School Links Are Proving an Education

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Originally written for The Stage.

In straitened times, collaboration is a word that seems to be constantly on the lips of those working in theatre. While this is no reason to drop the fight for arts funding, financial challenges have had the silver lining of producing a number of surprising but fruitful partnerships, be they between fellow artists, artists and venues, or across organisations.

Among these collaborations, some of the most creative and supportive are those that have developed between theatre makers and higher education institutions. This is not a new link, as universities and drama schools have long nurtured the next generation’s theatre makers, but now several organisations are looking at how to strengthen, build and innovate these connections, offering benefits that go both ways.

In many cases, such partnerships are born out of financial necessity. Clean Break, for example, have a 14-year, “multi-faceted” relationship with Royal Central School of Speech and Drama which was originally part of a funded education initiative, but their more recent partnerships with institutions including the University of the Arts and Rose Bruford had “an economic imperative” alongside the broader goal of widening participation. Director and writer Vicky Jones, meanwhile, admits that a real advantage of DryWrite’s partnership with Oxford School of Drama is that they do not have to raise funds for the projects they collaborate on.

Although higher education institutions are also facing cuts, universities and drama schools usually still have more resources at their disposal than independent artists – resources which are increasingly being shared. James Stenhouse, one half of performance duo Action Hero, explains that a great benefit of their relationship with the University of Chichester is the opportunity this affords them to make work in a well resourced environment, an opportunity they might not otherwise have.

Often the starting point for more extended partnerships is a simple teaching relationship which then develops into something deeper. Practitioners from Clean Break regularly deliver lectures for Central, while the foundation of DryWrite’s relationship with Oxford School of Drama is the company’s collaboration on the students’ third year show, which forms a cornerstone of their course. DryWrite now work to deliver a “unique and bespoke” final piece with third year students, bringing in playwrights such as Patrick Marber, Penelope Skinner and James Graham.

However, as Stenhouse is keen to point out, independent theatre makers do not necessarily have to take on regular teaching posts in order to make a living. Despite Action Hero’s long relationship with the University of Chichester, neither Stenhouse nor fellow artist Gemma Paintin are on the staff, and Stenhouse stresses the danger of getting “caught in a loop where we’re training the next generation of artists to teach the next generation of artists”.

In an attempt to break this loop, several of the organisations nurturing such relationships point to their vital role in bridging the gap between higher education and the reality of the theatre industry. At the most basic level, theatre companies working in partnership with higher education organisations can offer work experience for students, but often relationships extend much further than this.

Paul Hunter of Told by an Idiot, whose relationship with RADA was the product of “completely artistic reasons”, explains that the school’s principal Edward Kemp was “very interested in the notion of actors making more of their own work”. As a result, Told by an Idiot have begun developing work with students right from its earliest stages, a practice that they hope to build on. Similarly, one of the crucial aims of the University of Chichester’s relationship with Action Hero – and, more recently, with artists’ collective Forest Fringe – is to offer their students a real sense of what it means to be a working artist.

While most of these relationships have developed through a combination of necessity, accident and artistic curiosity, the longstanding partnership between Accidental Collective and the University of Kent has roots that go back as far as the company’s inception. When co-artistic directors Daisy Orton and Pablo Pakula decided that they wanted to make work together after graduating, the university offered them the opportunity to become their first supported graduate company, acting as “guinea pigs” for a new initiative to retain theatre makers in the region.

The company have since taught at the university, collaborated with academics on a number of research projects, events and publications, and established Pot Luck, a performance platform supporting contemporary theatre makers in Kent. “It’s set us on a very particular path,” says Pakula, recognising how rooted they now are in the local area. “Our practice has been strongly shaped by the region, and by our position between the university and the region. We have, in some ways, acted as a bridge.”

For Sam Hodges, the new artistic director of the Nuffield Theatre, it is important that the theatre’s relationship with the University of Southampton – on whose campus it sits – stretches further than just its arts departments. Since taking the reins he has been working simultaneously on a number of new initiatives, many of which link the activities of the theatre with the university’s leading science and engineering departments, with the aim of creating a “pooled vision and strategy”.

“It makes sense that in a bid to perfectly reflect and embody the qualities of its environment, the theatre should create work that is provocative and intellectually stimulating, provide opportunities of training and professional development, and develop a profile and reputation which reaches well beyond Southampton into the national and international field,” Hodges explains.

Perhaps the most exciting element of these emerging partnerships is their potential to create unique and unexpected outcomes, often through the collision of different artistic approaches. Hodges’ attempt to bring together art and science is one such instance, while the pairing of Told by an Idiot’s highly visual aesthetic with the more traditional actor training of RADA is another prime example. These unanticipated benefits can even have international reach, as with the cultural exchange that the University of Chichester have helped to establish between Action Hero, Forest Fringe and a group of artists in San Francisco.

