Written by Freddie Haberfellner
The weekly industry talks have without a doubt become one of the highlights of our time studying at Associated Studios. This week, we get to hear from Gerry Tebbutt who is currently running the foundation course at Guildford School of Acting and tells to us about his long career as a performer, choreographer and director.
He starts by assuring us that, while it might take some time, theatre will reinvent itself. We must continue to have hope for the future. There is a future.
Gerry’s love for musical theatre started when he was ten years old. His family went to see a variety show at the Adelphi Theatre for his sister’s birthday; one of the acts was a young Shirley Bassey making her West End debut. Sitting in the audience, Gerry knew that this was what he wanted to do. His parents didn’t approve but he pursued his dreams anyway. He immersed himself in musical theatre, often going to see three shows in one day. He even got see Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli perform together in 1963.
As a young man, he went knocking on agents’ doors until one of them got him a job as the juvenile lead in weekly rep which proved to be a wonderful training ground as they performed a new play every week. His professional debut was in a play called Kill Two Birds and he went to do 17 plays in 18 weeks. Still, his great passion was and continues to be musical theatre. ‘When I have a headache, I don’t take an aspirin, I just put on Oklahoma!’, he says.
In 1966, he got his first job in a West End musical. It flopped, but Gerry says that you learn by being in flops. After touring around the UK, he spent 18 years working in the West End. One of the highlights of his career was working for Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne in the original production of Gypsy starring Angela Lansbury and Bonnie Langford. He also got to perform in Irene at the Adelphi Theatre, the theatre where he had seen his first ever West End show. At one point, he was in two musicals at the same time – The Wizard of Oz at the Victoria Palace Theatre and The Canterbury Tales at the Phoenix Theatre. A fun fact he shares with us is that ticket prices started at 40p back then.
Gerry was then offered the chance to start choreographing – and, as he says, in this industry you always say yes – which led him to work on pantomimes, musicals and summer seasons. From choreographing he moved on to directing. Over the span of 15 years, he directed and choreographed more than 80 shows and, altogether, he has been involved in 302 productions not only in the UK but all across the world.
He tells us that, in this industry, you just never know what will happen – you might be sitting dull on your bum on Monday and be on a plane on the way to a job on Tuesday. Every day can bring something new, so it’s important to never lose faith in this industry.
Gerry was eventually appointed as the head of musical theatre at GSA where he found that he loved imparting all the information he’d gathered over the years to his students and seeing them go on to have careers.
He opens the floor up to questions, the first one being what changes he would like to see in this industry after everything that has happened this year. Gerry refers to the Black Lives Matter movement and says he wants auditions for drama schools to be more accessible and that he also wants there to be more colour-blind casting. He does not want to see young performers being exploited because they are cheap and reminds us that it is essential to get a good agent. We are the ones employing the agent and so we are the ones in charge of our careers.
The next question is what he believes the most important thing to learn at drama school is. His answer is that we need to understand the history of musical theatre, where it has come from and how the industry works. We also have to understand composers and the style of music they write. It is essential that we do our own research and learn as much as we can. Gerry also tells us that, no matter what we do, acting is the most important part of the job and has to take precedent. He reminds us to put all our other skills on our CV as they might get us opportunities.
Another question is about whether we as performers can speak out about issues they are passionate about, and Gerry encourages us to use our voices and to support the causes we believe in. As performers, we are a product and have to know what we have to offer to the world – our unique selling point. The two questions we have to ask ourselves are 1. Why do you want to be an actor? and 2. What do you have to offer? While he encourages us to be ourselves, he also tells us to be careful about what we post on social media as the people who might employ us will see it. The industry is tiny and so we have to be good company members, support our fellow students and colleagues – don’t get on the bitch train! – and show that we are passionate about this industry.
The last question is how to deal with the uncertainty this career brings with it. Gerry says that we should go and find work for ourselves rather than just relying on our agents. Do the research! Find out about theatres, artistic directors and the shows they are doing. Find out about theatre companies. Find out about work opportunities abroad. Write your own shows! Promote yourselves!
Finally, he assures us again that theatre will survive. We will survive.
Hearing Gerry speak was not only informative but inspiring. His knowledge and passion seem endless and I’m sure I don’t just speak for myself when I say that it is incredibly motivating and reassuring to hear from someone who has had such a long and interesting career. Many thanks to Gerry and everyone at Associated Studios for this brilliant talk.