London Student

Interview with Paul Roseby, Artistic Director of the National Youth Theatre, on F Off: ‘The tone of the play will surprise a lot of people, and the facts and content will horrify.’

PAUL ROSEBY ; Portrait ; Credit & Copyright: Helen Murray ;

Paul Roseby has been the director of the National Youth Theatre for fifteen years and the company’s newest show will be F Off. Part devised and part scripted, F Off has been inspired by the Cambridge Analytica scandal and seeks to put social networks on trial. I’ve come to chat with Paul about this new show, the NYT and his advice for young people today.

On an impossibly warm day, walking into the foyer just outside Studio 8 in the Theatre Delicatessen reveals a bustle of activity. In the studio annotated sheets of paper line the walls. It shows, in short, a work in progress.

First things first, Paul was recently awarded an OBE in recognition of his work with the NYT. It’s still a letter through the post-box, ‘a nice, old-fashioned piece of print from the cabinet office’, and Paul’s date to be pinned by a royal is late November. It’s never said which royal, but regardless it’s an astounding achievement for the organisation, to which we quickly turn. ‘We platform some of the best British young talent from across the UK and put them at the heart of where the industry is most critical and judged. So, on top of all the brilliant ensemble training we do through the courses and workshop auditions, the aspirational aim of the organisation is to be recognisably on a par with all the listings and professional shows in various magazines according to which location we’re appearing in. So, that in itself literally prepares young people to understand the complexity, fragility, ambition and hope the creative industries offer up. We are in the West End more than once a year, we’re at Edinburgh, a leading international arts festival, we’re in Skelmersdale working with a local resident, Luke Barns. Those three alone are far reaching geographically, in terms of content and opportunity for a far-reaching national membership. The experiences they achieve during an average seven-year membership sets them apart from other experiences. It’s a badge of honour and inevitably will feed and fuel the creative industry.’   

When asked what more publications like London Student can do to showcase the work of young actors, Paul’s answer is simple yet encouraging: ‘Any organisation whose target audience is active – through reading, seeing or acting – must champion the opportunities. We live in a structured and formal educational environment where the one thing they want is to crack the code and understand exactly how to do x. Our current system is about borders and barriers, not an open dialogue. Your publication can certainly offer alternative routes to becoming a creative professional and question your value.’ In passing reference, I mention a forthcoming interview series for London Student that will involve non-acting professionals in the industry, which is eagerly welcomed by Paul: ‘We have young people who are managing the complicated process of F Off. It would be impossible for actors to be on stage without the backstage group; it just wouldn’t happen and it’s that vital. It’s a brilliant career and many schools do not focus on the technical industry. It is a successful route to financial security that is not championed enough.’

Turning to F Off, Paul explains the genesis of the project was the realisation that it  ‘felt it was an important time to test the temperature of digital media and how young people that are most impacted by it, and inspired by it, to understand how they feel about it, not what they think they know, and how it makes them feel. We’ve spoken with those in the company that do not use social media at all, which is an anathema to most of that age group, 16-25, which is the age group of the company. I wanted to see a contrast of addicted behaviour with those that prefer to switch off. And the barometer in the room is, I believe, that of the country. The genesis was thinking about Zuckerberg’s trial and the idea of being manipulated by two/three digital entrepreneurs in the world that are in charge more than Donald Trump or Boris Jonson think they are. I use Johnson and not Theresa May since the former has more of an influence on our politics. Those influences of our world in a traditional sense are being influenced by those digital entrepreneurs. The target audience is young people, but parents also do not know how to deal with it. I learnt yesterday that more children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates simply because of social media. If there was a law saying that young people should more time outside than prisoner inmates, the country would revolt, saying you’re taking people’s civil liberties away. The irony is that people think the digital media is providing more liberties. It’s a brilliant information-led world, but it is at times negative. We are putting the whole media on trial and Zuckerberg is one of those who is generating it. It is very necessary to do. The first play I ever did with the company in this role was called Age Sex Location, which was about dating apps and getting a quick shag, but now everything is through the medium of our phones, and that is having an impact.’

‘The tone of the play will surprise a lot of people, and the facts and content will horrify. You cannot just blame the phone for being the problem, we must take ultimate responsibility, but we can be powerless. We do not realise how manipulated we are through data sharing and how that really attacks our civil liberties, such as freedom of choice or freedom of speech. From a different generational point of view, I wonder if they are controlling us. We must always have conflict and balance but audiences will be surprised by the output.’

