #wearehere on social media and was seen live by over 2 million people. It was the first time the three national theatres of England, Wales and Scotland have worked together on a single project, with 24 other arts organisations across the UK involved. The understated way in which 1,400 volunteers appeared over the course of 12 hours in over 900 specific locations in 47 towns and cities, including train stations, shopping centres, car parks and high streets, did little to betray over a year of development, rehearsal and strategy. ‘The moving reason you might have seen a soldier on your commute…’ began the Independent.
‘Might’ here is an important word in terms of the concept of the piece. Commissioned by 14-18 NOW (the UK’s arts programme for the centenary of the First World War), Jeremy Deller, the Turner Prize-winning artist who created the event in collaboration with the National’s own Rufus Norris, said: ‘When I was researching the project, there was this huge phenomenon of people, women in particular, seeing their dead loved ones, on the streets, out of the corner of their eyes…
‘I quickly realised that what I didn’t want was a static memorial that the public went to to be sad. We were trying to redefine what a war memorial could be. It would be an intervention in their lives. They wouldn’t be expecting it; they might not even be wanting it. But they would have to deal with it in some way.’
The humanity of involving public volunteers in uniform, aged between 16-52 – farmers, artists, shop assistants and students, one of the largest arts participation projects ever staged in the UK – meant that at the same time as standing out from the crowd, they were a window into the world of the ordinary, non-professional soldiers who walked the same streets en route to the Front a hundred years before. Deller stresses that whilst they did not speak, they were not representing ghosts. These were the men as they went off to fight, not ‘Our Glorious Dead’, as memorials like the Cenotaph group them. The troops of men, seamlessly choreographed and stage managed, would occasionally break into the repetitive refrain ‘We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here’, sung to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, acknowledging the futility of trench warfare and rejecting any heroic flag that might be waved on their behalf whilst at the same time creating their own community through song. There was no pomp or circumstance, no church service. In fact, the locations selected deliberately avoided war memorials and churches.
'We were trying to redefine what a war memorial could be.'
It was Norris’ idea that the participants should be silent: ‘If they speak they would have to assume a character for a day’, says Deller. ‘We didn’t want that – we wanted them to have a detached quality to them. There is no narrative. They are a presence.’ If approached by a member of the public, the participants would simply hand them a small white card with the name, regiment and, where known, age at death of one of the 19,240 soldiers who lost their lives on 1 July 1916. It later struck the team that the cards contained exactly the same details as headstones.
Norris adds: ‘It was important to interrogate the idea… It is a political work – with a small p. That day is generally remembered as being the greatest disaster in British military history. It’s not heroic. There was heroism all around, but it was a disaster, one that was neither necessary nor positive in its outcome. Jeremy’s determination that it should not be sentimental is at the heart of it.’
The secrecy that surrounded the planning of the event was fundamental to the impact it was designed to have. Having no build up, no press releases, forced those who came across it to react instinctively and with intuitive emotion. The barest information was passed on to key venues, sometimes as limited as ‘Someone will turn up in a costume on this day’ says producer Jen Crook, who oversaw permissions for the project. Crook was also a producer for the London 2012 Olympic Festival. Senior Associate Director Emily Lim talks of how the team drew on other volunteer-led artistic events for their model: ‘The volunteers were amazing. They all had to sign a confidentiality agreement after which they were told more details about the project, but we took a lot of inspiration from the Olympics Opening Ceremony and this idea that if people buy into a secret with you, they can really own that secret. The incredible participants went “This is us. We understand. We understand Jeremy’s vision, we understand why the secrecy is completely fundamental to that and we’re going to own that and enjoy that.”’
Arthur Le Fol, a graphic designer who moved to London from France, took part in the project: ‘There’s an extraordinary feeling within the group. I feel as if I really would help the other people if I saw them in trouble. There’s a kind of instinct: it’s quite scary in a way, I feel I could be a soldier, which is so far from who I actually am. I feel as if it could happen and this is what I would feel like if I did.’
Thanks to the work of over 2,000 volunteers, a truly national undertaking from Plymouth to the Shetland Islands, the 19,240 victims of the first day of the Somme were not just remembered, they were encountered, and as a result their names can now live on a little longer.
Every Friday at 1pm, a limited number of £20 tickets for the following week's performances are released to buy online. Find out more.
On the day of the performance, a limited number of £15 Day Tickets are available in person at 9.30am from the Ground Floor box office. Find out more.
Tuesday 3 January, 2.30pm
Monday 9 January, 7.30pm
Saturday 7 January, 2.30pm, preceded by a Touch Tour
LOVE Rehearsal Diary
Diyan Zora is the staff director for LOVE, which opens in the Dorfman Theatre in December. She’ll be keeping a diary throughout the rehearsal period – here’s the first entry.