We’re in lockdown, it’s horrendous for freelancers and you mentioned the other day you’ve considered dusting off your HGV [heavy goods vehicle] license. So we’ve got to start there. When did you get your HGV license?
My 21st birthday present was going to be a substantial wedge of money and I wanted to buy something interesting and long lasting with it, something, worthwhile. I thought of myself as a superb driver at the time and that [getting an HGV license] would be easy and that people would be impressed by it, plus it would be something I could fall back on.
I was at college doing my degree when the late 80s and early 90s recession was prevalent so I joined an agency in North London. My first day at work was for M&S driving round London, this guy looked a me aged 21 and he said “can you do his?” I wasn’t really sure but I did it anyway.
You were in London but you’re from round here?
Wolverhampton born and bred. I ended up in London via a kind of Youth Opportunities Programme. I’d been unemployed for seven months, after delivering nappies in a blue Suzuki van and got a phone call by the kind DHSS (or whatever it was called back then). They offered me a sort of internship with the National Youth Theatre who then took me on full time as an admin assistant. But even back then London was expensive and I found I couldn’t live on the wages that they paid. I almost joined Gerry Cottle’s Circus but started a degree course instead.
I was probably expected to do a degree (both my parents are teachers) but I didn’t excel academically at school. By the age of 19 I’d given up on drama schools but Middlesex Polytechnic offered a practical drama degree so I auditioned for them, and was accepted, in ’88. Middlesex Poly had a really good course. John Wright taught and started Trestle [Theatre] there. It was great for me, they let you try anything off your own bat and put on as many shows as you wanted or try admin or photography or learn an instrument. It was a big creative playground, really.
Middlesex was why I became a stage manager. In your first year, performing arts students had to crew the second year’s big production and I distinctly remember there was a meeting and they divided out the jobs that need to be done on any show. They said “we need a DSM [deputy stage manager]”. I didn’t really know what it was, no one put their hand up so I said I’d do it.
After the last show I was told over ‘cans’ that “you’re really good at his”. I suppose I was delighted at finding something I was good at so most of the rest of the course and lots of time outside was spent stage managing. This was at the expense of directing that I really didn’t do enough of and I regret that. But I was earning money as a stage-manager, meeting brilliant, amazing people and being tested beyond what any classroom could. Most of my outside work was for a producer/agent called Barrie Stacey. One of the great characters of the West End. I could talk about Barrie for hours but he put a company of people together who, with very little notice or even rehearsal could do a version of Pinocchio, Hansel and Gretel or Snow White in Peterborough, Clacton or Edinburgh. We generally filled a space that a theatre would have because a tour that was scheduled to arrive got into trouble. Better to have an underrehearsed, frankly cheap, children’s show than a dark theatre.
My first job after graduating was for the Julia Pascal Theatre co, a jewish theatre company, and we did shows such as The Dybbuk and Ghetto around the UK and Europe. I also did 9 months worth of one night stands doing Golden Musicals of Broadway (American Performers, German Technicians, Polish Producers) around Europe. With regular journeys of hundreds of miles through the night it was the closest I got to rock and roll touring. But, like with Barrie, I leant a lot. I can still ask when the ‘house’ opens in German or where the broom is.
Did you take your camera with you?
I didn’t have one as I’d always used a Pentax that belonged to Middlesex Poly. So I bought a small point and shoot and still have a big album of just that show.
In which I got to play Franknfurter! There was a Rocky Horror Show section in the show and in Heidelberg we were two actors down. We’d left our Franknfurter in Würzburg because he had a stomach injury (we never saw him again) and his understudy had a family bereavement so he went back to America and when I asked the dance captain who would play Franknfurter that day (and a few shows more) he said “you are”. Still don’t know why he thought I could even attempt it but it kind of sums up my stage-management career. I’ve been an actor, singer and guitarist in shows that unexpectedly lacked the properly trained talent!
I ended up as a freelance stage manager at the National Theatre in 1997. They’d advertised in The Stage for a Stage Manager for their education tour and I got that job. That was great and probably the best body of work I’ve ever done as a Stage Manager. We did loads of Shakespeare and Brecht and an amazing version of Oh! What A Lovely War in three circus tents. If the rumours are correct that show almost brought The National to its knees financially – I would love to see the books. But it was a magnificent show and spectacle and that it came out of the tiny Education Dept of the National was amazing. Best show I ever did. Sadly Joan Littlewood refused to come to see it, I’m sure she would have loved it. At least I hope she would have.
