Paul Roseby interview: “Stick to your bloody instincts. Whether you make the right or the wrong decisions, if you stick to your instincts then you can only do what you believe to be true.”

Paul Roseby

Paul Roseby

Paul Roseby is already in the restaurant when I arrive. I am quite nervous at the prospect of meeting the CEO and Artistic Director of the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain. I needn’t be.  Instantly recognisable, it’s the charisma and style. Roseby is quite happy to draw attention using his appearance to break the ice. He waves back at someone across the room from where we are sitting. “I have no idea who that was,” He smiles, “He probably thinks I’m TV personality Duncan Bannatyne, I get that a lot. I’ve had Shane Richie before.” We laugh… I see it.

So now we’re sitting in Soho House on Dean Street, a private members’ club for people in the creative industries about to discuss his career.

Story of Our Youth - Gala Celebrating 60 Years of National Youth Theatre

Story of Our Youth – Gala Celebrating 60 Years of National Youth Theatre © Mark Cocksedge

I start by commending his efforts on the recent one-off gala at the West End’s Shaftesbury Theatre that marked the 60th anniversary of the National Youth Theatre; a glitzy affair starring alumni including Matt Smith, Timothy Dalton, Hugh Bonneville, Daisy Lewis and more alongside 100 current members.  It was no small feat to get such a level of consistent high standard from a cast covering such an age range, it was pretty amazing. These are the hard things to achieve and showed the level of work and commitment of all concerned. I ask him how he thought it went. “It has to be the moment when an auditorium of 1,200 people stood up out of their seats tumultuously for a cast of one hundred young people up on stage.” he says. “It’s what they do if for. Don’t forget, it was very unusual circumstances, with only 3 hour technical time in one of the biggest theatres in the West End and the NYT members were consummate professionals. I originally came from a light entertainment background, so to see people who know our organisation and who don’t know the organisation being entertained,” he beams. “I was very proud of that.”

Paul Roseby in his Union Jack shoes

Paul Roseby in his Union Jack shoes

I compliment him on his choice of footwear for the NYT Gala: Union Jack shoes.  They were by all accounts ‘quite something’. He laughs: “I am an absolute lover of shoes.” He chuckles. “David Beckham has the same pair; they are ‘vintage’ by now! In all seriousness, the Union Jack shoes were a risk given what has happened in the aftermath of Brexit. We need to celebrate the flag in all its diversity and I believe in a union of many things, we are an international organisation.”

I ask him to fast forward sixty years and tell me how he would envisage the 120th Anniversary panning out. “Right, I think it needs to be a celebration like the Oscars as a global event,” he smiles. “A celebration of all youth and creativity rolled into one evening. The 120th Birthday Gala should be an event that is hugely supported by media with sponsorship; which means money and accreditation. Youth Theatre is absolutely a game changer and is a feeder to one of our greatest exports. I’d like it to have international status; we have worked internationally in some very challenging parts of the world: China and Saudi, for example. It should be a global belief system.”  It’s hard not to be swept up in his enthusiasm for the work. As I’ve mentioned at some length before, (blog about Open Court Festival ) there is currently a huge attention in important work being made and performed by young people for adult audiences.

I’m curious to know how he got the job. “It was hard because it was not something I’d done before. The people around the NYT and Arts Council interview panel rightly questioned why I’d want to lead the organisation. I outlined my vision and ambition through the application process not least by creating a digital response by vox popping punters on the Southbank and interviewing leading industry professionals to test the current climate,” he recalls. “To provide a wake up call to what the NYT needed to become in order to become more relevant. There was some stunned silence broken by the late Bryan Forbes with the line: ‘It’s all very well dear, but short of ‘going down’ on Greg Dyke, how are you going to pay for it?’ If only funding was that easy.  I was the outsider. In the end the decision was made that I and John Hogarth would do it together, it took a while for the panel to make up their minds so I and John had an off-the-record conversation and put it to the board that we both lead as a joint ticket. They got the best of both worlds.” Amazing.

Pigeon English at the Ambassador Theatre

Pigeon English at the Ambassador Theatre. Click on the image to book your tickets.

Let us take a moment to acknowledge that National Youth Theatre is not just where Helen Mirren learned to act… For many it is where they grow up, where they learn how to be an actor but, more vitally, how to be a member of a diverse society, judged solely on distinction. Does Roseby appreciate this, standing on the shoulders of giants?  “I recognise however small or great the generosity and goodwill from our alumni. What is great about Helen, for example, is in all honesty why should she care about the NYT today? Fifty years ago it changed her life, but so what? Life moves on.” He explains: “That’s the starting point with our alumni – how do we make it relevant for them today, it might have given them a platform and provided a life changing experience – but why should they continue to get behind our cause? What is worth its weight in gold is that people like Helen talk about our work and the importance of youth theatre, particularly for working class actors, on an international stage. That is invaluable. Inspired by the traditional repertory theatre model, our NYT REP Company course offers free, practical, industry-based talent development in drama and performance over nine months to 16 NYT members.”

Prior to meeting Paul I came from Young Vic, where I attended Act For Change: Diversity and Training for the Industry, the third annual event and panel discussion led by campaigners for better representation of diverse groups across the live and recorded arts. We talk about quotas. I ask how he makes sure NYT members are as rich and diverse as our population.  “Diversity is at the core of our work, without doubt, we all need to work harder. We strive to represent fairly what is out there in the wider world: people who look like us, sound like us and think like us. We are a talent based organisation and as creative leaders we need to create original content that questions the status quo, to tell stories that we’ve yet to see or hear. Be that about homophobia, racism or mental health, my responsibility is that.  That’s my reason for getting up in the morning. I think the diversity debate is a little old fashioned, how we get the real issues surrounding diversity to progress is by getting them in front of commercial drivers and going beyond the public sector.” He continues fervently. “At the next debate we need Cameron Mackintosh, Andrew Lloyd Webber, ATG, Working Title and individuals that stand to make commercial financial gain out of creativity there.” He’s got a point.

Before we part ways, I ask if he has any advice for young graduates. “Stick to your bloody instincts.” He says. “Whether you make the right or the wrong decisions, if you stick to your instincts then you can only do what you believe to be true.”


Paul Roseby and Carl Woodward