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

The Orange Tree’s long-term connection with Havel also owes something to chance. Walters elaborates: ‘We had already decided to produce the English-language premieres of Havel’s first two Vanek plays, Audience and Private View, in 1977, when the human rights campaign Charter 77 was initiated in Czechoslovakia and suddenly Havel became briefly the most famous playwright in the world.’ Then when Walters travelled east to meet Havel, he arrived in Prague just at the time of the Velvet Revolution in late 1989. ‘The first time I saw him, he was addressing massive crowds in Wenceslas Square!’ Later, in 2008, Havel came to the Orange Tree for a season of his work, including the British premiere of Leaving, the first play he had written since being swept into office.

Scene from the Orange Tree's current production of Havel's The Conspirators. Photo: Robert Day

Another playwright with whom Walters has enjoyed a fruitful collaboration is Alan Ayckbourn. In 1974, in a rare departure from Richmond, he directed the second West End cast of Absurd Person Singular, then later Noel Coward’s Private Lives at Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, which led to a five-year relationship between the two in-the-round theatres, including Ayckbourn directing Taking Steps at the Orange Tree.

As well as showcasing particular playwrights, Walters has sometimes programmed themed seasons, accompanied by seminars and talks which put the plays into a wider theatrical and historical context. In addition, the Orange Tree’s extraordinarily successful trainee director scheme introduced in 1986 has produced the likes of Timothy Sheader (Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park) Sean Holmes (Lyric Hammersmith) and Dominic Hill (Glasgow Citizens), while its Shakespeare for Schools educational programme has introduced the Bard to the young generation.

Walters himself acknowledges that, although no specific plans have been made yet, he is not far off retiring to make way for an artistic director from a younger generation. ”Directors do of course keep on going a long time, but not necessarily running a theatre. Whoever takes over from me will undoubtedly want to do things their own way. If there had been a number of artistic directors in charge here over the last 40 years they would have taken the theatre in different directions, which could have been exciting. The advantage of me being in charge the whole time is that there’s been continuity, as I’ve built up relationships with writers, directors and actors who are happy to return to work in this theatre.” When the changeover eventually happens, one thing’s for sure: it’s going to be a hard act to follow.

Sam Walters’ production of The Conspirators, by Vaclav Havel, is on at the Orange Tree until 1st October. The next production in the 40th anniversary season is How To Be Happy by David Lewis which runs from 5th October – 5th November 2011. For tickets and further information, visit the Orange Tree website.


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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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