Blog : Theatre

15 Fabulous Firsts When You’re An Actor in a Play

15 Fabulous Firsts When You’re An Actor in a Play

When you’re an actor in a play, there’s a bunch of first times during the course of the production, juicy first moments, that happen each time you do a show, that are fabulous milestones and a special part of the joy of performing. Each feels lovely but a little different – each one makes you tingle, and you’d miss each desperately if it didn’t happen. Here’s a few of them:

The first time in the audition room that you realize it’s going well. When you step outside yourself and realize you’re playing and having fun and creating. Jeez, it’s almost like a rehearsal already! You’ve got ideas, the director is laughing at your jokes, you feel at home – wait a second. Yeah, that first time you’re all of a sudden pretty sure (but not 100% sure) that you are right for this … and (whisper it) they are gonna cast you. (Oh yeah, baby, that’s right – you’re looking at a proper actor here … Focus! Keep doing what you’re doing! And relish suddenly, for once, being … the one.)

The first time they tell you you got the gig. Usually by email these days but 100 times better by phone – that way you can’t help but hear the bright smile in the producer or casting director’s voice. (They have to deliver bad news so often, this is really fun for them too.) We’d like to offer you the role of … Oooh, that’s so good, you almost forget to say “yes.” The way your heart surges at the hammer-and-tongs excitement of a new creative journey. And you float for the rest of the day. Bad drivers don’t bother you. You flirt with shop assistants. You take out the garbage with aplomb. Life – is – good. (I did say yes, didn’t I?)

The first time you sit down with the script, a sharp pencil and a cup of coffee. You feel like an actor – because you are one. You got a job to do. You’re gonna come in rehearsal Day One ready. It feels like good work. Doing your homework. Making notes. Finding beats. Seeing patterns. Noting questions. Imagination. Character study. Fleshing out the words. What will inspire you? What research books might you need to read? What obscure point of reference will make it click? Objective. Superobjective. Status. Secrets. Imagined body. Key Values. Moments Before. All that juice for your engine. All that detective work. And reading that script again. And again. And again. (Oh, and yeah, of course, highlighting your lines …)

The first time you do a full read-through. The first day of rehearsal. You’ve rushed to get there because you’ve never been to this space before … so you’re half an hour early … so you go get a cappuccino … and swan in with it … and everybody is already there chatting. And they have tea! And it’s the first time you see the other cast members and put faces to roles you’ve been imagining – and they’re not what you thought, but then suddenly they’re much better than what your little brain could imagine, much more colourful and deep and … fleshy. And you’re rapidly introduced to all these lovely and brilliant designers and producers and front-of-house you won’t see again for ages, and it’s a bit dizzying (so many names!), and you’re making very nice jokes and comments about the weather that won’t offend anyone … And finally you get to sit at a bunch of tables, assembled into a big square, and you say your first line aloud and another actor replies with theirs … and the lines chime like two notes off different wine glasses – delicate but ready for more. You have begun.

The first time in rehearsals you manage a full run-through of the show, off-book – without calling for “line.” Yowzahhh, touchdown, the relief! It’s like being a dog suddenly let off a leash. It’s like letting go of your baby blanket. It’s like a baby chick jumping off a cliff … and flying. It doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do it next time … but you’ve done it once, so you can do it. And that’s all you need right now. Don’t go burning the script … but you can start really believin.’ (Even though you did mangle that one line in Act 2. But nobody noticed. Except your stage manager, who gives you that look. Thank God you brought him Jaffa Cakes last week).

The first time you put on your costume. The designer comes in, maybe she’s shown you drawings but now the real thing is in her hands, and it’s coming your way, and it’s got texture and pattern and smell and weight. For me, primarily, it’s the shoes – the feel on your feet, how it changes your walk: industrial boots? shiny spats? awful moccasins? But I am always told, when a coat lands on my shoulders, my character deepens. It’s when you really start to breathe like your character. Sweat like your character. Ache like your character. It’s so sweet.

The first time you walk on the actual stage you’ll be performing on. You leave that rehearsal room with its taped-markings on the floor for “rooms” and “doors,” and you are in a theatre. Lights. Wings. Seats. The legendary smell of the grease-paint. An arena awaiting an audience. Gosh, it is possible to have electricity running through wooden planks? To have stardust jingling at your feet as you take your first steps on that stage? Practising moves … gently. Touching furniture … carefully. And knowing now it’s a countdown to showtime. (Now where’s my dressing room?)

The first time you know which chair in the dressing room is yours. So you can put your bag down. See how far it is to the clothes-rack (and the loo). Unpack your make-up, your water bottle, your tea-bags. And most importantly – start sticking your inspirational postcards around the mirror, and making it your second home. (Even if just for a week).

The first time you get to be in the theatre alone. Maybe you arrived early to warm-up, maybe everyone else is having a meeting in that other room, maybe you just woke up from a nap and found the place empty. But right now it’s all yours. The air is cool, even a touch frigid. Your footsteps suddenly echo. You walk around stretching out your arms, caressing the velvet of the seats, sitting in the very back row. Dare you try a line in the space? You do, and it rings. It resounds around the room. God, theatres are a wonder. This is your church, and soon you will do your soul’s work. But take one more minute to bask in the silence, the space, the stillness – the anticipation. (Before that rabble come back in making fart jokes).

The first time you hear the hub-a-bub of a big crowd arriving in to see the show. Maybe you’re being told to get off the stage by your overstretched stage manager, but you can hear the sounds of the lobby through a crack in the door. Maybe you’re in the dressing room hearing the overhead speaker of people taking their seats. Maybe you have to wait on stage before the show, and you’re peeking through the curtains. It’s PEOPLE! Coming to see the show. That’s why we do it, remember? Holy cow, we might have a full house? Are they normally this rowdy on a Thursday night? Wow, they are hungry for this. And that’s okay. They’re lucky. You’re ready to knock their socks off. (Do I need to pee one more time? Yeah. Just one more time).

The first time you step out into the lights in front of an audience. The crackle of it. You leave the safety of the wings, and suddenly they can see you. They’re looking at you. You’re in a show. Now. Now! NOW! Holy crap, your brain just went blank! No, I’m all good, I’m in the story, I’m the character now … and you’re breathing … and listening, living, being … and there’s your first cue … and you say your first line. It’s real! Hey, this is fun. You start moving around the stage, saying more lines, playing. And then you get your first laugh of the night. Your first gasp. Your first sigh. Hey this works! The audience is into it! You’re doing what you love. What could be better?

