For 25 years, Barrie Rutter was the face of Northern Broadsides, so when he stepped down there were some pretty big shoes to fill, but Conrad Nelson’s long association made him the obvious person to step in. Chris Bartlett hears how the actor, composer, choreographer and director has taken the reins of the Halifax touring company
“I wasn’t thinking about it, no,” says the 54-year-old actor turned composer, choreographer and director, whose association with the multi award-winning Halifax-based company goes back almost as far as its larger-than-life founding father Rutter. “Barrie was always the artistic director and I was absolutely fine with that.”
But in July last year the opportunity arose when, in dramatic fashion, Rutter told the board he was stepping down and then spoke to the press about his reasons (and not, insists Nelson, the other way round, as was reported in some quarters).
So was it a surprise? Nelson suggests it was not. “We’d talked for years about how artistically the company had changed and how it became augmented,” Nelson says carefully. “He was a figurehead, and a brilliant driving force for the whole company. But it’s had more sides to it than that for a very long time. He decided to step down. That was his decision so he wasn’t usurped.”
So this wasn’t a case of Nelson plotting in the wings like Iago, a role he played so memorably opposite Lenny Henry’s Othello in the rapturously received 2009 Broadsides co-production with West Yorkshire Playhouse. But the news still came as a shock, because for the preceding 25 years – from the outside at least – Rutter was Northern Broadsides.
He founded the company in 1992, delivering on the aim of presenting “northern voices doing classical work in non-velvet spaces” with productions in cattle markets, trams sheds and marinas before finding its base beneath a viaduct in a Halifax mill.
But Nelson was involved almost from inception, with Rutter inviting him to join the fledgling company after the pair had acted together at the National Theatre. After volunteering to compose the music for King John/Merry Wives in 2001 – “there wasn’t anybody else to do it, so I put my hand up” – Nelson has played an increasingly active role.
Broadsides’ current production – an adaptation of Dario Fo’s 1974 farce Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! retitled They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! and transposed to Brexit Britain – is the 15th play Nelson has directed for the company, but he’s contributed significantly to more than 50 productions. Rutter may well have been the face of the company, but since Nelson became resident director a decade ago, it’s been more of an equal partnership. “We sort of shared it artistically,” Nelson says. “For the last 10 years, I’ve done half the work and Barrie’s done the other half.”
Which meant when Rutter stepped down, Nelson was the obvious choice to replace him, which he did – after interviewing for the role – in April. However, Nelson’s version of events is refreshingly unassuming. “It was a question of how the business was going to go forward,” he says, practically. “So, given the fact I had done a lot of the work and I was best suited to take on that role, they asked me if I would come and do the post for 12 months.”
Nelson describes his previous ascension from actor to multi-hyphenate as a natural progression: “I went from assisting the process, being in charge of large numbers and certain parts of the text to getting my name on the poster. Even as an actor, I’d never just see myself as a single cog, I’d be looking for where I fitted in the picture.”
Some performers, he says, view the production only from their own perspective. “But I’ve always seen things from above. If you think like that it’s not so much of a leap. Not everybody wants that sort of responsibility, but I don’t mind that.”
But the move to company leader isn’t something he’s sure he wants permanently. “I’m going to make a decision shortly,” he says. “I need to know whether it’s right for me to carry on. I’ve enjoyed it, but there are other things to do in this great profession, and 26 years – on and off, but mostly on – is a long time to be part of any company.”
Unlike Rutter, who embodied the modern idea of the actor-manager, as Nelson added more strings to his bow he took fewer lead roles. “I’ve only directed myself once,” he says, referring to 2015’s The Winter’s Tale, in which he played Leontes. “I enjoyed it but it’s not something I’m desperate to do again. You see parts all the time that you fancy doing, but I get more satisfaction now from seeing others doing it.”
