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Everyone Theatre: An Interview with Paterson Joseph

Everyone Theatre is a series of interviews with leading theatre practitioners in London. It’s their chance to make the case for getting into theatre, on either side of the curtain.

Patterson Joseph has appeared on stage and on TV, and is a household name

Patterson Joseph has appeared on stage and on TV, and is a household name

Paterson Joseph has played leading roles in the major producing theatres throughout the UK, including the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Exchange Theatre and has won London Fringe and TMA Best Actor awards. His extensive TV credits include the award-winning Green Wing, Peep Show, Sex Traffic and Julius Caesar. His films include The Beach and In The Name of The Father. He directed Romeo and Juliet for the Channel 4 documentary My Shakespeare and his play Sancho – An Act of Remembrance is published by Oberon. He will next be seen in Law and Order UK for ITV and will be performing Sancho… at the Arcola Theatre in October 2013.

Between his filming schedule and other commitments, Paterson very kindly found time to have a chat with us about why he thinks theatre is important and potentially even life-changing.

Listen to the podcast using the player below, subscript to the series on iTunes, or read through the transcript below. Please feel free to leave comments at the bottom of the page!

Everything Theatre: Welcome to the second episode of our Everyone Theatre interview series. We are absolutely delighted to be here with Paterson Joseph, an acclaimed British actor who has done work on screen, on stage for the RSC and for the National. It’s an absolute privilege that you’ve been able to make time for us, Paterson – we really appreciate it, and we’ve hopefully got some quite intriguing questions to ask you. Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about your story, and how you got to where you are today in your career?

Paterson Joseph: I was a pretty shy, inarticulate seventeen year old, and I was training to be a chef. At some point I realised that I hated working within four walls, I hated the restriction of it. My Dad was a plasterer, and I knew that I didn’t want to do any labouring because I tried and within minutes found it much too hard! So I decided to give acting a try – just because a friend of mine was getting involved – and I auditioned for the National Youth Theatre. I still have some leaflets and things from that period, and I thought “Well, I might as well have a go”, so there was a youth theatre in Marylebone, still called The Cockpit, and they had a proper inner London education authority funded programme with teachers and directors coming in. I went along and saw these very confident sixteen year olds, and I thought “Whatever they’re doing, I want some of that”, because I couldn’t string two words together, and I found it very hard to look people in the eye properly and all of that stuff. I was a very typical, shy urban kid really.

So I remember being taken into a big room and asked to improvise. I asked the kid next to me “what does that mean?” to which he said “it just means make stuff up”, and I thought “I can do that!”. As I said my Dad was a labourer, so I thought “well let’s do what I know: let’s build a wall”. So I started doing this wall building mime, and people started giggling, and I thought “that’s brilliant, and I want to do this for the rest of my life”. Then I went to drama school!

ET: I guess that must have been a very memorable moment for you, but if we were to ask you to name another memorable moment maybe as an audience member or from being in a show, is there any particular one you would mention?

PJ: As an actor I will always remember the tour of a Shakespeare play, The Tempest, and a Sophocles play called Philoctetes that I did with a theatre company called Cheek by Jowl in 1989. It was my third job out of drama school. I was in my early twenties and we were taken to a lot of places, but one of the places I remember very well was a sort of Eastern European leg of the tour. It was 1989 and we were taken to Romania and Czechoslovakia as it was then – they were still heavily communist countries, and very closed. So I remember going into the National Theatre in Romania, and seeing the great thrones that Ceausescu – who was the dictator – had built in the circle for the President in Russia who was coming to visit. Actually he didn’t visit, but Ceausescu had still built these amazing thrones, and I remember being so daunted by that because there we were in this 2000 seat theatre about to do our play!

In the middle of our play there was this very silly masque that we would do. Acid House Music was the big thing of the day and 15 embarrassed actors would sing ‘ACIIIID! ACIIIID! FREEDOM! FREEDOM!’. There’d be strobe flashing lights, one of us was on the saxophone, another of us was on the drum kit and… that’s what we would do! And we’d done this at the Donmar Warehouse, we’d done it at Winchester, we’d done it in…. Basildon! Audiences just went “Whhaattt?!” and we were quite the same.

But anywhere, here we were in Romania in this daunting theatre, and you could have heard a pin drop all the way through the play. So we start this thing, all looking at each other thinking “they are not going to get this at all”. Acid House? I mean they barely had jazz there!

So we kicked into this thing, and we’d been going for about 30 seconds – “ACIIID! ACIIID! FREEDOM!” – and we realised that in the front row of the circle, students had all got up, started raising their hands and fists and shouting down at the stage “FREEDOM! FREEDOM!”. And the Politburo members, the leading Communist party members, who were sitting in the front rows of the stalls, had sort of craned their necks and were looking up at these students and then looking at us as if to say “what the heck have you started here?”. It only lasted for about 40 seconds, but it felt like about 4 minutes and it was utter chaos – there was nothing we could have done, totally out of our control. Then Prospero the actor came on and the noise died down. And it was memorable because it made me think that in theatre we do mess around a lot and it’s entertaining, but sometimes it can touch a chord that is extremely powerful. Of course this was nothing really to do with us, but it was part of that whole feeling – in November of that same year they basically brought down Ceausescu and the Communist regime ended.

