Treasure your parents and don’t panic: theatre creatives give advice to their 18 year-old selves

Emma Rice, Adrian Lester, Rufus Norris and more offer advice to their 18 year-old selves

As part of her week as guest editor of WhatsOnStage, Indhu Rubasingham asked some of the most talented names in theatre to answer two questions – what advice would you give to your 18 year-old self and what's the best advice any one has ever given you? The results were entertaining, inspiring and often surprising.

Adrian Lester, actor

What advice would you give your 18 year-old self?
I would tell myself that being able to sing in a really high pitch voice was OK and that once I hit 40 it would be looked upon as being cool. I would advise myself to not worry and try to please others. My true power as a performer lies in my ability to develop myself even when I’m not working on a project. I would tell myself that the work doesn’t start once you get a job.

What’s the best advice someone has given you?
I remember my principal at RADA, Dr Oliver Neville, quietly and thoughtfully telling me: "You can do all of these things… If I wanted your character to sing on one line or dance at another line, maybe even do a gambol or a flip at some other moment… I know you would be able to do it. But the question you must always ask yourself when doing these things is – why? What will it or could it mean?" This really sunk in when I was 18 and at drama school.

Moira Buffini, writer

What’s the best advice someone has given you?
My hardworking single mum said you will have to be better than any man to be considered as good. I‘m still hoping that isn't true, whilst working my butt off in case it is.
A nun – seriously – told me that the only way to become a writer was to write; write every day, develop the muscle. Practise.

At school, I read that all great artists and writers had a ‘world view’. This made me feel small as all I had was a bunch of inarticulate questions and a still-forming personality. So I asked my history teacher how I would find my world view. ‘Know thyself,’ he mystically said.

What advice would you give your 18 year-old self?
Your inarticulate questions are the way forward. Questions are everything to the writer. Your audience doesn’t require you to have the answers. To communicate your questioning is honest and compelling enough, as it will always suggest possibility and change.


Learning how to act will help you write better plays. So will all the Mickey-Mouse jobs you do to pay the rent. No experience is wasted.

Sometimes the best advice is to ignore the advice. I remember an eminent director coming to talk to us when I was in the Royal Court Young Writers. He told us what he thought we should be writing about. Every one of his subjects ended in ism. When I tried to write about these isms directly, my work became a heap of crumpled paper.

So write about people and what they do – or fail to do – in painful situations. The politics will find their way into your work more effectively if you start with character and action. Plays are the finest medium for exploring society, moral philosophy and metaphysics – but why not start with a girl who wants to bury her brother or a bloke seeing a ghost on a battlement?

It’s a good idea to read plays if you want to write plays.

You’re choosing a very public arena in which to fail. When people don’t like your work, allow yourself two days to roar with grief. Then start preparing the next play. Your best work is always ahead of you.
Exercise. Writers are flabby, sedentary bastards. It will keep the mildew off your brain.

Rufus Norris, director

What’s the best advice someone has given you?
I worked in an aquatic fish shop in the Midlands as a 15 year-old, and one day I was told to sweep out the filthy yard with a stiff-bristled, manky broom. My grumbling and feeble efforts came to a halt in a torrent of abuse from the boss. The sense of it was, make the broom work hard, and you’ll get out what you put in. Be confident in your labour. Except with a load of expletives in a Stourport accent. It was a small moment in an otherwise forgotten day, but I find that advice – to take responsibility for the task in hand – is applicable for anything relating to work, and sometimes life. Don’t look to blame. Get on with it.

What advice would you give your 18 year-old self?
Step into your fear. I am the one person you cannot bullsh*t: don’t use your concern over other people’s well-being or opinion as an excuse to not be brave. Walk your endless talk and bury your pride with living – in the light and rain. Pack your bag and go; don’t take anyone with you, and don’t come back for a year. When you come back, treasure your parents.

Lucian Msamati, actor, director

What advice would you give your 18 year-old self?
All those crazy, massive, luminous dreams you dream are going to come true. Every single one of them and then some but you are going to graft your butt off and then some before they do come true. You have no idea how hard you will work, trust me! But it will be the making of you. But the truth is you know that. You have always known it deep, deep down inside. It scares you and rightly so. But the truth is you see beyond the horizon. And you believe in you. You haven't accepted it entirely yet because this is not 'the accepted way' where you are now. Don't be discouraged or ashamed. It really is coming to you. It will not be the anything like movies, books, magazines; it's going to be so much more magical and special than that! Keep going. You're already well on your way.

What’s the best advice someone has given you?
15 years ago, as I agonised over whether to make a go of it 'solo' away from my company, Over the Edge Zimbabwe my soon-to-be agent, Lesley Duff looked over her desk at me and said, 'I can't help you if you have one foot in Africa and one in England. P*ss or get off the pot. It's that simple.'