The first time you say your last line in the show … and you can hear a pin drop. The lights dip. And it’s still quiet for one delicious beat more … and then the applause lashes down like a sudden rainstorm. Genuine, joyous, relentless – and you bow with honour and admiration for the audience. You can’t help smiling, and they keep on clapping. Eventually, they let you go from their warm appreciative noisy embrace and you exit stage left, into the dark behind the flats, past that heavy muffled door and into the corridor … and you’re a little bit at a loss, wandering a little waywardly – for the first time in hours, you don’t know your next move. But then you stumble into the dressing room, and over the intercom you hear the audience laughing and quoting lines and saying how great that was, and you’re back in your purpose. Wow, we did it. (Now where’s the cold cream for this damn black mascara?)

The first drink on Opening Night. It’s been a long day’s work; the end of a long week of final rehearsals, tech, repetition, the stress of bringing it all home, each night crashing home to bed like a good soldier; hell, it’s been a long month all of a sudden. But that opening show is done, and done well, and that first clink of glasses with your cast and crew is like bells of gold, and that first sup of lush, celebratory, well-earned beer on your dry, harsh, work-worn throat, is like nectar.

The first time you get a really great review for the show in a newspaper. I’m just about old enough to remember when, if you stayed out drinking after opening night late enough, you could pick up the fresh-printed morning’s paper and scan for reviews. We all pretend we don’t care about the reviews – I don’t read them, man – and Lord knows, the baaaaad ones stay with us much longer – and in all reality they are just tomorrow’s fish-and-chips wrapping – but reading a glowing review of your performance in the cool morning air is a unique thrill.

The first time you overhear an audience member praising your performance, genuinely, delightedly, they just can’t help themselves – and you luckily overhear it, maybe passing in the lobby or on the street outside or in the pub next-door, so you know it’s not forced flattery. It’s just nice. Really nice. (But keep walking before they spot you!)

And then suddenly, it’s the last time you do the show. The last time. The last time. And it’s gone.

And you can’t wait for the next … first.

 

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The Admirable Actor-Producer: 10 Actors Who Have Run Theatres

The Admirable Actor-Producer: 10 Actors Who Have Run Theatres

I am an actor who also runs a theatre company, and dreams of running a theatre. Now that really should be the most natural thing in the world – in theatre, actors give life to the stories, we engage with the shows every night, how they work, how audiences respond, what works in a venue, what works in a script. And it’s something that feels very right to me – while most actors are very happy to just act (which is great), there are some of us who want to take responsibility for the whole process, to ensure the overall quality of the audience’s experience, from choosing and developing scripts, to how punters encounter the show in its marketing and the feel of the lobby, to performing one of the roles each night. We are in good company, we actor-producers – we come in a direct line from William Shakespeare himself, who of course wrote his plays for his company the King’s Men to perform at the theatre they owned and operated, The Globe, and he acted in many of them.

But even when we started out our theatre company, AboutFACE, we felt we had to be very wary, careful and transparent as actor-producers, so as not to be seen as selfishly using the presentation of plays as mere vehicles for our own careers – that we might be accused of miscasting ourselves, or putting on poor plays for an audience to see, but that still held showy roles for us that an agent or casting director might come and see. And as young actors, of course, we wanted to attack good parts, and be noticed in them. And there’s nothing wrong with an actor putting on a show as a vehicle – most one-person shows are purely that, and good luck to them. And probably most theatre companies started by actors are about that in their first show.

But once you get to producing your second, third, fourth shows, that really disappears as motivation. You understand that the truest deepest result of putting on a play is the impact it has on an audience, and if you continue a theatre company, you have to choose what works best to achieve that – the play, when you put it on, who is your creative team? Putting on a play is much too much work – we always feel it is 90% grunt work for that final 10% of performance joy – and so you have to love the play and believe in its anticipated effect on a paying audience, otherwise when the going gets tough you’d walk away. You need to love the play.

Yet, even though we rigourously chose our plays, researching and reading a huge number of scripts, and only being willing to commit to producing shows all three of us as Co-Artistic Directors believed in, we still felt the need in our early days to audition for parts in our own shows! Once we hired the director, we insisted we read for parts in the play – to show we were worthy of them, and not weak links they were forced to include! Looking back, of course it was utter madness. (And terribly stressful). But we wanted to ensure that we were being fully integrous as producers.

Because we were also actors. And somehow, there was a suspicion about us being actor-producers. Instead of being actors being a strength – being highly aware, passionate, conscious and knowledgeable theatre storytellers – there was a subtext that as also producers, we were possibly just there for selfish reasons.

So when you looked at the landscape, the vast majority of those running theatre companies were, and are, directors. Some producers, but mostly directors. And yes, of course, directors attend to the overall play from the outside, they are the outside eye, so it is a natural fit. But the idea that a director might be choosing a play for a selfish show-off reason, such as to put on a flashy show with lots of noticeable auteur touches like a striking period relocation, a new framing device, blasting pop music and flashing lights, which does more to draw attention to the director than to serve the play, seems a lot less worthy of suspicion for some reason. Of course, most directors who are artistic directors are just like the actor-producers I spoke of: they are not driven by self-centred attention-seeking that tramples on a script and an audience’s need to experience it, they are using all their skills, love and dedication to put on the best show possible.

But as such, I see no reason why an actor cannot be just as suitable a choice to be the artistic director of a theatre, as a director.

And so, for inspiration for myself and any other budding actor-producers, here are 10 actors who have (and are) successfully running theatres:

Laurence Olivier

One of my great role models, the bold Sir Larry never settled for just being a mighty actor, but always pushed to produce. From co-running the Old Vic in the 1940s, together with fellow actor Ralph Richardson and director John Burrell, and restoring it from post-war near-ruin into a highly respected company, to being an independent actor-manager in the 1950s, he went on to run the newly established Chichester Festival in 1961, before starting Britain’s National Theatre, running it for ten years, first at the Old Vic and then taking it into its current purpose-built home. And continuing to play major roles at those theatres throughout!

Steppenwolf

Another of my touchstones are the rough-hewn, stubbornly passionate actor-producers of Steppenwolf in Chicago. The company was started by actors Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney, and Jeff Perry in a suburban Unitarian church basement in 1974, and they would go on to run the company for decades in different iterations. Even today, as a stalwart in American theatre, the leadership of their actors ensemble is key to who they are and the work they do.

