Daniel Evans: ‘I’ve not stopped acting, but there are no parts I want right now’
There’s not much that Daniel Evans, who turns 43 this summer, hasn’t already done in the theatre.
He’s acted in the West End and on Broadway, and worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and at the Royal Court in classics as well as new plays. He’s won two Olivier awards and has been nominated for a Tony award.
In 2005, he also started directing for the theatre – with a fringe double-bill of Peter Gill plays at Battersea’s Theatre503 – and just four years later, he was appointed artistic director at Sheffield Theatres.
He last appeared on the Sheffield stage starring as Bobby in Sondheim’s Company, continuing an association with the composer’s work that had seen him win his Oliviers for appearing in the Donmar Warehouse’s Merrily We Roll Along and the Menier Chocolate Factory’s Sunday in the Park With George.
His performance had an unlikely result.
“Someone wrote to the local press asking for my resignation,” he tells me amiably. “They thought it was some huge vanity project.”
The affable shrug with which he says it is revealing of his naturally pleasant, non-confrontational demeanour, but it must have been galling. He’d earned his stripes to do it, surely: “The thing is, I thought I’d be able to cast myself as I’d done three Sondheims already, so it was a natural thing. But you can’t please everyone, anyway.”
That’s clearly just one of the obvious challenges associated with being an actor-manager, though lately acting has taken more of a back seat: “I’ve not stopped acting, it’s just that, at the moment, there are no parts I want to play. I think that may come later, but also directing and running a theatre is just so time-consuming.”
In the last seven years at the helm at Sheffield, he has directed frequently, from Henrik Ibsen and David Hare to Shakespeare and musicals such as Anything Goes (that subsequently went on a big UK tour for Stage Entertainment), a straight stage version of The Full Monty (that also transferred to the West End), and Show Boat (that has just moved to the New London Theatre and opened officially earlier this week).
He’s also in rehearsals for a new musical he’s directing at Sheffield, Flowers for Mrs Harris, and it will mark his swan song as artistic director there.
He quotes Paul Miller, now artistic director of Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre and who served as an associate director at Sheffield during Evans’s tenure, who recently said that “theatre constantly needs new blood”, and Evans concurs: “I totally agree with him. It needs renewal. The American model where people stay all their lives is not for us; I genuinely admire someone who can do that, but how do you renew yourself if you do? You have to keep renewing yourself to renew the theatre, and over that time it is difficult. So, after seven years here, it felt like it was a good time for me to think about moving on, in terms of good leadership and giving someone else a go and to share the wealth.”
He’d got the job in the first place by a kind of theatrical accident, after a dry spell that followed his return from appearing on Broadway in Sunday in the Park With George.
“After I came back form New York, I’d had a difficult time,” he admits. “How do you top that – getting to go to Broadway, and all the circus that comes from their awards season, you have to be such a strong person to not let it affect you and I think it did affect me. I came back and I didn’t want to work and I couldn’t get work. I did an episode of Holby City and a few concerts with Maria Friedman, as my voice was still in good nick and I enjoy singing. And then Malcolm Sinclair, who is now in Show Boat, and I were on our way to see a show together at the Tricycle Theatre and he asked me if I’d seen this advert. It was a job ad for the Crucible, and I swear to God that a lightbulb went off in my head.”
Sheffield seems to have a penchant for choosing actors who also direct as artistic directors – he followed Michael Grandage and Samuel West into the post, and he adds that Colin George, the theatre’s founding artistic director, had also been an actor. Now his own successor is to be Robert Hastie, another actor-turned-director, who has been a Donmar associate. Not that it is necessarily an easy fit: “The learning curve I had to go on was vertical. I remember that, during my first six months in the job, I’d get on trains and my head was hurting and exploding from retaining so much information that I’d fall asleep instantly – they were so warm and the vibrations would send me to sleep. It wasn’t until six months in that I’d be able to get on a train and read.”