“In theatre we do mess around a lot, and it’s entertaining, but sometimes it can touch a chord that is extremely powerful”

ET: That’s an absolutely incredible story – it would have just been amazing to see it! The next question that we’ve got is to ask you to give a succinct summary of why you think people should go to the theatre, to be involved off or on stage, in the audience or as actors. So what would your pitch be?

PJ: I think the major reason that human beings go to watch other human beings going through torturous or fun events, is that there is a basic human need for it. Now, the need I suppose could be described as mysterious – in some ways I think we have to guess at what it is. My guess – and it’s only my guess – is that there is a comfort in knowing that other people go through similar emotions to you; that you’re not alone and strange; that other people have trouble with major events in their lives and how to cope with them; that other people have troubles with their relationships with other people; and that there are solutions, and sometimes that there is just the acceptance that life happens and you need to just deal with it and accept it. I think theatre does that in a more visceral way perhaps than cinema or television because you’re locked in the room with other human beings who also have that desire to see their lives, and similar lives, played out in front of them. So I think it’s a communal experience that we need, I think it lifts our human spirit, and I think it confirms that we are not alone. So I think it’s vital – it’s like food, water, shelter – it’s one of our basic needs to tell stories and to engage with those stories collectively and in the same place.

“theatre is vital – it’s like food, water, shelter – it’s one of our basic needs to tell stories and to engage with those stories collectively and in the same place”

ET: Well there you go, listeners! That’s, from Paterson Joseph himself, why you should go into the auditorium, and why you should go and be involved. What we’d like to ask now is for you to imagine us as someone who has not really got into theatre yet, but who is potentially thinking about it. We’re going to throw some problems at you, and see what your solutions are and what you have to say to these people. The biggest problem is that it can be expensive, as an audience member in particular. So what’s your top tip for people on a budget?

PJ: There are, online, myriads of half-price ticket website, although that can be quite random because they may not be for the play that you think you want to see. If you’re more committed than that and you think there is a particular play you want to see, then there are very often returns. It might take you an hour of waiting in a queue to get a return, but there will nearly always be returned tickets for most plays

Price is another issue. The National Theatre is very good at doing £12 tickets for some of their plays, in the Olivier auditorium in particular and I think that is always worth looking at. Also we’re very rich in small theatres, and if you go onto a website like OffWestEnd.com and others, you will find Off West End theatres that have very reasonable prices. I think if you’re determined enough you can certainly find tickets that aren’t overly expensive.

I suppose sometimes you have to think that if you go to the cinema you’ll pay £10 or £12 for a ticket and actually what you get from a theatre is probably a more rounded experience because it’s happening live, because you’re usually with a lot more people and because it’s usually full of music and sound and generally much more exciting. So for £12 from the National for example, you’re getting – I would say – a much better level of entertainment than you would at a cinema. I think it’s also about looking at your own budget and thinking about your priorities. You can easily spend £15 or £20 going into a club at the weekend, whereas you could be getting an experience that you’ll probably never forget if it’s a good play.

“You can easily spend £15 or £20 going into a club at the weekend, whereas you could be getting an experience that you’ll probably never forget if it’s a good play.”

ET: Absolutely, those are all very valid points. The fact that a cinema ticket these days costs as much as an excellent quality theatre ticket is something that is often forgotten, so it’s certainly worth reminding people. Now the second big concern is that, as you say, London has a great wealth of venues and shows, and some people just find it a little bit overwhelming and wouldn’t really know where to start. So where would you recommend people begin if they’re looking to try and get themselves in to the theatre scene?

PJ: I think if you’re already on this website and listening to this recording then you should be thinking about looking at the OffWestEnd.com website to see what that has to offer. That would be the first thing – and that’s not an advert, it just does seem like a really convenient place to have lots of theatres advertising their stuff. There’s always a good blurb with OffWestEnd.com that tells you exactly what the play might be about.

Then, if you’ve got a list of theatres near you I would say that there will always be a theatre within a mile or two of wherever you live in London. For example if you live in Hackney then you might think “well I’m miles away from the West End”, but you’ve got the wonderful Arcola Theatre there, and I’m sure that there are other theatres in that area. So target those first, and when you go to those theatres there will be leaflets for other theatres, and you can investigate them and their prices and the shows that are on, and you can start the ball rolling that way.

Word of mouth is the best though – if you’ve got any friends who you know are involved in acting or in theatre in any way, or who go to see plays, ask for recommendations and ask people what they’ve seen lately. Obviously I’m thinking mostly for the younger people, but actually there’s a whole host of middle-aged people who think theatre isn’t for them, and they’ll have friends and colleagues at work who do go to the theatre and I think that’s a good water-cooler conversation: “do you go to the theatre, and what have you seen lately?”. The best recommendations are always word of mouth because you can always come back to the person and say “Oi! What are you talking about? That was rubbish!”.