Michael MacLiammoir

In Dublin, we have the prime example of MacLiammoir, who with Hilton Edwards (his partner, a fellow actor who he met in a touring company), set up the Gate Theatre in 1928. They innovatively presented the new plays that were shaking up the world abroad, like Ibsen, using modern design and forward thinking, building a theatre that today stands as one of Dublin’s Big Two, alongside the Abbey. Again, MacLiammoir continued to act in major roles throughout their lives running the theatre. (And of course, they gave the first professional gig to another mighty actor-producer, Orson Welles.)

Mark Rylance

Rylance, now practically the gold standard for theatre acting as well as an Oscar winner in film, was a much-regarded RSC actor but not a much-experienced director or producer when in 1995 he was chosen to be the first Artistic Director of the Globe in London. But he took the theatre to great heights in his ten-year reign, making it a much-beloved fixture in London’s Theatreland, when it could in that period easily have become a lame tourist re-enactment. He did so with immaculate leadership and first-hand knowledge both in his bold and muscular programming and in acting key roles in every season.

Ian McDiarmid

Best known to the wider world as the actor who played The Emperor in Star Wars, McDiarmid is a major theatre actor, and the recipient of both Olivier and Tony Awards. In 1990, alongside Jonathan Kent, he took the reigns of the Almeida theatre in London, and ran it for 20 years, during which time they built a reputation for boldly-chosen plays from around the world in an exciting environment, featuring top-quality actors in an intimate space, often featuring stars who would previously only have been seen in the West End.

Rufus Norris

The current director of the National actually began as an actor, including training at RADA, before diverting into directing, where of course he rose to award-winning prominence.

Daniel Evans

The current director of the Chichester Festival Theatre is a long-time and continuing actor, whose acting career has included Olivier-winning performances in Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along in 2001 and Sunday in the Park With George in 2006, as well as multiple roles at the RSC, National and Royal Court. His award-winning seven-year tenure at Sheffield Theatres showed his brilliant leadership (and led to talk of him running the National) and included a number of appearances on stage there, such as in Company, Cloud Nine and The Tempest. It’s worth noting how Sir William Castell, chair of Chichester’s board of trustees, said Evans had been chosen from “a very accomplished shortlist of candidates, but it was clear that Daniel’s breadth of experience as a director and actor makes him a brilliant fit … his passion for theatre is infectious”.

Kwame Kwei-Armah

The new Artistic Director of the Young Vic, comes from his huge success running Baltimore’s Center Stage for 7 years. He arrived there primarily known as an actor and playwright. He had been working as an actor for a decade, most prominently for his role as paramedic Finlay Newton in TV’s Casualty, before becoming a writer and director.

Michelle Terry

We can go right up to today with this trend. The new artistic director of the Globe, starting in 2018, is a much-loved actor, who has very limited directing experience but a huge depth of acting experience, including an Olivier Award for Tribes and a range of roles with the RSC, National and Globe. But the Board of the Globe clearly understand that actors too know how to put on plays, and audiences are hugely excited to see what she will present.

Hope Mill Theatre

And it’s not just at the established theatres. There are examples of actors saying they’ve had enough waiting around, and with great courage and hard work, set up new producing house theatre venues. One exciting example is Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, only established in the last two years but already building an audience and award-winning presence, and sending shows on to London. It’s set up and led by executive producer William Whelton and artistic director and programmer Joseph Houston – both actors. (And this trend is present in modern-day Dublin as well. Two of the most exciting new theatres in Dublin have been set up above pubs, co-led by actors, in Karl Shiels at Theatre Upstairs, and Andy Murray with Laura Dowdall at the Viking.)

So believe it, fellow actors: we can run theatres too …

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My New Campaign: Let’s Save the Standing Ovation

My New Campaign: Let’s Save the Standing Ovation

I’d like to talk to you today about an endangered species.

The genuine standing ovation.

He’s a bit like the red squirrel, that lovely Irish creature, rather gentle and delightful, who is being routed and pushed aside by his rapacious and rude American cousin, the grey squirrel. The red is now disappearing from Irish woodlands because some fool introduced the grey to his environment, and the grey is much pushier, more aggressive and rather less soulful, and so is taking over and pushing aside gentlemanly ol’ Red.

I don’t like it. And now, I am seeing a similar phenomenon happening with standing ovations in Irish theatre audiences.

Now, as an actor, there are few things more joyous and gratifying that receiving a true standing O from your audience. They have appreciated your work that much. Wow. But let’s be very clear about what a standing ovation is.

Good theatre is invigorating. It’s live, and when it’s finely done, it makes us feel alive. It moves us. Literally. Initially our innards, our emotive juices, our gut, the electrons of our brain, our groin and our heart. What Elizabethans (who saved theatre after the Dark Ages and produced, y’know, that Shakespeare dude) called the Humours. It’s viscerally right in front of us (in a way that the gentle caress of a novel on our mind or the distanced magic of the cinema screen isn’t), performed right here right now for us by brave actors, you can hear the words reverberating in your ears, you can smell the sweat in your nostrils, you can taste the storm of tension in the air. And more than anything else, you feel it. If it is a well-told story, it builds in stages to climaxes, provides rushes of information to our mind and thrusts emotion to our core. It gets into our bodies and produces all kinds of strange, wonderful and touchable feelings. It is physical. And when it ends, we need to, have to, respond physically. And the best way we’ve culturally learned to do this is to applaud. To smash our hands together in unison to say well done, kudos, thank you for those actions and your courage and the impact they had on me.

And sometimes. Just sometimes. Probably rarely. But certainly at the best of times. That show has been so impactful on us – touching our hearts so much we have trouble swallowing and our eyes are heavy with tears, making us laugh so plentifully that our bellies ache, drawing us into the story so much that we have been clenching our fists along with the hero and sitting on the edge of our seats – that the physical reverberations inside us … well, just clapping isn’t enough to release the gathered explosions of how much we’ve been moved inside.

We have to put our whole bodies into it. We can’t stay rooted to our seats one second longer.

We have to stand.

And when we feel this way, we must do that.

I’ve been to hundreds of plays, and I can recall only a handful of times I’ve been that moved. You remember them. They stay with you.

