“You need to know where you came from to know how to get back” is advice I was given when I started in the theatre that has served me well ever since.
A wonderful gift of working in the theatre industry is that because it’s constantly evolving, you never stop learning. The opportunity to absorb the knowledge from those who have been doing it for what seems like forever can be invaluable.
Last week, a memorial service at the Actors’ Church in Covent Garden bid farewell to actor and director Victor Spinetti. If anyone could offer a walking, talking overview of life in the theatre then he was it.
I had the good fortune to see his one-man show, A Very Private Diary, when I was 13 and it made a great impression on me. His show combined a theatrical masterclass and vaudeville entertainment, sharing with audiences amazing anecdotes drawn from throughout his career working across many spectrums of theatre. A Tony award-winner himself, his show provided an intimate insight into the method, work and personality of other industry greats he had worked with including Joan Littlewood, Richard Burton and John Lennon, while also providing an entertaining theatre history lesson.
In 2008, I persuaded Victor to revive a new version called A Very Private Diary…Revisited!, encompassing new stories amassed since the show was last performed.
“If you drop a name it’s got to bounce,” Victor said, and so we spent joyous weeks of him telling me story after story – often with my jaw hitting the ground – followed by the unenviable task of deciding which stories to keep and to cut as we re-shaped the show. It is one of the shows I am most proud of having produced.
My reason for persuading Victor to give another outing of his show was simple: there was a whole new generation of 13 year olds (and older) interested in a career in the theatre or already out there doing it who needed to hear these stories and learn from them. I believe that the best lessons often come in the form of an anecdote – it’s a model Alan Ayckbourn has deployed for many years when giving actors notes – and it works.
the best lessons often come in the form of an anecdote – it’s a model Ayckbourn has deployed for many years
My favourite Spinetti story is when, during the rehearsals for the Broadway musical Skyscraper, actor Dick O’Neill, who had been against British actors on Broadway said to Victor, “Hey Limey, how does it feel to be the only Brit in an all-American company?” Victor replied, “Talented”.
Victor epitomised the expression that to share knowledge is the only way you get to keep it. The stories of his own remarkable career will continue to be shared by his friends, those who saw his show, and those who have enjoyed listening to it on CD or reading his biography Up Front. This means that it isn’t an ending but a beginning for others inspired by hearing them. For the rest of us, he leaves these stories as a glorious gift celebrating a life in the theatre.