Liverpool Everyman: 'the theatre was as rough as our performances'

When you auditioned, you had to tell a joke. Then they took you to a factory to meet your audience. As the Everyman reopens, Alison Steadman, Roger McGough and Jonathan Pryce remember how they found their feet at the theatre

Alison Steadman

When I had my audition at the Everyman with Alan Dosser, the artistic director, I went along with my prepared pieces – my classic and my modern. I did those and he said, "Great. Can you tell me a joke?" I said, "You what?" He just wanted me being me – to see if I was the kind of actor who would have a go. The plays the Everyman put on required personality.

I left drama school in July 1969 and went straight to Lincoln Theatre Royal and then Bolton Octagon. You learn a lot at drama school but really complete your training in theatres around the country. You used to do seasons everywhere but getting into the Everyman was exciting because I had a year's contract.

Then the wonderful John McGrath wrote a play for Liverpool, Soft or a Girl, and the whole city was buzzing about it. There were huge queues outside the Everyman. There was a moment in the script with two guys looking over the city. At the time, so much of Liverpool was being rebuilt with modern housing. One character says, "What Hitler and the Luftwaffe didn't do in the 1940s, the Liverpool city council have just done now." That rang home for everyone.

I grew up in Liverpool so when I went to the Everyman I was staying with my parents. Jonathan Pryce and I were cast in The Foursome, which was also set in Liverpool. It was about two young couples who go off to Freshfield and spend a day on the sand dunes. The stage was covered in sand. The play had a lot of nudity and rude language – lots about shagging and so on. And then my parents came to see it. They were very modest, quiet people but they were determined to come along. I said, "Mum, you're going to see Jonathan Pryce walking around with no clothes on!" They were shocked by the play but thought it was great.

Alison Steadman at the Everyman
My parents were shocked … Alison Steadman at the Everyman Photograph: PR

We were always coping with poky dressing rooms and bad conditions backstage, but we didn't care. The Everyman bistro, which was downstairs, did the best food at reasonable prices so we could all afford it. And then you'd have a drink with your friends after the show.

Alan had a vision of connecting with the people. Audiences felt it was for them and about them. We used to nickname him James Dean. He was very attractive but had a mean, determined look about him. He was inspirational, he didn't take any nonsense – he just went for it.

When I first started at the theatre, he put us all on a coach and sent us to the Ford factory in Speke. He sat us down and said, "I want you to meet the people of Liverpool and to realise that this is their theatre. We are here for them." That was such a brilliant idea. As actors you can get very inward-looking but the Everyman was there to serve a community.

Roger McGough

When I first went to the Everyman it was known as the Hope Hall. It was an arts cinema and then it became a theatre and performance space with a bar downstairs. Before the Everyman opened up in the mid-60s there was the Playhouse, which had an older audience. It was regarded as elitist – the actors came up from London, did the shows and then went back on the next train. The Everyman was different. The actors came and stayed in Liverpool. They put on proletarian, socially conscious stuff.

I was living in the centre of town and we started going down there. Brian Patten, Adrian Henri and I had started doing poetry readings in various venues around the city. We'd take over folk clubs on a quiet Monday night. We started doing events – or "happenings" as they were known in America. This being Liverpool, there was always a lot of humour. In the bar downstairs there'd often be a band on – and a dance. We generally put on readings and sketches downstairs. Paul McCartney and George Harrison would come to the readings and hang around. That's where I met John Gorman and Mike McCartney; we formed the Scaffold and put on shows both downstairs and upstairs.

Brian Patten and Roger McGough, sitting, in the Everyman bistro
Brian Patten and Roger McGough, sitting, in the Everyman bistro Photograph: PR

When we were doing sketches and poetic dialogues and bits of political satire in the bistro downstairs, we thought it was a bit naff to learn your lines – it was too much like showing off, too much like acting, so we'd always use our handwritten scripts. Then when we put on a show upstairs we'd think, "Ah, this is serious!" We'd learn our lines and we'd watch and learn from the actors.

My first play was put on at the Everyman, directed by Peter James. It was called The Commision. The Everyman asked me to write the play and then I wrote a play about someone who is commissioned to do a play but is unable to do it. And then the actors played out the attempts he'd made at it. In the end it turns out the actors commissioned the play and they kill him. You had to be there …

I was a teacher at the time and there were lots of lecturers and art students around the Everyman. It was OK to like sculpture because it involved manual labour, but things like ballet and opera and poetry were on the effete end of things. That was the time and the place and it was a class thing. but the Everyman was a melting pot. It wasn't every man for himself – it was every man and woman for each other.

Jonathan Pryce

I used to go to Hope Hall when it was a music venue. I'd hitchhike over from north Wales and do a double: go to the Cavern and then Hope Hall. I was a student at Edge Hill college in Ormskirk, doing art with drama as a subsidiary. My tutor was Gerry Dawson, who ran Unity theatre in Liverpool. They used to rent the Everyman for a week and put their plays on. Unity would sell out the theatre for a week while the Everyman company was struggling a bit. I started going to see the company when it was under Peter James and they had a style that was more rough and ready than the Playhouse down the road.

I trained at Rada and knew I wanted to return to the Everyman. I started there in 1972. You played as cast. I started off as Elbow in Measure for Measure and then was in The Foursome with Alison Steadman. The show's nudity was advertised and the expectation was that it would be the girls that took their clothes off – but it was the men. It broke a box-office record for selling the biggest number of single seats.

We did a mixture of classical theatre – because we needed to get the schools in – and plays often specifically written for the company by John McGrath, Chris Bond and Adrian Mitchell. I played Richard III and we did King Lear, which was a notable production because in the afternoon the same cast did Winnie-the-Pooh. My double was Edgar and Owl; Antony Sher was Christopher Robin and the Fool. It was a desperate production. The school kids had no awareness or interest in Winnie-the-Pooh at all. We didn't have much interest as actors. The kids would talk all the way through. Eeyore used to jump off the stage and say, "Eeyore, Eee-bloody-ore, who wants a ride on Eeyore's back?" And he'd take the kids for a ride around the auditorium. And then at night we'd do King Lear.

I left and spent a year at Nottingham with Richard Eyre and then Alan Dosser, the artistic director, announced he was taking a sabbatical from the Everyman and I brazenly asked if I could have the job. And they said yes. I'd directed one play at the end of my time at the Everyman – A Taste of Honey. When I went back, almost the entire company left to do Willy Russell's Beatles show in London – John, Paul, George, Ringo and … Bert. So it meant forming a company, choosing a short season of plays and getting on with it.

It was a great place to socialise as well as perform. We'd rehearse all day, perform at night and then be in the bistro til the early hours. Nearly all of us lived in Liverpool 8 so you'd be walking – or staggering – home.

The building was crumbling even then. The theatre was as rough as our performances.

You could never rely on the audience coming back play after play, which made for a very outfront performance style because you had to make an effort to grab their attention. So for a young actor starting out, it was the best experience I could have had. It made me fearless about being on stage.

Liverpool's Everyman theatre: earthy, not chi-chi and now back in business


Interviews by Chris Wiegand

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