Such as Steppenwolf‘s engrossing August: Osage County on Broadway. David Cromer’s revelatory Our Town at Barrow Street Theatre. John Breen’s gorgeous rugby play Alone It Stands in Dublin’s Andrew’s Lane (ironic considering the title!).

Once, after watching Propeller’s The Winter’s Tale at the Dublin Theatre Festival, I was so wrapped up in the show that when Hermione moved, I believed she was a statue coming back to life, and I wept with blissful joy and appreciation. And at the end, I stood, you better believe it, and applauded raucously. And only as the applause around me started to settle and fade, did I realize I was the only one in the orchestra standing. Initially I was a little embarrassed (eeeek, who’s that dude?), then I was perplexed (what show were you watching, people?!) and then I was serene (well, I loved that show, that was my true reaction and I’m so glad it was).

And there’s the rub: the urge to stand and applaud needs to come from inside. From all those swirling, tumultuous, electric feelings inside you that have been created by the play.

It doesn’t matter a damn what is happening outside you. That’s not relevant. Obviously.

I think you know where I am going with this.

If you weren’t so moved by a show, and don’t have those feelings inside your arms and legs, then there’s no reason you should stand.

Even if people all around you are.

Because nowadays, people are giving standing ovations utterly cheaply. And that inflation is slowly, relentlessly murdering their worth.

I started to see it on Broadway, where you’d go to terrible productions … and people would stand. I saw a stale, miscast, lumbering version of Les Miserables, that was on its last legs, and closed shortly thereafter, that you could barely give away tickets to. Yet, at its curtain call, people stood in their droves. Huh? All around me, throughout the show, I’d seen people shifting in their seats, yawning, scratching, I didn’t hear one gasp, see one tear on a cheek, hear anyone mutter Omigod Jean Valjean. (And listen, Les Mis done properly is incredible; when I saw the movie in the cinema, I wept so many times my cheeks were salty). They were plainly not that into it. Yet, at the end they soared to their feet. Huh? And then you start to reason it out, and you remember, most people seeing a Broadway show have paid a lot of money. Quite possibly they’re on vacation from out of town, and expect a brilliant experience, and can’t wait to tell their friends about the show they saw and stood for. Instead of an instinctive reaction, on Broadway, it’s become part of the routine.

And you want to know how to test that? See how long the standing O lasts. If in the amount of applause time, the cast can go off into the wings, wait three beats and the crowd are still applauding, and the actors need to come back out for an encore bow, that’s more likely to be legit. But I bet it ain’t that long.

Because applauding for a long time is hard work on the hands and forearms. After a while, genuinely clapping starts to hurt. But when the urge is internal and needs to be released, that doesn’t matter. Walking out into the lobby, with palms that are still stinging a bit but a head buzzing with the show you’ve just seen, is an ace feeling.

And now I’ve started to see the fake standing ovation at shows in Dublin. Ugh. Not everyone has been to Broadway, so I wonder if it’s years of watching awful manipulative shows like Pop Idol and The Voice where standing ovations are a trope, choreographed and not special at all. But it has seeped in. I’ve seen people give a standing ovation for 20 seconds, and then stand and put their coat on while the applause ends. I’ve seen people pop back on their phones during a standing ovation. I’ve seen people clearly miming clapping so they won’t have to put the effort in! If these things are happening, that’s not a standing ovation.

That’s peer pressure.

Lads, you’re not 14 years old. Be honest. Be true. Be brave.

Luckily we have an alternative. This awful plague hasn’t yet swept good theatre in London or on the continent. (Touch wood). There, standing ovations are still rare. Rather, if someone really enjoyed a show, they keep clapping. And the cast must keep returning for encore bows. It’s lovely. And the crowd stops clapping when they, as a unit, are done. Any day of the week, I’d take length of applause over height of applause.

So let’s not let the standing O be worth zero.

Please, next time you are at a show, think of the red squirrel. Of course, please applaud. And keep applauding until you are satisfied that the urge within you is spent. And if that urge is so strong you just need to stand and applaud, bravo, go for it. But don’t worry about who is standing around you. Be your own person. Have your own response to the show. Don’t be a lemming jumping off a cliff into cheap mediocrity.

C’mon, people. Let’s Save the Standing Ovation.

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8 Maybe Not Quite So Famous but Really Inspiring and Helpful Books for an Actor

8 Maybe Not Quite So Famous but Really Inspiring and Helpful Books for an Actor

So I am an actor who loves to read … about acting. About the theatre, its backstage inner workings, its tall tales and anecdotes, and stories of the journeys of great actors. Of course, lots about Shakespeare. I love an in-depth long-form article on a playwright’s methodology. And that’s not even mentioning the other side of the coin, all those books about the movies. I’m always excited to get a recommendation from a friend/colleague/mentor about a book that will inspire me – as an actor, as a can-do member of our guild, as an artist exhilarated to grab a piece of text and run with it.

Another day, I’ll share some recommendations for my favourite plays, theatre/film biographies, and books on Shakespeare, but today I thought I might talk about eight books that I have found to be particularly helpful to an actor, providing genuinely insightful tools for your process, and inspiration for your creativity and joy in doing the work.

I’m going to suggest some of my personal favourites, besides the famous texts you’ll find on any acting syllabus – so with of course huge respect, you don’t need to hear from me about the unquestioned masterworks of Stanislavski, Uta Hagen, Michael Chekhov, Stella Adler, Peter Brook. (I’m also going to leave out the theatre book I am currently reading, the utterly delightful and insightful Joy Ride by John Lahr, featuring his best New Yorker pieces on stagefolk, as I’m only half-way through it. But I reserve the right to add it in later revisions … )

So, let’s raise the curtain on:

8 Maybe Not Quite So Famous but Really Inspiring and Helpful Books for an Actor

Strengthen your ability to work on a text – Audition by Michael Shurtleff

I don’t know if there’s a book that produces more creative juice for an actor when preparing for an audition (or frankly any performance of a script) than Michael Shurtleff‘s Audition. Written in 1978, it’s just as vibrant today, in providing 12 guideposts for examining a text, from relationships and finding the conflict, to levels of competition and secrecy. Beautifully practical and sassily unsentimental, it gloriously provides you with a set of questions you can ask a script, so that without a director to help, you can work alone on material, and find all the fuel and spark that is within it. To be honest, if you only read one book from this list, this is the one – the code, the manual, the mentor-in-print. Acerbically funny in its truth-telling yet also full of love for actors, it’s such a great book my wife Anna and I both have our own copies of it in our library …

 

Understand how the stories you tell are constructed – Story by Robert McKee & Into the Woods by John Yorke

I am a deep believer that actors are storytellers – not puppets on a string, but artists who bring their insight and creativity to bringing a script to life. They owe a honourable duty of care to deliver the writer’s story to the audience as best as they can. To do so, they must understand not just their role in the piece, but the story as a whole. How it is structured, how it builds. As such, I think there are two texts that are truly genius at helping us to look at scripts and divulge their blueprint, find their foundation, see the gorgeous lines of their construction, and those are Story by American screenwriting teacher Robert McKee and Into the Woods by British TV show-runner John Yorke. If you want to learn about turning points and mid-point revelations, set-ups and rushes of information, inciting incidents and gaps in expectation, these are wonderful guides.