Instead of focusing on the challenges of forming a show that is part-scripted and part-devised, Paul instead offers the benefits. ‘It is live and we have the democracy in the room to change it at the last minute. It is responding to live issues now. It is very much the currency of the process, which brilliantly matches the currency of the subject matter. Also, you have thirty people in the room and it would be crazy not to invite their response and Tatty Hennessy is doing an amazing job of imparting their words, findings and feelings into written drama. We are improvising and on the day we will improvise.’

Before moving slightly towards a conclusion, Paul and I talked briefly about what he’s seen on stage recently and what he wish he had seen. The answer: Yerma at the Young Vic. But, ‘I’ve not seen something for a while that sets my world on fire and is literally a new form of spectacle. My challenge to us is to create something like that, which takes on big scale, real imagination, big production values and great storytelling in one space. I’d like to see that and I’d like to do it.’ What were the top three shows Paul has seen this year? ‘I saw RED about Rothko and thought it a beautifully crafted two-hander play about a subject that is not necessarily commercial. It is the right balance of beauty and truth through staging. I liked Pity by Rory Mullarkey because it was chaotic and brave and the design was sensational by Chloe Lamford. I’ve yet to see the third this year – I’ve seen so many very good things but I can’t place the third. I’m hoping it’s going to be one of the NYT productions in the Autumn: I certainly believe it should be. That’s my challenge to the company and myself.’

Auditions are currently open to join the NYT, and when asked if he has any advice for those already signed up or those who are considering it, Paul emotively explains a few reasons why a student should take the plunge. ‘One, it is ok to fail. The only way we succeed is by failing. You cannot have a successful run in life and appreciate the importance of and ability to measure success without failure. Rejection is key to success. The experience will offer more answers much greater than simple rejection. The complexities of being challenged with likeminded people and one-to-one is, in itself, a tunnel into yourself. You learn more about yourself than the organisation on that day. That is key. The more you challenge yourself, the more you learn and the more you become resilient to the changes you’re not in control of. I would say to anyone to do it because you don’t know if you’ll be the actor you want to be. It challenges you in more ways than you can imagine. Just say yes to stuff, even if you get a no in response. Just try it.’

Paul has been with the NYT in his current post for fifteen years, during which he has produced over 200 productions and commissioned over 170 new plays. Certainly impressive numbers. But what are the challenges ahead for the NYT?  ‘My DNA is about pragmatic realism but I have a brilliant company to represent that is about youth, optimism and creativity. The challenges are to keep my optimism within the financial climate of this country. I have the fears of not knowing what it is to be British and knowing victims of our company will be victims of race hate crime again and again and again, which is happening increasingly so, more when I was an acting member in the 1980s. I believe it is our moral and ethical responsibility to tackle these subjects with a company that represents the diversity of talent. We have a company that is from Poole to Shetland Isles, over 1000 miles between us, in one room. Those are the challenges: to keep it national, its identity alive and challenged, and to tell the stories of our time that show the fractured nature of our politics. We are so divided but we are united by the energy of companies like this one. It takes a lot of sensitivities, support and financial governess. It’s always the same: great idea, but where and how will we do it, how much will it cost, shall we do it, can we do it again? We are living in challenging times, and as such must be challenged and represent them.’

Many challenges may face the National Youth Theatre but Paul’s admiration for the students and his constant drive to ensure the company put forward an intellectual provocative and stimulating series of shows shines through. To end on a positive note, we talk about Paul’s own self-proclaimed alternative route into the creative industry (he didn’t go to university). A sensation I’m sure all London Student readers can vividly remember, A-Level results are fast approaching. What advice, then, does Paul give to those who think the letters on their results transcript on August 16thwill define the result of their lives? ‘I can guarantee that those who are awaiting for their results will never be asked for their results ever again in the majority of situations. If you want to work in the world of academia, then exams are vitally important since it is your immediate currency. I would take my hat off to them, but I don’t have a degree. I do think, however, that the majority of people are rightfully concerned we want to get things right. At the end of the day, who is going to ask to see your qualifications? Probably less than you think right now. It is how you apply yourself and what you do from now on, not what you got on a piece of paper. And be curious, always be curious. Ask questions and answer questions. That will get your further that writing down the answers in an exam situation.’

Many thanks to Paul for taking the time to chat with London Student. F Off will have two performances on the 20thAugust, 2018 – one at 2.30 and the other at 7.30 – at the Criterion Theatre. More information about the National Youth Theatre can be found here: 

Feature photograph: Helen Murray