In-depth with David Thacker

We talked to David Thacker, Director at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre and York English and Related Literature graduate, about truth in drama, his career in the theatre industry and what advice he’d give graduates starting out on the same path.

Did your time at York and degree contribute to your success? What did York add to your career?

I never planned any aspect of my career or life around theatre. I owe everything in that respect to the University of York. When I studied English at York in the seventies, the University Drama Society was very active and I believe it still is now. Virtually anybody could involve themselves in any of the productions. I had directed a house play at school and another at the youth club but when I came to York I saw a lot of student plays and decided to try directing on campus. One of the first student plays I directed was The Caretaker by Harold Pinter, performed in the Drama Barn. I directed a few others and became President of the Drama Society and also set up something called ‘Lunchtime Theatre’ where students could perform short plays and original work.

During my time at York I took a production of Shakespeare’s Pericles to the Edinburgh Festival and we held a performance at a jail for long-term prisoners. At the end of the play there is a very moving scene where Pericles is reunited with his daughter Marina, whom he thought was dead. It’s very emotional and many of the prisoners were weeping. From that early production I learned that great plays still have resonance with modern audiences.

What led you into directing as a profession?

While at student at York I approached the Director of York Theatre Royal to ask if he would help me apply for an Arts Council Assistant Director Bursary. At the time I was directing another Shakespeare play, The Winter’s Tale, which he came to see. I didn’t hear anything for a couple of months but then he got in touch to offer to an Assistant Stage Manager role at York Theatre Royal. I had been offered a place a Bristol, to train as an English Teacher, so it was a hard decision but I deferred my place at Bristol and took up the post at York Theatre Royal – I imagine Bristol still has the place open for me! Within six months at York Theatre Royal I worked my way up to Stage Manager before becoming Assistant Director.

In your opinion do you think we (as an audience) have a society propensity for accuracy and authenticity in drama?

That is such an important question and I’d like to begin with Hamlet, and quote Hamlet’s advice to the players: “the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure…” The whole speech is about authenticity and about how to act truthfully; otherwise you cannot truthfully reveal what it’s like to be a human being, and the pressures of the world we live in. This is the purpose of theatre.

This question reminds me of Arthur Miller who I was privileged to have a very good working relationship with. He said the purpose of theatre was to show that underneath all of our differences in skin colour and culture we are just one humanity. To show we are not alone.

To create authenticity in the theatre, in film, or television you need authentic actors, psychologically and emotionally accurate acting. The aesthetic is also hugely important to authenticity. My favourite film I worked one is a project called Faith, which is a fictional drama about the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. There was so much distrust and lies about the Miners’ Strike from Margaret Thatcher’s government that were then supported by the media. One aim of the film was to set the record straight. We used footage from the strike and integrated this documentary material with our own footage, and while the characters were fictional their acting portrayed powerful and authentic emotions.

You are here today talking to TFTV students. Have you any tips for graduates who would like to get into your industry and what is the one thing you would encourage them to do to achieve this?

My advice always is to try to find work in something that is interesting to them as a person; there is a long life ahead and you need to find something that you want to immerse yourself in and be involved in. I think it’s incredibly difficult for young people starting out today, and there is a great deal of luck involved. To get a foot in the door is so important. I would urge students to try to create their own work, don’t just wait for something to happen, create something to show your talents.

For theatre students my advice is to try to get a job in any theatre, whether it’s being an usher, box office attendant or any number of other roles, because once you are inside an organisation you can find ways to move within it to more interesting roles. I’ll give you an example from my own life. At an Assistant Stage Manager at York Theatre Royal, when I was just starting out, I managed to persuade actor Donald Pelmear to act in my production of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. He, as a professional actor, was prepared to entrust himself to a student and this gave me a great deal of confidence in my directing abilities. And relationships are so important. Donald and I have stayed in touch over the years; I hosted him in Bolton a few months ago to mark the fortieth anniversary since that early collaboration; he came to see Journey’s End at the Octagon.