Be excited to practice – How to Stop Acting by Harold Guskin

This is a book I have only come across recently, and found it really invigorating. Harold Guskin is great on the idea that one of the key things we need to do with material, is say the lines aloud – a lot. Reading them and saying them, and reading them and saying them, but purposefully and enjoyably. Each time for a different reason (for example: in a rage, for laughs, intimately, for pure logic, for petty reasons) seeing how in each go-through we respond to the text, what impulses come up, and filling up the tank of possibilities in a set of lines. He starts us from the place we always want to be at: that we are responding in the moment to what is in front of us, so it is always an exploration, every run-through, every rehearsal, every practice, every take, every performance. That there is no fixed ideal, but rather we are always active, fresh-minted, surprised and surprising, like life. He encourages us to practice being available to ourselves, to our intuitions, to our crazy flashes of insight and strange notions, as we approach the work – always resulting in performances that are more colourful, exciting and unique. Guskin proposes clear exercises, offers monologues and scenes suitable for each step, and will make you feel like practicing your acting every day. (He also says it’s okay for an actor to leave his or her script on the kitchen table, which is dead right).

Open your creativity with rehearsal exercises – Masterclass by Dean Carey

I love this book. I initially picked it up in late ’90s before going to drama school, because it had over 100 monologues in it, so I could find a great one to audition with. Indeed it does. But the gold in this book is the range of hugely practical exercises that its author, the Australian acting teacher Dean Carey, provides for you to work on your material. Super-useful and clearly road-tested, he provides a range of exercises and games that you can try out on the script, that will help playfully draw out aspects of the character and scene, that truly are unique to you, your responses to the circumstances in the story. I still regularly use his exercises Extend/Advance (for turning key words on the page into sensory experiences), Explore and Heighten (for amplifying different sides of the character, as described in adjectives) and questioning Is This Good or Bad For Me? He’s also brilliant on on beat defining and titling. I guarantee after bringing some of his exercises to your prep work, you’ll find yourself invigorated, ringing with creativity, feeling the lines in your bones, and quite possibly, surprisingly already off-book (and having spent a very fun afternoon). Well worth having in your arsenal. (Plus it has really fun photos of a young, pre-fame Hugh Jackman in rehearsals, that can only inspire you.)

Learn to flesh it out and pop – Acting 2.0 by Anthony Abeson

Now I am going to state up front my conflict of interest here: this is the book by my old acting teacher in New York, Anthony Abeson. A giddy joy of a man, he draws from his own background training with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Jerzy Grotowski, among others, to teach actors practical ways to bring truth to material that flares with unique personal creativity (and book rather a lot of work, especially in film and TV). His warm and generous collections of essays Acting 2.0 is full of love for the actor in the modern world, and sets out a number of the utterly practical and playful approaches he has, that lead to an actor “popping” with life. “No recipes – whatever works,” as the man himself often says. He is brilliant on what he calls FIO’ing (Fleshing It Out) – never letting a word be spoken from the page that has not been imagined in its full life, acted out, pictured, felt, so everything said and done on the stage vibrates with resonant past-life, meaning and experience. He is terrifically incisive on moments before and the need to have found a trigger that drives you into the scene on fire; on grabbing a hold of your stereotype by the throat and making it a strength, and never retreating from working your weaknesses; and on reminding us that when we act a role, we represent all the people who have had that experience, and so we must do justice to them. Anthony is a deep believer in the self-respect of actors, and any reader of this book will only find warm encouragement to be integrous, playful and bravely full of life.

Challenge yourself to delve deeply into your work – The Intent to Live by Larry Moss

When you are ready to be challenged by a hard-ass teacher, there’s one man to go to – Larry Moss. His workshops in New York and LA are legendary for the exacting high standards he demands from actors – their capacity to be off-book, the rigour of their accent work, their willingness to dig right into the roots of a scene, their courage to bring fully of themselves in the situation proposed. And his book, The Intent To Live, is no different. Larry pushes you to stretch yourself towards your true potential as an actor, and not to settle for anything slipshod, cliched or facile. He is brilliantly comprehensive on the questions you need to ask in order to probe for all the facts that are there in a scene, and building a very specific system of wants. He opens creative doors you may not have considered, like endowing objects with past meaning, finding resonance in the blood memory of your character, and the rich physical sensations of places. He’s not easy on actors, but that is only because he sees such beauty in the actor’s purpose … and challenges us to honour our storytelling with truly our best work.

Be inspired by the stage – Theatre by David Mamet

Now obviously Mamet is a master playwright and a very powerful thinker about the craft, and you wouldn’t go wrong reading any of his books. True or False is excellent, hugely challenging, even at times maddening (to the point that I know an acting teacher who flung it across the room in mid-read rage). And we know Mamet loves to snarl and throw a grenade into the kitchen, with the idea that when the smoke clears, there’ll be a hard, spartan, clean truth awaiting (maybe a little sour-tasting, but good for you, you know?) But the book of Mamet I really love is this collection of essays from 2010 on theatre. Yes, it is still written with Mamet’s knife of a pen, with the no-nonsense gruffness of a hunting cabin, but whisper it … Mamet’s love for the theatre, after all these years, comes pouring through, and it is full of heartfelt belief in the importance of plays and in the powerful capacity of actors and in the mighty imagination of audiences. He slams preconceived notions on the floor, and leaves them for you to make your own decision about … always with the sense of great possibility. If you’re an actor, you’re going to be pretty psyched to get to work after reading it.

