Starting a career in theatre: An interview with Andrew Lynford

Interview with Andrew Lynford // Edited by Michael Hoyle

I always aspired to be an actor and I became one. In my early years, I was always conscious of doing it the “right way”, i.e. Drama School training, getting an agent, joining Equity and working my way up from small roles and ASM work. This sounds quite old-fashioned, and of course, there are many other ways to enter the profession now, but I am glad this was the route I took. This route led to success on television and on stage, which has led to a career as a writer, producer and director in later years.

I made sure I was in every school play, from the infant school nativity to the secondary school musicals. I was always the one with the loudest speaking voice. I seemed to have no qualms about performing in a role. However, in other areas of school life, I was quite unsure and retiring. I was lucky enough to get into the Youth Theatre at my local repertory theatre, The Queen’s in Hornchurch, Essex, a highly regarded regional venue, that is still going strong today. The then Administrator of the theatre, the late Bill Johnston, was always enormously encouraging and pivotal in getting local kids involved in the various workshops and classes. This led to Bob Tomson, the TV and West End theatre director, who at the time was the Artistic Director there, using us local kids in professional productions, so I got to work with actors and technicians from the age of about 12 years. Also nearby was The Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford, run by the legendary director Vivyan Ellacott, who was renowned for getting people their Equity cards – a necessity then for anyone who wanted to work professionally. I appeared in various shows for him and, at the age of 16, I got my adult Equity membership.

Bill and Vivyan certainly helped me and gave me the encouragement and confidence to apply for Drama Schools, which I did. I then went on to train at Mountview Theatre School in north London.

When I left Mountview, I had trained in musical theatre – I had been a Singing Scholarship student. However, I was always determined to ‘act’ in straight theatre. I managed to get an agent upon graduation but I was always very proactive in promoting myself. I wrote endless letters and sent photos and CVs to rep theatres, casting directors, producers and anyone who I thought may be vaguely interested in meeting me!

“Get an agent – but only get someone you feel is a good fit, no agent is better than a bad one”

Initially, I was hopeless at auditions – nervous and self-critical, but I soon got into my stride and began to get work. Pantomime was my first job (as a dog in a skin costume!) and this led to rep seasons at Hornchurch, Colchester, Liverpool, Worcester, Bury St Edmund’s among other places. These jobs were invaluable, as I really did learn, in both the rehearsal room and on stage, with experienced actors and directors. I felt inspired, inadequate and determined in equal measure! I began working on a Children’s BBC show ‘Playdays’ as a presenter. I wrote to them on numerous occasions, and they finally auditioned me and I was hired. This gave me a lot of fast studio experience, working at a pace. I also felt ready having had a few years jobbing about in regional theatres. This was an important job for me, as it gave me a lot of confidence in front of the camera. This led to more television castings and then I became a regular character in EastEnders, which at the time had viewing figures of 20million, so that changed everything. I became ‘famous’, or at least a recognisable TV face, and the doors opened for many other opportunities. It wasn’t always. It wasn’t always easy though – before working on the soap, there had been many auditions and a lot of ‘no thank you’s’ which meant a lot of disappointment, and time spent working in call centres and backstage in theatres in the West End. Frustrating and dispiriting as that was, looking back it made me more grounded and determined to keep pursuing my goals.

Who has most influenced your career and why?

That is always a hard question. Certainly Bill Johnston and Vivyan Ellacott from my early days, as already discussed, but other directors along the way who showed great faith in me and what I might achieve, even though I wasn’t always convinced myself! Directors Jenny Stephens and Graham Watts, producers Jo Ward and Alison Davis at the BBC to name only a couple of many inspirational production people; my agents over the years. Too many to mention. I guess also the actors I admired – Olivier, Anthony Hopkins, Judi Dench, people I have been lucky enough to grow up seeing in the theatre and on TV and film. And the great comedians and stars of sitcom – comedy is where I have worked a lot, and watching and enjoying their timing and delivery has always been relevant to the type of work I have done.

What were your early career goals and how close are you to meeting them?

I always wanted to work on TV and theatre, and I did everything I wanted to do. I was lucky, but I also worked hard to reach out to the right people and did my best to get them to see me for roles. I knew I’d like to direct and write, and I have achieved that too, but there are of course many types of show, plays and TV that I still would love to explore.

How have your goals developed as your career has progressed?

My goals change all the time, this comes with experience and where you are in your home life, too. Things become less important and more important in varying degrees as you get older and gain more knowledge of yourself and the industry. I still have many goals, and I still wake up most days thinking “I wish I could have a go at that!” and try to set about finding a way to get to do it… Making a nuisance of yourself in a good way in always advisable!

