Nona Shepphard: my life and career at the heart of theatre

By Alex Murphy-O’Connor

I first met Nona Shepphard, Associate director of RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), at the Durham Classics Society Conference. Flanking her on the panel were actor Christopher Eccleston (aka Doctor Who), screenwriter Bryony Lavery, and academic professors specialising in Greek theatre. So, why does Nona believe Classics is as relevant today as when she studied it at King’s College London?  ‘You’re valuable on a pub quiz team!’, she jokes. As a Classicist myself, I quite agree. I, too, am able to draw on a bank of useless (or rather useful) facts – most advantageous at a quiz. Jesting aside, she explains that ‘Classics trains your mind in the most extensive way. When I was studying, it was absolutely compulsory to have a Classics degree if you wanted to get into higher roles within the Civil Service. I always feel that’s what it has done for me – it has trained my mind where other studies wouldn’t have. It’s rigorous because of the language, yet playful and wide, whilst the knowledge you get from it is very broad.’ She adds that Classics offers ‘a way of looking at a society as a whole.’ The Ancient Greeks and Romans ‘have been inspirational in every aspect of society, so one clearly gets inspired when working in the theatre’ since theatre originated in 5th Century Greece. Furthermore, ‘5th Century Athens is the origin of so much of Western society and what we count dear. It’s really important to see where you come from to know who you are and where you’re going,’ as is drilled throughout Greek Tragedy.

Nona’s journey with Classics began, ‘as it does for many people’, by reading a book of Greek and Roman myths, which she was awarded at primary school. ‘The myths are stories that are so fascinating.’ In her current role, Nona runs a two-month intensive Shakespeare course every year for actors who feel they have not had enough Classical training. ‘As you know, if you’re going anywhere for allusions in Shakespeare, it is to the Greeks and the Romans.’

Indeed, when writing a play, she finds that Classics is ‘in me – all those stories and myths are so familiar. I’ve never consciously gone back to a Greek play. I’m so familiar with it all that it affects me without having to consciously bring it to mind.’ At the Classics Conference, Nona related that her favourite element of Greek plays were the Messenger speeches, in which the action is famously reported by a witness (action never takes place on stage). ‘Being told about something is fascinating – you need the audience to use their imagination. If you tie everything up and don’t leave anything for them to think about it’s not a good piece of work.’ Plays should ‘invoke pity and fear’ as Aristotle advises in his theatrical treatise, Poetics. ‘You get a release which is solely yours – no one can get in the way of that.’ Fifteen critics may have a different opinion and approach to one of Shepphard’s productions, yet she relishes this: ‘drama and art are so marvellous because they invoke so many ideas and provoke so many thoughts in people and get people talking – there’s the value of theatre in a nutshell.’

Drama and art are so marvellous because they invoke so many ideas and provoke so many thought in people

The Classics course at King’s appealed to Shepphard due to its uniqueness in putting on an annual Greek play in the original language. After acting in Aristophanes’ comedy The Frogs in her first year, she went on to direct Sophocles’ Antigone and Euripides’ Andromache in her second and third years respectively. Since then, Nona has directed countless plays. As a creative leader in her directorial role, she has found that the most important aspect of her responsibility is to ‘illuminate the story – it is ‘important not to have such a huge concept so that it overshadows the way of the story.’ One needs to ‘find a way to inspire the actors to bring out the story in the best possible way to make is real and to make it moving.’ In order to achieve this, Nona believes that in her role it is integral to inspire the actors to love the material – ‘they are the ones on the front line, so they need to be content with what they’re doing.’ Perhaps most crucially, ‘it’s very important from the beginning of rehearsal to create a room where everyone feels comfortable, so that everyone can work as an ensemble and that people respect each other, enjoy working together where their ideas are respected. They must feel they have room to try anything, be playful, and be brave, that they are not going to be judged in rehearsal – we’re all after the same thing.’

Having accumulated a wealth of experience, Nona has found that it is essential to start the day as an ensemble: focused and cohesive. ‘Rigour is important, routine is important, playfulness is important.’ Whilst some companies, she points out, start the day ‘by cleaning their rehearsal spaces from top to bottom,’ Nona is famous for her physical and vocal warm-up, which she crafted in the ‘90s, and has been doing every day since. ‘I’ve done (hopefully) wonderful productions in lots of places, and certainly loads of productions at RADA, and what do people always say about me? The warmup!’

At RADA, she has played a crucial role in auditioning and teaching British acting’s brightest stars, including Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag), Sophie Okonedo (A Raisin in the Sun) and Cynthia Erivo (upcoming Wicked). RADA’s prestigious reputation as one of the leading Drama schools in the world means that the calibre of the students is unrivalled, and she delights in working with these young actors. ‘Each of them could be a superstar – one or two per year go straight into a feature film, but any of them could – that’s what interests me. Often it’s to do with the fashion of the moment – people want actors to look a certain way. That’s why it’s such a tricky industry because it’s not an industry that (always) works on merit, it’s one that works on luck, merit, and ‘right place right time.’ If you’re a well-trained actor, how you succeed sometimes has nothing to do with your talent.’ At this stage in their career, ‘the work is the most important thing. They don’t have to worry about critics, they don’t have to worry about jobs, they’re not being viewed, they’re not being judged. They can be completely free to try things. It’s very rewarding and inspiring and energizing to work with a young group of actors.’

