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An Afternoon with Brian Astbury

Written by  Tuesday, 28 July 2015
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Brian Astbury is a highly influential figure in the theatre training industry, having worked with the likes of Stephen Moyer, Rufus Norris and Julie Hesmondhalgh. With Brian recently announcing that he has been made Course leader of a new groundbreaking practical theatre course, we caught up him to tell us more...

Sophia: Hi Brian. Lovely to speak to you. For those who don't already know can you give us a short-potted history of you…

Brian: To cut a long story short; I was born in South Africa an awfully long time ago, married an actor, Yvonne Bryceland, did selling records (old-fashioned LPs), became a journalist, then a photographer.

I also started a theatre/arts venue – The Space - for my wife, playwright/director Athol Fugard and many other South African artists who were unable to get their increasingly political work seen. The Space ran for nearly eight years, producing plays that are still being performed around the world. Many of the current South African Theatre establishment were nurtured there.

S: Wow, that's a lot to pack into a 'short story'. We already know a little about The Space, most notably from your book "Trusting the Actor". Tell us more about what happened and why you came to London.

B: I gave up in the dark days of Apartheid and came to London where Yvonne became a member of the National Theatre company for eight years. She won an Olivier - Best Actress award - and various others, including an Obie Best Actress Award in New York.

S: Amazing, what a talent! What did you do after the move?

B: In 1986 I started teaching at LAMDA where I stayed for the following eight years. I then moved to Mountview as Head of Acting, Directing and Music Theatre Courses and had a very rich five years there.

I then went to E15 Acting School as the Head of their new three-year BA in Contemporary Theatre course. After running that for five years I took over the two-year MA in Directing, Writing and Pedagogy (universities don’t like using the word 'teaching'…) as well as writing courses for the school’s expansion into their Southend campus.

Following that I retired and wrote "Trusting the Actor".

S: Can you tell us more about the book?

B: Trusting the Actor outlines the methods of actor-training that I had developed over the previous 25 years with the help of hundreds of young actors.

It will, I hope, be selling its 1000th copy by the time this interview is published. I'm also working on three more books: Create Theatre – a DIY Manual; Everyone Can Write, subtitled How NOT to learn how to write; and Theatre of Survival – The Story of The Space, which accompanies a documentary that is being made on that theatre.

S: So, not very busy then…

B: I forgot to add – starting a new course – The Forge Initiative…

S: And that’s why we’re here today. Tell us what lured you from your comfortable, "lazy" retirement…

B:  Well, that requires a little more history...

When I started teaching at LAMDA it was one of those watershed moments in the timeline of drama training in the UK. Early on I asked the Principal how many of the graduates gained employment. ‘All of them.’ he said with absolute certainty. Apparently all graduates from accredited drama schools went straight out into employment in one of the many reps. There, they learnt their trade for nearly a decade before emerging into the larger world of the National, the RSC, the Royal Court, etc.

This sounded good, but I’d asked the question because I had been talking to some of the previous year’s graduates. Hardly any of them were working.

They seemed to be sitting in bedsits around London waiting for lightning to strike, for the gods of the NT and the RSC to descend and carry them to Valhalla. Secondly, he had apparently failed to notice that the rep system had mostly collapsed. At that stage there were only four or five left in the country.

I started seeing this blindness everywhere. There was what I call the Get-an-Agent Syndrome. You graduated, were taken on by an agent, and all your troubles were over. Except that they weren’t. If you didn’t get an agent you lived in shame – a failure. I’m not going to go further into this at the moment. There’s another book to be written about the Great Myths and Legends of Actors and their Agents.

After nearly four years at LAMDA I found that the actors were starting to question this Myth and Legend. I spoke to one panicked group. ‘You do six productions in your final year. They’re mostly of really high quality. Take one of them to the Edinburgh Festival. You can sleep in tents. You’re young – you can survive on water…’Some of them went to Edinburgh, couldn’t find a theatre, didn’t know where the money would come from, yadayada… ‘You’re such a big mouth,’ they said to me, ‘show us how to do it.’ I had that huge gap in any drama teacher’s year where everyone except you went off on holiday and you weren’t getting the monthly freelance pittance for three months.

We took a play – The Guise, by David Mowat. It had been banned when we gave it its world premiere at The Space in 1979. ‘Where are we going to stage it?’ ‘Where do we get the money from to stage it?’ These and other such questions were met with my normal answer: ‘I don’t know.’

I have lived my life by the simple dictum: Don’t Plan Anything! Work Hard and Live Pure and Everything will Happen when it Needs to.’ The second half of that was passed on to me by my very wise mother. She was right – all of the major crossroads and developments of my life have come out of the blue – there was no way I could have planned for any of them. It makes me a little bit infuriating to live or work with. I have sublime faith in this Way of Life.

We opened at a little theatre/room above a pub in Tufnell Park. This had come available suddenly when another production had tanked. We borrowed our basic costumes – tuxedos – from LAMDA. The actors made the rest under the direction of a designer – Katrina Lindsay – who had come aboard somewhere along the line. She’s now a Tony-award-winning designer at the National and other large theatres where she no longer has to suffer when she asks what her budget is. My reply: ‘We don’t have any money. As cheap as possible.’ And so she always did miracles for us with nothing.

The play was seen by another fringe theatre who recommended us to the Richard Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh. By now we were Arts Threshold. We went up with two plays. The Guise won a Fringe First, was invited to tour to Romania, Hong Kong and America. We found a Church Hall in a basement in Paddington, collected £20,000 in an early version of Crowdfunding, where I made the company write personal letters to all the actors that they truly admired. Earlier they had tried the soul-calcifying route of applying to all those large, rich foundations that supposedly give money to deserving causes. They didn’t give any to us.