Picture yourself about to go on stage – The Half by Simon Annand

Maybe now you’re done reading – but there’s still one more book to see … and it is gorgeous and spine-tingingly inspiring to look at. It’s Simon Annand‘s magnificent coffee-table book of photographs of actors preparing for the stage – in dressing rooms putting on make-up and creating characters, warming-up in sweaty t-shirts, standing anxiously in corridors in full costume. It tenderly captures actors’ private moments before going out to perform, that delicious time before heading out to do it – getting into the zone, hearing the audience enter, getting your five minute call, readying yourself. I love not just seeing the actors captured in their concentration, joy and suppressed-terror, but also all the lovely paraphernalia that makes a dressing room personal – “break a leg” cards, photo postcards reminding you of the mojo of the character, lucky teddies and tea-cups. Derek Jacobi napping at the Old Vic, Kristin Scott-Thomas getting her hair done, Benedict Cumberbatch checking his pockets. If you’d like to picture yourself working on Broadway or at the Donmar Warehouse or the National, this is a magic source of inspiration. (And just maybe, that vision will come true some day …)

Thanks for reading … hopefully you’re inspired to take a little trip to the bookshop …

***

 

Magic in Here: Walking around an Empty Theatre

Magic in Here: Walking around an Empty Theatre

 

Sometimes you go somewhere and you just feel at home, even it is your first time being there. Like it’s where you belong. Like it’s the right place for you to be. To me, I always feel that way about a theatre. Of course, I feel that way about going to work in a theatre, the bustle and excitement of rehearsals and tech and performances, of the whole gang putting a show together, assembling the pieces, welding them into place (or more likely sticking them there with gaffer tape), and of course, the rush and sparkle of an audience coming in for a show.

But to me, there’s something delicately and deeply special, a juicy feeling, about being in an empty theatre. To me, it feels like the cool calmness and connection to your spirit that you get when you are in a church where your faith is fulfilled. It can be a theatre I am working in or one I am walking into for the first time. I love to stroll amid the seats, around the stage, through the dressing rooms. Counting the lights above my head. Testing out the acoustics with a few great lines, feeling how they bounce around the space, how they echo with the room’s excitement at being spoken to, how the ghosts of past performances wake from their slumbers and peek from the wings with interest. I always feel like a theatre is a living organism, a godly thing, like an angel built of bricks and mortar, and that like a momma of a big family, it loves to have people in it, its kids back in the house, making noise and laughter and playing and filling the place with joy and excitement and purpose. Theatres wait patiently like mighty whales when they are empty, and are delighted to open their huge jaws and swallow up people like Jonahs when they come knocking.

I love the sound of my shoes clacking across the boards of the stage. I love the look of the seats, their symmetry, the sudoku of their layout, and if they are red, that is just the icing on the cake (is there anything better than a comfy scarlet seat in the stalls?) I love the smell of dressing rooms, of make-up powder and relaundered costumes and the past tang of flowers and sweat and camaraderie. I love the taste in the air, fresh and cool, as if you are eating the space, like it’s clean paper to write words on anew. And I love the feel of the theatre, of opening its many wooden doors, of stroking its velvet curtains, and the shiver of anticipation it creates on my skin.

Because maybe that’s just what an empty theatre is – potential. Possibilities of shows that could be done here. In an empty theatre you cannot help but commence imagining – what play might suit that bare brick background or having that high ceiling or that overlooking mezzanine? What way might you lay out the seats to get a thrust for Shakespearean soliloquies or to surround the actors for a minutely observed Arthur Miller? What will it be like to walk down this corridor in full costume for your opening night entrance? What would it feel like in here, to look out and see every single seat filled and hundreds of eyes watching you with delight? How would a Pinter play work in here, or a Moliere, or an adaptation of Dickens’ Bleak House? And that new play, the one you adored reading but it just wouldn’t fit in those other places, you know what, it might be magic in here …

You see, there is. There’s magic in here. In this hungry space, ravenous for words, for truly felt emotion, for capturing human comedy, for gripping stories, for utterly present life on the stage, for raucous laughter and ringing heartfelt applause and honest tears. There’s the chance to do something here that’s never been done before, that will only live like this in these walls, shared with these friends. There’s the potential to put on a play.

So imagine away. There’s magic in here.

***

10 of my personal favourite things to do in Manhattan (or a darn good day for Paul in NYC)

10 of my personal favourite things to do in Manhattan (or a darn good day for Paul in NYC)

Being back in New York City for a couple of weeks there, a first trip back from Dublin after living in NYC for ten years, it was interesting how amidst all the amazing things to do there, I gravitated back to my favourite old haunts. So I thought I’d make a list of my personal ten recommended spots in Manhattan, and then realized this would make an amazing (if pretty packed) day in the city.

Warning: this doesn’t include any tourist book must-sees (no Met, Central Park, Times Square, Little Italy, Magnolia Bakery) and it helps if you love coffee, books and walking …

 

Presenting: Paul’s amazing day in New York City!

1. Joe Coffee on 23rd Street for your a.m. espresso

joe-coffee

We’re up early into the brisk morning air, we’ve rode the subway (eek), taken the PATH train from Jersey (not so bad), rode a Citibike (watch your elbows) or taken a taxi (slowww), and now we’re smugly strolling through Chelsea past all the poor folks rushing to work (c’mon, this is a holiday for us, woo-hoo!) and into the warm, welcoming doors of Joe Coffee on 23rd Street and 9th Avenue at 9a.m. Sure, it’s a chain, but it’s a local NYC chain in baby blue, and this particular spot is the cafe I spent more time in than any other in the city (enough that they knew my order, possibly not a good thing), nabbing a lovely cappuccino before heading to rehearsals at the cell theatre. The coffee here is consistently great and they somehow manage to find sweet, friendly and generous hipsters to work there. If you’ve skipped breakfast, their rosemary scone is your new friend (that you’ll eat). Have a glance through the New York Times (and read the soccer articles on your phone), and enjoy.

