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Time to Act photographer Simon Annand: “This country’s main strength is culture.”

The cast of Hairspray, Shaftesbury Theatre, 2009

Theatre photographer Simon Annand has been capturing actors backstage for almost forty years. His latest book, Time to Act, is a collection of 234 portrait photographs, taken over the last 10 years, of some of the world’s greatest performers.

All the emotions from the theatre are captured within these pages and remind us what we have all been missing.

Annand’s point of view remains constant, his camera capturing the slightest shifts in mood and expression from dressing room to dressing room.

Speaking on Zoom from his home Annand tells me where the idea for Time To Act came from. “This book is out there to support artists and to encourage people to remember what it was like, and what we hope it will continue to be like again in the future,” he says.

Cate Blanchett, The Present, Ethel Barrymore theater, New York, 2017

He is chatty and philosophical company, some of these photos make up a virtual exhibition. This will be re-hung to show a changing selection of photographs from the collection together with a commentary on the images.

“I have three strands of my work, one is production photography, one is dressing room stuff and the other is headshots,” he says.

“The headshots are very different as they are a tool to give the actor to get the attention of casting directors, which reflect the allowance of key scenes and good scripts. So, they have to have the authority in their face to tell the story.”

With Time to Act, Annand explores the fascinating notion of vulnerability. An intimate and meditative, but never intrusive series of portraits of stars backstage.

“Each actor has their own unique way of spending time before curtain-up. It varies from inhabiting the character at all times, to the opposite, holding the fictional character back and releasing it at the last minute before entering the stage.”

A deceptively simple photobook that comprises of over 200 performers, Annand’s portraits have a sense of suspended time, as if the subtext of the subjects remain somehow elusive despite the deep fascination, he feels for them.

James Earl Jones, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Novello Theatre, 2010

“I’m not trying to catch them out. A photographer only finds what he or she is looking for,” Annand explains.

One close-up snap in Time to Act sees James Earl Jones before taking to the stage in the 2010 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Novello Theatre.

“I walked into that dressing room and that is what he was doing. He has size 16 feet, so when I came through the door, all I saw was those feet and he was flat out with a big fat cigar between his teeth and he said to me, “Whatever you do, don’t tell my doctor.”

In another close-up picture, David Suchet checks the mirror as he prepares to mesmerise audiences as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Vaudeville Theatre in 2015.

“You know, it was a bold and brave choice for David to go from Poirot to Lady Bracknell,” he says, smiling.

David Suchet, The Importance of Being Earnest, Vaudeville Theatre, 2015

“That role was completely on his level. The photo really conveys him in his own terms; it is his agenda – I waited until he had his makeup and costume almost complete but he’s still in the dressing room so there’s still this unique element of him being David Suchet.”

“I suppose I am looking for the relationship that performers have with themselves, and their fictional characters,” Annand says.

Theatres from Shetland to the West End closed in March to slow the spread of Covid-19 with no date set for when venues can fully reopen as England continues to endure a second national lockdown.

“This country’s main strength is culture,” he says, exasperated.

Simon Annand, (credit: Snežana Popović)

“The problem is that the government is not sufficiently helping the thousands and thousands of freelance workers that our precious creative culture depends on,” says Annand, who is making a donation from the sale of every book in the UK to The Theatre Artists Fund.

What does he feel makes a great photograph? “It goes back to being strong and open – what I’m trying to avoid is fancy lenses or a fancy composition. A good photograph allows the viewer to hang their own story onto it.”

Time to Act is out now and the Time to Act: a virtual exhibition will run until Christmas.