Then I realised that I had to make a decision whether to stay at The National and be a stage manager all my life. I wasn’t one of the best stage managers in the world but you could stay at that level until retirement age. Why would you leave? You get a fantastic wage, you’re doing fantastic shows and often you find you’re standing next to Ian McKellen in the canteen at lunch.
I thought I had to leave London to do something outside, it was too easy in London, too many jobs, too many contacts – so I moved up to Birmingham and applied for a casual crewing position at The REP and through my CV they realised I was a stage manager. So inevitably I ended up doing more shows in Birmingham.
I still wanted to be a director at this stage but didn’t know how to go about it. I met a stage manager at the Lincoln Centre when I was doing Twelfth Night in New York who’s still a friend. She’s now running this huge arts centre building somewhere in America and I sometimes think that’s what I expected to do but never did. I never gave myself the chance but you do need to have that extra something, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t have it.
I’d done a little bit of photography at college, so I already knew I could take a decent picture, so that thought was stored away. My last stage manager role was Promises and Lies – the UB40 jukebox musical – at The REP. Sorry to those involved but it was such a terrible show it was a good one to go out on. Then I was a bit lost really,
I didn’t know what to do until a friend of mine who was marketing manager at the Crescent Theatre (I’d rejoined the Crescent in order to act in and direct shows), said unfortunately the photographer they used had got really ill and had to give it up. I said “give me a go”. So if there is a Venn Diagram of what I know and understand, suddenly, unexpectedly, theatre photography became the sweet spot in the middle. I have experience in being a director, I’m not good enough to do that professionally but it informs me, so I can understand what the director wants. Because of that and an interest in acting and my stage management work and being in rehearsal rooms, I feel I have got more of a feel for it all maybe than other photographers have.
You’ve told me in the past that you enjoy photographing rehearsals more than anything, why’s that?
You get to see more of the process. It’s easier in a way because they’re doing the same scene over and over again but apart from that it’s the furnace, the heat of creativity rather than ‘this is what we’ve got and we show it’. In rehearsals, hopefully, if everyone’s contributing, if everyone has an input, it’s where it happens.
I’m aware we just ask you to come in and take some photos, we never consider what would make your life easier.
When I first started, photographing shows that were insanely dark used to annoy me. I obviously wasn’t being considered! But I was more limited with what I could do then, creatively and technically. My equipment was more limited, not just what I could afford but what technology allowed. It wasn’t being taken into account that my camera was going to struggle with a lot of the lighting that I was being presented with, but then again, why should it? The REP often gave me shows that were really fast moving with dark scenes and/or high contrast rock and roll lighting and I was just craving something slower with a lovely general cover! If you really want to make a photographer’s life easy do a traditional well made play, have the actors move slowly with really bright lights overhead.
Now that’s not a consideration. With what digital cameras can do and experience I’ve gained things are much easier. There’s been a whole revolution. I used to buy 400iso film when I first started at college (I’m sorry, this is getting a bit technical [iso is a measure of a film’s sensitivity to light]) and that was considered ‘fast’. 1600iso was pretty much the limit with my first digital camera but nowadays I can go up to 50,000iso which is just incredible. I feel if I can get up to that (and it’s going to get better), no matter how dark the show is I’ll be able to shoot it – that’s not a challenge by the way!
Stan’s Cafe has presented some of the biggest challenges, there’s alway a huge challenge in your shows, apart from Made Up, which was more like a normal show, if I can say that – it was brightly lit, with a set and it wasn’t fast moving. But everything else you do, there is a real challenge, it’s either the set’s really long and narrow, or really dark and the actors light themselves. The Capital was the one I struggled with most. I found it hard to get into your head with that one James! The only show I’ve taken twice because the first time didn’t really cut it.
What about taking promotional photographs for shows that haven’t been made yet, perhaps that’s more like working for an advertising agency?
