I left drama school in 1962 with more than my fair share of beginner’s luck. Not so much the £25.00 I received in prize money as recipient of the Emile Littler Award, welcome as that was. No, the beginner’s luck I’m referring to was the first two jobs I landed at the start of my acting career.
Definition: good luck supposedly experienced by a beginner at a particular activity.
Job number one was at the prestigious Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, at the time probably the best repertory company in the country. At most repertory theatres, if not all, a play would run for one, two or possibly three weeks and that was it. Sets were disposed of, props were stored, and performances were consigned to the CV.
At the Belgrade Theatre the season of plays were performed in repertoire allowing actors to revisit their roles and hopefully improve on their first time round attempts. I don’t believe any other rep. did that. Talk about beginner’s luck!
Job number two: John Dexter’s Broadway production of Arnold Wesker’s iconic play, Chips With Everything, which opened in New York in September 1963. Another dollop of beginner’s luck. Our 6-month run would have been longer had not President Kennedy taken that fateful trip to Dallas.
In September 1963, a troupe of young British actors had landed at Idlewild Airport. In March 1964 it was bye-bye Broadway as our plane taxied along the runway of the sadly and rightfully re-named John F. Kennedy International. Talk about witnessing history.
As I Pan Am-ed my way back to Blighty I spent much of the flight wondering if my beginner’s run of good luck could possibly continue…
The new Nottingham Playhouse, designed by Peter Moro who had been involved with the Royal Festival Hall, opened in 1963. With its expanse of glass, high-ceilinged foyer and circular auditorium, it was – and still is – a stunning building. Peter Moro’s masterpiece was the first successful adaptable theatre to incorporate both the open and proscenium stage forms. It soon became one of Britain’s leading provincial repertory theatres.
Little wonder that Nottingham Playhouse was the repertory theatre on every actor’s wish list. And I got my wish. I was now over nine months out of drama school. Could I still call it beginner’s luck? Or was it positive thinking?
Call it what you like, I was cast as The Clown in Frank Dunlop’s production of William Shakespeare’s Sir Thomas More starring Ian McKellen in the title role. This was the first production of the play for 400 years and Frank Dunlop’s directorial farewell as Joint Artistic Director alongside John Neville and Peter Ustinov.
I say ‘William Shakespeare’s’ Sir Thomas More but here is the list of writing credits:
Sir Thomas More by
Henry Chettle, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, Anthony Munday and William Shakespeare.
Perhaps old Bill S. was the show-runner.
Nottingham, famous for Robin Hood, lace-making and Raleigh Bikes now proudly boasted the newest and most exciting theatre in the country! Located in the appropriately named Wellington Circus, ‘appropriately’ because as one passed the café, bar and restaurant alongside the imposing glass-fronted Playhouse, there was always a carnival atmosphere as actors mingled with the good folk of Nottingham. During the day in rehearsal breaks; before the show
as coffee (or possibly something stronger – ssh!) calmed pre-show nerves; and definitely something stronger after the figurative curtain had fallen.
It was the design and location of Nottingham Playhouse and the surrounding areas that engendered the carnival atmosphere, which in turn created a happier workplace. It was almost 50 years after Nottingham before I worked at another theatre where the design and location generated a similar community spirit: Chichester Festival Theatre, built the year before Nottingham Playhouse opened.
Most theatres don’t lend itself to this kind of accessible communal pre-show/post-show environment. Working away from home,
an occupational hazard, can be lonely and whilst you might make arrangements to see other members of the company and word generally goes round as to which watering hole is to be favoured after the show, Wellington Circus was unique and certainly made my time in Nottingham especially enjoyable.