Tag Archives: the comeback kids

The Comeback Kids – # 2: David Whitworth

David Whitworth

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

pitlochry festival theatre

– 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.

macbeth new shakespeare company
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.

david conville new shakespeare company

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’.

Renee Ashersonjohn nettles

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.

richmond drama school
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
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?

Timothy Sheader by  David Jensen

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?

cosy nook theatre ian grundy

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.

The Woman in Black  David Whitworth Gary Whitaker

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.

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The Comeback Kids – # 1: Priyanga Burford

Priyanga Burford by Michael Shelford

Actors are much like sharks. If a shark stops swimming, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean and drowns. In the same way, if an actor stops acting, his career dries up.

Except, of course, this is nonsense. Plenty of sharks seem quite happy to laze about on the sea bed while delicious-looking fish swim by, only to resume their sharking activities wholeheartedly when so inclined. Might the same be true of actors? Is it possible to take time out of an acting career – even a few years – and revive it successfully? Could such a hiatus even be beneficial?

I recently had a break of my own to help look after my father, who has dementia, and having returned to the fray I was keen to speak to other actors who have made a similar choice.

Hair LAMDA 1998 - Me and Pri

Priyanga Burford and I were in the same year at LAMDA (class of 1998). Since graduating, Pri and her husband Tom have had two children, Danny and Oscar. After taking time to raise her sons, Pri has made a successful return to the acting world, with TV appearances in shows such as ‘Silent Witness’ and ‘Veep’. Earlier this year she took the lead role of fictional UKIP candidate Deepa Kaur in the Channel 4 spoof documentary ‘UKIP: The First 100 Days’, and appeared in the Sheffield Crucible production of Lucy Prebble’s play ‘The Effect’. She is currently playing Amina Chaudury in the BBC’s series, ‘Press’, written by Mike Bartlett. I wanted to speak to Pri about choosing to step back from acting to raise her family, and her experience of returning to the profession after a long time away.

CN So, how did it work? Were you intending to have children and take a break, or did Danny come along and you just…

PB I didn’t have a plan. We knew we wanted to have children. I think I had a slightly unrealistic idea that it would somehow all fall into place without too much trouble. Because of course, before you have children you can’t know what it’s like – I hadn’t accounted for the physical tiredness and all the rest.

CN How long had you been acting after LAMDA when you had Danny?

PB Four years. I went back far too soon to do things, I really did, I think I went a bit nuts, because your whole life just turns upside down and you become a different person. You have this different identity suddenly as a parent, and there’s this whole other part of you. So I wasn’t ready to go back to work, then when I did, I felt like an alien and it went quite badly.

CN What did you do?

PB I did short film, which I had a very small part in, but even the small part was too much.

CN Did you think there was an element of panic that things were slipping away and that you had to do something?

PB Yes, there was definitely that: if I disappear for five minutes, everyone will forget who I am and I will never be able to act again. And nobody contradicted me, actually, nobody professionally said to me, ‘Don’t worry, it’s fine, go away and be a mum for a bit, and when you’re ready, come back’. My agent certainly didn’t say that – he’s not my agent any more – and I wish he had, because he knew the way I was feeling.

CN Can you remember what his reaction was when you told him you were going to have a child?

PB Well, he was delighted, but I remember him saying to me the first time I went to see him after we got married, ‘Don’t have kids, not yet,’ and I thought, ‘Wow, you’re really running my life here’. So yeah, I know I went back too early, but I’m very glad that I did the little bits I did, even auditioning.

CN What would you audition for?

PB Just little tiny bits of telly – a scene or two in ‘The Bill’ or something like that.

CN And radio?

PB Yeah, that was brilliant – when I was pregnant, I had the contract with the Radio Drama Company to cover me over the time when I was, you know, unfilmable, and I couldn’t be insured.

Priyanga Burford and Fenella Woolgar in Ambassador B on BBC Radio 4

CN Thank God for the BBC, as ever.

PB Exactly. It was just really hard – and I think it’s moments like that when you really say to yourself, ‘How much do I actually want this?’ I remember trying to take a little baby in a pushchair on the tube, up the steps of the underground station, and actually by the time you’ve arrived at the meeting you’re exhausted… The meeting seems like a complete sideshow, and of course it’s what you’re there for. But the big achievement, I started to realise, was actually getting both of us there, getting ready, learning the lines for the meeting, and getting home safely. So I didn’t get a lot of work during that time.

