Ever since the middle-ages, when the earliest drama, growing out of the liturgy, left the Church to parade on carts outside, actors have been on the road. Four hundred years ago, when Shakespeare was a boy, professional actors were touring regularly through Stratford-upon-Avon. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the great actor-managers depended financially on frequent progress through the provinces. Henry Irving died on tour in Bradford. Many living actors, like myself, were first introduced to the theatre by the Old Vic or West End companies travelling the Number One Circuit of Moss Empires and Howard and Wyndham, en route from one London success to another.
In our time, the rise of local repertory theatre (where most actors learn their trade), competition from television (where most of them practise it) and the ever-increasing costs of travel, all these have discouraged touring at home and abroad. It just doesn't pay like it used to when Donald Wolfit was alive. Despite the recent innovation of individual touring allowances, living in digs and away from home for long spells isn't always congenial. And for an organisation like the Royal Shakespeare Company, firmly based in Stratford and London, travel is particularly unsettling. So the old pattern of touring has faded and the Number One Circuit is up for auction. But the RSC, committed by its charter to our greatest playwright and subsidised by our taxes through the Arts Council of Great Britain, has national responsibilities. Indeed, for its own healthy development it needs constantly to reach new audiences. What, nowadays, are the best ways of touring?
Recently Henry V travelled the traditional route of weekly stays in large cities. A quicker and cheaper way of reaching the nation has been the televising or filming of stage successes. The Wars of the Roses, Antony and Cleopatra, Hedda Gabler, The Comedy of Errors played to millions more at a single viewing than ever they could in the theatre. So will Macbeth. These single plays don't, however, convey the scope of the RSC's work.
And so for the last two years the company has played a Spring season in Newcastle upon Tyne: four or five Shakespeare plays plus the contrasting small-scale productions from The Other Place, Stratford's second theatre. These, augmented by visits to schools, by recitals and late-night shows, constitute a modern version of touring. The RSC seems to have leased a northern home to match Stratford in the midlands and the Aldwych in the south-east.
But what, we asked ourselves in answer to increasingly urgent requests, what about elsewhere in the country? What about those who didn't miss the RSC because they didn't know it existed? This tour has been planned for them. Continuing where the RSC's Theatregoround left off seven years ago, we start our own experiment in touring.
We have two intentions. They are inter-related because they both, hopefully, lead to high standards of work. First, some of us with experience of The Other Place in Stratford, where 200 people, close to the actors, can view the classics in a new way, wanted to go on doing similar small-scale work. Second, we think we might solve the perennial problem of devising productions that are readily transportable, allowing us to look our best wherever we play. This means productions designed specifically for touring. There are no plans for Twelfth Night or Three Sisters to be seen in London. Also it means designing a new stage. Twenty-one feet by twenty-two, with a simple backing, it can be put up almost anywhere. In addition there are four towers for lighting wherever they are needed. For the rest, it's up to the actors, the costumes, props and the words of the plays. In this simple way, however far we travel, we hope the effect is consistent. Playing a variety of town halls, gymnasia, arts centres and regular theatres, our small-scale group is not a fit-up; rather we hope to fit in. Between July and October we go to twenty-three towns. Tonight's production is not a post-Stratford 'B' company, nor is it a pre-London try-out. It is just the RSC. We hope you'll welcome us back soon.
As Toby Belch, 1978