2. Head north for a morning perusing the Drama Book Shop

dbsWe head out the door and west on 23rd Street to 10th Avenue, we’re heading uptown now, so why not use the Highline as a funkily pretty way to get from 23rd to 30th Streets. (As bonus, at the corner of 23rd and 10th, you’ll find the Chelsea Barbers, a great old-fashioned men’s barbers, where the hairdressers wear white coats and they play smooth jazz, a sanctum worth remembering for the next time you need your locks chopped). We’ll use 10th Avenue to get to 39th Street before cutting across to 8th Avenue, thereby largely steering clear of the belching ugly sisters, Penn Station and Port Authority. East on 40th Street and we duck into that wonder of wonders for any theatre-lover, the Drama Book Shop, at 10a.m. Let’s spend the next couple of hours perusing its shelves packed with more plays than any other bookshop, in the rainbow of colours that Dramatists Play Service print in, not to mention a huge array of books on acting, theatre and film, and let’s grab a couple and read a bit at one of the comfy chairs. Of course, you’ll be distracted every few pages by the expert staff pointing some young actor to a hot or obscure play where they’ll find a monologue just right for them, and you’ll just be surrounded by a constantly enchanting melody of people talking with love, snarkiness and passion about theatre. Almost as good as being on stage. (Almost).

3. Lunch at Piccolo Cafe on 40th Street

piccoloOkay, it’s 12.30pm and I’m hungry now. I could grab a tasty salmon tartine at Le Pain Quotidien on 40th Street, or a quick tuna baguette at a Pret a Manger, but you know what? I want something hot and tasty and cheap and … next door. So I step into the aptly named (cos it’s tiny) Piccolo Cafe, and order #1, a Fettuccine alla Bolognese (with no cheese, thank you very much) and grab a window counter stool to watch the world (and look at the vintage Italian newspapers on the wall). Pretty darn sharp, the pasta comes out, juicily steaming, and we tuck into its homey deliciousness. Yum.

4. Dessert is Culture Espresso cookies in Bryant Park

bryantOkay, I’m fighting fit for the afternoon … well, almost, let’s grab a cheeky dessert. Only one option here, you can leave your macarons and cronuts, let’s shally down to 38th Street and 6th Avenue, and join the queue (or to speak NYC, get in line) for the best chocolate cookies in the city. They are perfection: fresh-baked in-house, huge, crispy on the outsides, melty-warm on the inside, and frankly one of them is too rich for most men. If it’s a fine dry day, let’s grab them in their paper bag to-go, with your beverage of choice (flat-white, please), and head north two blocks to Bryant Park. Let’s sit by (or if it’s summertime on) the lawn, and enjoy my favourite park in the city, which somehow always manages to breeze midtown madness away and blow any of the city’s stresses off of me. Chill out gazing through the dappled branches of the trees, knowing that Batman definitely hangs out at night on top of that big gothic tower on the south side of the park. (Sure, Central Park is more awesome, but it’s also kind of a big deal, you have to explore into it. Bryant is quite happy to welcome you for a minute or ten. I think that would hurt Central Park’s feelings …)

*Alternate option when they re-open: the Cupcake Cafe on 9th and 41st, where you can get a great cupcake, artfully decorated with flowers, in one of the city’s bastions of old-school Gotham, with a grouchy, burly, white-bearded old barista straight out of a Hemingway bar, who queries your very existence but is also very happy to jollily natter about soccer, theatre, baseball and old movies. After your chat, take your La Colombe beverage and vanilla cupcake with chocolate frosting to a mismatched table in one of the nooks and crannies. And make sure you pull a good book out of your bag.

5. Take a breath in the New York Public Library Rose Reading Room.

rose-roomWell-fed by 2p.m., let’s take the afternoon for spot of cultural spirit-lifting. First step, nip around the corner of 40th Street to 5th Ave, to the New York Public Library. Say a quick hello to my two regal pals, the lion statues, trot up the steps (exercise done for today), up some more stairs inside (exercise done for tomorrow), and into the stunning beauty of the Rose Reading Room. Nearly 300 foot long, 50 feet high, it’s a great deep-breathing space, filled with a powerful quiet, a church of thought; it’s just the most marvellous place in the city if you need a great wooden table to sit and study at, knowing how many other minds have turned their cogs and scratched their pencils here in this mighty echoing space. Try not to squeak the chair as you leave …

6. An afternoon wandering in awe in the Morgan Library

morgan-library… and from one august institution to another: we cut east to Madison Avenue and down to 36th Street, where we enter my favourite museum in the city, the Morgan Library. Of course the Guggenheim and MOMA are amazing for modern art, you can get lost in the Met, and I also have a soft spot for the Society of Illustrators, but the exhibitions at the Morgan always seem to be about the inside track of an artist’s process and practice, which utterly fascinates me, and their acquisitions are astonishing – to see the crossed-out notes and crumpled drafts of great artists is just revelatory, such a gift. I’ve been able to see there the very handwriting and working ideas of Austen, Dickens, Shelley, Twain, Hemingway, Salinger, Tolkein; a first Folio of Shakespeare; sketches by Da Vinci, Lichtenstein and Pollock; not to mention the private letters and speech copies of great leaders like Churchill and Lincoln. And alongside these, you can go into two magical permanent spaces: the library which is like something from Hogwarts, and Pierpont Morgan’s imperious office, both amazing and atmospheric, fruit for thought in themselves. Always inspiring.

7. Al fresco dinner at Shake Shack on Madison Square Park

shack_mspOkay, it’s 5p.m., evening is calling, so it’s time to start heading back downtown. Let’s keep nipping down the relatively quiet Madison Avenue, until we hit the north-east corner of Madison Square Park. Mmmm, yes, I’m hungry too. Let’s walk south along the winding paths to the silver-grey shack with the sand and fairy lights, and get in line (this is New York, people) for a Shake Shack burger. Yes, there are other outlets in the city, and even in the airport now, so maybe it’s not so extraordinary. But (old man voice) “I remember when this was the only Shake Shack in the city, and it was only open in the summer. Arr.” And there still is something special about people’s excitement in the queue (sorry, in line) and then the buzz (the actual electric buzz of the alerting device) of seeing your burger is ready, and eating it out in the grassy open as the sun starts setting over the skyscrapers. (Two tricks: I never eat the last bite of a Shake Shack burger, for some reason it’s always disappointingly slimy-greasy. Put it down with a bow of respect to the other bites of salty-niceness. And don’t feed the squirrels. They’re NYC squirrels. They’ll just come and take your food. One jumped right into my lap once. Felt his claws through my jeans.)

(And if you need dessert after this, you can nip across the street to Eataly, where they have a nummy and adorable little tiramisu in a cup).