CN So you had in your mind a return to the profession?

PB Yes, if they let me!

CN Because then you had another son…

PB Yes, five years later I had Oscar. And in that interim period again it was just dribs and drabs, so actually most of my thirties has been about having and rearing these two boys, with a bit of acting thrown in.

CN But it’s a good use of your thirties, isn’t it?

PB Yeah, making people, that’s good! But at the time I didn’t see it that way, at the time I did panic. There wasn’t anyone saying to me, ‘No no, it’s fine, people have kids, it’s life’. There was always rather this impression that actors don’t have lives, they don’t have children, relationships – you know, they’re just machines.

CN It’s a strange thing isn’t it, it’s almost like actors are children – that we aren’t suited to a life of adult responsibilities.

PB There’s certainly a part of an artist which is a child, because they need to play and be vulnerable and open, so you need to have those child-like elements, but they need to be encased in an adult, professional framework, and that comes with maturity. That doesn’t mean necessarily age, but perhaps maturity of attitude – you know, I could have been 26 and had a mature attitude, I just didn’t. Actually, half of what you do is maintenance and work creation, keeping your networks going and all that, which is something I learnt from my brother, who’s a freelance journalist. I spoke to him about his life, and realised when he’s not working, when he’s not being paid to write something, the rest of his time is pitching ideas and sniffing around to see what’s out there.

CN Was there a point when you thought I could leave this, I could stop?

PB Yes, I became very angry, very demoralised, and the only place that led me was to more of the same, just feeling worse and worse, angrier and angrier and I had no one to shout at.
I’d fallen into this trap of throwing my hands up and going, ‘Oh well, it’s all just a kind of boys’ club’. I had started to ignore the resources there out there, so I got back in touch with Spotlight and actually read the emails they were sending me. One of the turning points for me was a casting symposium at the BFI with Lucinda Syson and Reg Poerscout-Edgerton.

Lucinda Syson by Sean SmithReg Poerscout-Edgerton

The atmosphere was very professional and I thought, ‘This feels right’ – it’s really good for the soul to go to something like that. I hadn’t realised, after taking time out, how much the industry has changed – they will get people sending their iPhone video stuff in from all over Europe and America and Australia for the same role. So you are competing globally. Just talking to my agent today – in America it’s far less common for people to be in the room; they might sift through 500 tapes from all over the world for a TV series. That was a big eye-opener for me.
I feel like the industry’s progressed a bit; it does demand that when you walk into a room, you’re ready, you’re prepared and you’ve done your homework.

CN It’s a lot more professional.

Shonda Rhimes by Patrick Ecclesine

PB Yes, particularly in America. You hear about someone like Shonda Rhimes, who is a massive showrunner over there for ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ and ‘Scandal’, and she just sacks people. She’s not having any actor shit, any egos; she’ll go, ‘OK, ‘bye then. You’re not doing this to this piece of work’. And I think the more professional our industry gets, the better for everybody. People won’t tolerate that sort of behaviour any more. I suppose I’m harking back quite a few years, but you can’t just turn up pissed, having had a couple of fags and just sort of create.

CN Do you think having taken some time before you returned to the profession – I wonder if that was useful as a sort of recalibration, a re-adjusting of your attitude?

PB Definitely, I’m really glad I had that time, because I see it almost as professional development. I think it’s true of most artists actually, that the richness of your life experience does feed your art, and those years that I was doing other things – life stuff – has meant that I’ve got a very different perspective on what I do.
I used to always feel slightly ashamed of being an actor, that it was a slightly laughable thing to do with one’s life, and actually having taken that time out, spoken to other artists, having time to think about my own attitude to my whole industry and a re-examination of why I’m in this in the first place, I’ve found it really strengthening. And I learnt more about my process.

CN Doing something as important as raising a family, I wonder if that shift in your life allows your perspectives to shift as well? The sort of things we get hung up about, like a bad audition or a bad rehearsal, does it make it easier to deal with those things?