The real opportunity of these new collaborations, as Hunter recognises, is to open up both artists and students to new possibilities. “Sometimes I think you can learn and be provoked more by going to a place that feels different, rather than aligning yourself always with people who feel familiar.”

Jack Thorne

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Originally written for The Stage.

One of the first things to emerge from conversation with Jack Thorne is his compulsion to multitask. “If I’m not working on at least two scripts at once then I stop sleeping,” the playwright and screenwriter tells me, his voice charged with a jittery energy that makes this easy to believe. The circumstances of our interview are testament to this need to always have more than one project on the go: Thorne is speaking to me over the phone from the set of his latest film in Majorca, while he prepares for the start of rehearsals for his new play.

“If I’m working on just one thing I’m not a good writer,” he says by way of explanation. “When I run into problems, the scene that won’t end or the element of the story that won’t make sense, I’ll just spend a week walking around my house. To be able to swap onto another project and go ‘I know how this works’ saves me every time.”

Multitasking has also informed Thorne’s diverse writing career, which spans from television dramas such as This is England and The Fades, both of which won him BAFTAs, to a recent adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists for the Donmar Warehouse. “There was no deliberate plan,” Thorne admits of his career path, “it all just sort of tumbled out.”

It is almost impossible to discuss Thorne’s career trajectory without mention of the small phenomenon of Skins, for which he was one of first writers to be recruited by creators Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain. While Thorne is immensely grateful for this experience, describing Elsley as “generous and brilliant”, the show’s popularity inevitably meant that it became attached to his professional identity. “There was a while when it was just Jack Thorne, open brackets, Skins, close brackets,” he laughs.

Thorne has since been able to break away from this exclusive association, partly through screenwriting departures, such as his segue into the supernatural genre with BBC Three series The Fades, and partly through his work for the stage. Although one of his earliest writing experiences was the Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme, Thorne continues to find theatre the toughest of the mediums he writes in: “I find that if I’ve been writing a lot for telly or film and then I try to write for the stage I really can’t do it, I can’t remember how it works.”

This difficulty was intensified during the writing of his latest play, Mydidae, a commission by new writing company DryWrite that issued Thorne with a peculiarly specific demand. “They just said we want to do a one act play in a bathroom, what have you got?” The result, premiering at the Soho Theatre in December, morphed into a full-length two hander that Thorne found “somehow liberating” to write. As he speaks about the challenge of adapting Dürrenmatt – “the extraordinary thing is that the more you unpick him the less you realise you can unpick him” – and admires Alan Ayckbourn’s tactic of setting himself rules before writing, Thorne creates the impression of a writer who thrives under creative constraints.

This makes his latest project with DryWrite a perfect fit. As a writer acquainted with film and television, which offer the constant possibility of cutting away to sustain narrative dynamism, the charge to confine a whole play to any one room is a challenge for Thorne, but the bathroom is a particularly tricky space due to its inherent echoes of loneliness. “It’s a place you go to on your own,” Thorne says, “you don’t really share it”. To negotiate this difficulty, he has filled the space with just two people, a couple in the throes of a nightmarish day whose relationship “builds to a pitch”.

Alongside the specificity of the setting, Mydidae has also offered Thorne the opportunity to write for a particular performer, DryWrite’s co-artistic director Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Describing that process, Thorne speaks of Waller-Bridge’s “rhythm”, a word that repeatedly peppers his understanding of writing for theatre. “She’s not quite Christopher Walken, with that level of distinctive rhythm, but there’s a sort of joy to how she talks and trying to capture that rhythm was a great thing.”

This habit of speaking about theatre like a musical score suggests a certain sensitivity to the idiosyncrasies of playwriting, a sensitivity perhaps informed by the contrast with his writing for the screen. This sensitivity is contradicted, however, by a confessed inability to think about an audience’s reaction while writing. Recalling an interview with screenwriter Melissa Mathison, Thorne mentions her working relationship with Steven Spielberg, who would constantly be asking her about the experience of the audience. “That’s why he’s such a genius,” says Thorne with almost boyish admiration. “I don’t have that ability, I don’t think about an audience reaction. Instead it’s what I’m thinking, what I can see, what that feels like.”

It’s a quiet undermining of his way of working that is typical of Thorne’s tone throughout our discussion. Despite his clutch of writing awards and his current foray into film with an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel A Long Way Down, the writer often comes across as tentative, grateful for but slightly baffled by his own success. Ultimately, Thorne suggests, his fierce work ethic is simply a way of restoring self-esteem.

“Some writers are blessed with real confidence in what they do and how they do it. I don’t really have that, so I need to be able to restore my confidence at regular intervals – almost daily,” he says. As well as fighting insomnia, “having two projects on the go at once is a way of doing that.”