By Theatre Director, Facilitator, Educator & Researcher, Dr Bridie Moore
When I was 9 or 10 I played a witch in the school play, and I think it was this moment that I became hooked on theatre. Interestingly, in the book I am currently writing about the performance of ageing femininity, I open with this story, explaining how I made up and costumed my childish face and figure to impersonate that of an old woman. It might have been there at my junior school that I first got interested in the performance of ageing females but it was certainly there that I became enamoured of theatre. Amazingly, I have managed, despite obstacles such as motherhood and also being a woman in what is still a male dominated profession, to have always made my living in some form of work related to the theatre.
At Kent university in the early 80s I studied for a degree in English (major) and Drama (minor)
but as there was very little practical work in the minor Drama component of this degree I was consistently involved in the student drama society’s productions, acting in many and directing my first production, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in 1982. This production toured to Rheims in France when it was chosen to represent Canterbury in the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the twinning of the two cities. This success encouraged me to think I might make a career out of directing.
When I left university in 1983 there were 3 million people unemployed and the Conservative Government were making savage cuts to the Arts Council’s budget so I wasn’t hopeful of getting a job in the theatre. I was lucky in two ways. Firstly, around the corner from where I moved to in Ealing in London was the largest amateur theatre in the country: Questors Theatre. I tried to get into the acting company but was unsuccessful. This was a blessing in disguise as I worked backstage, first as prompt, then as assistant stage manager (ASM) and after someone dropped out I was promoted to deputy (DSM). Consequently, apart from working on solving challenging production problems I got to “call the show” from prompt corner (Stage Left) using the elaborate system of switches that cued the lighting, sound, stage management and special effects for the show. This was invaluable experience for someone who wanted to direct. It gave me a practical understanding of the working processes of technical production and stage management, which I’d not gained before. The second stroke of luck was that I saw a job for ‘Theatre Worker’ at a local community theatre in the window of the job centre (a miracle I thought). This job was part of what was then called the Community Programmes scheme and it was a government initiative to get people off the “dole” and therefore off the astronomical unemployment figures. You were paid only £10 more than the dole and the job only lasted a year but it was my first employment in the theatre.
At Priory Community Theatre (Acton, London), we ran workshops for young people and groups of participants with special needs and we performed fun kids’ plays at local festivals and community venues. During my time there I set up a women’s theatre group Acton Impulse within the Priory Centre and we put on and toured plays by Steve Gooch (Female Transport) and Caryl Churchill (Vinegar Tom). We also devised a piece about women’s street safety called Don’t Panic. As you can imagine this took longer than a year to achieve: my contract was extended with a grant from the Greater London Council (disbanded later that decade by the Conservative Government). In the end I spent two and a half years at PCT. From there I got a job as Youth Theatre Director at The Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. This was an excellent career move but it was problematic for my relationship as my partner and I were now separated by about 200 miles. We did manage to keep together but it was a challenge. At Liverpool I directed youth theatre productions, including producing a festival of work for the main stage. I sat in on rehearsals for The Taming of the Shrew and learned some directing techniques from the then Artistic Director Glen Walford. I learned many “Applied Theatre” techniques from theatre staff and most notably from Roger Hill who was the soon-to-be author of the National Association of Youth Theatres’ excellent publication Coming into Majority. I also sat on the board of Youth Theatre Merseyside. On the whole I gained a lot from my time there, beginning to understand the workings of a regional theatre and how theatre was funded. Unfortunately the youth theatre was very much seen as the poor relation to the main house, a situation which at that point wasn’t unusual. I think things have changed a lot since those times but it’s worth looking out for a lingering hierarchy that privileges main theatre production over the needs and prestige of the community arm of large theatre organisations if you are offered work in one.
My next move was winning one of three BP Young Directors’ awards at the Battersea Arts Centre (alongside Sophie Slav and James McDonald - Photo credit Battersea arts centre) and here my professional career as a director really had the opportunity to take off. Before I took up the award Alby James (who had been on the award interview panel) offered me the job of Assistant Director on Contact and Temba Theatre company’s coproduction of Romeo and Juliet where I got to work with David Harewood who was fresh out of drama school playing Romeo. The BP Young Directors Award meant that I also directed a professional production (of Lorca’s Don Perlimplin) in the Studio Theatre at BAC. Then I had to negotiate a one-year funded internship at a theatre company. I ended up doing nearly six months of that year at Paines Plough Theatre Company (then under the directorship of Pip Broughton). Unfortunately the company couldn’t match the six-months funding provided by the John Fernald Trust that was included as part of the Young Directors Award. At the age of 26 I was naïve and ill equipped to navigate this situation and should have held out for something better. I didn’t enjoy my time there, even though I directed two seasons of rehearsed readings and organised and delivered schools workshops to accompany the tour of the company’s production of Germinal. Because they already had an ambitious assistant - Ian Rickson - (later director of the Royal Court,) I didn’t get the directing opportunities I needed, nor the mentoring from the director, which should have been part of the training package. In addition I was subject to some concerted bullying by the company administrator who shall remain nameless. Bullying has since been identified by a recent Equity Actors
Association report as endemic in the industry(photo credit: Equity Union); especially true at that time but also currently. This is something else to look out for if you are fortunate enough to gain any sort of job in the theatre. As it was, before the end of the 6 months I became
pregnant and used this as an excuse to move on.