ET: Ah, so you can hold them to account if it is rubbish?!

PJ: Exactly, yeh.

ET: I think you touched on the next question we have, which is that some people have been to the theatre – and it might have been at a younger age, but it could also have been someone who was a little bit older and trying to get into theatre – and for whatever reason they’ve had a bad experience. So what do you think the theatre community around the country should be doing to get future generations into auditoriums and on to stages?

PJ: I think theatre is sometimes perceived as an elitist world. I didn’t go to the theatre until I became involved in it at the youth theatre. So why was that? It wasn’t part of my culture I suppose, being from an Afro-Caribbean background, and a working class one at that. I think if I knew that it was easy to go in, if theatres seemed to be open places, and if there seemed to be more going on than just the play – if there were other events attached to it – then I suppose I would have gotten involved even before I knew about it.

I think sometimes there is a need for a bit of outreach. There needs to be a little bit more of a sense that there is an audience out there, and that you need to capture them. For example if you just take one demographic: young, male, African or Afro-Caribbean descent, British born. Their parents might not necessarily have been involved in theatre. There will be some that will, but most won’t. How do you contact them? Well the best way is to go into the areas that they will generally be living in and stick posters up, go into youth clubs and do workshops. Theatres need to outreach more, and I know that’s hard because they haven’t got a lot of resources, but part of their marketing budget should also be about that kind of outreach. I’ve been to many theatres, and that is exactly what they’re trying to do so hats off to all the theatres that do make that a priority. Without knowing about something you’ll never find out via osmosis: if you’re not involved with people who aren’t involved in it, then you won’t become involved! Ever. That is obviously the case, but if you can be contacted by people who are involved in a theatre, if they come to your school or offer up courses, then there’s the chance that you might get the bug. You really need somebody to say “Listen this is alright for you”.

“There needs to be a little bit more of a sense that there is an audience out there, and that you need to capture them”

ET: Absolutely, that’s very important: outreach by theatres. And you mentioned that there are a lot of venues getting quite good at it, and a lot of companies and small theatre groups trying to reach out and make theatre more accessible. We understand that you’re involved in some initiatives to get the wider community involved, so would you like to talk about them a little bit?

PJ: I’m obviously first and foremost an actor, and so most of the time I spend just doing that. However, if I ever get a chance I will do work in schools. So I’ll go in and basically just talk to pupils and get them to get up and do stuff with me so that they can see that it’s not rocket science – it’s just fun and games. I’ve done a bit of work with the National; they’ve got a brilliant education department who outreach to the local schools and colleges, so they’ve come in and I’ve done workshops with them.

If there are theatre companies out there who are thinking about how to reach out to people, I think that if you contact most actors – and I’m thinking about actors who would be called ‘faces’, as in television faces, recognisable faces – and you ask them to come and do a workshop with a group of young people, then most actors will gladly do that, for either their expenses or for nothing at all. Most of us are very willing.

I was once asked by a television company to direct Romeo and Juliet in Harlesden, North West London, where I went to school. I did it reluctantly: I’ve never directed before, and I thought “well, these are amateurs – none of them have ever worked before, how am I supposed to teach them how to speak Shakespeare and all the rest of it?”. I found it challenging, but at the same time really, really rewarding and I’m still in touch with some of them. I just would encourage any actor who is a bit afraid of that kind of work by saying that you will get so much more out of it than you would imagine because the transformation from inarticulate youngsters, who couldn’t look each other in the eye and who were afraid to speak about what they felt about the play, to people who went to see the RSC and said “they weren’t committing emotionally, and I could see they weren’t really on the text” – to see that difference in four or five weeks was really mind boggling.

ET: That’s excellent advice, thank you so much. I guess the last thing to ask you is what your current projects are? What are you working on at the moment?

PJ: I’m doing three things this year. I’m finishing off a thing called Law and Order UK, and I think that will be shown on ITV sometime in May. Then I’m going back to doing Julius Caesar with the RSC, who have been invited to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April. And then at the end of the Summer, beginning of autumn in October, I’ll be at the Arcola doing the monologue that I have written called Sancho: An Act of Remembrance. It’s about a real African man who lived in London in the 18th century; a slave who became a musician, a composer and an actor. So it’s a fascinating story, and that will be in October at the Arcola.

About Everything Theatre

Founded in 2011, Everything Theatre started life as a pokey blog run by two theatre enthusiasts and – thanks to the Entry Pass Scheme for 16-25 year olds – regular National Theatre goers. Today, we are run by part-time volunteers from a wide array of backgrounds. Among our various contributors are people who work in theatre, but also people who work in law, medicine, events, marketing and even psychiatry! We are all united by our love for the London theatre scene.