We caught up with Isaac Stanmore, who has been playing Richard Hannay in The New Vic Theatre’s hugely successful production of The 39 Steps.
Isaac, who trained at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, told us all about life since the closure of the theatres and subsequent lock down, his time rehearsing and performing The 39 Steps, and shares his thoughts on young theatre graduates and the recently released government support for actors and the self-employed.
What were you doing when the announcements were made for the theatres to close?
On Monday night I was walking down the street in London listening to the press conference on the radio, I realised that when the Prime Minister said that people should avoid theatres that the writing was on the wall. When the UK Theatre and SOLT statement came out, we realised it was just a case of us waiting for confirmation from The New Vic Theatre, which came on the Tuesday morning, and that confirmed that the rest of the run was cancelled.
I had to travel back to Staffordshire on the Wednesday to clear out my dressing room and my digs. It is so weird to have to go and pack down your dressing room. it was really odd to think that within 24 hours your entire industry and all the people that rely on it was shut down.
It’s obviously the right thing to do, but it was sad. Actors are the easy ones to talk about in terms of the theatres closing but there are tonnes of people, not just those that work inside the theatre but those that work in props, costume and the stage management teams. Luckily with the New Vic Theatre all of those jobs are all in-house, but there are many freelance stage managers, dressers, costumers, set hirers, prop hire companies that aren’t so lucky. I also have family that work in hospitality and I have worked in hospitality too, and of course it affects all of those people as well.
On one hand, when the show closed, I don’t think any of us were surprised. We weren’t sure if we were going to finish the run. We went back and forth day to day not knowing how it was going to go. And things are continuing to change so rapidly, the speed that it went from ‘theatres are going to close’ to ‘you can’t leave the house now’ was only a week!
How did you and the cast process that together?
We’re still in touch, we had the WhatsApp from the first run of The 39 steps. The Saturday night was a really good show. After the first government daily press conference on the Thursday, which was quite scary for the public, our three final shows on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday were the most joyful shows. You could feel the audience saying ‘please make me laugh’. That’s why it’s sad that a lot of this stuff isn’t happening, people need that collective coming together as a group and having the shared laughter experience. I think people need that action of coming together and doing something – like when everyone stood outside on their doorsteps and showed their appreciation for the NHS. They were the most uplifting shows we did – and I think they even took more money at the bar too – because people wanted to have a good time and they wanted us to make them laugh.
What have you been up to since then?
Everything is on hold. I was prepping an audiobook which I can still do, but when I will get to record that is a bit up in the air. A couple of people in the house that I live in do voice-over work so we have set up a home studio so that we can do voice over work and possibly audiobook work from home. Everything else is put on hold or cancelled basically. Fortunately, I didn’t have anything massive that needed to carry on, i had those final 2 weeks of The 39 Steps, but I didn’t have a big theatre show after, they were studio based.
Have you been taking part in anything that’s been happening online? Do you plan on being part of or creating any online content whilst the theatres are closed?
I must be honest, I’ve found it quite overwhelming. Social media can be really really good, but sometimes it can just feel like you just have to be there all the time to see opportunities and I think that can be really horrible. After it all happened, for a week or so I was just getting my life together, going between Stoke and London, working out what i was going to be doing.
I find it important to take times where I just walk away from social media. Sometimes sitting on social media can be not a real view of the world. II think the community based stuff is wonderful, all the singalongs, but some work opportunities for actors, especially new graduates, have been pushed onto social media, and I think that can make you feel like you need to sit on that all day which can sometimes not be a good thing.
People need to cut themselves some slack, I’ve seen on social media lots of people saying that during the Plague Shakespeare wrote King Lear. But this pandemic, it’s never happened before. I’m in the lucky position that I was working right up until it happened. I think we can all be kinder to ourselves and cut ourselves some slack. Having said that, I do have an Accordion that I need to teach myself!
What do you think about the theatre industry putting out live streams and pre-recordings of shows, and could you recommend one to our readers?
