David Whitworth and I acted together in ‘Mary Goes First’ at the Orange Tree Theatre in London in 2008. After 20 years as an actor, David and his wife, the director Jane Glassey, took over the running of the Richmond Drama School from 1987 to 2007. He then returned to acting and has worked extensively since, in productions such as ‘London Assurance’ at the National Theatre, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in Regent’s Park and ‘The Second Mrs Tanqueray’ at the Rose Theatre, Kingston.
Chris Naylor How did you end up moving from acting to running a drama school?
David Whitworth There was a sort of gradual process, I guess. I was just a jobbing actor for 20 years, but I’d always done a lot of teaching to exist as an actor.
CN Where did you train?
DW I didn’t train, I just went to university and did plays, and then got a job as an acting ASM at Leicester. So I went through the repertory system and spent about 3 years working in different towns – Leicester, Bolton, Harrogate. When I got back to London, we’d got our first mortgage and so suddenly there was this responsibility of actually paying 30 quid a month.
CN You’d got married…
DW I was married when I was a student.
CN So you went into the career knowing that you were part of team.
DW Yes. Jane did the proper thing and trained as an actress, and I did the improper thing and went to university, and I became the actor and she became a director. We went to Leicester, and Jane got pregnant, and then I got Pitlochry–
– our first child was born – I was going to say on a croft, but we were living in a croft. He was born in Perth hospital.
CN Did you feel any pressure – now you suddenly have a very important person in your life to support, in what was even then a very precarious profession?
DW When you’re that age, I think you just cope with whatever comes at you. Once we’d got a mortgage I sometimes used to wake up thinking, ‘How am I going to pay this every month?’, but I’m very glad I took the advice of my tutor at university, Dr Worth. I remember she said, ‘You must stay and get your degree, because that will help you to be an actor’. In those days, if you’d got a proper honours degree you could be a teacher. So I did years of supply teaching.
CN In regular schools?
DW Anywhere really, but I was lucky enough to make a very good relationship with a school, and any time I was out of work, they always took me back as a floating teacher. So I would cover for anybody who was away, teaching everything. In fact, at one point they offered me Head of English, which would have absolutely changed my life, because I had just been doing bits of teaching when necessary and acting whenever I could. And I did agonise for about 10 hours.
CN It’s an interesting dilemma. It does happen doesn’t it, when they say, ‘Stay on’, and you think, ‘Well, I could get benefits, I could get security – ‘
DW A pension…
CN But you said no to that.
DW Well, that was in the early 70s. I’d only been acting for about 5 or 6 years, and I just didn’t feel I’d done enough, I was still burning up with ambition. I did about 20 years of anything else I could to earn money. I used to mark ‘O’ Level papers – these kids whose parents had paid a fortune for their education, and there was I, sitting in the dressing room at Bath Theatre Royal marking their ‘O’ Levels. But we needed the money – it think it was something like 10 shillings a script, so you’d make a few hundred quid at Christmas, which was…
CN Not to be sniffed at.
DW It wasn’t to be sniffed at. Supply teaching was so much better paid than acting – I mean, you’re hard pressed to find anything as badly paid as acting – but it did enable me to be an actor.
CN So you got to the point where your mortgage was pressing on you?
DW It was the children – we had 3 you see, and by the time our youngest was about 9 or 10, the others were coming up to university age. Children going to university, they’re going to cost you money.
I’d been working from London and doing tours occasionally. My main employer was the New Shakespeare Company, Regent’s Park, I did an awful lot of work with them.
There was a period of my life when I was very involved – because when I was working for them once, David Conville, who used to run it, came into the dressing room and said, ‘I don’t know what to make of this, there’s a man at Lloyds Bank and he wants to give us some money, but he wants education work. You know about that sort of thing – go away and draw up some plans.’ So I started writing workshops for a group of actors within the company – interactive workshops with students, but entertainments in themselves. I wrote a script which included great chunks of the Shakespeare which we were doing, illustrating themes, and this was the idea I sold to Lloyds Bank.