I ran Arts Threshold for nearly four years. We produced six-seven plays a year in our happy basement. None of us got paid. All takings went to keeping the place running.

One day I was rehearsing a scene from a play written by one of the actors. He has enjoyed a very successful writing career as Simon Stirling. There was an emergency and I had to leave the two actors rehearsing alone. When I came back the following day I found that they had done really well. ‘He’s a really good director.’ the one actor, Andrew Maud, said to me. ‘He’ was a very good-looking, very good RADA-graduated actor who had been unable, with so many others, to find any semblance of a career - ending up with us.

We needed directors more than we needed actors. ‘Want to direct something?’ I asked. He did. He had a script – The Lizzie Play – written by a friend, Deirdre Strath. It was based on the true story of Lizzie Borden who killed her father and mother with an axe (‘gave her mother 40 whacks…’). It was a huge success and he became one of our regular directors. When I left for Mountview he took over the directorship of Arts Threshold from me. This year ‘He’, Rufus Norris, has taken over the National Theatre.

He was not the only graduate of Arts Threshold to go on to great things. I won’t bore you with a list but just mention Julie Hesmondhalgh, who went on to get written into Parliament’s Hansard as a result of her role as transgender Hayley in Coronation Street, and Alexander Siddig who spent seven years as the Doctor in Deep Space Nine, before coming back here to a very successful career in film and telly.

S:  So how did this all lead to…

B: Patience, patience…History seldom happens fast. I needed to learn from it…

At Mountview the first task I was given in my new role was to address the fact that the grant system had collapsed, taking with it almost all the grants for technical students. The year before they’d had 52 students to service more than 35 productions for third-year and post grad courses that I had to schedule and cast. Now the intake was 12. There was no way they could cope. This gave me the chance to put into place something that I had increasingly felt was a very necessary part of actor-training – teaching them to create their own work, write it, direct it, stage it, publicise it. Over the five years I was there we tinkered with this system to get it to work properly.

When I moved to E15 I knew exactly what was necessary. As no-one seemed to know what a Contemporary Theatre Course was, I was able to turn it into a training course in survival. It has been massively successful. 10 years after the first group of 27 graduated, 80% of them are still involved in theatre. This is set against the old NCDT’s figure of 8% for the accredited drama schools.

S: What is the difference between that course and your new one?

B: That course was for beginning students. The Forge Initiative is for graduate students who already have training.

Unlike any other course, we will be concentrating on more advanced techniques of acting and writing, giving the students ways of creating their own theatre that will be free of all the old stultified ways; theatre that will talk to a new audience, one of their own creation.

I always ask new students the same question: ‘How many of your friends who aren’t involved in theatre GO to theatre?’ The answer is almost always the same: ‘Hardly any.’ The next question then is: ‘In that case, who is going to be coming to see you in 10 years time, if your own friends find nothing in theatre to engage them?’

The Forge Initiative is being set up to provide theatre companies who will go out there and find out what their audience wants to talk about, to deal with; companies who will slowly build up their own faithful audience, as have companies like Complicite, PunchDrunk, KneeHigh, Shared Experience, Frantic Assembly and others. Companies who have taken their destiny into their own hands, worked hard over many years, and built up an entirely new audience.

S: Ringing words – but how practical is this?

B: The one thing the course doesn’t offer is all the easy promises that so many others do. Theatre is a hard grind. These days we are being seduced by all the Instant Success programmes on telly. What people fail to notice is that these are, once again, representative of what I called the lightning-strikes syndrome earlier.

Good theatre, proper theatre, lasting theatre are the result of years of graft and growth. It’s hugely satisfying, but it doesn’t come quickly. 

Recently Rufus Norris was quoted in a newspaper interview as saying that he had worked for 15 years as a director and never earned more than £10,000 a year. I could go on and on with stories of the long struggles that actors, directors, writers have had in order to establish themselves. It’s all part of the rites of passage. It’s enjoyable, creative, happy-making – but can’t happen without really hard, committed graft.

S: So tell us a little bit about the course.

B: It will consist of three terms. The first two will have the same structure. In the mornings there will be three hours of skills. Everything from advanced acting techniques, writing, Grotowskian movement to Feldenkrais, Alba Emoting, media-streaming, crowd-funding and marketing – among others…

In the afternoons they will have a minimum of four hours working on projects, learning the arts of devising, adapting, and writing from working professionals like Jessica Beck, Shane Dempsey, Jonathan Grieve, Andy Johnson, and myself.

There will, therefore, be a minimum of 35 contact hours per week. Not many drama schools offer that.

In the third term there will be a film project in the first four weeks, after which the group will split into smaller companies, and, in two four-week blocks, create and present their own self-devised work. At the end of that time they will present the best of these shows at a London venue like the Soho or the Actors Centre. Each group will then be given an amount of money to act as the basic seed for their productions to tour to places like the Edinburgh festival, and of the other Festivals that are springing up around the country, and to a circuit of small-scale venues around the country.

S: It all sounds very exciting.

B: It’s so exciting I can’t sleep at night

S: Thanks so much for sharing with us.

B: No, it’s I that have to thank you. To be grammatically correct, though sounding rather pompous…

Read 7051 times Last modified on Monday, 17 August 2015
Sophia Tremenheere

In her free time Sophia plays the french horn and piano, which is where her love for performing arts first stemmed from. Her top three favourite shows are musicals Mamma Mia, Sound of Music and Phantom of the Opera. She also enjoys going to intimate gigs and festivals, particularly watching acts that are just starting out in their career, and regularly meets up with #LDNTheatreBloggers.

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