Features Q&A and Interviews Published 21 September 2011

Sam Walters

Sam Walters founded the Orange Tree Theatre with his wife Auriol Smith in a room above a pub in 1971. The theatre moved to a former primary school next door in 1991, the only permanently in-the-round theatre in London with a tradition of producing new writing and neglected works from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. As the Orange Tree celebrates its 40th anniversary, Walters speaks to Neil Dowden about his long career, his passion for theatre in-the-round and the Orange Tree's future.
Neil Dowden

Of course, moving from a pub room to the new theatre-in-the-round meant not only a change in layout but also in size, with the capacity increasing from 80 to 175 (including balcony seating). But for Walters, the bigger challenge was adjusting to managing a whole building: “People expected better facilities with a proper box office, bar and toilets, as well as higher production values on stage, so we tripled the number of employees, including front of house and stage management.”

As for the in-the-round experience itself, not surprisingly Walters is an impassioned advocate: “It’s true that you lose that ability for all of the audience to see the same thing at the same time, whether it’s a raising of an eyebrow, or revealing something in a drawer, as you would have in a proscenium arch theatre. And of course there is a technical issue about the actors not standing or sitting with their backs to one part of the audience for too long. But for me the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

“I believe that for theatre to survive in the twenty-first century, with all the competition it faces, it has to emphasise what it does uniquely, namely being a shared experience of a live performance. And this is most apparent in-the-round as the actors are in the middle surrounded by the audience so everyone is aware of each other. In film or TV the director dictates what the viewer looks at, while in proscenium arch theatre the placement of the actors can influence where you look, but with in-the-round this is up to individual audience members, so it encourages a more active and involved form of theatre experience. Also, the way a play is enacted is much more natural and life-like, in how the scenery is arranged and the actors move about, as there isn’t an artificial, one-sided perspective.”

The Orange Tree had already established its distinctive blend of programming before the relocation. Initially, it specialised in new plays or second productions of plays, but in 1977 it began its now famous tradition of reviving forgotten plays with a production of the 1920s French medical satire Doctor Knock by Jules Romains. Another landmark was Tolstoy’s peasant drama The Power of Darkness in 1984. There followed lesser-known plays by the likes of Arthur Wing Pinero, Henry Arthur Jones, John Galsworthy, Harley Granville-Barker (including the first ever staging of his final two plays The Secret Life and His Majesty) and Shaw’s late work The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isle. Walters explains: “We do research into old drama that may well have been popular in its time but has been overlooked for many years We keep our eyes and ears open and select carefully as of course some plays may not have been staged for a long time for very good reasons!”

The Orange Tree's revival of Pulitzer Prize winner Susan Glaspell's play Chains of Dew.

Walters is proud of rediscovering the Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright and novelist Susan Glaspell, founder with her husband of the influential The Provincetown Players (which helped to launch Eugene O’Neill’s career), including Chains of Dew which had not been performed even in the United States since 1922. He also did much to rescue Rodney Ackland (a successful playwright and screenwriter of the 1930s and 1940s) from obscurity, partly by chance as he recalls: “I was accosted by a woman in Dickins and Jones who told me Ackland was living in Richmond and quite hard up, and asked me if I’d considered doing any of his plays. So I met up with him in a pub and this led to our working together.” This included the 1987 premiere of Absolute Hell, Ackland’s rewritten version of his post-war The Pink Room, now overtly identifying homosexual characters – eight years before the National Theatre’s acclaimed production starring Judi Dench.


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Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.

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