But he embraced it wholeheartedly, investing his heart and soul in not just playing the part, but becoming the character. He moved his life to Sheffield: “One of the great lessons I learnt in Sheffield and one of the things I am most proud of is that someone asked me what success would look like, and I said that it would be if people in Sheffield felt like they owned the place and felt emotionally invested in it. And they do. But I think that you can only really do that when you know them and who they are: they need to see you in Marks and Spencer and in the cinema.”
It’s been quite a journey for Evans, who hails from the Rhondda Valley in Wales and was brought up and educated in Welsh. Now he’s making the journey to another, arguably even more prominent, UK theatre: “Sheffield is such an amazing job and place that there are not many places you want to go to after that. But I was lucky and another advert came up.”
That was for Chichester Festival Theatre, originating home of numerous West End hits over the last decade that artistic director Jonathan Church and executive director Alan Finch have helmed, including Olivier-wining transfers such as Sweeney Todd, Gypsy and Singin’ in the Rain, but from which they announced last year their intention to stand down. “I’m daunted,” he says of inheriting their legacy. “But I’m also really excited – they’re handing over an organisation that’s in such amazing health.”
He won’t be drawn today on his plans for Chichester, though he’s obviously deep in thought for what they might be. “I feel a bit like Jonathan and Alan need to enjoy their last season, so they don’t need me to talk about what I’m going to do. Besides, I don’t quite know yet, though I do have some ideas. I’m just tentatively talking to people, but I don’t want to pre-empt anything.”
He won’t rule out a return to the acting boards there, but he says: “I made it clear to the board that the reason for me to be running a building and satisfying that need in me is not to put myself in shows. I’m much more interested in the dynamics of getting people to collaborate and what it is like to bring different kinds of people together and getting different staff members working together in the same direction.”
And then he says something genuinely surprising. Whereas most directors who run buildings complain about the tasks associated with administration, he positively welcomes it: “I love senior management and HOD meetings. I love devising strategy and writing national portfolio organisation applications.”
Q&A: Daniel Evans
What was your first job? I was a child actor when I was 12, and did a TV series that we filmed bilingually back-to-back – first in Welsh, then in English. I played a character who was kidnapped and taken to Hong Kong, and I had to learn to ride a horse and chase a plane. I worked throughout my childhood, so when I came to study in London, I was able to use my savings to go to the theatre every night – and I saw everything.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? To deal with my stress earlier. I suffer from colitis and keep all my stress inside, and when I get stressed, it plays up. I’ve sorted it now, but wish I’d done so sooner.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Patsy Rodenburg, who taught me at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, comes to mind immediately. Her Shakespeare classes in the second year taught me things I am forever returning to and am grateful for. Also the Guildhall generally – I owe a lot to it for its ethos that focused on ensemble and the importance of generosity and humility.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Preparation, preparation and preparation. It is such a waste of everybody’s time if you don’t prepare – your own, as well as the panel’s.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? Probably a teacher.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I hate talking about casting before an actor has signed because things can go wrong. I find it quite hard to say the name of ‘the Scottish play’, though I’ve directed it, so I better get over it.
He has learned to turn seeming negatives into positive spins, too: “It would be wonderful if funding were not such a struggle and we had a more continental approach to things, but a lot of the fundraising work we’ve done in Sheffield has brought us closer with our audience, so good things have come out of it, too. When I arrived in Sheffield, 35% of our money came from grants. Now it is 11%. So a lot of thinking and teamwork and innovation has had to take place, and it might not have come our way if we were not forced into that position. One thing I’ll really miss is the annual fundraising gala we do in Sheffield that is a huge part of the year now. I’m the auctioneer, and the members who come are our nearest and dearest, and they come to see me make a fool of myself.”
