Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Andrew Muir and Jack Dunford: Rethink

By | Published on Friday 22 October 2021

When I heard about ‘Rethink’, which is on at the Union Theatre this week, I was immediately interested for a number of reasons. Firstly: it’s a play about young people attempting to set out on an acting career who are stymied by the coming of the pandemic and the lockdown conditions that made it so hard for those in the entertainment industry to continue working.

Secondly, it’s performed by a group of early career performers who themselves graduated during that time, and have of course faced those very issues themselves.

The play is the work of Ardent8, an ensemble of newly graduated performing artists formed by the Ardent Theatre Company to help support the careers of such actors, specifically those outside London who may not be able to take advantage of the opportunities the capital might offer them.

To find out more about the show, I spoke to Andrew Muir, all round theatre-maker and teacher, and co-creative director of Ardent Theatre Company; and Ardent8 member Jack Dunford, a cast member of the show.

CM: Can you begin by giving us an idea of what ‘Rethink’ is all about..? Whose story does it tell and where does the narrative take us?
JD: ‘Rethink’ is about a group of graduates that come to a group meeting to find an alternative to acting. They are looking for a possible way out of a hole they think they are in, persuaded to question their decisions by Enzo, who is a government backed official trying his utmost to change their narrative.

AM: Graduation is a day full of celebration and joy. The cloaks, the hats, the bubbles and the dreams all laid bare for the world to see. In July 2020, that class of graduating students had little to celebrate. There were no cloaks, no hats, possibly a bubble, but whatever dreams there were, they were soon cut short when the world shut down.

‘Rethink’ is a play about the aftermath of that sunny July in 2020, when six graduates from a performing arts course on the South Coast of England are encouraged to think again, in the wake of theatre closures and lack of opportunity. What choice do they have? According to a government-backed advertising campaign their next job could be in cyber, they just don’t know it yet. So, there’s the choice. It’s as easy as that. Isn’t it?

As Jack has said, the play follows six recent graduates who are forced to question their training for the arts, and the actions of Enzo, one young government backed workshop leader, who fights to convince all six that perhaps they made the wrong choice about their careers, and instead, they should put that training to good use, elsewhere, in a career that doesn’t require an empty space, some lights and a piece of text.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
JD: Change, hope, courage and perseverance, friendship, power, prejudices.

AM: Hopes quashed, dreams slayed and a landscape that appears to favour the wealthy. The six graduates in the play are all from working class backgrounds, were brought up in Dorset and attended a college of higher education in the same county. They have no means to get out to attend workshops, network with the right people, or pay for the train fare to an equal opportunity.

CM: What was the inspiration for the play? What made you decide to focus on these themes?
AM: I have worked on a part-time basis as playwright in residence at a brilliant college on the South Coast of England, Bournemouth & Poole College. The talent and passion and spirit of most of the students studying performing arts has always overwhelmed me, but for so many it has been nearly impossible to make the leap from graduation into paid work.

The area itself has little in the way of opportunity, and so a move to somewhere like London is really the only way they have a chance of developing their skills further and potential employment. However, the boundaries to so many, prevent them from getting out. So often it comes down to financial constraints.

The recent poster campaign suggesting a ballerina should think about retraining ‘in cyber’ made me so angry, and it was that poster that was the true inspiration behind the play. But it was the graduating students that will always remain the inspiration to try and keep generating opportunities.

CM: The creation of the play was a collaborative effort – can you explain how the creative process worked?
AM: I had worked with all of the cast of ‘Rethink’ as students at the college, so I knew their strengths. We hadn’t physically been in the same rehearsal room for a long period of time because of COVID, and so as soon as we were allowed, it was important for us to reconnect and talk about the impact this hiatus had on their thoughts going forward and also their own wellbeing.

It became apparent that graduating around the time of lockdown, and even the year before, had a massive blow to their self-confidence, and many of the cast were doubting everything. And so, through a series of R&D days in a studio, we got back the spark, and we worked through so much of what they were thinking. It wasn’t easy to begin with, but over time, and as their confidence started to come back, slowly an energy started to build. The actors themselves contributed so much of the material that is being presented in the play.

CM: Can you tell us about Ardent8 – what are its aims, and how did it come into being?
AM: The Ardent8 project is one strand of Ardent Theatre Company’s work that contributes towards our vision of making theatre a place where no one feels like an outsider. The project supports emerging young actors from outside London who face barriers to pursuing their careers. Often, the most talented of actors will have given up before they’ve even realised their full potential because they are unable to access other cities that provide greater employment and development opportunities.

The aim is to give them a taste of life as an actor in London to access opportunities within the industry they have otherwise found inaccessible, but which Ardent Theatre Company believe is no more than an equal opportunity. In doing so, they will develop their skills further in a professional context that also introduces them to key industry practitioners.