Spending a lot of the time in a theatre space comes with challenges of its own – namely, superstitions. It is universally acknowledged that when actors are putting on a production of Macbeth, the title of the play is not allowed to be mentioned in the building, else the production is cursed. ‘I’m not superstitious’, she pleads, yet she finds herself saying ‘The Scottish Play’ or ‘Lady M’ during a production of Macbeth. She remembers a time when she performed it at the Liverpool Playhouse, fresh out of university. ‘Macbeth and Macduff were having a fight at the end, when Macbeth’s sword flew off and stuck into the only empty seat in the front row!’ Though she didn’t witness anyone explicitly saying The Scottish Play’s title that day, everyone in the theatre witnessed the dangers of what could happen if anyone dares mention it. As a remedy to counteract this curse, Shepphard was told that one should turn on the spot anticlockwise and quote As You Like It, ‘so I’m often seen spinning saying ‘think not I love her…’’In fact ‘I can’t see a magpie without saluting and saying a little rhyme’, so it seems she is superstitious after all!

It has been a big part of my life, ad has been a vibrant and successful collaboration

Having reached the heights of the British drama scene, Shepphard has been instrumental in establishing The Lir Academy, Ireland’s National Academy of Dramatic Arts based in Trinity College, Dublin. After the acting course at Trinity ceased, ‘there was nowhere really in Ireland where you could get really good conservatoire training.’ Brian Singleton (then Professor of English at Trinity College, Dublin, current Samuel Beckett Chair of Drama and Theatre at Trinity College Dublin and Academic Director of The Lir) and Danielle Ryan (Irish actress, RADA alumna) ‘hatched a plan twelve years ago to start a new conservatoire in Dublin based on the RADA model. The then-principal of RADA asked if I would lead on it.’ Nona was put in charge of everything, from overseeing the requirements for a new Drama school, to choosing and recruiting staff, as well as auditioning potential students at every level. She even directed the first show of the first graduating company of actors, Owen McCafferty’s ‘Scenes from the Big Picture.’ Every year since she spends a week at The Lir hosting a ‘Shakespeare Week’ for first and second years, and she still directs plays from time to time. The Lir has flourished, with actors such as Paul Mescal (Normal People) and Alison Oliver (Saltburn) graduating from there in recent years. Students from RADA and The Lir regularly showcase at their partner school, continuing to strengthen the alliance between the two Academies. ‘It’s one of those projects that I’ve really enjoyed. It has been a big part of my life, and has been a vibrant and successful collaboration.’

In contrast to the “vibrant yet small” drama scene in Ireland, were she inevitably bumps into people at theatre hotspots such as The Abbey, The Gate or Project Arts, London’s theatre scene is grand. “The West End brings in a fantastic amount of money to the country, and we’re known for it around the world: our theatre, our films, our fashion, and our music. It’s really undervalued.” If there is one thing that needs to change about the Arts in this country, it is to shift the focus to small theatre companies. “A lot of money goes into the bigger companies. The small companies are the breeding ground of wonderful theatre. They’re not only radical, they’re experimental. Actors perform in every space you could think of. They go out into schools and get kids to watch theatre. Its invaluable!” She expresses her wish that there should be at least one theatre and education company in every town, and at least three small theatre companies. She adds that “those are the significant places where people learn to cut their teeth, learn to work together, and learn good politics. Smaller companies aren’t necessarily theatre spaces but are community spaces, and theatre is a communal activity.” However there is a “lack of money.” Theatre it seen as an “elitist” activity. “It should not be, it’s the exact opposite! Theatre can open up even the most complex aspects of life to anybody if it is made accessible to everybody, by making it in a story form that people can understand and value and can learn from. I want more of it, especially at what might be considered ‘the lower end’. I wish we as a society valued our Arts more than we do. I think the government is shameful the way it always cuts the Arts, the way it doesn’t really pay attention to who it appoints as Culture Secretary, when often the appointee doesn’t even like culture. Even on a practical level, it must be acknowledged how much money the theatre and all of the associated arts bring into this country.”

I wish we as a society valued our Arts more than we do

As the interview drew to a close, I savoured Nona’s final words. A mover and shaker in the global Arts scene, and at the pinnacle of her career, we must heed her words to be the generation which creates this change. Durham has a vibrant Arts scene all of its own with a plethora of small theatre companies performing in venues across the city where our fellow students are cutting their own teeth. In our endeavour to make the Arts accessible to all, we must remember to look back and “see where you come from to know who you are and where you’re going.” Theatre was, after all, founded in a Democracy.

Quickfire Fact File:

1.           Favourite play? Electra Sophocles (first thing ever did at RADA)

2.           Favourite playwright: Bryony Lavery & Shakespeare

3.           Favourite film: The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Lantana

4.           Favourite album: White Album

5.           Favourite book: Mill on the Floss

6.           Favourite work of art: Rembrandt Self Portrait at 63, Mark Rothko Yellow and Blue

Image: via Nona Sheppard

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