Absolutely amazing. Especially as you can organise with your mates to watch it together! They’re really good shows too. I’m really excited for One Man, Two Guvnors. I saw that at The National and its the first show I sat in that I wished was a film because I could watch it again and again. Each Thursday they are releasing a new one and they’re available online for a week. It’s great that The National Theatre can do that for us for free. Also, I think it’s great that the smaller theatres can stream stuff for a donation so that we can support them at this time. It’s like Netflix, we are paying for a product. It’s an industry that survives by people going and paying to see it.
The Sally Cookson Jane Eyre is unbelievably good, I saw that when it was in two parts in Bristol, I was making Hetty Feather at the time, we were rehearsing above them whilst they were doing Jane Eyre below. I saw it in one part at The National, which I prefer, its such an amazing play about how you can adapt a book for a stage, that things don’t need to be literal, there are feelings that you can capture on stage by movement and sound that can tell a story without needing to show it literally.
The 39 Steps – What happens when you come back and do a show like that again after doing it so successfully the first time, do you have to do anything different when it comes back for a second time?
I can’t bring myself to shave off my moustache yet! It’s a bit of both, sometimes it’s a memory game, but they filmed the dress rehearsal from the first time round which helps. Some of it weirdly completely comes back to you, the show is very tightly choreographed so even if things look quite natural, we are moving around in a certain shape and at a certain time in time with the lighting and sound. The train sequence is very tightly choreographed, and even though we did it again some of that comes back surprisingly naturally.
We have known for the best part of a year that we were going to do it again, as we had talked about it when we were doing it the first time. The brain knows subconsciously that it will need to do it again so a lot of it stays in your head. We had the dress rehearsal video, some of it we slightly re-did, and we had a 4 week rehearsal period. When you have time, or you play with it, you realise there is more there, or you could do a bit better, because you have done it for so many performances. There were certain moments that we got to change and enhance or tweak to make it better – but the vast majority of it was exactly the same!
Could you tell us what your favourite scene in The 39 Steps is?
I don’t know! I really enjoy the hotel scene, where me and Pamela come in. Mainly I enjoy that because of the beautiful characters that Mike (Hugo) and Gareth (Cassidy) are at that moment – as the mad couple that run the hotel.
Here’s a little titbit for you that I don’t think anyone has talked about before. We had two dress rehearsals when we did it the first time, the first dress rehearsal went great, but for the second rehearsal me and Rebecca (Brewer) walked on stage, and no one had told us that between dress rehearsals Mike had been given breasts for his hotel manager character. So, we were presented with Mike Hugo in a dress and a wig now with breasts. We couldn’t handle it, the image itself was hilarious, and also the element of surprise. He’d not told us, of course he hadn’t, so when we walked on not a lot happened in that dress rehearsal for quite a long time!
How don’t you make each other laugh because it’s so hilarious?
We do to be honest! We’re pretty good though – my character was not allowed to corpse. Hannay needs to tell a really serious story and he gets frustrated when things go wrong, so he can’t laugh and that helps!
Could you tell us a bit about the other projects that you have in the pipeline?
Other than the audiobook The 39 Steps was the last live show, I was going to have a holiday to be honest which now also won’t be happening. I hadn’t booked anything, but I’d gone straight to The 39 Steps from my Christmas show so wanted to go away, but that will have to wait. At least we’ve had a bit of nice weather now!
What’s your favourite play?
In the world?! I don’t know! I saw Warhorse a couple of times. Warhorse knocked me for six when I saw it. Also, The Shape of Things by Neil LaBute which I saw in a pub theatre whilst I was in drama school. I had to come out and have a stiff drink afterwards because it just knocked me for six. I saw People, Places and Things by The National Theatre and also A View from the Bridge directed by Ivo van Hove with Mark Strong in – that was amazing too.
I’ve also signed up to a playwriting course so I have been reading loads of plays. I have had an idea for a play that I have wanted to do for 2 years, so I’ve signed up for the course that I’m doing over 8 weeks so at the and I will have a first draft for this play.