PB I don’t know if it makes it easier, but it certainly stops you from indulging it. It still hurts, but it becomes more like a bad day at work, because you have kids and you realise that you cannot bring it home to them, because why should they have to deal with it? It’s not their problem at all. So it’s still upsetting and frustrating but you have to learn to put that away. You can’t be grumpy and stomp around, and I certainly think that takes you out of yourself in a very healthy way.

CN And maybe it allows you to truly take responsibility for choosing this job – the buck has to stop with us, doesn’t it?

PB Yes, no one’s holding a gun to your head – at the end of the day, you don’t have to do this.

CN As you said, the rewards, maybe not financially, but the rewards from the work are so great.

PB I think that’s why people get so pissed off with actors when they start moaning. Because really, who else gets to follow a passion – or even know what their passion is?

Luvvies - Jeremy Irons

CN I wonder if you come to realisations when you take some time out that you wouldn’t otherwise have come to? So it’s actually a way of appreciating the job more.

PB Yes, and I have more of a sense of who I am as me, rather than just as an actor. There’s a richness that’s happened with life experience and having kids – just getting older – that has built a lot more confidence to be able to walk into a room and do the job, without all the extraneous useless thoughts of, ‘Oh maybe everyone thinks I’m crap, maybe the director’s regretting casting me’. That just really doesn’t happen to me any more. I used to feel very unsure of myself early in my career. After drama school, when you get into a professional context you’re so keen to prove yourself, you’re so acutely aware of the fact that, ‘I can’t piss this director off because they’ll never work with me again’, and actually that takes away from the really important process of trying stuff out and failing. You need to have confidence to be able to say to a director, ‘I really don’t know what I’m doing here, you’re going to have to help me’.

CN Which ties in with the idea of understanding that it’s work – that discipline that you were talking about, being able to balance that play with the serious point of, ‘There’s an opening night’, or someone’s going to say, ‘Action!’ at some point.

PB The more I thought about it as paid work, that’s a really good way of getting over yourself, because you just think, ‘Look, they are paying me to do this, so I’ve just got to shut up and get on with it. No one gives a shit if I’m feeling insecure’. And why should they?

CN I’m sure most productions don’t grind to a halt if an actor can’t do it. There’s always another actor.

PB I’m about go up to Sheffield and do a play called ‘The Effect’ by Lucy Prebble. I haven’t actually done any theatre in 5 years, and that’s because I’ve had to say, ‘No I can’t, because my kids are too young and I just don’t feel like I can leave the family at this point’. There’s something quite empowering about being able to say that – you feel as an actor that you have to say ‘Yes’ to everything.

The Effect poster

CN How are you feeling about it? Will you be attempting to commute in any way?

PB No, I’m going to live up there and they’re coming up for weekends. That’s the other thing, you’ve got to have a partner who gets it, and Tom really does get it. We just work as a big team: ‘Is this going to work?’ – and you try it and see. Professionally I’m a little bit nervous about going back on stage after 5 years, but also it’s a new phase in our family life, it’s the first time I’ve been away away – you know 2 months, it’s a long time.

CN It will be an interesting test to see how you can accommodate everything.

PB And actually I couldn’t do this if I hadn’t done telly at the back end of last year, because theatre wages are still so rubbish, I could not have afforded child care at all. I think that’s another way things have changed; it’s why so many TV actors are on the stage, because how else can you afford to live on theatre wages unless you’ve got money?

CN It’s never easy, is it? It’s never going to be easy, but you have to find a way to make it work, if you want it to.

PB You do, you have to find a way. That’s what I said to my agent – if it’s worth it we’ll find a way. I think the whole thing is about just working bloody hard.

CN And it’s a good way to spend your life, isn’t it? You may as well.

PB You may as well, because there are so many people who hate their jobs, who would give a limb to have my problems. The other thing about taking some time out was the people I met with ‘ordinary jobs’ who really hated them, or going to work was so perfunctory. I have never woken up for a day of my work and felt anything other than really excited about what I was off to do, and I got a true sense of how rare that is and how incredibly fortunate I am.

‘The Effect’, directed by Daniel Evans, opens at Sheffield Studio Theatre on June 25th 2015.