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Stephanie Street: Why don’t you see theatres led by a group of actors?

Actors in rehearsal. Photo: Shutterstock.com
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My first paid acting gig was a week at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It was a rehearsed reading of a knockout new play from India that formed part of the Court’s International Residency programme of work.

So much about the experience was revelatory: being in a room with actors who’d been on the job for years, seeing plays from all over the globe, actually being on stage at the Royal Court. Most eye-opening of all, however, was seeing and experiencing how permeable the boundaries are between the roles of writer, director and actor when bringing a new play into being.

Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to receive many more invitations to do rehearsed readings at the Court and elsewhere. My theatre work as an actor has mainly been in new writing.

I’ve been struck time and time again by how brilliantly we cultivate new plays and playwrights in this country. And I am almost certain that this is connected to how new writing is allowed to evolve in a shared responsibility that extends from the writer to director and, crucially, actors.

This may seem predicable, verging on crass, coming from me as an actor-turned-writer, but I firmly believe that if an actor has difficulty with a line, then it’s probably a dud.

Whenever I’ve been in a workshop situation, developing a new play, nothing is ever more instructive than that (sometimes eye-watering) reality of hearing the words in actors’ mouths. That will tell you exactly what needs sorting out in a play.

I recently workshopped my latest play, a commission for a foreign company. The producers were full of admiration at the insight and input of the actors involved; their notes and the nuances of their performances provided the fine-tuning required to sharpen the play up for the rehearsal draft.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the UK we don’t really follow the path of dramaturgy for new writing. With no disrespect to dramaturgs everywhere, the fact that we favour the workshopping model of development explains to me why have arguably the most vibrant culture of new writing in the world.

Recently, in a conversation connected to diversity, a highly experienced actor I admire wondered out loud why there wasn’t a group of actors putting themselves forward to take over the leadership of a recently up-for-tenure London theatre. She wasn’t putting her hat in the ring and neither am I, but it is interesting to me that this is an artistic leadership model I have yet to see in place in my career.

We make incredible new work through collaborative, actor-led genesis. If we extended the model further, there could certainly be sense in channelling the expertise of the collective, that works so brilliantly for our world-class new work, to find even more exciting programming, and ultimately purpose, for our buildings.

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