The Success of Failure - A Tribute To My Work
Between 1995 and 2000 I taught in the Drama Department at the University of Hull. At the time Hull was ranked No 1 Drama Department in the UK. It also boasted alumni such as Director Anthony Minghella, (Dir:The English Patient, The Talented Mr Ripley) amongst many others. In 1998 Sir Tom Stoppard gave the commencement speech at graduation; in 2001 it was Dame Judy Dench. For those of you who are pop-musically inclined, Tracy Thorn, Ben Watt (Everything But The The Girl) went to the University of Hull and The Fine Young Cannibals and The Housemartins(!) were Hull-based bands. (uhm...different blog, CD?...different blog.....)
I have seen many of my former Hull students become significant players, as actors, directors, casting directors, scholars, all of them powering the planet with their creative energy! This year I made the personal Honours list of a female student who I taught in the late 90s. It is exactly as you imagine it. You wake up one day, you are flicking through the post, the newspaper, the social media, whatever, whilst sipping a cup of tea, and someone from almost 20 years ago has written about you and the way that you changed the trajectory of their life. You stop. Mug suspends itself in mid-air ... for a moment. All time stops and the you feel it pulse, so gently, to the rhythm of your awe and gratitude. And you are moved. (Thank you LD)
Last week I found a story that had a similar effect on me. I want to share it with my actors. It is as powerful a tribute as I have read from a student or actor.
Sam Roukin is a British actor I taught at the University of Hull. He works in the US and can be seen on AMC's "TURN:Washington's Spies" He was also in "Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows" He made his last UK theatre appearance at the Royal National Theatre along with some of my other students from 'Hull uni'. His piece below was published in a commemorative book for the 50th anniversary commemorating the Drama Dept at Hull. I think I can honestly say that my years at Hull, teaching, writing, engaged in rigorous process, and hiking on the coast (such extraordinary hikes up there in the North of England!) were, without exception, my most inspired and creatively energetic years as an artist/scholar. This energy was 'spirited' by an unusually gifted array of students, and an almost legendary collaboration with Professor Michael Walton; the epitome of "great scholarship, worn lightly".
The journal to commemorate the department is called "Huddled Together".
Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Sam Roukin.
Huddled Together From East Coast to East Coast - Sam Roukin. Single Honours Drama, 2001 Actor The city of Kingston Upon Hull was contributing nothing to the sales pitch of Hull University Drama Department on the day I arrived for my interview in 1998. The city was enveloped by a blanket of rain, rendering the Humber Bridge barely visible. The sickly chocolate-refuse aroma from the various factories was in full effect and added to this, it was freezing. In other words, the conditions were perfect. If you can be lured into a three-year commitment anywhere under these circumstances, it has to be somewhere impressive. I knew of the Department’s reputation and the prominent alumni, but in the end I trusted instinct over reputation. It was simply the soul of the place. The moment you walk into The Gulbenkian you are aware of the building’s energy. It oozes creativity. Fanciful? Maybe, but I think there is some architectural factor too. The building has no dead ends. On each floor, you can walk all the way round. It encourages a flow of ideas and provides the opportunity to bump into someone every minute. I felt creative in the building immediately and, more importantly, I felt at home, a feeling which grew the more time I spent there. The Department has a parenting system where finalists nurture freshers. My ‘Daughter’ Alice still calls me her Dad. It is only when looking back, that I realise how much the time spent there formed future experience, particularly in the business. One of the great things is how the tutors, most of them expert practitioners in their own right, lead by example. In our first term, Nike Imoru, a heroine of mine, played the title role in Medea. She led our very first acting class which culminated in Tom Brooke and I having a slow motion boxing match, topless (we have been firm friends ever since). Then to see her three weeks later putting her money where her mouth was and laying her acting guts out on stage in front of us, garnered maximum respect. Many of the tutors were involved in projects along the way and it gave an inspiring context to their work and ours. Nike encouraged so many of us to forge ahead even if we were destined for some sort of creative failure. This was a triumph in her eyes. Failure is a crucial part of any rehearsal process; the permission to get it wrong and I learned it from her. I know many other people who have similar stories, not just about her but other members of staff. Most students had their ‘person’, the tutor that lit their creative fire in whatever discipline it happened to be and encouraged risk-taking. The Department itself upheld this philosophy via daily HUDDLEs. A £5 budget, a performance space for 30 minutes any lunch- time and the promise of an audience. Anything goes. Some great theatre never to be seen again came from these performances; some artists were born. There were so many great artistic experiences during my time in Hull that have weirdly come full circle in the future. I remember being humiliated during a workshop with the great classical actress, Jane Lapotaire. I understood what she wanted me to do intellectually, but was unable to put it into action at that point and in front of an audience too. I was frustrated and bruised by the experience. Two years later she came and did a similar workshop at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School where I was training and this time I was able to hit the ground running. One of the greatest things about the Hull Department and its facilities was the option to try out every aspect of professional theatre practice. During my Drama degree course I acted, sang, directed, stage-managed, learned set design, sound design, carpentry (badly) and then some. Graduates leave Hull with a respect for every aspect of theatre. It seemed so basic at the time to have an interest in everything, but as soon as you are working professionally, you realise how rare that is.
People do talk in the theatre and media world of ‘The Hull Mafia’. Wherever you are in the business, whatever you are doing, there is a high probability that you will find a Hull University Drama Department graduate. I was never more aware of it than in my most recent theatre gig, The Kitchen at The [Royal] National Theatre. Tom Brooke played Peter, I played Paul, Ruth Gibson played Gwen and Anna Cole, whom I’d never met before, was an ASM. It was such a joy to experience this full circle. It turned out to be the last English job I did prior to moving to the US. As Tom and I walked down to the front of The Olivier Stage on opening night to take our joint curtain call, I said in his ear ‘Who knew?’ Hull had kick-started a friendship and two career paths that went in separate directions, only to join up again on the stage where we had together watched our acting heroes inspire us. Hull did that.