I spent years doing this all over the place when the company was on tour. The very first one was ‘Julius Caesar’, and we did it in different theatres, packed with students: I got half of them supporting Brutus and half supporting Anthony. They were a huge success, and Lloyds Bank started just throwing money at us, because they thought, ‘We could develop this, you could do educational videos’. The Inner London Education Authority had their own television studio in a converted school in Battersea, and so they linked us up with them, and I spent the next 2 or 3 years writing and directing videos – distilled theatre workshops, on the Roman plays, the Tragedies, the Comedies. As we went on, they started entering these for festivals, and we won some gold gong at the Chicago Film Festival, so Lloyds Bank thought, ‘That’s even better, we’ll give you some more money – you can try and get other actors in’.
I got Renee Asherson playing Volumnia, and John Nettles playing Coriolanus. So this was wonderful – it would take up a great chunk of my year, writing and planning and usually working in the summer for the Shakespeare company.
Then the new guy came in and said, ‘No, we don’t want to spend money on theatre, we want to spend it on music’. And suddenly, this regular second career which kept the acting going and was very good to do, it all stopped.
CN How did you end up running Richmond Drama School?
DW I had been working for Sam [Walters] at the Orange Tree Theatre, and he was trying to run this drama school across the road, the De Leon drama school, to see if he could make it work. But he didn’t really have time, so he got Jane and I involved – Jane as the acting teacher and me directing plays, and I gradually got more involved. We loved doing it.
CN Was your attitude that you were preparing people for the profession?
DW We ran it as a professional training course, because we thought some of the really good ones could make a go at of it.
Tom Hardy went on to huge fame and success – he was great for me and Jane, we got on really well.
CN Could you tell he had a target in mind?
DW I don’t know whether he had a target, but he had a huge talent. I remember him standing up in the first week and doing the first exercise, and he was shaking with apprehension… He has got a kind of magnetism, charisma, especially on film.
CN What sort of ages would you take?
DW All ages. I had an actor who was very good, worked in business – a very cultivated, interesting man, but he’d always wanted to be an actor. He was the oldest I ever had, he was 60-something, and he went on and had a bit of a career. I saw him in some good plays on the fringe; he was doing what he wanted to do all his life.
CN When you weren’t acting yourself, were you able to get satisfaction from bringing it out of other people?
DW I found I loved teaching, I loved working on texts with students and introducing them to Shakespeare. One South London boy – who is now a film actor and writer, doing really well – I remember him shaking my hand and saying, ‘I never did any of this at school – what an eye-opener to have this world of Shakespeare opened up, thank you’. When we look back and think, ‘What were we doing all that time?’ you think, ‘Well, it if we hadn’t, those people wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing now’.
CN When you went into it, were you thinking, ‘At some point I’m going to go back?’
DW Well, I thought I’d just do it for 2 or 3 years. I naively thought I could combine acting and this job. But that’s very difficult; I mean, teaching is a huge commitment.
CN I imagine you started to think, ‘Well, I’m here now, there’s another term coming up…’
DW Yes, it creeps up on you, but I always thought, ‘There’ll come a time when I’ll be able to go back,’ because acting is like that.
CW It’s very seductive, isn’t it?
DN There isn’t a career path, is there? People do come in and out of the business.
CN At what point did you think, ‘Right, I’ve had enough, I want to act again’?
DW There was a combination of circumstances – they were gradually getting rid of things that were not going to bring the college money, all the creative stuff was disappearing. Music, art and drama were being squeezed because there was always pressure on us to take more and more students and charge higher and higher fees.
CN So you were becoming more frustrated?
DW Yeah, I became more and more disenchanted – not with the job I was doing, but with the place. Every few years in these institutions, they restructure and you have to apply for your job again, and Jane was forced out, her job disappeared, so my ally had gone. Jane had been the heart of the drama school really, so I knew the students weren’t getting the same good basic acting training. I staggered on for another two or three years; in the end, I sort of forced them to make me redundant, so that gave me the statutory redundancy payment, which was enough money for me to have breathing space. I immediately had some photographs taken, wrote to everybody I could think of and tried to get an agent.
CN So, in a way, you were starting from scratch. Was that daunting?
DW Yeah it was, but my attitude was, everything’s a bonus, even if it’s just a little bit in a TV series. What I really wanted to do was plays, but I wasn’t sure how. I wrote to people I knew, like Tim Sheader and Sam, and both of them came up with jobs. And once I got going, it was easier to get an agent. I thought I would just get the odd days’ work here and there – I was absolutely amazed that I earned more money than in the previous year teaching. That was just my first year back.
CN A wonderful year, to welcome you back.
DW It was, and that’s because of calling in favours.
