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Interview: Richard Everett, actor and playwright

11 April 2014

'At the end of the day, I have to ask myself: "Who is really the one with special needs here?"'

I was every teacher's nightmare: the class performer, impersonating the staff. . . It was actually a survival mechanism, because I was mildly dyslexic. I failed every exam I ever took, and was always being told I was stupid and lazy. So, from the age of about 12, I knew I wanted to be an actor. My family weren't unsupportive - just worried and sceptical, and waiting for the day I would come to my senses. I think they still are.

My first job was sweeping the stage for a Carry On-team summer season at Southsea. I did six weeks' work for one week's wages to get an Equity card. After that, I just got lucky: my next job was a West End play, followed by the cult movie If.

I played Freddie in a stage adaptation of A Room With A View inthe West End, with Derek Jacobi, Timothy West, and Jane Lapotaire. Playing comedy in a great classic to a packed house is a big rush for any actor.

I got fed up with waiting for the phone to ring as an actor; so I started my own fringe theatre company, the Upstream Theatre, in an empty church hall near the Old Vic. It was very successful, and I was artistic director for several years. But I couldn't settle; so I started writing. It was like coming home.

Entertaining Angels is my fifth published stage play. It's about a grieving clergy widow and her family secrets. It's a comedy with a strong story exploring the difficult subject of forgiveness. I love that kind of mix. Penelope Keith starred in it originally, and it opened at the Chichester Festival Theatre, playing to 26,000 people in three weeks. Ironically, I nearly binned it on several occasions, but it's now done all over the world. That's how wrong one can be. It is exciting to see a piece of work connect so well.

I'm always playing with new projects, some of which may come together and others may vanish. And then past work has a habit of popping up again unexpectedly. Entertaining Angels is being performed in South Africa this year, and also, rather unexpectedly, in the Arab-Jewish Culture Centre in Haifa. I'm not sure what they will make of a story of an Anglican vicarage family.

Film, television, theatre, animation all follow the same rules. Animation licences you to become a child again, and movie-writing has become a new science; but you have to find the fun in all the disciplines, otherwise what's the point? Theatre is a great challenge: two hours' traffic on the stage requires craft. Plays are like bits of clockwork: every moving part has to function perfectly. There's no fast-forward button in a theatre: if you lose your audience, you lose them on a grand scale.

Every ordinary day suggests a hundred stories. You just have to look with the right eyes. That's what Sound Bites is all about: finding ordinary lives behind extraordinary events.

It is a collection of short, five-minute scripts I've written over the years. They are for Christmas, New Year, Lent, Easter, Mothering Sunday, Father's Day, and so on. I have no interest in a faith that doesn't feature real people. The Old and New Testaments are full of real characters, living ordinary and often very flawed lives, but around which extraordinary events unfolded. So I've gone in search of those lost characters and conversations - some biblical, some fictional, some not - from the chauffeurs of the Wise Men checking the Bethlehem A to Z to Jethro explaining to his wife Miriam that he's lent their precious donkey to a couple of strangers, which is why somelunatic is now joyriding it round the town.

There's a Roman soldier on execution duty, who has a strange encounter a week later while fishing on a beach, and a young man visiting his mother on Mothering Sunday who is greeted by a strange woman claiming she is God, and many others, not forgetting the Junior Angel explaining to the Senior Angel that the Bethlehem Hilton was booked - which made Prince William and Kate and the Middleton family laugh out loud in church on Christmas morning.

Drama isn't something you use. Church services are full of drama, without anyone reaching for the dreaded tea towel and sandals. The communion table is a place of incredible drama, a powerful re-enactment of a hugely dramatic event. But I've tried to provide some simple five-minute scripts, like mini radio plays, that can be done at a moment's notice by anyone who can read competently. No lines to learn, no costumes.

I was reading quite a lot of Henri Nouwen, and he writes of working as the international pastor for the L'Arche Community. There's a L'Arche near me, at Bognor, and the drama person there was going on maternity leave. The timing was right.

The first workshop I did showed me what it would be like. The cathedral was doing an Ash Wednesday service, and asked if we would do something on Jesus' being tempted in the desert. The others were all playing their parts, but when I asked one man who he wanted to be, he said: "I'm going to be Terry Wogan." "I don't think he was there." "Yes, he was." And he went on a brilliant stream-of-consciousness monologue of Terry Wogan interviewing Jesus and the Devil.

Working with L'Arche has been immensely rewarding, and a great privilege. It's also very grounding. At the end of the day, I have to ask myself: "Who is really the one with special needs here?"

I was born in leafy Surrey. My family lived there for most of my early life, and then moved to London. My father was a successful businessman, and my mother was a freelance writer and journalist. All a bit ordinary and middle-class, really. I was public-school-educated, hated every minute of it, left without a single exam passed, and leapt into the acting profession.

I love the mountains. I taught my daughter to ski in Switzerland, and soon I hope to help her teach my wonderful new granddaughter, Lettie, as well. She's nine months old.

Lettie's laugh is the most reassuring thing in the world.

Many people have influenced me, in different ways. Friends are important. Friendship itself is undersold. It is the place where hard things and good things can be shared. Real change and influence can happen among good friends who know you well, and make you feel safe to take risks. I sometimes think that the Church should disband all fellowship groups in exchange for exploring the art of friendship.

One underlying principle of theatre is that you have to make the audience feel safe before you take them on a journey. Good acting is authoritative and trustworthy. I've found the loyalty and faithfulness of friendship to be something which helps me as a Christian living in the real world.

I read very slowly, so I have to choose what I read carefully. I think the book I have been most influenced by recently is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield; the book I have most enjoyed is 10 Second Sermons by Milton Jones; and the books I return to most often are by C. S. Lewis.

At a young age, I saw Laurence Olivier in Othello. Without understanding the play, I knew I was seeing a powerful piece of work. And seeing a production of Equus was an exciting moment, as I watched all sorts of boundaries - physical, creative, and emotional - being smashed in the best sense. More recently, War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are both plays that I came out of a little bit different from when I went in.

If I found myself locked in a church for a few hours? This is the Church Times; so I'd probably better not say Halle Berry; probably ought to say St Paul.

Richard Everett was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Sound Bites is published by Monarch Books (Lion Hudson, £10.99 (CT Bookshop £9.90 - Use code CT127 )).


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