As you can imagine, I was disillusioned with the theatre industry at this stage and although I had a few professional engagements after that, they weren’t on interesting productions and I decided to return to the community/applied theatre work that I’d actually found so satisfying in my earlier career. I worked as Youth Theatre Director for Battersea Arts Centre for some time and also ran an adult drama group at the Maccabi Centre in North London and directed a production of Macbeth with Ealing Young People’s Theatre. During this time I was also starting a family and when my son was born in 1994 I stopped working altogether as I now had two children to look after. In 1995 I moved to Leeds and within a year I was running arts workshops for Leeds City Council and for Thomas Danby College. These included visual arts workshops for the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme and singing workshops in a day care centre for people living with Dementia. Eventually I secured a part-time contract with Huddersfield Technical College teaching on their Btec courses.
This led to a full-time job as Lecturer in Performing Arts in 1998 at which time I started
studying for a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) which I did “in service”, qualifying in 2000.
I worked for 13 years at the College and fully enjoyed my time there. I worked with an excellent team of professionals who had previous careers in acting, dance, and technical production and I found the atmosphere of collaboration in an educational setting to be far more to my liking than the cut-throat world of the professional theatre that I had encountered working as a struggling professional director. The ethos of collaboration and the focus on the students’ success was far more edifying. Over time we built a well designed course which focused on fully realised production projects that served the vocational thrust of the Btec National and First Diplomas. I also set up the Higher National Diploma in Performing Arts and tutored students for LAMDA acting exams (grades 5 – 8). I worked with some excellent students who went on to develop careers in the industry (some now quite well known) and also taught students who weren’t ever going to become professionals but for whom the activity of theatre making was a transformational experience. This latter theme became the focus of one of my essays on the MA that I started in 2005, which was offered as part of the National Theatre’s Connections programme and taught at the Central School of Speech and Drama.
To explain: the National Connections programme (https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/learn-explore/young-people/connections/) commissions ten playwrights each year to write short
plays for a cast of young people. I ran a Connections project for three years, producing the plays Lunch in Venice by Nick Dear, DNA by Dennis Kelly and The Shoemaker’s Incredible Wife by Lorca in a new translation. These shows played at our lovely theatre – a converted Baptist chapel – in Huddersfield and also toured to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough as part of the regional Connections festival. There was an MA module that was offered by the Central School of Speech and Drama as part of this scheme called ‘Directing Text with Young People’ and as part of that qualification I wrote about how the first production Lunch in Venice had offered a transformative experience that amounted to an initiation into adulthood for the young people involved.
This project gave me a taste for postgraduate study but because the distance to London meant I couldn’t complete the MA at Central I eventually used the MA credits (Accreditation of Prior Learning) to add to the MA in Drama, Theatre and Performance at the University of Sheffield which I completed in 2010. This was an opportune moment as the management of the college at Huddersfield had changed and funding regimes meant that staff were being pushed harder and harder to achieve more with less funding and fewer staff. Having just completed my MA and with a new boss who hadn’t ever worked in the industry making what I thought were ridiculous changes to the programme I left with no job to go to. This was a precarious thing to do but within a few weeks I’d got a directing job on a musical with a local amateur theatre company. They just paid a flat £1000 fee but I got to direct a musical which I’d never done before, and I also got work on a literacy programme at my old school in Sheffield. This meant I had some time to re-group and think about what the future held now with my children grown up (one in 6th form and one at university).
