Changing of the Guard: Spacey & the Old VicDate: 7 November 2005
We resume our semi-regular series on new artistic directors with Kevin Spacey, who emigrated from Hollywood to take over the Old Vic. After a shaky first year critically, he’s more enthusiastic than ever at the start of his second season in charge.
Internationally, Kevin Spacey is famous as one of Hollywood’s biggest film stars, whose many credits include Glengarry Glen Ross, Consenting Adults, Swimming with Sharks, Outbreak, Seven, Looking for Richard, A Time to Kill, LA Confidential, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Hurlyburly, A Bug’s Life, Pay It Forward, K-PAX, Ordinary Decent Criminal, The Shipping News, The Life of David Gale, Beyond the Sea (about singer Bobby Darin, which he also wrote, produced and directed) and perhaps most especially The Usual Suspects and American Beauty, both of which earned him Academy Awards.
Despite his success on screen, however, Spacey has always remained deeply committed to the theatre. He made his professional debut playing a messenger in a New York Shakespeare Festival staging of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1 and appeared on Broadway in Ghosts, Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers (for which he won a Tony Award) and Eugene O'Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. The last transferred to London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket, where Spacey made his West End debut.
In 1998, Spacey returned to the London stage to star in the Almeida Theatre’s production of another O’Neill play, The Iceman Cometh. After its sell-out run at the Islington venue, it transferred to the Old Vic, a theatre he had visited as a child with his parents. The Howard Davies production won Spacey the Evening Standard and Olivier Awards for Best Actor and, before transferring to Broadway, reignited the actor’s long-held love affair with the historic West End theatre.
Spacey became actively involved with fundraising efforts to secure the future of the Old Vic and, in February 2003, he was announced as the inaugural artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre Company, which has transformed the landmark back into a producing outfit after years of operating merely as a receiving house.
Although audiences remained largely supportive and the box office buoyant, Spacey’s first season in the job – which saw him directing the UK premiere of Dutch writer Maria Goos’ Cloaca and appearing in revivals of American plays National Anthems and The Philadelphia Story - had a mixed, and at times distinctly hostile, critical reception.
Spacey has now launched his second year at the Old Vic with Trevor Nunn’s production of Shakespeare’s history Richard II, in which he’s been acclaimed for his title performance as the doomed monarch. The season will continue with the return of Aladdin, starring Ian McKellen as Widow Twankey, the UK premiere of Arthur Miller’s Resurrection Blues directed by Hollywood legend Robert Altman and a British-Iraqi production of Stravinksy’s The Soldier's Tale. In autumn 2006, Spacey will reunite with director Howard Davies to star in yet another O’Neill play, A Moon for the Misbegotten.
What was the first production you ever saw at the Old Vic?
I was fortunate as a young boy to come to London with my family and the Old Vic was a theatre we went to – I must still have programmes from those visits at home – and later I enjoyed many productions here. When we were looking for a West End theatre because we decided that The Iceman Cometh would have a life beyond the eight-week Almeida run, I said “Is the Old Vic available?” There was a kind of murmuring that it's on the other side of the river and people don’t really go over there. But we drove over to the Vic. There was nothing on at the time, and I remember walking from the stage door right through the back of the theatre. I stood on the edge of the stage and looked at the house and probably within 15 seconds I said, “this is where we should come, This is the right theatre.” And we did.
Why did you want the job of artistic director?
The night I made the decision to come and be the artistic director was the night after American Beauty premiered at the London Film Festival, which was in 1999. I don’t want to be too spooky about it, but it does feel a little bit like this is what I was meant to do. Forget all the Hollywood bullshit that people write about – it has nothing to do with me. This to me is more lasting and more valuable and more important than any film I could ever do in my life. No question.
How long will you remain in the job?
Everything we do is about what’s happening ten years from now. I am here for the long haul. When you are in something for a long period of time and you know that you are looking at five years down the line, six years down the line, seven years down the line, ten years down the line, your thinking is different. We are not here doing one-off West End productions. We are developing a company and we are developing a relationship with an audience. That takes years to do in a really solid way, so that you create a loyal following.
What are your most immediate challenges? And what are the rewards?
We are thrilled that so many people - over 250,000 - made the Old Vic their destination in our first season. The task we have is to turn those audience members into loyal theatregoers and to continue to reach out to a younger audience – a more diverse audience.
What’s the pressure like running the company
People are incredibly dedicated to this building. This isn’t just another gig. So I am surrounded by a group of people with a passion of wanting to come into work every day who help me prioritise, help me be able to do the work that I have been doing and to be able to continue to run the theatre at the level I want to run it.
What are your plans beyond 2005/6 season?
We have some things in place already. Scheduling a season is a bit like working with a rather large puzzle in which you are trying to find the right object to fit in the right hole.
What would you say to entice first-time visitors to the Old Vic?
Part of my goal here is to try to convince particularly younger audiences that it is more fun to go out with a couple of mates and see a play that you may never have thought you would ever see. Whatever leads you to that theatre is what leads you to that theatre. It’s more fun than necessarily sitting at home night after night watching bad television, going to the pub having a few pints, not being able to hear each other anyway. Come and have an experience that might in fact enrich your life – and have a great time while you do it. That’s what our goal is - to bring people in and give them a good night of theatre.
Prior to your Old Vic appointment, what do you view
I hope it’s ahead of me.
Why is theatre important in modern Britain?
Theatre is important because stories are important and sharing is important. It’s not real life. It’s bigger than life, better than life. We could all have none of the technology we have – movies could have never been invented – and we would still be telling each other stories. I have always believed that as long as there is someone who wants to tell a story and someone who wants to listen to a story, theatre is valuable and important. It enriches people’s lives.
- Kevin Spacey was speaking to Roger Foss. You can also listen to the longer version of this exclusive one-on-one interview in full on Whatsonstage.com Radio by clicking here. The interview also features in the November issue of our sister publication,
For more information on Spacey's appointment & his programming at the Old Vic, see the following: