Rose Wardlaw and James Barrett, the new Graduate Actors at West Yorkshire Playhouse, are recalling their first stage appearances. “I was probably four when I played a piece of Lego in the Nativity,” says Rose. Coincidentally young James also debuted in the Nativity – a different production and a bigger role as Joseph.
The pair have spent the past three years as drama students in the same class at LAMDA, becoming friends but never appearing in a scene together. Until now, that is. The afternoon we spoke they’d acted together for the first time during rehearsals for Richard III at the Playhouse. “We have never actually done a scene together. The whole way through drama school we never had a class together just by chance. We did plays together but never had scenes together. So while we know each other very well, we’ve only just done our first scene together today,” says Rose.
They are at the Playhouse on the Graduate Actors Scheme supported by the Liz and Terry Bramall Foundation. On a 10-12 month Equity contract, they’ll play principal and supporting roles in a range of shows as well as being involved in all aspects of the Playhouse, including outreach work.
In Richard III, directed by Mark Rosenblatt, Rose plays Lady Anne and James is Rivers. Neither expected their first job outside drama school to be in Shakespeare. But that’s one of the advantages of being a Graduate Actor – getting to do a variety of things that wouldn’t normally come the way of someone fresh out of drama school.
Rose, from North London, studied drama at Bristol University and then took a year out doing a variety of jobs including caring for an autistic boy, assistant to a BBC costume designer, and working in a kids book shop. “I was trying out a few things but knew drama school was the thing I really wanted to do,” she says.
James, from Manchester, also arrived at Lamda via a circuitous route. He was in school plays, not least because “they got you out of class and you got to mess around” but also loved being “part of a gang and working together”. After failing A-level theatre studies, he wondered if “theatre wasn’t going to be for me” but undeterred he wrote to agents saying he had no experience but did they want to take him on. “And everyone said ‘no’, of course,” he recalls. “All except a lady called Philippa Howell who said she wasn’t going to take me on but if a casting came through that I matched she’d put me up for it. I went for the audition and didn’t get it, and she said why not come in for a meeting? We had a chat and things went from there.
“I just went from job to job for a little bit. I worked for a couple of years, doing new writing and little bits of TV. Then it all started to fizzle out and I didn’t really know how to give my career longevity. I didn’t know how to be an actor, what to be an actor meant as a profession. I’d heard amazing things about Lamda and only auditioned for there. I went to get my foot in the door for classical stuff and it so happens my first job is a Shakespeare play which is exactly why I auditioned to go to drama school in the first place.”
He and Rose had two auditions, one in London and a second at the Playhouse with the eight “finalists”. Among the interviewers was Amy Leach who’ll direct them in The Night Before Christmas in the Courtyard Theatre. It’s a two-hander so knowing each other is going to make working together easier than if they were total strangers.
During their time at the Playhouse, they’ll be involved in all aspects of what happens in a major producing theatre. As James puts it, “One of the exciting things for me is we’re working in a building as part of a company with lots of new projects constantly. It doesn’t really happen elsewhere. For the Playhouse to do this is pretty amazing. I think every drama student would kill to be in our position.”
One pleasing aspect is that they’re not treated like students but very much part of the ensemble company of Richard III and then the Christmas show. “We are actors and expected to do our jobs and that’s great,” says Rose. “We are being given an opportunity to really put our skills to the test for a year, which so many people aren’t. It’s so hard to come out of drama school and go straight into a job, then continue that with more jobs. We get to go round all departments and go from a Shakespeare to a kids show. That’s a huge range in the space of six months.”
James continues this theme: “The outreach side of things and getting to work in the community is something that we’re both really passionate about, especially the work being done at the Playhouse in terms of First Floor, the youth theatre, and the dementia friendly programme. To be part of that at the beginning of your career and understand the really positive things theatre can do. It’s great standing on stage and putting on costumes but there’s the actual life-changing stuff as well.”
Rose sees it as really important that young actors coming out of drama school understand the impact of the work they’re doing. “It’s not just about yourself, you have to understand your audience and it’s brilliant to be able to do that,” she says. “It’s especially good to be able to look at that in a regional sense in a regional theatre and see how it reaches out to audiences that not only love Shakespeare or theatre already but to work with how it can reach out to people who’ve not been involved in theatre before.
“We will leave here with a really great idea of what we’re doing and how it affects audiences. Also in another way it’s like an old-fashioned rep system which is completely overlooked now and is amazing for you to be able to do.”
Richard III: 25 Sept-17 Oct. The Night Before Christmas: 20 Nov-2 Jan
Written by Steve Pratt
Photography by Hannah Carter-Brown