If you Google Roland Smith, you’ll likely stumble upon an American author of Young Adult fiction such as Cryptid Hunters and Elephant Run. Google being the main tool for intrepid interviewers, it turned out I was a little underprepared for this meeting at the ADC. After an intense three hour theatrical workshop and another three hours in the pub, I’d uncovered a very different Roland Smith.
This Smith is one who has just finished directing a critically acclaimed production of Henry V in the old BBC Marylebone studios, co-founded of one of the most innovative London theatre companies, Theatre Delicatessen, in 2007, and is a compelling conversationalist. His company have managed to break new ground both artistically and financially. They’ve thrived with productions in huge, disused spaces – abandoned warehouses and empty office blocks. As a charity, they occupy unused retail spaces and are partially funded by some of the council tax the buildings’s owners are saving. They plough this back into site-specific, immersive theatre that alters the relationship between audience and space. This reached its apotheosis this year with their Bush Bazaar: a theatre space jammed to the rafters with different performances simultaneously, all vying for the trade of the individual punter. Post-financial crash, it’s meant to mirror the way the market works. Canny, eh?
But Roland is a bit more dismissive of the current prospects of immersive theatre – “it’s become a fad, the market’s saturated now... We’ve got loads of new, young companies up our arse.” He speaks softly, in a slightly clipped way, and balances a weary perspective with a continued passion for the craft that eats up all his time.
With Theatre Delicatessen being named one of the Observer’s Bright Young Things Changing British Theatre in 2011, it’s a far cry from where he started out. He remembers the moment he decided he wanted to do theatre vividly: “I saw Kenneth Branagh playing Coriolanus at the Chichester festival when I was fifteen and was like – I want to do that. Even if I’m just one the guys at the back holding a spear – and there were a lot of those.” He started off wanting to be an actor, or as he puts it, being “a bit of a narcissist.”
But his next step was Bristol, to study Physics and Philosophy. Theatre put paid to his physics but philosophy just about saw him through. He had a realisation there – “that I wanted to be a director. We were doing a devised version of Berkoff’s The Trial and in discussions my voice kept rising to the fore.” Whilst still at uni, he took the David Hare play The Absence of War, to the National Student Drama Festival, where it won a bunch of gongs, and then to the Fringe – “a beautiful disaster” he calls it. In a remarkable act of generosity David Hare reimbursed them the rights fee – “he said to have a big party for a few or a little party for many.” It’s a kindness he won’t forget. Perhaps that’s because things are rarely easy, or made easier in the world of professional theatre. When I ask what advice he’d give people trying to get into the industry, he responds “My advice is don’t be an actor. I can’t sleep at night if I don’t tell people not to become actors and directors.”
“Nothing you will do is going to guarantee work. I work with brilliant, committed actors, who came out of RADA, got the best agents, and are still struggling for a job.” In an industry full of ambition and short of surety, there’s only one path to personal success –“if you pursue any sort of theatre-making as a career, you have to do it for the work. It has to fulfil you.”
If you are going to insist on trying to pursue a career in it, training is useful but not essential. Roland hasn’t had any formal directorial training; after having a place, he turned it down. He sees training as a “necessary luxury” – a selfish time to focus simply on yourself and your work, for better or worse. He speaks of drama schools as “a place to find time and hone your craft, a chance for you to develop and work”, rather than as a career-maker.
He advises looking doing your homework, looking at new companies, formed straight out of university such as non zero one, formed straight from Royal Holloway. But it matters less and less where people come from and more about the work they’ve done afterwards. He offers a measured perspective on his own career; there are a fair few things he’d do differently. As it happens, formal training is perhaps one.
It’s almost strange to hear someone so gently spoken, successful and professionally independent – Theatre Delicatessen survived for years without Arts Council funding – be so downbeat about trying to work in theatre. It’s hard, tiring, often unrewarding and you have to do it for the love of the work. In that regard at least, it sounds a little like Cambridge
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