The saviour of the Old Vic

By

Jay Brooks, via The Old Vic

Many will know Kevin Spacey best for his performances onscreen as Frank Underwood in House of Cards, Lex Luther in Superman Returns, or as Lester Burnham in the multi-award winning American Beauty.

But it is fair to argue that Spacey’s most successful role has been as the first Artistic Director for The Old Vic Theatre in London, which he took on in 2004 and will step down from at the end of this year. The job description is relatively simple: pick the plays, and bring together the people who will make that play a success.

The day after the premier of American Beauty at the London Film Festival, Spacey had been chairing an industry discussion on what would become of the woe begotten Old Vic. Earlier in the decade it was rumoured that it would be transformed into a pub or bingo hall, tearing it from its roots as the birthplace of the National Theatre, which had since relocated to the Southbank. That night, Spacey found himself hailing a cab and standing before the Old Vic at 2.30am “thinking about Lawrence Olivier and about what he did when he started the National Theatre.”

At that moment he decided to make the declining theatre his new project, and has taken it from strength to strength since he officially announced his move four years later, saying that he was following his dream: “I never, ever want to lose touch with when I was fourteen or fifteen years old and I was dreaming about building a theater and I was dreaming about doing plays and writing things with friends and watching them perform. I never went through a period where I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll do something else,’ or ‘Maybe this isn’t right.’ Never.”

Spacey opened his new regime in September 2004 with Maria Goos’ Cloaca, which received a great deal of criticism, although mainly for the choice of play rather than Spacey’s handling of it as Director. In 2005 the reviews improved when Spacey took to the stage himself as Richard II under the careful guidance of world-renowned director Trevor Nunn.

In the period that followed, Spacey has played at the Old Vic on many occasions, including in Richard III, Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten and, most recently, Clarence Darrow, a one-man show that is currently running at the Old Vic to mark Spacey’s ten year anniversary.

In the production’s programme he comments, “Wanting to get up on my beloved Old Vic stage in our 10th anniversary season was […] important to me. I moved to London 11 years ago. And taking on a play that I feel very close to seems right.”

As well as rejuvenating the theatre, Spacey has also taken steps to ensure that the theatre gives back to its community. In 2010 he established The Kevin Spacey Foundation as a means to support emerging actors, writers, directors and producers with a variety of grants, scholarships and projects helping to propel them forward into the world of theatre.

“When I first started out”, Spacey states on the foundation’s website, “I was lucky enough to meet Jack Lemmon, who encouraged me to become an actor. […] He believed that if you’ve been successful in your chosen path, if you’ve been able to realize your ambition, then you are obligated to ‘send the elevator back down’.”

He also developed the Old Vic New Voices scheme, founded in 2001, and designed to nurture talent and inspire young people by opening up the theatre to all ages and experiences. The scheme offers space and funding for new projects, whilst also giving schools free theatre tickets to every Old Vic production with an aim to widen the theatre community. The theatre also offers one hundred £12 tickets for under 25s for every performance, as well as £5 and £10 tickets for people living and working locally, meaning that being strapped for cash is now no excuse for missing a show.

Spacey’s tenure has entirely revitalized the Old Vic, and has established it as one of London’s best-loved theatres for its exciting, yet accessible, performances. Matthew Warchus, announced this month as Spacey’s successor, will have his work cut out. Kevin Spacey is a tough act to follow.

Photography: Jay Brooks via The Old Vic

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