Revealing the human condition through theatre - We talk to the cast of The Winslow Boy

The Winslow Boy

We’ve been working alongside The Old Vic theatre for a year to sponsor the PwC Under 25s Club. Since we became headline sponsors we’ve helped 20,000 young people access the arts. And we’re very proud to have made 100 tickets for every performance at The Old Vic available for just £12 to people aged under 25.

As part of our one-year anniversary celebrations, we caught up with two of the principle cast members of the current production at The Old Vic, The Winslow Boy, to hear about their experiences of the PwC Under 25s Club. We sat down with Henry Goodman and Nick Hendrix to talk about the unique experience of theatre, the need for sponsorship of the arts and how acting can teach you so much about the human condition.

As actors, do you like to see businesses getting involved in sponsoring the arts?

Henry (HG): “There always has been a need for businesses to support the arts, as far back as the early days of the renaissance, right through history. It’s interesting to look at human beings when they get more money, more success and more achievement: what do they want to do with their money? They want to buy pleasure, leisure, entertainment, art, quality, sophistication, delicacy. Everything that they buy with the money that they’ve earned is to improve the quality of their experience of life – and that’s what theatre does.

People have a need – and all of us do as we get better and more well-off and work out a way through life at whatever level – to buy a picture for the wall, re-carpet the house, to improve the quality of our lives. So, if you take that onto a social level, it’s really, really important that investment gives people who may not have had the same opportunity the chance to achieve that improvement, that richness. And that’s not just in terms of buying things. It’s also in terms of experiences like the theatre; sitting in a darkened room with a hundred, two hundred, three hundred other people and sharing that experience.”

Does sponsorship allow a younger audience to have access to the experience of theatre?

HG: “I can honestly say, I’ve been very conscious of the enthusiasm of young people in The Old Vic theatre because of the PwC Under 25s Club. I was asking people how we get all these young people coming in, especially at the beginning of the week. And then I was told about the Under 25s programme. I can tell you, from the coalface, as an actor on the stage, I’m aware that it’s working.

I grew up a couple of miles from here and would walk past and dream not only of performing here but of going to see shows here cheaply. So I know at every level that’s it’s important to encourage young people to come to the theatre.”

Nick (NH): “Also, on the level of austerity and cuts to the Arts Council, it is an expense to the Government to help out with the arts. I’m not an economics expert but, relatively, supporting a theatre to a large company can be quite a small expense.

So the idea of big companies stepping up to sponsor, or fund, or set up, or completely run a theatrical space, I think is a relatively easy thing for them to do. Companies can help the Government out and take the heat off them. And as Henry said, there are things people want to be involved with when they have more money. It’s a really wonderful thing to be part of and to have on your company CV.”

Do theatres value the additional flexibility and creative freedom that sponsorship can bring?

HG: “There’s a lot of pressure on theatres like The Old Vic, and many others, that exist outside of the state subsidy system. With sponsorships they can focus their energies, and take risks and do work that they believe in. And that’s because they’ve got a little bit less panic about being able to get audiences in because of the help they get from projects like this.

In the totality of the picture, it means the money that’s saved can be used to pay salaries, to build better sets and costumes, to do a play that might be a bit risky. So you liberate other creative work by underwriting one element of the cost imperatives of running a theatre. Plus, if people get hooked on the theatre when they’re young, if they have a good experience of the arts, they’ll come back - especially now when you can download anything straight onto your phone.”

NH: “We’re creatures of habit, aren’t we? So it’s whatever it takes to get people coming to the theatre, whether it’s because Kevin Spacey runs this building and he’s a famous movie actor and therefore that’s a reason to go, or whether it’s the discounted tickets. It just becomes something that you do, like going to the cinema or playing football in the park. Going to see plays can become habitual and then it becomes an even more solid part of culture and of life.”

HG: “Let’s not forget the content issue. We live in a free, capitalist democracy. Here’s a play, for instance, The Winslow Boy, which talks about a little guy taking on the state. That’s what this play’s about. He takes on the state for his son, who he believes has been wronged. So, not only are you getting young people in, you’re getting them in to think about important social issues which, although it was written in 1947, are still very urgent. So content is really important in terms of the underwriting that goes on. This particular play is a lovely evening at the theatre and seems to be sweet and pleasant, but actually the spine of the play is about the cost to a family of fighting for justice.”

How did you both get into acting? What was your first experience of being on stage?

NH: “As maybe happens with a fair amount of people, I used to sing at school – school choir, county choir, that sort of thing – and at a normal prep school you’d just do musicals. So if you were a good singer, you’d get the good parts. So I started doing plays that way, essentially.

