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Liverpool Everyman’s rep company: ‘We nearly keeled over last year. But we’ve plenty left in the tank’

A scene from Fiddler on the Roof which played at the Everyman earlier in the year. Photo: Stephen Vaughan
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Still revelling in the success of the Everyman’s 2017 company season, the theatre’s artistic director and associate director talk to Catherine Jones about the frenetic reality of rep as they reach the final complex stages of again bringing together a 14-strong band of actors to form the next company

When the Liverpool Everyman announced it was going to bring back repertory, it was inevitable that comparisons would be drawn with the legendary company of the 1970s. The 21st-century incarnation differs in several important ways from the one that launched the careers of actors including Bill Nighy and Julie Walters four decades ago, most starkly in its working practices.

“They didn’t have to pay overtime then,” laughs the theatre’s artistic director Gemma Bodinetz at its Hope Street home. “Matthew Kelly said to me, ‘Oh, we used to tech a show until midnight and then we’d be called at seven.’ And he went, ‘There’s no way I’d do that now.’ ”

There’s no way the Everyman would be allowed to do that today, she adds. “We can’t just work them until they drop.”

In April 2016, the theatre announced it was to put together its first repertory company since dropping the system in 1992. The group of 14 actors performed in five plays over the course of a six-month season this year, finishing in July.

I’m meeting Bodinetz and associate director Nick Bagnall as they reach the final complex stages of again bringing together a 14-strong band of actors to form the next company.

Artistic director Gemma Bodinetz and associate director Nick Bagnall
Artistic director Gemma Bodinetz and associate director Nick Bagnall

The artistic director describes the process as “playing several Rubik’s Cubes simultaneously” as they look for actors who are ‘company people’ and can also take on roles in four very different productions – down from the ambitious five shows of the inaugural season. This change is one of the most important lessons from that first season, when sometimes only the costumes laid out by the wardrobe department each day kept the company’s collective head from spinning.

Bodinetz says: “We did five shows and I think we both, along with the cast and the organisation, nearly keeled over at that. And it also meant some of the other stuff we wanted to do with the company, like going out into the community, just couldn’t happen in the way we imagined it.”

The frenetic reality of rep also means once you have made a choice on how to approach a play, there’s no option but to stick with it. Bagnall explains: “The positives of that is you realise sometimes your instincts are right. In hindsight, I enjoyed living on my instincts. When I was in the middle of it, it was terrifying.”

Bodinetz recalls having 20 minutes to block one scene in Lizzie Nunnery’s new work The Sum, which would normally have taken two mornings. It was then that one of the strengths of the company revealed itself.

“They came on,” she says, “and they were off book, and they had self-blocked and made character choices in a way they never would have done.”

And working as a rep appears to have had a real effect on the actors too. Oxford School of Drama graduate Emily Hughes was discovered through open auditions, and was later shortlisted for a Stage Debut Award for her performances, including in Fiddler on the Roof.

The Liverpudlian actor smiles: “I just knew it was going to be a pretty special six months. The company gelled straight away. It sounds really cheesy, but we did. And we worked 12-hour days, six days a week. If there were any tensions, it would have been a nightmare. But we were so lucky, and I think that’s down to the casting as well.”

Sarah Wright in The Tin Drum. Photo: Steve Tanner
Sarah Wright in The Tin Drum. Photo: Steve Tanner

The Everyman was careful to ensure there were no divas among the company, and went for actors they thought would be team players.

“There were hard times,” Hughes says. “We were all exhausted, and people had chest infections and were going on because there are no understudies in rep. There were times that were testing – but going out there with the support of the crowd was amazing.”

Many of the 2017 company remain close friends, with five of them coming to see Kneehigh’s new production of The Tin Drum at the Everyman earlier this month.

Up to 40% of the new rep company will be actors returning from this year – and Bodinetz, recently named best director at the UK Theatre Awards, is adamant they must avoid forming “a sub-group called ‘the old family’ ”. She adds: “It’s a new organism. We’re a school of fish and we’ve changed shape, and that has to make us think differently.”

A new organism, but with many of the same creative team also returning. These include choreographer Tom Jackson Greaves, ready to whip the company into shape for Bodinetz’s Paint Your Wagon, and designers Jocelyn Meall and Molly Elizabeth Lacey Davies, a graduate of Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. The two women are working on models of new sets for the theatre-in-the-round. They are drawing on their experience from last season to prepare for the next, particularly around how they can help the tight turnaround for crews on days when shows change between matinee and evening performances.

George Caple and Elliott Kingsley in Romeo and Juliet at Everyman Theatre, Liverpool. Photo: Gary Calton
Nick Bagnall’s revival of Romeo and Juliet performed by Liverpool’s Young Everyman Playhouse company. Photo: Gary Calton

Being part of a company was “a joyous experience” says Meall, whose father was a designer for the old Everyman rep. “It’s a really rare opportunity to get to work again and again and again with the same group of people, but dress them in different ways. It developed a closeness you don’t get on a six to eight-week job.”

It was that – along with telling stories relevant to their Liverpool audience – which originally drew Bodinetz to the rep idea, after watching director Mike Shepherd and the Kneehigh company in rehearsals for Dead Dog in a Suitcase.

“It’s just the joy of working with someone more than once, and finding a quicker way of being direct,” she says. “I thought, those people are friends, and all trust each other. They’re jumping off cliffs and making fools of themselves because nobody’s a stranger in this room.”

Bagnall, whose career has included stints with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe, adds: “I don’t have much experience as an actor in an ensemble, but I always wanted to be part of one.”

Now he is, albeit as director, and says he is even more excited about the new season in which he’s directing A Clockwork Orange and a new adaptation of Peer Gynt by Liverpool playwright Bob Farquhar.

The Story Giant. Photo: Stephen Vaughan

Veteran actors from Ian McKellen to Judi Dench – themselves brought up through the repertory system – have long been calling for its return, saying young actors miss vital training if they don’t have the experience of rep.

Reigniting the system in Liverpool, if only for five months of the year, has been seen in the industry as a bold experiment – one that has attracted plenty of interest, and not simply from actors wanting to be part of it. Bodinetz has had fellow artistic directors quizzing her on whether, and how, it has worked for Liverpool. “I think a lot of people were watching to see if we sank,” she says. “Not in a nasty way, but people who would like to make this work for them. We’ve still got a way to go to make it all we want it to be. But we’ve got enough left in the tank.”

This year’s company will be made up of eight men and six women of varying ages and backgrounds, including a member of Young Everyman Playhouse. Additionally, two YEP actors will share the role of Bianca in Othello.

So what advice does company alumnus Hughes have for newcomers arriving in the bitter winds of January? “Just throw yourself into it,” she says. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride at times, but if you just give it everything and trust your company members and creative team, it’s going to be great fun.”

More details at: everyman-company-2

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