*I never claimed this was a healthy-eating day in the city. Look for low-carb options on Yelp.

8. An early evening perusal at The Strand

strandIt’s 6p.m. And the city is starting to get hectic again as people get out of work and head to activities in the bright lights. We’re walking down Broadway, past the Flatiron building, down to and through Union Square, and down to 12th Street, where we are welcomed by the red banner of the Strand Bookstore. They say it’s 18 miles of books, and its packed shelves, the top rows too high to reach (without a staff-member clambering up a ladder), and its second-hand nature meaning you’ll often find a book here that’s been on your list for ages that’s (a) out-of-print and (b) on sale. I’m always enticed and amazed by the depth of their theatre and movie book section; their comicbook section used to be about the level of an average yard sale, but it has improved dramatically; and I think a book lover on any topic – history, art, sports and definitely novels – will be in bliss caressing the shelves and likely to leave with a heavy bag. And they have great events with authors in their rare book space: I once saw Paul Auster (my favourite novelist) discussing Beckett there with Edward Albee. (Now that is an “Only-in-New-York” experience.) Yes, there are many great bookshops in NYC (such as the impeccable McNally Jackson, the super-knowledgable Three Lives, the sprawling Housing Works, or the dreamy children’s bookshop Books of Wonder, plus a shout-out to neighbourhood superstar WORD – can you guess I like bookshops?) but the Strand is a special kind of musty labyrinth joy.

(And if you get out of there a little early, a great next shopping stop is Blick art materials on 13th Street. So many lovely pencils and paints and journals and stationary. You may not want to bring your credit card in there…)

9. See a play at Barrow Street Theatre

ourtownbarrowOkay gone 7p.m., it’s the evening in New York, so that means: you’re going to see a show. (Phew, thankfully you already bought your ticket!) For some people, that would mean leaping in a cab back up to Broadway, and that’s fun, but my pick is for us to keep walking west on 12th Street, then south on 5th Avenue, cut through the NYU students and general amusing weirdos in Washington Square Park to head west on 4th Street until we take a left on Barrow Street, and arrive at the theatre of the same name. It doesn’t look like much from the outside – wait, is this a school hall? But once we get inside this magic little venue, intimately seating 199, each time set up differently, you know you are going to see a cracking good play, as programmed by Scott Morfee and Tom Whirtshafter (and maybe if we’re lucky directed by David Cromer). I’ve seen an terrific run of shows there: Cromer’s Our Town, Tribes and The Effect; The Flick; Every Brilliant Thing, each one intriguing, theatrical and impactful.

10. A jazzy, ping-pongy drink at Fat Cat

fatcatIt’s heading towards 11p.m., we’re pumped full of ideas – let’s grab a nightcap. We’re in the Village, the place is sprawling with bars – but let’s go to a personal favourite: a 3 minute walk up 7th Avenue and onto Christopher Street, then down the rickety stairs into Fat Cat. Sure, it’s kind of a dive, but where else can you grab a drink, play ping-pong AND listen to some pretty darn good live jazz at the same time? Scruffy greatness.

 

Right, phew, I don’t know about you, but I’m bushed. That good kind of tired from a full day. Time for bed.

Wait, where are we staying again?

***

The Colossus as Role Model: Why I Love Laurence Olivier

The Colossus as Role Model: Why I Love Laurence Olivier

One of my greatest acting heroes is Laurence Olivier. You may ask why, considering I was too young to ever see him on-stage, and there are film stars with more acclaimed performances. But when I first started to take acting seriously, and ravenously watched performances and read books about the subject, I kept finding myself drawn to Olivier’s fierce desire to produce bold performances, to tell stories with great ambition, and to build theatres and companies. While John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness of the English knights were marvelous creative actors, they didn’t have Olivier’s ferocious leadership drive and willingness to break the rules. While Marlon Brando had immense pure talent, he doesn’t have Olivier’s keen sense for how everything fits in the story, nor Olivier’s uncynical love of the work. Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole spurned so much of their talent in wayward boozing and brainless movies. I once saw Steven Berkoff give his splendid one-man show about Shakespeare’s Villains, and loved how he described his hatred that Olivier had filmed his mighty performances as Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III, because then essentially it was impossible to better the man who Berkoff called, with pure respect, “The Colossus.” Here are some things that make Olivier such an icon and indeed role model for me.

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The Wonder of Theatre: From Early Experiences to Today

The Wonder of Theatre: From Early Experiences to Today

The theatre is full of wonders. It is magic, a good play done well on the stage. It is the alchemy of the work of creative people with the attention of an audience, in that moment alone. And it has the potential to leave its mark on us very deeply – delightfully, powerfully, movingly, terrifyingly, hopefully. Theatre may be inherently ephemeral, but it can blaze brands on our memory.

I was thinking about that recently, seeing some really good shows where at times my mouth was wide open, wowed, and how that has been a binding force through my ongoing love of theatre – that potential with a live performance to capture an audience with clear, true, imaginative and specific storytelling, to provide them with something really special, worth coming out for, and maybe just unforgettable.

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The Cinema of Camaraderie – Howard Hawks and Good Gangs

The Cinema of Camaraderie – Howard Hawks and Good Gangs

I recently started watching The West Wing for the first time. It was one of those nights when we didn’t have a show to watch, and flipping through Netflix, we thought, why not just watch one episode of this.

Now 20 episodes later, I’m rather hooked, and delighted there are another half-dozen seasons to watch. Why am I enjoying it so much? Yes, Aaron Sorkin‘s fast-paced dialogue is sharp and delightfully witty, I am completely aligned with its humanist and liberal values and morals, it is fascinating to watch the inner sanctum process of the Oval Office, and Martin Sheen is the Irish-American President I’d be happy to vote for (if this Irishman was an American citizen). And that’s all part of it. But ultimately what keeps me coming back, what makes me gleeful about the show, is that it is essentially, moment-to-moment, a story about camaraderie.

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10 Theatre Companies That Inspire Me

10 Theatre Companies That Inspire Me

Today’s blog is a very fun one for me, because I will be talking about ten theatre companies around the world that have really inspired me. While I deeply admire the giants like the National in England and the Abbey in Ireland, and of course get a kick out of a fun spectacular on Broadway, I am most attracted to medium-sized theatre companies that develop and present engaging new writing or provide a bold, exciting take on classics and adaptations, and deliver a warm, welcoming experience for their audience.

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