Another thing that sets him apart from Rutter is his view of Arts Council England. While Rutter was a vocal critic of ACE – and cited the stagnation of its funding as the reason for his resignation – Nelson takes a much more considered, phlegmatic view.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I’ve worked in the industry pretty much non-stop, but for a short while after college I sold timeshares in the Lake District.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I was part of the ensemble of Oh What a Lovely War directed by Tim Supple at Leicester Haymarket in 1987. I studied in Leicester so it was great to go back.
What’s your next job?
I’m directing a site-specific play for Claybody Theatre called Hot Lane in Stoke-on-Trent. And then in January I’m starting on a new Northern Broadsides production of Much Ado About Nothing.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
The advice I give other people is to take what’s on the table and keep working. It’s a very difficult industry to plan your future in, so to keep your profile going and your spirits up, take whatever opportunities are out there. That’s always worked for me.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
There’s not been one person but a gathering of different people who have given me brilliant things along the way. Tony Harrison got me my first job at the National Theatre and then that led to me working with Barrie Rutter and Broadsides. Those associations have been vitally important.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t create what you think is wanted in the room. If you come in and you deliver what you’ve rehearsed and don’t listen to the instructions, then that doesn’t show you as a very flexible or responsive performer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not really. I have quite a workmanlike approach. It’s a craft. You know whether you’ve made the wheel right or not. It’ll either turn or it won’t. That’s not superstition, that’s good workmanship.
“You could do a like-for-like comparison and argue that a company like ours, with our kind of history, should get extra money. But we all know that extra money doesn’t increase your output. There are a lot of other people out there who also need money and it’s a finite pot. And you can’t keep asking for more, especially in this climate.”
Nelson cites the number of new plays or adaptations that Broadsides produces – almost one a year – as proof the company can do a lot with the money it gets.
This commitment to new writing obviously stems from Nelson and extends to Claybody Theatre, the Stoke-based new-writing company he created in 2012 with his wife of 19 years, actress-turned-playwright Deborah McAndrew.
The pair met through Broadsides and have been collaborating since she adapted Leopold Lewis’ 1871 play The Bells in 2004, which Nelson directed. And while he says she has no permanent role – describing her as one of the company’s “frequent writers” – her input has shaped its voice and identity almost as much as he has.
If their close working relationship has a drawback, Nelson says, it’s in their inability to separate work and home life. “No matter what we’re doing, it always comes back to work. But we enjoy working together. We have a similar way of thinking, in that theatre comes from the written word. It’s the text that drives it forward.”
Nelson is aware of the challenge of balancing his new managerial responsibilities – “the nine-tenths of what goes on underneath the water” – with continuing to play such a hands-on role in productions. Demonstration of this comes from the fact that Nelson talks to me en route from a board meeting in Halifax to rehearsals for They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! at York Theatre Royal.
Nelson, who was born in Liverpool and raised on the Wirral, thinks he gets his energy and drive from his parents. His dad was in the building trade and his mum was a primary school head teacher but “they were always busy, always doing”.
So what does he do to unwind? Well for the last five years he’s been a fully fledged clog-carrying, bell-wearing member of Oldham’s Saddleworth Morris Men, whose ranks he joined while creating the choreography for McAndrew’s First World War-set Broadsides play An August Bank Holiday Lark in 2014.
“I didn’t want them to think that, having taken some of their knowledge, I was going to say: ‘Thanks very much’ and clear off. I’m dogged like that, you see.”
Born: 1963, Liverpool
Training: BA (hons) in performing arts, Leicester Polytechnic
As an actor
• Coriolanus, Chichester Festival (1992)
• Wars of the Roses: Richard III, West Yorkshire Playhouse (2006)
• 1984, Dukes Theatre, Lancaster (2010)
• The Canterbury Tales, New Vic, Newcastle- under-Lyme (2010)
• Hamlet, New Vic Theatre (2011)
• An August Bank Holiday Lark, New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme (2014)
• Othello, West Yorkshire Playhouse (2009)
• The Winter’s Tale, Northern Broadsides National Tour (2015)
Agent: Sean Gascoine, United Agents
They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! is touring until December 2