Written by Matthew Parker
Artistic Director of The Hope Theatre, Graduate of DSL's Directing Course, faculty member and production director.
DSL changed my life.
I am a proud DSL-er: A graduate (I was one of the final Directing Course students graduating in 2009), a visiting director of various projects including Panto, Ensembles, Restoration and Grad Shows and a teacher of Stagecraft, Text Into Performance and Entertainment classes. I also regularly pop in to cast a critical eye over performance blocks.
It’s been 9 years since I graduated as a somewhat mature student at the age of 34. In those 9 years I’ve gone from a bloke with an office job to the Artistic Director of an award winning theatre. It is still shocking to me just how fast it has all been!
As one of the two final directing students I got to sit in many of the acting classes and work with the students on my own directing projects as well as many How To Direct workshops, classes and seminars which I still, 9 years later, tap into every day. Once I’d graduated I was lucky enough to have a producer pick up Ward No. 6; a four-handed physical theatre adaptation of the Chekhov short story I’d created as part of my course at DSL, and take it to Edinburgh, with a cast of 4 DSL actors. The show was nominated for Best Ensemble at the 2009 Stage Awards which was both huge shock and a massive joy for us all. The nomination worked wonders for my career and it meant that I could come back to London’s thriving Off West End scene with a success under my belt. I was now a professional Director with a hit on my hands. It felt so surreal as I had waited soon long for this. I set up two theatre companies; one on my own (DogOrange; specialising in imaginative retelling of classics with an emphasis on fantastic flights of theatrical fancy) and, with fellow DSL graduate Laura Harling, First Draft, a new writing company giving artists (including many DSL alumni) a chance to write and see their words performed for an audience. And that’s how the next 5 years of my directing life developed. With DogOrange I mounted imaginative retellings of various classics including A Woman Alone, The Cherry Orchard and James Saunders’ 1960s beauty A Scent of Flowers (Crispin Harris’s favourite play!).
It wasn’t easy. There is no money on the fringe and I would often have to borrow from my mortgage to finance a production, hoping that the budget would break even, which it usually did. I did as many projects as I could, remembering the advice that DSL tutor Sonia Fraser had given me at graduation - “Don’t stop working for the next few years. Do something towards your career every single day”. I gradually built a small reputation on the fringe for quality work; actors I didn’t know started to want to work with me and I met lots of new creatives, some of whom I still work with now. I landed a couple of jobs at theatres outside of London and a small scale tour. Every day could be totally different. I was (and continue to be) living the dream! At an assisting job at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre in 2012 I met Olivier award-winning director Robin Norton-Hale. I didn’t know at the time that this meeting would take my career on a totally new and challenging direction. Robin saw some of my work over the next year and at the start of 2014, whilst she was at the Kings Head Theatre, Islington, with Opera UpClose, she recommended me as a possible candidate to take the Artistic Directorship of the newly opened Hope Theatre, also in Islington. (I received the call offering the post whilst I was in a rehearsal room at DSL directing an Ensemble production).
The dreams were continuing to come true and I spent 2 months not being able to tell anyone that I landed the job. 2 months in which I also had to learn about how to not only run, but essentially how to set up, a theatre. The Hope had been open for less than a year, run by the Kings Head team, but when I took over (the final handover was October 2014) it would have nothing to do with the Kings Head any more. This meant I had essentially a room, a rig, some chairs.... well and that was pretty much it. So I scrabbled around building a team of box office staff and a literary team to read all the plays submitted (the team are almost entirely DSL alumni - actors and creatives I’ve met whilst teaching and directing at DSL this past 9 years), websites, ticketing systems, insurance, rubbish collection - the whole lot. It was all new to me and equally exciting and terrifying. I’ve been AD of The Hope for two and a half years now, in which time I’ve seen the place really establish itself on the theatrical map as the little theatre with BIG ideas. One of the things I’m most proud of is our agreement with Equity which guarantees every one who acts at The Hope Theatre a legal wage. We are still the only 50 seat theatre in London to offer this and I know how much actors value it.
I’ve directed 4 shows at The Hope so far (all of which featured at least one DSL actor) and they’ve all done brilliantly well both critically and commercially. My DSL training comes into play every single day of rehearsal and I know it always will do. I am about to open a 40th anniversary revival of Dennis Potter’s darkly comic and disturbing Brimstone & Treacle on 2 May starring 2 DSL grads including one who graduated just last year. The rest of my job as Artistic Director is to essentially curate the theatre space; selecting the work that is staged and nurturing companies through the process of mounting a production on the Off West End. And guess what, many of these companies are formed of DSL grads! Not all (it’d just be too nepotistic, wouldn’t it?!) - just a few. But it really is a wonderful thing to see companies formed of graduates who are out there, forging their own path and making work. The Hope ended 2016 with a staggering 24 industry award nominations, including the prestigious Fringe Theatre of the Year at the annual Stage Awards, 5 Award wins & 15 appearances in Top Shows Lists. And to top it all off I was recently given the Off West End award for Best Artistic Director (pictured with my award). A huge achievement and one I am so very proud of. It’s another dream come true. And if it wasn’t for DSL I wouldn’t be doing this - I wouldn’t have these opportunities to make my dreams come true.
So whilst the time I was there training was just 9 short (but packed) months, DSL features in my life every single day. If I’m not teaching or directing within its walls I’m extolling its virtues to others in the industry and using the tools it gave me in a rehearsal room or creative meeting.
DSL changed my life.
As I type this, I’m on my way to the wedding of two alumni who, in my year, came to Edinburgh with me as part of the cast of my directing debut Ward No.6. And that's the thing about DSL; Yes it gives you an amazing training and toolkit full of skills you will use in work and life, but it also gifts you a group of people who you may work alongside but even if you don’t, you will be forever connected to with love, support and brilliant, sweaty, scary, challenging and ultimately rewarding DSL memories.
Matthew’s production of Brimstone and Treacle is on at The Hope Theatre, Islington from 2 to 20 May and features DSL grads Fergus Leathem (2014) and Olivia Beardsley (2016).