Then I went to senior school and they were doing Journey’s End which has a young, very posh character. I went to a big state school and I was probably the poshest person in the whole school so they obviously thought ‘We have to put him in it’. I also had some very ambitious drama teachers, which I was very lucky to have, and they put on some really great productions over the years. It all just kinda fed in; GCSE drama, then ‘A’ Level drama. My parents were against it most of the time, so I had to get teachers to convince them to let me do it.

Then I went to Exeter University and studied drama there because my parents wanted me to get a proper degree first. They wanted me to do English or History and do Drama on the side, so it was a battle. But I convinced them I could do Drama and that is was a BA. So I was there for three years and then got into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) somehow – and RADA is really the platform for everything, if you enjoy it and you get the most out of it, which I did.

I managed to land on my feet and get a really good agent. It kind of crept up on me when I was university, that though ‘Oh, I suppose I’m going to be an actor, then’. I wasn’t one of those people who saw something and said ‘That’s what I want to do!’, it just seeped in and I realised that’s what I was best at.”

Was your introduction to acting similar to Nick’s, Henry?

HG: “I’m the youngest of six kids, so I think I learnt to fight my corner to be noticed and that instinct developed. There are two completely different strands to my early start. One is one when I was ten years old and I did a film at Pinewood Studios, which is England’s Hollywood and where they made the Carry On movies amongst many other things, where I was in a film called Conspiracy of Hearts.

Even while I was doing that at the age of ten, I’d already started doing Shakespeare in the rough part of the East End at very rough schools. And we’d been taken by very committed teachers to The Old Vic or The National Gallery to see pictures. They’d say to us, ‘You might live on the rough side of the tracks but all this is out there and it’s yours. You live in London, get out there and see it’. I got quite hooked on speaking Shakespeare at prize-givings and then started to feel ‘Oh, I like this job of pretending to be someone else, and being able to get upset and angry, and happy, and rude, and be a clown’ – I think I got off on it. I got into it and I liked the audience response.

I did a musical when I was 16 in a youth club in the East End where I used to go three or four nights a week. Then I went to a well-known place called Toynbee Hall for young people in the East End, an arts centre where they had all sorts of social provision and classes. A lot of people came to Toynbee from RADA, Rose Bruford College , Central College and other schools to do good works in the East End and help out kids who were pretty feisty and rough. And I was one of them, so I got movement and voice lessons when I was 11,12, or 13 years old, long before I went to RADA when I was 19.

So I’d already had a lot of training from these people who weren’t trying to make me a professional actor, but were trying to teach us about ideas, thoughts and values and why theatre matters.

So my experience is not dissimilar to Nick’s, it’s just the context of being able to re-imagine yourself and re-invent yourself – I find that very exciting. You feel more completely who you really are when you can be, supposedly, someone else.”

Do we give enough encouragement to young people who choose an acting career?

NH: “There’s an academic intrigue about acting. I remember when I said to my parents that I was going to do drama at Exeter, and they were saying ‘Is that a proper degree? Can you get jobs from that?’. And I said, ‘Well, if you think about it, drama is politics, history, sociology, psychology, philosophy and theology’ and just rattled off this list. And it’s true, if you do a play like The Winslow Boy you’re studying history and politics. You go and do another play and you’re doing psychology. It’s about studying the human condition – who we are and what we do. And that’s fascinating to anyone, I think, and another element of why acting is so exciting and interesting for people. All the improvisation workshops and games are just studies of people.

For us, as actors, there’s nothing that we can do, or see, or be part of that wouldn’t help us in our job. If I was a lawyer or a builder, there are certain things that help me do my job better, whether that’s fitness or brick-laying ability. For us, I could go and talk to a charity worker on the street, I could go to an art gallery, I could go and watch a film, I could chat to you – everything is useful. It’s great to know that your job is all-encompassing. You can find a use for anything in life, and that’s exciting.”

HG: “I grew up with this sense, which has never gone away, that theatre at its best is always engaged in some sort of challenge. That might be hilarious, it might be camp, it might be funny – it doesn’t have to be heavy, in-your-face trauma. It could be musicals, it could be street theatre, it doesn’t have to be agitprop, radical politics. It’s an engagement with something, to reveal, to redress things that are not right, or to reveal what it costs in a relationship, to make certain choices or to fall in love.”

You can find out more about our sponsorship of the PwC Under 25s Club on our website here.

The Winslow Boy is playing at The Old Vic until 25 May 2013. Forthcoming shows include Sweet Bird of Youth and Much Ado About Nothing.

The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect those of PwC LLP.

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Naomi Harrison

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