Tab Interview: Paul Roseby

Can theatre break middle and working class boundaries? TABATHA LEGGETT gets the low-down from PAUL ROSEBY, artistic director of the National Youth Theatre.

acting bbc directing Drama London national youth theatre paul roseby Tabatha Leggett Theatre when romeo met juliet

Paul Roseby is the current artistic director of the National Youth Theatre, as well as a writer and broadcaster. Recently, he worked with two schools from Coventry and directed a new version of Romeo and Juliet that was shown on BBC2. He has also worked extensively in numerous aspects of theatre, and his previous jobs include leading acting workshops in prisons, directing Shakespearean plays and appearing as a guest commentator on Radio 4.

Paul first realised his passion for theatre in the mid ’80s. ‘I think it was in 1984 that I saw a National Youth Theatre production of Hamlet, and decided to audition for the company,’ he explained. ‘I got in, and the rest became history. I was from a tired, dirty street in Norfolk, and was taken in by the theatre scene in London. The whole environment fascinated me; it was amazing to be surrounded by like-minded people in such an amazing city.

‘I think the National Youth Theatre made me realise that although I wanted to work in the acting industry, I didn’t want to be an actor. I couldn’t do the same show night after night; I need more diversity. So, I started working on other projects. I helped direct a play about Internet sex in 2000, which I found really interesting. I think we picked up on a really relevant and new voice.

‘That’s what the National Youth Theatre is really good at: presenting relevant material to young people in a way that’s new and fresh.’

Since joining the National Youth Theatre as a teenager, Paul has been involved with countless projects with the company. ‘The project I’m most proud of leading has to be taking some members of the company to China in 2008. It was a remarkable cultural exchange, where we really managed to break down misconceptions and communication barriers.

‘Our members ended up singing the national anthem at the Olympic Ceremony, and we were watched by 2.4 billion people. That’s something that I will always cherish.

‘I think that the industry is too eager to pigeonhole art forms. No one thought that members of the National Youth Theatre would be able to sing so beautifully, but they did. It gave me a really warm sense of satisfaction; I love believing in people and watching them grow and become brilliant.

The National Youth Theatre has, of course, produced countless excellent actors: Daniel Day-Lewis, David Suchet, Dame Helen Mirren, Orlando Bloom and Ed Westwick to name but a few. But it has recently faced criticism for moving away from being a training programme for serious actors and more towards providing social inclusion schemes. How would Paul respond to this criticism?

‘I think that’s a fair point,’ Paul said. ‘The key thing to remember is that, at the National Youth Theatre, we are about discovering talent. Talent can come from anywhere. Obviously, acting attracts a middle class community, because theatre first became popular amongst the middle classes. But, it’s really important to make sure that we train the talented youth from all kinds of backgrounds.’

I asked Paul whether there is a danger of discriminating against people from middle class backgrounds by being over-keen to work with those from disadvantaged backgrounds. ‘Absolutely,’ he replied. ‘And I am continuously working to get the balance right. It is extremely important that we don’t deny middle class people the chance to train with us.’

I imagine this is exactly the problem that Paul was trying to target in his involvement with When Romeo Met Juliet. The premise for the three part series was that Paul would cast the Capulets from a Catholic high school and the Montagues from an urban school, and direct a high quality play.

‘We didn’t set out to make the teenagers get along. That wasn’t our intention. But, in a way, it was a social experiment; the students from these two schools in Coventry wouldn’t have socialised with each other had we not brought them together.’

And what did the project teach him? ‘I learnt that there were more similarities than differences between the students,’ Paul explained. ‘The great thing about young people is that although they are often the first to put up barriers, they are also the first to bring them down. On day one of the project, everyone was judging everyone else. But, by week three, everything had changed, and everyone was getting on. This only confirmed what I already knew: that theatre brings people together.’


Paul Roseby’s show-reel

Recently, there’s been a lot of press about Oxbridge graduates dominating the theatre scene – what was Paul’s take on this? ‘To gain places at Oxford and Cambridge, people have to be hard working, ambitious and determined. These qualities are also essential in successful actors, and so it makes sense that Oxbridge graduates are often successful in this industry.

‘What I object to is people saying that this isn’t fair. The notion of fairness has always perplexed me: people will always be funnier, sexier, richer and better than you, but this isn’t a question of fairness. You just have to work with what you have, and that’s all there is to it.

‘Currently, society is driven by celebrity, and there’s a lot of young actors who are motivated by currency and not the craft. But, this isn’t necessarily bad. After all, an actor must first and foremost be interested in his audience, and a TV programme like Skins will inevitably reach a higher audience than a play in someone’s flat at the Edinburgh Fringe.

‘I suppose the most important thing is to remain interested in the craft. Being rich and famous won’t necessarily make you happy or popular.

Perhaps the most interesting that that Paul said was that he is ‘not an advocate of higher education, be it drama school or university.

‘Of course I recognise the importance of academia, but I object to actors who study at university so that they have a degree to fall back upon. Why are they going to fall? This kind of an attitude can only be destructive. Likewise, I object to people who go to drama school thinking that at least they’ll have a degree at the end of it. These days, a degree isn’t what it used to be; it’s initiative and hard work that set actors apart: not degrees.

‘I firmly believe that the day you leave an institution of education is where your education begins.’ Suck on that, Cambridge students.

And what are Paul’s plans for the future? ‘I’m interested in working with the National Youth Theatre on something about 9/11 and how we view the world ten years on. I’m interested in exploring fundamentalism and terrorism. On a personal level, I want to work on a project similar to When Romeo Met Juliet again, and I’d like to lose a few wrinkles.

‘I’ll move on to bigger, better and brighter things.’