Dan Rebellato (Class of 1986), Professor of Contemporary Theatre & Playwright, Royal Holloway, University of London
After leaving CLS in 1986, Dan embarked on twin careers as a university lecturer (he is Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London) and as a playwright whose award-winning work for stage and radio has been performed all over the world.
How did CLS get you ready for the world of work?
In terms of my academic career, CLS always encouraged us to pursue our interests wherever they took us. I was allowed to write essays on very abstruse subjects that I happened to have developed a passion about and it was not just tolerated but celebrated. I remember sixth-form English classes being wonderful debating sessions where we’d dispute bitterly over the merits of Frederick the Great or ponder solemnly the textual cruces in Othello. That was great training for university which was great training for staying in university as a lecturer.
On the creative side, I was very lucky that my time at CLS coincided with a great flourishing of school drama. We had the ‘Tuck Shop Theatre’, which was a very adaptable studio space, which was constantly in use. I left CLS with the CV of an experienced rep actor! And I was doubly fortunate that the theatre at CLS was overseen by Peter Coulson (English), who treated putting on a play as if it was the most gravely serious and important thing anyone could possibly be doing. It thrilled me that someone could find theatre so profound and difficult and solemn (while still being entirely joyful) and it’s a feeling that’s swept me through decades of work as a playwright.
What was your first job?
My first job was actually a summer spent painting a factory floor, during which I accidentally flicked quite a lot of radiator paint over an exquisite but little-known painting by Eduardo Paolozzi, but I’m not blaming CLS for that. My second job was working in a bookshop and CLS gave me a love of books, but also not an unhealthy reverence for them. I remember Jonathan Keates (English) saying how repellent he found glass-fronted bookcases because books ‘aren’t objects to be admired obscurely as in a museum’. And Lionel Knight (History) taught me the importance of being able to ‘gut’ a book (his word), to seize a book, flick through it, look at the index, look through the contents, read like a vulture, extract what you need from him. (The French cultural theorist Roland Barthes talks about ‘hyloptic reading’, which is the knowledge you somehow gain from a book simply by buying it and having it on your shelf, reading the back cover maybe, occasionally thinking about reading it, without even opening it.)
Your biggest professional achievement?
I suppose as a playwright, the largest-scale project was an adaptation we did of 20 novels by the nineteenth-century French novelist Émile Zola. He wrote these 20 novels between 1870 and 1893 all about the various branches of a single family (some branches rich, some powerful, some poor, some criminal), in a preposterously ambitious attempt to explain all of French society in the middle of the century. I was lead writer on it and responsible for figuring out how we’d turn these books into a single unfolding radio drama, organising them into episodes and seasons, and so on, and I wrote about a quarter of the episodes We turned those 20 novels into 27 episodes (and 24 hours) of radio, with a fantastic cast led by the legendary Glenda Jackson, under the title Emile Zola: Blood, Sex and Money, which was broadcast across 2015 and 2016. It remains the most ambitious adaptation the BBC has ever attempted and it nearly killed us but it worked.
Your most challenging professional moment?
I took over as Head of Department for Drama at Royal Holloway just at the moment in 2012 when £9000 fees were brought in. It was a convulsive moment for the university system, marking a huge drop in student numbers, which meant a financial crisis right across the sector, possible closures, redundancies and more. I’m glad that my institution held their nerve, but still I had to make sure that our numbers came back up. It was helpful that at CLS we had great maths teachers; I remain very numerate (for someone working in the arts anyway!) and was able to do smart things with budgets, as well as corralling the staff to revamp our offering, our publicity, our theatre practice, and more. It paid off, thankfully, but it was not where I wanted to start.
What inspires and motivates you at work?
I’ll choose academia for this question. It’s the students. Students get a very bad press, constantly represented as lazy, whingeing, precious, pampered snowflakes. This is nonsense. I’ve been teaching for 30 years and students are consistently the kindest, smartest, most generous, most good-humoured, hard-working, creative, resilient, and likeable group of people I know. Like everyone else, we’ve had to convert all our teaching to online over the last twelve months - and you can imagine how difficult it is to teach Drama like that – and our students have coped with flair, humour, and extraordinary inventiveness.
One piece of advice for pupils and other Old Citizens about getting into your profession?
I’ll choose playwriting for this one. If you want to be a writer, it’s always helpful to know two things. First, that it’s hard and it gets harder. Partly this is because the opposite is so easy: there’s nothing in the world easier than not writing a play; look, I’m doing it right now! And so are you! But you need to enjoy how hard it is, because when it’s hard you’re about to do something new and wonderful and you’re about to become a better writer. But second, and this should be more encouraging, people want to you to succeed. There are hundreds of people out there who are longing to find the new exciting young voice in fiction, poetry, theatre, TV, spoken word.... They desperately want your script to blow their minds. So do it; blow their minds. Write the best thing you can – and do it with Mr Coulson’s seriousness, because writing a play, like putting on a play, is the most gravely serious and important thing anyone could possibly be doing...
If you want to be a writer, it’s always helpful to know two things. First, that it’s hard and it gets harder