Graham Eatough on How to Act

We meet theatre maker Graham Eatough as his much-lauded How to Act returns to the Scottish stage

Feature by Amy Taylor | 06 Mar 2018

Premiering at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year, Graham Eatough’s How to Act quickly became one of the hottest tickets at the festival, picking up critical acclaim, plaudits and awards. The play takes the form of an acting masterclass led by a fictional but extremely well-respected theatre director using techniques learned in Africa and Asia. The audience are in a sense the masterclass participants, watching an older, experienced director (Anthony Nicholl, played by Robert Goodale) and a young aspiring black actress (Promise, played by Jade Ogugua) explore theatrical methods, while slowly revealing a history of exploitation, power play and exposing one another’s world view.

In the seven months since its premiere, and just before it embarks on a tour around Scotland, the play has developed a new meaning in light of recent news stories, specifically #MeToo and #TimesUp. The current news cycle is increasingly drawn to stories of abuses of power and exploitation in the entertainment industries. For writer and director Eatough, the new attention brings a different layer to his play, which was developed, as he puts it, as “a genuine experiment.

“The #MeToo thing is very fascinating,” he says. “I think it’s going to make Robert’s job even harder in the play, because I think there are certain assumptions around Anthony, particularly now, that are – if not negative – they’re certainly questioning. It’s going to be fascinating to see how people read the show differently in that light. It’s not something that we were addressing specifically in the original production in terms of sexual harassment, but I think it will definitely be at the back of people’s minds when they’re watching this workshop unfold between the older white male actor, and this younger actress.”

The dynamics of power and gender are plain to see in the premise of How to Act, but there are also a number of other issues at play. Eatough explains that the play, which he’s worked on since 2013, was inspired by Greek tragedy, specifically the characters of kings and rulers, who are often initially presented as being infallible and powerful, but lose everything because of their humanity.

“The challenge I set myself was, would it be possible to use this opportunity as a way of telling this grand, quite extreme, story that attempted to speak beyond its immediate coordinates to something broader, really and more societal?” The older, renowned male director in How to Act substitutes for the ancient Greek Kings of past tragedies. Eatough’s reasoning was that a person of Nicholl’s standing would have the same powers in the world of theatre, especially when confronted with younger, less experienced actors eager to learn from someone at the top of their game. “A theatre director would have that same ability, albeit in microcosm, that same ability to impose their will and to be in control of the story,” he explains.

It’s not just the fictional characters that Eatough is interested in, but the idea that Nicholl, while not a monster or a predator, has engaged in oppressive behaviour without even knowing it. “I’ve been interested for a while in how we in the West approach different cultures, particularly within the arts, how we refer to and incorporate – you might say appropriate – cultural influences into our own privileged western theatre practices,” begins Eatough. For a character like Anthony Nicholl, whose career has allowed him to work in foreign countries, specifically in Nigeria, his experiences have formed the basis of his theatre practice, which has led to a long and successful career. He only wants to create a better theatre for everyone, but he has done so using methods he learned in Nigeria and elsewhere, to further himself and not the communities from which they came, which in itself speaks to a larger trend in the West.

“Those kinds of ideas can be created with completely the best of intentions,” says Eatough. “You know, they’re about artists trying to form bridges and connections with other cultures. But at the same time, potentially, there was a huge problematic [element to] that kind of relationship, because we also are part of a society that has exploited some of these places, and that continues to rely on these usually poorer countries and cultures for our much-needed resources.”

These much-needed resources are things that we tend to take for granted – in the case of Nigeria, oil, the exploitation of which has led to a host of political, humane and ethical issues. “However we live our lives in the West, it’s fuelled by oil, really, and in order to get that, there’s this idea that we communally are responsible for some horrific circumstances. That, to me, felt very Greek in a way,” explains Eatough.

But How to Act’s references to Greek tragedy don’t just relate to the characters. The play is really the retelling of a story from two different, and often opposing points of view. It is not a play that paints issues as one or the other, but rather one that airs both sides of a story that is at points complicated and at other times, uncomfortable.

How to Act, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 6-10 Mar