Theatre buddies and baby bumps

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Theatre buddies and baby bumps: The Old Vic’s search for next generation of talent

Jake Brunger

I first got involved with The Old Vic’s Talent programme – the theatre’s support network offering development opportunities for emerging creatives – shortly after I graduated from Bristol University. When you’re a 22-year-old Drama grad who’s just moved to London you’re desperate to get your foot in the door anywhere, let alone somewhere as prestigious as The Old Vic Theatre. That thrill of strolling out of Waterloo station towards that magnificently lit façade never goes away, and having seen endless shows there whilst studying at Bristol, it was a thrill to finally feel a tiny part of it when in 2011 I got onto the final year of the theatre’s transatlantic project The TS Eliot US/UK Exchange, run by what was known back then as Old Vic New Voices.

A week-long trip to New York (I know – awful, right?), the US/UK Exchange was exactly that: a scheme that matched a UK creative with a similar-minded US one where you’d go and stay in their flat and drink craft beer in Brooklyn; essentially like when you do a weird school exchange to an obscure part of Germany only this time with theatre! And Broadway! And real hopes and dreams! An intense interview process in the UK – panel of 3, very serious academic questioning, that sort of thing – and the email arrived. In fact no wait – it was a phone call. That was how ridiculously lottery-winning it all was; so important that someone had to phone. I still pinch myself now that I got on – my life would be very, very different had I not.

Before we went over to the US, they matched us with a director here in the UK (mine was the utterly brilliant Kirsty Patrick Ward) and between us we picked out a cast of 4 from the 20 or so actors on the trip. When I say we’re still all in regular contact today, I’ve literally spoken to one today – who’s previewing a show – and went and felt the baby bump of another just a few days ago; we’ll be forever tied together as a result of that exchange, and we still feel like a family today. In a few short weeks we put together a 15-minute play that we’d be presenting to the cream of the US industry on the final day at our host venue The Vineyard Theatre near Union Square, an incredible little off-Broadway powerhouse where – and yes, the fan boy inside me was screaming – Avenue Q had started out.

I won’t bore on too much about the week itself, but needless to say, it was a heady week of workshops, meetings, inspiring talks, mentorships and shows galore. Anything we wanted, the Old Vic team made sure we got it. Their name and prestige opened doors to companies I’d never have got the chance to meet on my own. And of course the most important element – the exchange bit – was truly the cherry on top. My “buddy” (as they were called, obviously…) was an emerging writer called Joe Tracz, whom Rachael Stevens – one of the administrators – described before we met as my ‘psychic twin’. She was totally right, and again – six years later – we were in touch just a few days ago over email. Only that bright-eyed emerging writer from Brooklyn now has musicals opening all across America, including off-Broadway, seriously major award nominations and is now the lead writer on Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. He’s one of my favourite people in the whole world and now lives a disgustingly lovely life in LA..! I know we’ll be friends (sorry ‘buddies’…) for life.

Looking back now, it seems almost mad to write and reflect on that period and what it meant to me because it genuinely changed my life. The confidence it gave me as a writer was immeasurable; I went as a new grad, and came back a proper writer with proper contacts and a network of peers in exactly the same boat as me. The group selected for that trip – most of whom are now quite genuinely leading lights in the industry – are people I work with to this very day (director Luke Sheppard, for example, directed my musical adaptation of Adrian Mole at the Menier Chocolate Factory this summer). The actors have gone onto huge things – primetime BBC dramas, West End, and the directors and writers have work opening every single week across the country; Suba Das, for example, just opened Pink Sari Revolution. You can barely go a day without coming across one of them somewhere, and over the years Old Vic New Voices has churned out a dazzling list of alumni.

If that were the end of my Old Vic experience, I’d be a very happy boy. But thankfully, just a year or so after, I was lucky enough to be the recipient of the Old Vic New Voices TS Eliot commission to write a new stage play. Not only was this a major investment in me as a writer, but it was also my very first proper commission too – a genuine playwright at last! The play I wrote on that scheme – FOUR PLAY – went onto be produced at The Old Vic Theatre in June 2015 as part of the Old Vic New Voices Festival, and again, the people I met through that – Jack Sain, Jessica Campbell – will be with me for life. We decided to aim high with our casting and – lo and behold – managed to snag Richard Madden, Jeremy Irvine, Tom Rhys Harries and Joshua McCord. I mean… not a shabby bunch! We had a fantastic week rehearsing at the Old Vic Lab in Bermondsey – a sprawling old school with rehearsal rooms galore to workshop, hone and perfect the piece; a space I still use whenever I can today.

The day of the performance itself was just totally exhilarating; I mean it’s the stuff of dreams to play to a sold-out house at The Old Vic. I don’t actually remember much of the performance itself; I just sat on the back row praying it went okay. I have a very scratchy audio recording I took on my iPhone, and a gorgeous set of production shots, but mainly just  very happy memories of a wonderful week. After a bit of a whirlwind time of West End producers circling the play in the weeks afterwards, it quickly became apparent that Richard and Jeremy’s filming schedules were never going to allow a transfer to happen – a great shame, but hey ho – that’s the industry. The play went onto be produced at Theatre 503 – produced once again by Jess – and having been published by Nick Hern Books is now produced up and down the country and is often featured in drama school showcases – totally surreal.

I feel so lucky to have been a tiny – and I mean honestly, barely measureable – part of The Old Vic’s history. There was something about that time period, about meeting those inspiring young creatives in pubs, that will stay with me for the rest of my career. Those two opportunities also both led to further work for me, for which I’m incredibly grateful; the New York play led to my first feature film commission (which, not unusually for film, is still in development three years later!) and FOUR PLAY at The Old Vic Festival led to a raft of television and film meetings, as a result of which I’m now developing a screen adaptation with Warner Brothers’ TV company Wall to Wall. And as for the relationships, the friends, the marriages and even newborn babies that have filled my life with such warmth since that first time we met in the upstairs rehearsal room at The Old Vic – they’re the things I cherish above all else.

Jake Brunger is a writer and lyricist from Nottingham now living in London. His credits include The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13¾ at the Menier Chocolate Factory and Leicester Curve, Prodigy for National Youth Music Theatre, Four Play for Old Vic New Voices and Theatre 503 as well as numerous adaptations for Singapore Repertory Theatre. Earlier this year he was named as one of the writers-to-watch on the 2017 BBC New Talent Hotlist.

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