CN It must have been very strange – returning after such a long time. Did you notice a difference in yourself?
DW A big difference. I’m much more confident now than when I was young, because I haven’t got so much riding on it, and although it’s hurtful not to get work, as it always was, it doesn’t bother me in the same way.
CN How do you think the business has changed?
DW Well, the most marked thing is all this unpaid or very low–paid work. When I started as an actor, you weren’t paid a lot, but you were paid. And you didn’t work if you weren’t paid. Now there’s been this explosion in fringe theatre work; I think, should we be doing any of this? But these young people trying to start acting, they won’t get any experience if they don’t do that, unless they’re lucky enough to get into the RSC or something. There aren’t any theatres where you can go for 6 months, doing play after play.
CN Do you think your priorities in life have changed?
DW Oh yeah, I’m sure they have. I’m still very keen to do it, I mean it’s so exciting to get a job isn’t it? When they phone up and say yes, they want you.
CN I find there are enough wonderful points of delight and joy amongst the terror or the grind to pull you through.
DW Especially in theatre. My experience of going back has been mostly theatre. I’ve done one advert in Romania, and those are ridiculous jobs, aren’t they? They fly you out, put you in an expensive hotel, you go to some studio and you do a day’s work, and then you come home again and it’s several thousand pounds. Those are silly jobs.
CN That’s one of the many wonderful things about this profession, that it will take you somewhere you never expected to go.
DW It’s a treat really, a little holiday.
CN Would you say that’s how you viewed your return? Because I suppose you didn’t have to come back to acting, did you?
DW No, I had a pension, and then very soon I had my old age pension.
CN Which must help in terms of taking jobs.
DW Yeah, it really does. I couldn’t have done most of the work that I’ve done without that. If I was still having to pay a mortgage, it wouldn’t be enough money.
CN Do you think it benefits an actor to take some time out?
DW Well, it might make you a better actor, but I don’t think it helps you get more work, because I’m up against people who are my age but didn’t take that break, and are much better known. So I’m very much an unknown quantity.
CN There’s this big debate flying around about middle-class acting – I think it’s a fairly middle class profession anyway, and probably hasn’t ever really been open to everybody.
DW I was working-class, I didn’t have any sort of connections to theatre at all, hardly ever been to the theatre.
CN Did you have a teacher that inspired you?
DW When I was at Newquay grammar school, a teacher got me involved in the school play in the first year or second year, ‘The Miser’ by Moliere. And I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this.’ But as a child I’d been in ‘Peter Pan’ at the Cosy Nook Theatre in Newquay, so I trod the boards very young. I did know quite early on that that’s what I wanted to do.
CN It’s terribly exciting isn’t it? It’s like a little secret, thinking, ‘Wow, I could do this’.
DW I remember my Uncle John – we were talking about what I might do with my life; I said, ‘I might be a barrister or something like that’. He said, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that, you wouldn’t be any good. But you might be an actor’. I can remember where we were walking when he said that – and I thought, ‘Yes of course, that is what I want to do’. And I just seized every opportunity I could – my three years at university were spent doing plays, and doing a bit of Beowulf on the side.
CN It’s a very good use of three years, isn’t it?
DW I think those years are important for any young person to find out what you want to do. Most people in life don’t find what they really want, and end up compromising and being generally unhappy. You can be unhappy as an actor, for different reasons, but when you’re working it can be fantastic. I mean that job I’ve just done in Sweden, it was the best thing.
CN ‘The Woman in Black’! What a job, what a play.
DW I just absolutely loved it. To play that part, or those parts, it’s wonderful. I felt quite bereft when it all came to an end. I loved being in Stockholm, but what I carry with me will be doing the play, and the effect it had on the audience. It’s just a fantastic piece of theatre.
CN I always felt like it was pure theatre in many ways; it was almost like a lesson in acting, and a lesson in how to be an audience.
DW How to use your imagination. Because there’s nothing there, a few props.
CN When I’d got the part, I went to see the play – I’d started to read it, I’d started to learn it – I knew what was coming, and it still terrified me completely.
DW I’d much rather be in it than watch it, because it’s too frightening.
CN Absolutely. There was a point when I was covering my ears thinking, ‘Please let this stop, because I don’t think I can cope’.
DW When the door opens…
CN Oh God! So wonderful, I loved doing that show.
DW it’s almost spoilt me for anything else, I enjoyed it so much.
CN Thank you David.