Inua Ellams, writer

What advice would you give your 18 year-old self?
I don't think there is any advice I could give him, looking back, I think he was a remarkable young man. Let me explain. I had just resettled from Ireland. I still had a Nigerian passport without a residency permit and an unconfirmed immigration status. I had no legal right to work, I could not afford to go to university. There are many things for young black jobless men to do in South London to make money, fast and hard. Questionable dark things. My 18 year old self somehow avoided all of that and started writing poetry. He blundered into books on black history, got really politicised, angry, and instead of lashing out, channeled it back into writing. 18 year old Inua trusted in his instincts, wrote what he wanted, walked where he needed and spoke to the right people. I want to go back in time and thank him. Perhaps the only advice I would give him is this: you will write more and do more, remember to make space to have fun, cut yourself some slack when you are older.

What’s the best advice someone has given you?
To own your mistakes. Several artists, elders of mine gave me the same advice in various ways I didn't really understand them until a scenario presented itself in which I lived it.

I still think of my second play as a hugely problematic. Called Untitled, it was was set in a village just outside of Lagos, and in an estate in London… about twin brothers separated at birth… one of which grows up with a name, and the other without. I spent so much time carving a loveable-rogue figure of the unnamed brother in Nigeria, that when it came to the named one here in England, a more straight-laced dude, who had to carry the play to its climax, who risked the most within the story's architecture, and who I wanted the audience to empathise with… they just… didn't. Not really. What that taught me, was the value of pacing and structure… to embed this right in the beginnings, from the conception of a play, or a poem for that matter. It was a hard lesson to learn, but one I value immensely. It was something I could not see as the play was touring, and I only came to it was done.

Emma Rice, director

What advice would you give your 18 year-old self?
I would tell my 18 year-old self not to worry about how people saw her, but to look outward and be interested in others. I’d tell her she had a brilliant and surprising life ahead so look around at the wonders speeding by and to relax and enjoy the ride. I’d tell her that she would find her tribe and they would look after her always so not to fear; she is safe, she is loved and she is strong.

What’s the best advice someone has given you?
The best advice I ever got was from my sixth form drama teacher and mentor, Marielaine Church. On coming to see me play Titania in my final year at drama school, she said "Darling, you looked very pretty but you were a little dull". Whilst not quite advice, it hit me like a thunderbolt. I vowed that day, (despite my bruised ego), never to be boring again… something I think about daily!

James Graham, writer

What advice would you give your 18 year-old self?
I know you're painfully self-conscious about your skinny legs right now, but one day they'll be so in fashion, they'll make jeans that celebrate them…

Also, when it comes to writing – breathe. Don't panic. Don't rush.

What’s the best advice someone has given you?
You should consider writing political history plays. They're not in fashion now, because politics is boring now, but one day…

Nina Raine, writer and director

What advice would you give your 18 year-old self?
It will take a long time to know what you want to do. Don’t panic. Don’t get depressed.
When you do know what you want to do, it will take a long time before you will be able to do it.
When you are able to do it, it will take a long time before people will let you do it.

What’s the best advice someone has given you?
I remember meeting Patrick Marber when I was just starting out. At that stage I was trying to make my way as a director, I wasn’t yet a writer. He said ‘If you have any facility whatsoever as a writer, write, because then you can direct what you write and it will be much easier to make your way as a director.’ At that time there weren’t any female playwrights directing their own work – as far as I could see there were only men – Marber, Pinter. I’d never thought of writing a play as a way to get ahead as a director. That was partly the impetus behind my first play, Rabbit. I wrote it to be easy to direct. One location, basically one night, a youngish cast. Then I found it demanded flashbacks and an old dad in it…

Dominic Cooke told me when I was on a bursary as a trainee director at the Royal Court that I needed to make sure to differentiate between urgent, non-urgent, important and unimportant tasks in my life. Writing a play is important, doesn’t feel urgent. Doing your tax return is urgent, but not important. You have to make sure the non-urgent, important things don’t get endlessly postponed.

Noma Dumezweni, actor

What advice would you give your 18 year-old self?
You're kind. You're smart. You just see the world differently. That's not a bad thing at all. So stop validating your life by other people's opinions. Or things are just going to seem long and unfair.

What’s the best advice someone has given you?
I'm a collector of pieces of advice, so not really a life changer line to give you. More the sense that thoughts and ideas passed on can serve in specific moments, even years later. One for the stage though, which I find helps focus listening – from my mentor, Tony Singleton, "wherever you are is the centre of the stage" (as our lives are) – I found it great especially when having to be a receiver of information, also known as 'small parts'… the audience is always choosing where to look, so you better be focused on the story. No one goes unnoticed.

Pictures all credited to Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage.

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