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What was your first play?

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Theatre education starts, for most of us, in childhood. I think, for example the very first piece of theatre I saw was a pantomime – Babes in the Wood at the Hippodrome in Catford when I was about three. The next event I remember was The Mikado, performerd by the pupils of Addey and Stanhope school where my father taught maths. He was helping with front of house and publicity. He took me backstage afterwards and Pitti-sing gave me her fan. I sang Tit Willow to anyone who would listen for weeks afterwards and I’ve been very fond of Gilbert and Sullivan ever since. I was five.

So what were your first theatre experiences and if you’re working in the industry how did those beginnings lead to a professional career? Interesting questions and the basis of a nice new book from Nick Hern Books  to mark the company’s 25th anniversary.

My First Play – Nick Hern BooksHern himself compiled My First Play: An Anthology of Theatrical Beginnings – and has written the intro as well as the first entry about his own theatrical beginning at prep school where, aged 11, he played Silvius, the lovelorn shepherd in As You Like It. Later he played Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew with Timothy Dalton as his servant, Grumio.

Thereafter the book features the upbeat and often witty – sometimes poignant – first play accounts by 66 theatre professionals including actors, directors, playwrights, coaches, who have written for NHB so it’s an ingenious way of celebrating the company’s first quarter century. Among the names on the list of contributors are Timothy West, Harriet Walter, Polly Teale, Michael Pennington, Liz Lockhead, Fin Kennedy, Gregory Doran, Caryl Churchill and Simon Callow.

The book is a very entertaining read, not least because it contains so many very distinctive voices. Richard Eyre, for example, played Peaseblossom, aged 6, at primary school and learned a lot about the difficulties of sustaining theatrical illusion against the intrusion of real life when Puck kept bursting into tears because she’d forgotten her lines. Aged 8, Oliver Ford Davies was entranced by the armour and the groom in a production of Richard II his father took him to and feels he has been haunted by the play ever since. Diane Samuels wittily compares the agony of getting her first play out of her with the pain of childbirth, drawing lots of parallels between the two processes. And Caryl Churchill remembers seeing pantomime, aged 3, and being sufficiently aware of theatrical structure that she re-created it with her toys afterwards.

[pullquote]The book contains many references to the schools, teachers and youth theatres where many of these professionals caught the bug[/pullquote]

When the publicity manager at NHB sent me this book he said it wasn’t really an education and training book but ‘more for fun.’ Well I think he has underestimated it. Yes, of course it’s fun, but you can also learn a lot from it about the educational process which eventually led, say, to David Edgar becoming a famous playwright and founder of the Birmingham play writing course, or to Gregory Doran becoming Director of the RSC or Anthony Sher becoming the extraordinary actor that he is.

The book contains many references to the schools, teachers and youth theatres where many of these professionals caught the bug. It therefore serves as a timely reminder of the importance of drama and theatre in education in its widest sense.

Not that there is any one way into this profession. My First Play describes 66 different experiences, each of them unique to that individual. Nancy Harris, for example, saw a lot of theatre in childhood but was bored by it until she encountered Arthur Miller’s The Crucible when she was 16. For Amanda Whittington it was A Taste of Honey, when she was 15 which was the turning point. Anupama Chandrasekhar remembers a Tamil retelling of the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana from the point of view of its antagonist, Ravana, which was for him pivotal.

Yes, we can learn a great deal about theatre, drama and development from considering other people’s ‘first play’ – from whatever angle the person chooses to describe it and whatever a ‘first play’ means to him or her. Want to share yours in a comment beneath this column?

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