It came about because of my experience at the Bournemouth & Poole college, and how every year I would witness so much talent not being able to be seen or heard, and instead more often than not, it was forgotten. It broke my heart, until one year, I talked with Mark Sands, my fellow creative director at Ardent Theatre Company, about whether there was anything we could do to help? And that’s how the Ardent8 programme started.

CM: What work has Ardent8 produced in the past?
AM: This current crop of 8 graduates is our second. The first group of graduates performed an original piece entitled ‘Sacrifice’ at Soho Theatre – which got really great reviews and a strong audience response.

CM: What aims and objectives does it have for the future?
AM: We aim to continue supporting young graduates who need support to break through the obstacles that so many of them face – geographical and financial. We have begun to branch out and our next cohort of eight actors will include graduates from De Montford, Leicester and Manchester Met.

We are also determined to try and seek more opportunities within the industry for those current and past participants. We realise that we can’t just take them through a series of workshops and a production and then just drop them. We must work harder at keeping them engaged with the industry and for this to happen we need to be able to reach out to producing companies and for those companies to offer more in the way of opportunities for relative unknowns.

CM: How was Ardent Theatre Company affected by the strictures of lockdown?
AM: It was a difficult time for all of us working in the industry. Ardent had some funding secured, but not enough to stop writing those applications. We kept a steady dialogue with the Ardent8 ensemble, promising them that the programme would come back and that they would get to do a play in London as promised.

Like for most working in the industry, it was a difficult time. We had three projects funded and ready to go, including this production, and then lockdown struck, and everything ground to a halt. We don’t receive any core funding to run the company and rely on project grants to keep going; without projects and without new funds we struggled.

We kept a steady dialogue with the Ardent8 ensemble and they in turn kept themselves motivated by writing, performing, and filming monologues for each other as a series of digital performances. We also delivered a couple of short workshops online. But mostly, we held our nerve and promised them that the programme would come back and that they would get to do a play in London once lockdown eased.

CM: Can we talk about your personal journeys, now..? Did you always intend to follow this path…? How did you go about forging a career in the arts?
JD: Truthfully, I never thought this was the road I would walk down. I had no interest at school – classic story really, I was a naughty kid, had an issue being told what to do, didn’t think I had a path. Then one day my drama teacher got me to do a play about all the fairy tale characters. I trusted her so I went for it. I played one of the three blind mice – they were the comedy characters. I had the audience in stitches… and I was hooked from then on.

AM: From a very early age I always wanted to act. I went to drama school and acted for many years, before starting a career as a writer. I went to London at a time when Dorset County Council funded my drama school training, and then I was lucky enough to go straight into work after graduation, firstly on a national UK tour in a Ray Cooney farce and then in a play at the Royal Court! It was during that time that I thought how easy this all was, but a long period of unemployment soon followed culminating in a fringe production of ‘Journey’s End’ at the now long-gone Village Theatre in Cricklewood – there was nothing easy about any of it!

I had been brought up in a pub, so I used to do a lot of bar work to pay the rent, and that was how I survived for several years. I started writing when the acting simply dried up. I couldn’t not work in the industry, I had to do something, and I had always loved to write. So, I did. A mate of mine and I produced a play I wrote at the Finborough Theatre and that’s when I started writing a lot more. Running alongside the writing, I also started teaching, and this was a revelation for me. I suddenly found myself in a room with fifteen years of industry experience sharing my knowledge with young performing arts students – and that has become a very important part of my life.

I’m now lucky to do a lot of work for the National Theatre Learning Department, working as associate playwright on various playwriting courses.

CM: What highlights have there been for you thus far?
JD: The highlight for me so far is that I’ve got to be in this play. Coming from Dorset, I never thought I would have an opportunity like this, but here we are, and I’m loving every moment of the adventure.

AM: Watching Ardent Theatre Company survive the last couple of years has been a real highlight for me. We are a relatively small company with big ambition, and I’m just thankful we’re still in the mix.

CM: What ambitions do you have for the future?
JD: My ambitions are to be honest, just try my best in whatever I do, and do it with all my heart. I obviously want to keep acting, but who knows what lies ahead…? Can’t wait to find out though.

AM: Growing the Ardent8 programme to include more graduates from around the country, and not just Dorset.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
JD: After this I am unsure at the moment what is next for me after this, but I can’t wait for what the future holds.

AM: We have recently been working on Tracy Ryan’s play ‘Strike!’, which is a powerful and moving account of the Dunnes Stores Anti-Apartheid Strike that took place in Dublin between 1984-87. Drawing on archival material and personal interviews with the strikers and union organiser Brendan Archbold, ‘Strike!’ highlights the way in which these young people took a stand and changed the world. We are hoping to produce the play in 2022/23.

We’re also continuing to build our online Ardent Resources that provides guidance, hints, and tips from those working in the industry to help those who are just starting out. It’s something that complements the Ardent8 project as a ‘go-to’ place to keep polishing their skills and filling any knowledge gaps about being a working actor.

‘Rethink’ is on at the Union Theatre from 26-30 Oct. See the venue website here for information and to book tickets.

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