Will Tosh (Class of 1999)
Will Tosh was at City of London School between 1992 and 1999. After reading English at Oxford University, he worked as an actor and went on to complete a PhD in Renaissance and Early Modern Studies at Queen Mary University of London. Since 2014, he has been Research Fellow and Lecturer at Shakespeare’s Globe.
How did you come to be a pupil at City of London School?
My brother and I were both academic kids, not very sporty and my parents were looking for a suitable school. My brother had been in a local choir and it was suggested he try for a choral scholarship at City of London School. So he started a year or two before me and I followed him in. Not as a chorister, I hasten to add.
What was your experience of school?
It was, and is, a school that really takes people’s interests seriously. It’s very non-judgmental about what people are into. It didn’t say, ‘This is what we expect you to become.’ It was: ‘If you want to start a Dr Who Society, then go and do it’.
CLS wanted to produce well-rounded adults. There was space for kids who were nerdy or who had arty interests. Kids who love music. Kids who love drama. Even those bizarre children who like sport - and the really weird stuff that only a teenage boy can love, like… chess and railways….
Chess and railways? Was that you?
No! For me, theatre was always a big thing from quite an early age. We had a great drama teacher called Val Marsland, who staged at least two plays a year. I started doing plays with her in my second or third year.
Val’s style was what we took to be that of a theatre professional, with all the dramas inherent in that. She was very ambitious. There was always an eleventh-hour crisis that necessitated some kind of explosion to prompt us to do our best.
We put on Oh What a Lovely War! when I was in my third year, before we had covered World War I in History. So I had no real clue as to the full significance of this amazing play. We did South Pacific, a bold choice for a school with no American kids. I was very sensibly cast in a non-singing role.
What was the peak of your school drama career?
Jonathan Keates directed me in a production of Twelfth Night when I was in the Sixth Form. I played Malvolio. Then I put on a play with some friends, in which I played Sigmund Freud with a bad Austrian accent and an itchy false beard. That was probably my performance high point!
Which professional productions inspired you?
I saw an astonishing production of Electra at the Donmar Warehouse, with Zoe Wanamaker. But I also remember being taken in my English A-level group to see a terrible production of Anthony and Cleopatra at the National, with Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman. It was famously bad but in itself it was quite a good thing to take the students and then talk about why it didn’t work afterwards.
What was your first experience of work?
Working in Oddbins, the wine merchants. I did it after leaving school, for the first half of my gap year (I went to Canada for the second). I enjoyed it. Quite a good drinking education for an 18-year-old. You get trained by people who really know their stuff. I worked in the most inconvenient possible branch, the High St Kensington branch, even though I lived in North London.
I kept that going as a holiday job when I was at university as well.
What does your current job involve?
I am a Research Fellow and Lecturer at Shakespeare’s Globe. We devise and run higher education programmes - on Shakespeare performance; on early modern drama; on theatre history – with partner universities such as King’s College London.
We also run a research institute, where scholars and students come to study Shakespeare and performance. And we’re a resource for the media, too, so we do a fair bit of radio, TV, podcasting and so on.
The third strand is working with directors, designers and actors on current productions. We might help them on some aspect of culture or society depicted in the play, or around the use of the theatre spaces or the language.
After school, you went to Oxford University and then became an actor, didn’t you?
I did an English degree and then after a year’s training in London I worked as an actor for about four years. In that time, I also had to do a lot of other things too: tutoring and teaching and working for a business training company that used theatre artists.
After four years, I realised it wasn’t quite gelling, so I did a Master’s degree at Queen Mary in London and then a PhD, which focused on a group of late 16th century politicians, government servants and spies. It was a study of same-sex relationships and political networking.
I got the job at the Globe in the last months of my PhD. The Globe is an extraordinary organisation that brings together theatre and education, research and scholarship, as well as tourism and retail. And it can be hard to find people who can straddle those different aspects. So it turned out my years as an actor were actually incredibly useful: as well as being a professional academic, I know how actors think and work. That was five years ago now.
What is so significant about 16th century theatre?
Well, it was really the first time there was a sustained professional commercially-run theatre scene, anywhere in the country. It’s also the first time that there was a sustained output of printed plays so we actually know what people were watching and reading. The influence of that period on the decades and centuries after that point is absolutely enormous.
What question would you ask Shakespeare?
I think I would ask him… whether he thinks male actors are theatrically interesting or whether he is frustrated not to have women actors on his stage.
As an actor, what sort of roles did you enjoy?
I always ended up playing misled or cuckolded youths. I was never going to be the heroic leading man. But I could be a sort of spiritually squashed and frustrated character actor.
Can you talk about how things have changed for gay pupils at the school over the years?
One of the most brilliant and heart-warming things has been the change in the way the School addresses sexual and gender identity. That’s partly because the world has changed so hugely.
When I was at school it was unspoken. It was the days of Section 28, the legal restriction on schools talking about sexuality or about pupils who might want to come out as gay. There were one or two pupils at School who had a very hard time.
I don’t particularly blame the school for that. It was a different era. And they have absolutely made amends, in the way they support pupils and staff now and campaign for sexual and gender equality.
The school has its own LGBTQ Society; it celebrates and marks Pride every year. Students and staff are out in a way that isn’t an issue.
I’m speaking with the School about setting up an alumni organisation. Almost no gay alumni over the age of 30 will have the experience of the School recognising that aspect of their personality in the way current pupils and staff are lucky to have. So we are trying to find a way to project that new attitude back into the alumni body.
We held a drinks reception for gay alumni in February 2019, and we will be holding an event around Pride in June or July. The School flies the Pride flag the week before Pride every year, the week before the School breaks up for summer.
If a current pupil is reading this, would you advise a career in in acting?
I think acting is a vocation. If you feel passionate about it… then I would very much urge people to do it. It’s never going to work for well-intentioned adults to tell you it’s very precarious and why don’t you go off and do something that’s a bit like acting… like being a barrister. People do say that! But it’s absurd.
If you feel you need to give it a shot… give it a shot. But never feel any shame at going on and trying something else. There are plenty of amazing actors who aren’t doing it any more. And plenty of really rubbish actors who are still doing it!
Would you come back to acting?
No… partly because, despite what I said about well-meaning adults trying to move you into something ‘similar’, that is sort of what I found myself doing. I teach, I lecture, I do some broadcasting and public engagement - which all relies on skills I learned as an actor. And I also write, so it all satisfies that creative instinct. And at this point in my life, I don’t really want my working hours to be 6pm-11.30pm!
Publications by Will Tosh
Male Friendship and Testimonies of Love in Shakespeare’s England (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Friendship-Testimonies-Shakespeares-England-Literature/dp/1349697435/ref=olp_product_details?_encoding=UTF8&me=)
Playing Indoors: Staging Early Modern Drama in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Playing-Indoors-Staging-Wanamaker-Playhouse-ebook/dp/B07998TKZF)