It’s not been the brightest few months for the theatre, with stories of aggressive behaviour towards ushers, arguments over rights and two actors who were attacked on their way to work in what was described as a homophobic hate crime. This is set against the continuing stress over the potential impact of Brexit and concerns around the appointment of Nicky Morgan as culture secretary, given her past comments that “young people choosing to study creative subjects at school could hold them back for the rest of their lives”.
Against this backdrop, it was something of a pleasure to hear an uplifting theatre story – though one that started off darkly – that made me proud of how the industry came together to support someone.
The story began in late July when Wicked actor and voice teacher Jaqueline Hughes tweeted: “Industry friends I need a wee favour. Sadly a little boy I teach, Charlie, who is also a dear family friend, is being bullied at school for his love of musical theatre, being called gay, fat, stupid… the list goes on. Today he was beaten up by six boys and left curled up, crying.”
She continued: “I know many people face bullies every day and others have in their lifetime. But I wondered if you wouldn’t mind, if you have time, sending me a little video to cheer him up, maybe some advice, your own stories, how you didn’t let them stop you, what you are doing now.”
The response from across the industry was overwhelming with musical stars and casts of West End productions sending messages. By the end of last week, it had seen, more than 42,000 people view the filmed message to Charlie from the cast of Come From Away, and Michael Ball tweet the story to his 92,000 followers. The #cheerupcharlie campaign went viral with the hope being that this will become recognised as an anti-bullying campaign for young people to know that they are not alone.
Charlie’s story struck a particular chord with me. At my old comprehensive school in Norfolk, you could not do drama as a subject and I was constantly bullied over my interest in the theatre. I also received no encouragement from my teachers or career officers in pursuing a career in theatre. My discovery of the theatre was thanks to my mum who liked musicals and dragged me along to the Theatre Royal Norwich. The passion for theatre that I discovered there would change, and probably save, that depressed kid’s life.
My school days were before the internet, but the discovery of theatre gave me an escape, fascination and focus which continues today. Unlike the supportive posts sent to Charlie, I got through school by starting to collect autographs of theatre actors, directors and producers. I’d search listings and write to the theatres where they were working asking for an autograph.
Getting home from school daily and seeing who had written back helped me to survive it. Today, I still have all of those autographs and years later, ended up working with some of those who responded. It still says so much to me about the fact that they took a little time to reply, in the way that Hughes’ favour, and subsequent industry response, has done the same.
My sanctuaries growing up were Norwich Theatre Royal and Norwich Arts Centre where, on Saturdays, I’d go to watch and learn from their productions. Looking back, I realise how significant those places were and the visceral connection both they and their productions made with me.
Charlie may have rightly captured Theatreland’s hearts, but there are a lot of Charlies out there that we need to look out for and who may not be quite as fortunate to have someone like Hughes in their corner.
In the 2013 Tony Awards’ opening number, host Neil Patrick Harris said directly to the camera: “There’s a kid in the middle of nowhere who is living for Tony performances… so I might reassure that kid, and do something to spur that kid, because I promise you, all of us up here tonight, we were that kid.” I wonder how many kids watching that night he inspired. His words both reiterated to me the powerful reason why awards shows should be broadcast live on public television, and the importance of regional theatres.
Three years later, on the eve of the Tonys, an armed man would burst into a gay bar in Orlando and kill 49 people and wound another 53. The next night, the Tonys opened with host James Corden giving a direct address to the camera in which he said the Broadway community stood shoulder-to-shoulder beside the victims.
His words were a hand reaching out from television sets across America and bringing a vital feeling of togetherness in the loneliest of times. Today, the theatre industry’s togetherness remains more important than ever as we watch troubling events in the world around us, not least with the seeming rise of homophobia.
Last Friday saw the start of the 72nd Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It represents an annual global coming together of industry and audiences. I am deeply passionate about this festival. It’s where my life really began when, as a 15 year-old, I joined the National Youth Music Theatre going with them to the fringe to put on a show; for the first time I found a fantastic bunch of young people who shared the same interest as me and where I felt I belonged.
This year, there will be participants at the fringe taking their own tentative first steps. The discoveries and friendships made with those who share the same passion as them can last a lifetime and lead to some thrilling cultural collisions.
Charlie’s story highlights the importance of respecting each other. The reaction and response from across our industry unites us, but it also serves to remind that amidst the mix of euphoric theatre highs, there can also be times that are particularly tough. And that’s why we need to look out for each other.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan