As founding father of the Orange Tree Theatre, Sam Walters is a pillar of the Richmond scene. This year he finally hands over the reins. Here he talks to Richard Nye about directing, theatre-in-the-round and his hatred of online shopping
Sam Walters can see trouble ahead. Not because he will soon surrender his place on the bridge of Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre: four decades at the helm have left him more than ready for a rest. Nor is it a case of Après moi, le deluge: with a top-drawer successor lined up to take the wheel in July, the ship is in no danger of running aground. It’s just that Sam, adrift from his trusty crew, will be struggling to work his computer.
“I don’t know what I’ll do,“ he sighs, settling down in a quiet corner of the Orange Tree warren. “I shall need some support from somewhere. Here I can just call for help. People spend so much time in front of screens now, don’t they?”
It is hard to imagine the Orange Tree without its founder and Artistic Director; impossible to dissociate the intimate auditorium from the man who, since it opened in 1991, has bestridden it like a self-deprecating colossus, building on the firm foundations of 20 years above the pub next door. The OT without Walters and his wife – actress and director Auriol Smith, whom Sam met while doing panto at Rotherham in 1962 – is like Elsinore without Hamlet and Ophelia. It is a creature seemingly indivisible from the fertile minds that conceived it.
Come July, however, the umbilical cord will finally be cut. For the first time since 1971, Walters will no longer be the artistic director he never set out to be.
“I wanted to be Albert Finney when I was young. I had no thought in my head of directing,” he reflects. “It was when I was in repertory that I began to lose interest in my own parts and become more absorbed in the whole. To be an actor, you must be primarily focused on your own part. You need a strong competitive streak, like Olivier.
“Directing is more collaborative. You’re in charge, of course, but it’s not like being the conductor of an orchestra, without whom nothing can happen. You have the power, but paradoxically you are also dispensable.”
It is, he says, a more collaborative role than ever; a big change from the days when shorter rehearsal times precluded much discussion with the cast. One senses that he prefers it this way: human interaction inspires him. Theatre, he believes, should be a way of provoking discussion among actors and audience alike.
“It’s important for the theatre to stick pins in things,” he says. “We’re not there just to make people feel comfortable. When I was growing up, and the Royal Court burst onto the scene, being in the theatre was an act of rebellion. You were wilfully eschewing the prospect of a safe career. Today that’s changed. If your daughter said she wanted to be an actress, you wouldn’t shout ‘You whore!’ and throw her out of the house. I suppose young people no longer see theatre as the primary focus of disaffection. They’re all tweeting and blogging instead.”
It was following a short spell in Jamaica, during which they had laboured to establish the island’s first full-time theatre company and drama school, that Sam and Auriol conceived the idea for what would become their life’s work.
The evolution of the Orange Tree Theatre – from its origins as a lunchtime venue above the Orange Tree pub to its elevation into London’s leading theatre-in-the-round, showcasing new talent and raising half-forgotten writers from the dead – is one of Richmond’s most familiar and triumphant tales. Chekhov, Ibsen, Molière, Ayckbourn, Brecht: the list of playwrights to have received an airing is a roll-call of literary fame. Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president whose work was outlawed by the communists in his native land, was championed here. When Leaving, his last major play, was staged at the OT in 2008, the man himself came to see it.
Such giddy heights were not in view, however, when Sam, Auriol and a group of friends gathered in an East Twickenham flat and decided to give the project a go. There was, insists Sam, no specific cultural or political agenda: all they wanted to do was to put on plays.
“Everything about this place has evolved. Above the pub we had no stage lighting, so we put on plays at lunchtime, acting by the daylight that flooded in through the windows. We felt very adventurous, but the fact that the audience could see everything meant that we had, inadvertently, taken the first step towards theatre-in-the-round.”
A step completed by the creation of the purpose-built auditorium at the present theatre, a converted former school that closed in the 1970s. And while he may initially have stumbled upon this style of staging, Walters has since become its apostle.
“Theatre-in-the-round does what all theatre is meant to do,” he enthuses. “It involves the audience, making them work hard to arrive at their conclusions. They can’t just flop down and say ‘entertain me’. because things are happening all around them. And they love that. I remember when we moved over here from the pub, one regular audience member said to me: ‘Oh Sam, the actors will still tread on my toes, won’t they?’”
Most actors love it too – though at least one luminary, Richard Briers, did not.
“He couldn’t control the audience. And, of course, it’s true that you can’t make them see things in a particular way, as you can in a proscenium arch theatre. But that’s exciting: the actors and director are surrendering their power.”
So why are there still so few theatres-in-the-round?
“Good question! I think it’s largely an accident of history. Towards the end of the 19th Century, when Matcham was designing, theatres had stopped burning down! Lighting was much safer, and so on, so most of the new proscenium arch theatres survived. As a result, that’s what most people write for.
“But you can adjust. Ayckbourn always has his plays done in the round first. You get specific problems – say, if there’s someone in the cupboard, when we’re supposed to think that there are only old brooms – but you can overcome them. I have never not done a play in the round because the staging was too hard.”
Too modest to be defensive, Walters is nonetheless protective of the Orange Tree and sensitive to criticisms of the audience profile. A colleague, I begin to explain, went along to a play and –
“Don’t tell me: he was the youngest person there and he’s 75! Yes, it’s a worry, I know. But young people have so much to occupy them – sport, music, clubbing, sex. And I do get tetchy about ageist remarks, because for many people the Orange Tree is a very important part of life. They love the intimacy of it. There is so little now in which people can get involved in a group….”
Again, that love of interaction; that instinct for the whole as more than just the sum of the parts. And now the train of thought has triggered a splendid digression.
“All this online shopping,” he says bullishly. “What’s that about? Why do Sainsbury’s keep asking me to buy things online?”
Er, well, they probably see it as a customer service –
“So then everyone does it until, in the end, we’re left with warehouses and a lot of closed shops. It’s a pretty bleak future, Richard!”
Perhaps. Though not for the Orange Tree, which can surely look forward to further sunny days under the highly regarded Paul Miller, currently an associate director at The Crucible in Sheffield. One wonders if Sam ever wishes that he had left the OT earlier in life to swim in wider waters beyond.
“Oh, I’d have drowned! No, I have sometimes asked myself whether this is a sensible way to spend a life. But then, when people come up to you to say what a part you’ve played in their world, it makes you think that it hasn’t been entirely frivolous. Was it best for the theatre that I stayed so long? Strictly speaking, it should have had four or five artistic directors by now. But continuity has its pros and cons, as with having one wife instead of many lovers.”
He won’t be around much after his departure, he insists, mindful of the need to give his successor a clear run. Even attending performances would be “like the first husband turning up for Sunday lunch”. But come July, when the Walters era finally goes dark, will there be a tear in the eye? He seems briefly uncertain, framed by the falling winter light beyond the window, like a figure in one of those long-ago productions above the pub.
“There may be,” he says pensively. “I mean, I don’t really imagine it…but there may be…“
We shall find out in six months’ time. When he finally logs out, as it were.