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Centre Stage (Nonesuch autumn 2014)

Professor Martin White

Emeritus Professor Martin White

Greg Doran

Greg Doran (BA 1980, Hon DLitt 2011) Ellie Kurtz, Royal Shakespeare Company

Female Transport, Vandyke Theatre

Greg designed the set for Martin's production of Steve Gooch's Female Transport in the Vandyke Theatre

5 November 2014

As Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Greg Doran still seeks the opinions and advice of his former drama tutor, Professor Martin White. Here, they reflect on their creative collaborations, past and present.

Professor Martin White, Emeritus Professor of Theatre

Greg was a student who stood out not only for his academic ability, but for his artistic ability too. He could design, he could act and he could direct. He had incredible entrepreneurial spirit, and even ran his own theatre company while he was at Bristol. I was honoured to give the oration for Greg's honorary degree in 2011.

I first got to know Greg properly in his second year. He designed the set for my production of Steve Gooch's Female Transport, and acted in two productions I took to the Edinburgh Festival later that year – the anonymous Elizabethan domestic tragedy, Arden of Faversham, and a new, full-length adaptation of Tom Stoppard's Albert's Bridge, in which he played the lead role.

For many years, I went to see Greg perform in various productions. Then, when he became Chief Associate at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 2002, we started working more closely together. On a number of occasions, he's invited me to act as a season advisor for the RSC and spend time with the company.

I always enjoy watching Greg in rehearsal, and am often struck by how interested he is in what everyone has to say. He's very easy with people, and doesn't ever stand on ceremony. He has what all good directors have – certainty and confidence in what he wants to do, but also a great openness to what actors bring to rehearsal.

He also has a great way of making people feel relaxed, while still ensuring everyone is really focused on the work. His knowledge of the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries is formidable, and his love of the plays is palpable. That's a very potent combination.

When he directed Ben Jonson's Sejanus, few of the cast were familiar with the story of Ancient Rome. Greg started rehearsals by drawing on examples from the BBC TV series, I, Claudius. It was a brilliant way of bringing the story to life, and giving the cast a sense of shape and narrative, before starting work on the text.

I was thrilled when he was appointed as the RSC's Artistic Director. As well as being a brilliant director, Greg's extremely well-read, and intellectually curious. He's always thinking about how to get the best knowledge into the RSC, and looking to find something new – a play that’s not been done before, or a season of plays with an original theme.

Greg and I talk often. I certainly tend to know what Greg's doing. But I don't always know what he's going to do...

Greg Doran (BA 1980, Hon DLitt 2011)

As a country boy from Lancashire, I really fell for Bristol. I enjoyed my introduction to the Drama Department and the treasures of the Theatre Collection, and learnt from brilliant practitioners, like Martin, the importance of theatre as a craft.

Perhaps my favourite experience was designing a scaffolding structure that used the whole of the Vandyke Theatre (now the Wickham Theatre) for Martin’s production of Female Transport, set aboard a prison ship bound for Botany Bay. I still have the furious little sketches I made on a research trip to the National Maritime Museum. The trip taught me just how enthralling the process of research could be, and how theatre could transport me into so many different worlds.

I’m delighted to have not only kept in touch with Martin, but to have been able to ask his advice on many occasions. He’s deeply knowledgeable about the Jacobethan period. I’ve been a champion of this repertoire at the RSC, and Martin’s often suggested plays I should look at.

Last year, I asked Martin to take part in a scholars’ pitch with the Shakespeare Institute and the RSC. We asked four academics to suggest four plays that are rarely (if ever)performed, but which deserve to be so. I drew the line at Middelton’s Hengist King of Kent, but Martin’s suggestion of John Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice led us to programme the play for 2015. You’ll have to come and see if it’s a good suggestion.

Over the years, Martin has tried out some of these plays in the relatively protected context of the Wickham Theatre. I know Matthew Warchus (BA 1988, Hon DLitt 2011) cut his teeth in Jonson’s Sejanus. Jonathan Munby(BA 1998) and Jo Davies (BA 1993) also started their careers in the department; both have gone on to direct productions at the RSC, and still keep in touch with Martin too.

Martin has a wonderfully crisp, playful wit. He is very good at keeping my feet on the ground, and preventing me from taking life, and work, too seriously. I put on plays; perhaps they’re called 'plays' for a reason.

There is a common prejudice that if old plays haven’t been done for a while (400 years, say) there must be a good reason why. In fact, often as not, it’s because nobody has dared risk doing them. Martin taught me to challenge that prejudice and to trust my own theatrical instinct. And, often as not, he’s right.

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