A couple of years ago, he was invited to apply for the National Theatre artistic directorship job, and tells me today that he did, even though he had no expectation of getting it. “The process of having to articulate your vision to a board teaches you things about who you are as a person who has to look after an organisation, so I thought I’d apply so I could learn stuff. And I did – lots.”
So has working on shows old – and especially new – at Sheffield. Both are embodied by the two projects that mark his farewell to the venue. His production of Show Boat that earned five-star raves at Sheffield last Christmas has moved to the New London and gives this great 1927 masterpiece a new lease of life.
“I’m so grateful to Bert Fink, who used to be at Rodgers and Hammerstein [the licensing house that controls the rights to the R&H catalogue, including Show Boat], as he told me that they had a new version of Show Boat. My jaw dropped. I thought it was unstageable and that you needed to be Opera North and have a cast of 60 people and it would run for four hours. But R&H had been working with director Rob Ruggiero on a new version that he did at Goodspeed Opera House, and were now licensing it, and Rob’s achievement is that he has maintained the span and epic quality of it, but compacted it. The storytelling is very nimble, with no notes or words wasted, but you don’t feel like it cuts out much.”
And then the theatre gods shone on the production again: after its Sheffield success, there was talk of moving it to London – and fortunately War Horse announced it was leaving the New London. “It’s one of the few theatres in London that can accommodate a thrust staging; obviously we could have adapted it for a proscenium arch, but there’s nothing like it when the boat comes out into the auditorium.”
Daniel Evans’ top tips for an aspiring actor/director
• See everything – you have to go to the theatre, its where you learn most.
• Research everything – having sat on panels at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, I can tell who has gone to the website and found out who they are meeting.
• Be generous – how you deal with people is so important. Theatre can be so inward-looking and can get so catty. You have your own taste, but remember it is always someone’s work, and someone has spent time preparing it and parts of them go into it.
Before Show Boat even reopened, though, Evans was back in a different rehearsal room, for the new musical that is his official farewell to Sheffield. “I’m fascinated by the art form,” he says. “I was just in New York and I saw Fun Home and Hamilton, and they’d clearly been developed with such care and love. A lot of people come to me with new musicals, and when I talk to them about the canon, some of the new writers are just not interested. Yet Hamilton quotes from it endlessly – Lin-Manuel Miranda is clearly a scholar of the form; that is where he is coming from.”
Flowers for Mrs Harris, with a score by British composer Richard Taylor, whose The Go-Between transfers to the West End in June, has been steered by Evans through two workshops and a reading already, but even getting it on stage at Sheffield is only another step in its developmental process. “We’re on the first leg of something to see what audiences make of it. It’s a show about transformation, and how an ordinary little London cleaning lady who, in doing something that transforms her own life, transforms the lives of those around her, but she doesn’t know it.”
That seems to be an appropriate place to leave Evans, who in transforming his own life to become an artistic director seven years ago has transformed one theatre, and is now set to transform another.
CV: Daniel Evans
Born: 1973, Rhondda Valley
Training: Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Landmark productions (actor): Cleansed, Royal Court, London (1998), Merrily We Roll Along, Donmar Warehouse, London, (2000), Sunday in the Park With George, Menier Chocolate Factory and Wyndham’s Theatre, London, and Studio 54, New York (2005-08)
Landmark productions (director): An Enemy of the People, Sheffield Crucible (2010), The Full Monty, Sheffield Crucible (2013), Anything Goes, Sheffield Crucible (2014), Show Boat, Sheffield Crucible (2015), American Buffalo, Wyndham’s Theatre (2015)
Awards: Olivier award for best actor in a musical for Merrily We Roll Along (2001), Olivier award for best actor in a musical for Sunday in the Park With George (2007)
Agent: Christian Hodel at Hamilton Hodel
Show Boat is now running at the New London Theatre, booking to January 7, 2017. Flowers for Mrs Harris runs at the Crucible, Sheffield Theatres, from May 19-June 4, . Daniel Evans will join Chichester Festival Theatre in July