The wisdom of Rufus Norris

I wonder what would Rufus Norris, Artistic Director of the National Theatre, make of that table? Positioned in front of him was a small table with a bottle of water particularly well poised in front of two bottles of red wine. To my disappointment, Norris didn’t choose the wine. The reason why I was intrigued by Norris’ perspective on the table relates directly to his directing of Table.

For those unaware of it, Table by Rufus Norris and his wife, Tanya Ronder, was an idea that occurred to him when talking to a pessimistic young director who complained endlessly of her inability to begin creating a play. Norris explains, “I grew tired of her inability to act. I told her, ‘Look, you can create anything from something. Think about this table, people have had arguments over it, people have cried over it, chewing gum from years ago has been stuck on the bottom of it.’” He proceeded to encourage the young director, “‘See, look how easy it is… but you can’t steal that idea. That’s mine!’”

For Norris, creativity stemmed from many places but particularly ‘space’. He encouraged the audience to think of a small space on the Keble College quad and question what has happened there. What arguments have there been? Whose hearts were crushed?

Norris was indeed a particularly reassuring figure; he did not have that obnoxious thespian air about him, nor a sense of self-importance despite his marvellous achievements. Instead he re-emphasised over and over again how lucky he was, but also how crucial it was for those in- terested in gaining a career in the theatre to act now. Norris explained that his own path into the theatre began due to his crush on a friend called Lynn who he followed into the RADA scene. Afteracting in RADA, he participated in labouring jobs, from painting and decorating to cleaning toilets. He then explained, “I got involved with a French company and, because of my building trade experience, they asked me to put up stud walls. As a kind of ‘carrot’, they offered me a part in a play in which I had to be crucified naked. There is no public record. It was not a very good play. I was terrible in it. Yet, while we were per- forming, I was doing session work with a friend as a musician, and his wife asked me to deliver [a script] to my wife. Before I went home I read it and took it in the next day saying, ‘Can we do t hisbecause I want to write music or be in it.’ Brian Astbury [Space Theatre] said, ‘You’re too gobby as an actor, and all of your interest is in the whole and not the part. Direct it yourself.’”

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From that moment forward Norris explained that he never gave up. “Fear is a great motivator to me – the fear of failure.” He openly admits that he was financially struggling through his artistic endeavours As he beautifully summarises, “I was 36 before I earned £10,000 in a year. It’s all about stamina. Of the people who started when I started most of them have got their lives together earlier than I did, but it meant they diverted away from the thing that continues to get me out of bed.

“It’s a fantastic privilege to enjoy what you spend most of your life doing. Theatre, despite its reputation, is a tinsel-mine. A tinsel-mine is a hard place to work. If you keep on going you won’t fall away. You’ll be employable.”

Rufus Norris certainly imparted a sense of hope and inspiration into those within the audience. Ultimately, he said, if you want to work in the theatre, saying ‘tomorrow’ is not enough. If you love it enough, if you have passion enough, then you cannot wait for next week or next month. The time is now.