Do you think that one positive from all of this might be that people will have the drive to sign up for things that they might not have had time to do before?
I think that the best scenario would be if people sign up for things because they really really want to, rather than feeling like they have to. I think that many people will experience that anxious feeling that they’ve got to create, they’ve got to do stuff, they see that everyone else is doing all these things so I have to as well. But, if you have always wanted to write that play, or always wanted to learn that guitar, then do it, but do it to make you happy, don’t so it to satisfy social media.
If you were a young actor in the middle of training right now, having had classes, showcases and auditions suspended, what advice would you give them?
This is not a situation that has ever happened before so I have no idea really. But those are the people that I think should be given priority for casting directors who online and doing meet and greets, or given dedicated sessions. It would be great if Spotlight did a page for every drama school, and every graduate could put their showcase monologue on there, and casting directors could go on and watch them online.
It’s those people that need that kick into the industry. Showcases and end of year shows are really important as agents and casting directors come and see you. If your big role was in the April or Spring production and you have been waiting to do your Hamlet or your Rosalind and all of a sudden that gets pulled thats really bad and I think they should be given priority online.
Drama schools themselves could host it on their website, they could get recent graduates to film and send them their showcase monologues, and then casting director could go on and look at each individual graduate. If they were planning on going to the LAMDA showcase anyway then they could watch everyones monologues online. This could carry on until June or July and people could graduate without their crucial first step in to the industry, and those are the people we should be focusing on the most.
We’ve seen that lots of self-employed people from the UK theatre industry have taken up jobs in supermarkets, what do you think about that?
My friend who is an actor Perry Moore has done it. I think it’s amazing. I saw that there was an NHS volunteers thing too that you could sign up for which is fantastic. It’s great that people can do that, a lot of the secondary jobs for actors and other people in the industry are in teaching, hospitality and bar work which you can’t do at the moment so it’s great that there are still those opportunities. In this industry and the way it is scheduled, you inevitably have to have in-between jobs, so its great that there’s stuff that people can do, and they are giving something back by helping out the community.
What do you think about the help from the UK government to support self-employed people from the UK theatre industry?
I understand that its a really complicated issue but I think the fact that it isn’t coming until June will be a huge issue for some people. Having to wait 2 months when your entire industry has gone caput and you need to pay bills next week isn’t ideal. Self-employed people don’t get pensions, holiday pay and lots of other benefits that those on PAYE do get. Which is fine, but to be penalised or to have it suggested that we are not paying our fair share of tax is a bit of an insult. There are lots of things that self-employed people don’t get that they have to save for. No one had on their new years to do lists to save 3 months salary for a world pandemic! To wait for a couple of months and then potentially be met with a higher tax rate later down the line doesn’t seem fair either.
I think there is a way to roll things out with clarity. Like the announcements last week for example. There are a lot of theatre companies run by those who are self-employed, they are self-funded that have simply gone bust, and people that have just been let go from tours. Advising people to not go to the theatre but not ordering them to close left a huge number of people not knowing what was going on for at least 24 hours. Many more companies and individuals could go bankrupt, with having to wait for a couple of months and with their secondary jobs in hospitality gone too.
I think universal credit was not designed for the entire 15% of the population who are self employed to go onto all at the same time. I have friends who have spent hours on the phone to them, not being able to get through or being cut off, or not being able to access the online forms. It wasn’t working fantastically before but its clearly not fit for purpose now either.
Is there anything else you would like to say or tell us?
In trying to keep hopeful, I’m trying to think of the really exciting and interesting things that will come out of this, not necessarily the plays or the short films but the innovations. Also, I’m just holding on to the thought of the first football match, the first re-production, the first night of everything at the theatre. These overwhelmingly wonderful experiences where we all just breathe again and get out and come together and have a beer. Those are the things that I am holding onto. Think of the first night back of Les Miserables or Wicked or Warhorse. Equally, think of the first nights back at the smaller local theatres – those are the things that you think… that’s going to be amazing.
Photos by Andrew Billington – www.billingtonphotography.com