Following my MA I decided to apply for Arts and Humanities Research Council funding to do
a PhD at the University of Sheffield, miraculously I got the funding! I was then 49 years old and I was interested in why age and the representation of old people was so problematic in theatre productions. If you look at well-known plays they generally focus on younger people (though not always), age is most often portrayed negatively with the old characters representing the outdated past that has to be swept away or overcome by the younger generation. Alternatively, the old characters represent the image of death, in any case the old person is rarely (with exceptions) the central character, and often old people die before the end. My contention was that theatre contributes to a negative attitude to age and ageing, so I set about a research project that investigated whether practical performance could change common perceptions set up by these well-known – canonical – dramas. I also looked at contemporary plays to see if they were offering a different story (generally they were not). As part of this project I set up a theatre company called Passages which was open to performers over 50 years old and together we produced three shows for the PhD and another two shows afterwards. The shows PhD were produced at the university but also toured to local community venues and to conferences in Newcastle and Leeds. This was a very fulfilling time as I explored the way theatre practice could be used to research pressing questions such as ageism and how to expose and challenge such problems. As I was working with both ‘practice-as-research’ and more traditional theatre studies methods, I took about 7 years to complete this PhD. I stretched out the funding to study for two years full-time and two years
part-time and then I had a year where I used my savings and worked a little as a lecturer for the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University. At the start of year six, two years before I completed the PhD, I luckily got a permanent 0.5 post at the University of Huddersfield and worked there as a Lecturer and eventually Senior Lecturer from 2016 to 2022. When I was there I directed shows, gave lectures on theatre history and theatre and identity. I gave papers on my research at conferences in Ireland, Belgrade, New York and Shanghai as well as in the UK. I’ve also published six articles and chapters in academic publications. I am most proud of an exciting project with the university Nursing Department, working alongside service user volunteers with the Public Partnership Group on mental health nursing training with students studying applied theatre. In consultation with the volunteers, we developed dramas (on which my students were assessed), in which there were problematic consultations between service users (patients) and mental health professionals, where sometimes the person who was in difficulty (the protagonist) was the service user, sometimes it was the professional and sometimes it was the carer of the service user. We then asked the nursing students to watch the drama and offer solutions to the dilemma that the protagonist was in, by stepping in as this character and enacting that solution themselves. This is known as Forum Theatre technique and was originally devised by Augusto Boal as part of his Theatre of the Oppressed project in Brazil in the 1970s. As well as the mental health nursing students being a participant-audience for these dramas the theatre students then acted as “simulated patients” for the mental health nursing exams. This gave them excellent professional experience as they were paid an hourly rate for their simulated patient work and this added considerably to their employability. This was originally conceived as an online project during lockdown when the students studying the Applied Theatre Module couldn’t go out and find a community group to work with. The following year it also became a successful face-to-face project.
Redundancies in arts and humanities departments in Higher Education have been an unfortunate result of the squeezing of arts subjects in schools since the 2010 Conservative Government’s education policy put almost exclusive focus on “STEM” subjects (schools are not assessed on their practical arts subjects in national league tables). Higher education is now feeling the pinch of this as student numbers studying arts subjects has diminished due to the lack of focus on this at school. Also the Covid lockdowns have made prospective students more wary about taking on practical subjects in recent times. I took redundancy when it was offered in Summer 22, this was partly because I could access my small teacher’s pension but also because I could see that what had happened in colleges a decade earlier was now happening in the university, staff being asked to do more with less. Lockdowns had definitely taken their toll as it was exceptionally difficult to pivot from face-to-face to online teaching in a matter of weeks. This and the working hours I was putting in even after the pandemic (often 30+ hours for a 18.5 hour contract and no time within that for required research) mean that I was burned out.
Since August 2022 I’ve been concentrating on completing the book that I was commissioned by Routledge to write while I was still a staff member at the University of Huddersfield. This analyses the performance of ageing femininity in contemporary UK theatre and performance and I’m hoping to deliver this to the publishers before the end of December 23. Together with private teaching I’m teaching one-to-one LAMDA acting exams at a school in Harrogate. I also run a weekly adult drama class for paying customers in a local community centre so at my late stage in life (61 years old) you could say I’ve become an entrepreneur! This is a lot less stressful but is still academically and theatrically engaging and means I have some time to get involved in my local area in other ways and to travel as well. Ultimately I’d like to direct again, possibly with the adult group I run in Leeds, but this is on hold until I finish the book. I still have a lot of energy for theatre and have recently signed up to train with Red Ladder Theatre Company who run a 6 week one evening per week course in theatre techniques. So who knows where these new ventures will lead.
I think my advice about a career in theatre or theatre education would be to keep up your energy and enthusiasm for it. As you can see, even though I reached some successful points at times in my career I often had to start again with low-prestige, low paid or even voluntary positions to keep up my connection with the performing arts. So I think a dogged determination is what you need and also a bit of belief in your own ability. This of course comes with experience but in the absence of that the love of theatre and the need to be involved in it, no matter what, is an important factor. The pursuit of the theatre magic I found playing that old lady witch – not the need for fame or stardom – is what has driven me throughout my life.
I wish you all the luck and courage in whatever stage of your career you’re at.
To find out more email email@example.com, to look at my academic work search for me on www.academia.edu or to find out about current adult workshop project search @meanwood_theatre_workshop on Instagram.