What would you do differently if you could and why?

Hmmm… you can always find an answer to that. But in reality, it’s all been pretty good. Yes, I would have liked a few more leading TV roles after EastEnders; yes perhaps I picked the wrong agent to go to who didn’t really promote me in the way I needed at the time; yes, perhaps I should have taken some of the offers that I turned down. But ultimately, I set out to be a successful entertainment industry professional, and it has happened. So thanks to everyone who made it so..

Can you list some useful character attributes that you like to see in new aspiring theatre professionals?

Honesty and commitment; it is the only way to succeed. Be sure of yourself and what you can do, and be aware of what you might achieve if you push yourself just that little bit further. Don’t be complacent and expect it to come to you – that only happens to a very small number of people. The best people in this industry have worked their way up and appreciate where they have got to. And know the basics – courtesy, good manners and appreciation. Life is hard in the arts, be good to yourself and those who are around you.

How has the industry changed since you began working in theatre?

There is less work available, no question of that, particularly with the decline of the rep system and regional theatre funding. There is a kind of ‘X Factor Generation’ now, who seem to want to prove themselves in the blink of an eye. Keep training, rehearsing and building, otherwise, you will burn out pretty quickly. But the good thing is, there are more opportunities to self-promote – the internet, making films even if it is just on your phone, email contact to get through to casting directors. Embrace that and be seen. Your visibility is vital and you can make sure you have it thanks to technology.

What direction do you think ‘Theatre’ will take?

I hope that regional theatre will reignite after its demise. I think people generally are beginning to yearn for a live experience, as they are swamped with access to immediate online viewing. The West End needs to reassess what it represents – it needs to exist in all forms for all people, not just the white middle-class masses who can afford it.

List your top 3 moments of your career – these can be professional or personal

  • Getting into Drama School aged 17
  • getting EastEnders aged 23
  • moving to LA to work in the crazy world of film and TV in America.

Do you have a morning ritual?

Up before 8 and walk the dog – my thinking time before the day begins.

Have you ever met one of your heroes?

Yes. And they were lovelier than I even imagined.

Have you ever won an award? What was it for?

One or two soap type awards when I was in EastEnders.

What are you an expert in? Is it because of training, life experience, or both?

I am an expert in dealing with talent – mostly from experience.

What was your very first job?

Tearing tickets at the Adelphi Theatre on Me & My Girl.

Where & when do you get your best ideas?

First thing in the day, I am a morning person. I can be an evening person as well, but usually only after an afternoon nap. (Doesn’t sound very productive when written down, but it can be..!)

What are your top 10 tips for a successful audition?

  1. Be prepared, no excuse to not know the script. Stay up all night learning it if needs be.
  2. Be courteous and polite, you are lucky to be seen for a job, remember 1000s applied for it, and you have been selected to get in the room.
  3. Commit – the day job or childcare must be second place to the audition if you are really in the game.
  4. Dress well and look like you care! A casting is an interview after all.
  5. Be open to direction. You have to make choices about the material, but your choices may not be the director’s choices.
  6. Keep training – vocal work, singing lessons, acting classes at Actors’ Centre, etc. You cannot know everything or be good at everything when you leave college.
  7. When you go in the room for a casting, keep the hello’s brief – shaking hands and all that is time-consuming on a busy casting day. A polite, hello and thanks for meeting me, then get on with it.
  8. Take a copy of your CV and photo, just in case for any reason the audition panel don’t have one.
  9. Enjoy castings! Sounds hard when nerves can undoubtedly get the better of you. Remember, the director is not judging you, he wants you to be right for his role. Give your warmth and confidence to the room. Don’t make an excuse for being there.
  10. Keep a clear mind and keep realistic about who you are and your talents. Don’t let anything go to your head – tomorrow you could be back in the sandwich bar slicing bagels.

Give 10 top tips on earning a living in theatre

  1. Be prepared.
  2. Know and understand that you will need a day job.
  3. The money is usually low pay, so don’t expect to get rich quick.
  4. Find a way to make it work financially whenever possible – a profit share production is always unaffordable, but may lead to a great paid job.
  5. Be prepared to negotiate.
  6. Join Equity for your insurance cover and any disputes that may arise.
  7. You MUST be listed on Spotlight.
  8. Get an agent – but only get someone you feel is a good fit, no agent is better than a bad one.
  9. Be prepared to travel at home and abroad. You have to go to the jobs.
  10. Stay fit, your health is vital for work.

If you enjoyed this, you may also like:

10 top tips for working in the creative sector

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