This is perhaps where my directing experience helps. Making a photograph for a show that’s not been made, an image for a website or a programme and you may only have a vague outline of what it will be, trying to figure out what that is is really interesting for me. My parents were both amateur dramatic people and I grew up with pictures of them, every six months in the Wolverhampton Express and Star posing, usually with a sofa involved, with exaggerated features. So you have to make sure your photo doesn’t look like that, but you don’t really know what the show is! It’s especially interesting when there’s a writer involved, they may want to get so many things in the image to tell the story but that isn’t necessarily what’s going to work best. A simple image will probably be strongest but you have to be suggestive, a little diplomatic maybe and, remember, you know very little about the show you’re producing an image for. It’s a team effort but you always get there.
Are there other theatre photographers you admire?
There are but I’ve never met them, we never meet each other! I have occasionally seen a photographer when I’ve been in an audience or caught a dress rehearsal. A friend of a friend needed a wedding photographer and one of be best photographers for both weddings and theatre is Andrew Billington, I was really tempted to go to her wedding just to meet Andrew, just drop in for a minute to say “hi Andrew, I really admire your work”.
It’s a sad lonely existence Graeme.
Oh dear it does sound a little sad! It’s a little like following on from stage management, it’s quite a lonely existence, you are part of the creative process but you’re not quite part of it as well, so you’re a little outside. I’ve got a bit of a masochist streak in me that kind of enjoys that thing. The stage manager has to enjoy the pain of putting on a show. To know you’re not really invited to the party but the party can’t happen without you; that in a really long technical rehearsal everyone else is really well looked after for their breaks but you are not, you don’t get full breaks, because you have to set up the stage for where the rehearsal will continue from or there are too many problems to sort. You have to enjoy that. But I got too old to keep enjoying it. I think it’s a young person’s game. There’s no pain with photography in that way but there’s that tinge of – gosh, that was just brilliant and I’ve helped get that across to people who have not seen the show yet, but you’re not quite in the ‘in crowd’.
Everyone in theatre is needed from chief exec down to the cleaner. I saw someone put on Twitter recently a list of all the freelancers needed to put on a theatre show and the photographer wasn’t on the list (and it was a really long list!) That just goes to show we’re kind of on the outside. But as a solitary person and an introvert it’s suited to me really.
You must see loads of shows through the viewfinder but do you see many with the naked eye?
As I get older I think I see fewer things as an audience member, probably because I see so many through the lens of a camera. Maybe I get my fix of theatre through that, but it is lovely to see something without the camera. I did the pictures for The Wizard of Oz at The REP but then when I went back with a friend to see the finished version it was then lovely to take it all in without worrying about work. But then as an audience member I’m often thinking – oh my gosh, that moment would have made a great picture.
I was wondering, as you’re a keen Wolverhampton Wanderers fan, and sport and art aren’t entirely unrelated, whether you’ve ever had a go at sports photography?
I haven’t but I really do want to do it! I’ve not been brave enough to go up to a football team in a park and say “can I just try?” Because it is theatre isn’t it? I often thinks it’s especially like improv with it’s ‘yes, and …’ ethos.
Do you have any other unfulfilled ambitions?
I do, but I am the world’s worst PR marketing person. I haven’t yet done any shows at the National. It was the pinnacle of my stage-manager career and would be lovely to go back as kind of a vindication of leaving that environment and being more creative. That would be nice.
Stan’s Cafe will have to get another gig there and take you along.
Absolutely. Well I think that’s what happened to the Kneehigh photographer. I think he got taken along to The National via them… actually I’m not sure that’s strictly true.
One of the services you offer is to take headshots of actors and I wondered if there is ever a tension between actors wanting to look as good as possible versus getting a part? I ask because sometimes we have people who show up looking nothing like their CV photo!
Ha! Part of my spiel to everyone is exactly that. What is the point of getting an audition if you then then turn up and don’t look like the picture that has got your that audition? It wastes your time and their time and I’m pretty sure everyone has taken that on-board. What I find harder to try and get round is when people want character shots instead of one really good shot of them as an actor, so casting directors can say this person can be a father, a businessman or a gangster. They want to have the father look, they want to have the gangster look and that’s pretty tedious, where do you stop? When you’ve run out of clothes to portray the characters?
In the old days you could say you’ve run out of film but that doesn’t work any more! Some photographers say 100 shots or half an hour I don’t have any limit because I’m more interested in getting… not into the soul of a person but it does take time for them to go beyond “what’s my body doing and what’s my head doing and mouth doing?” My other bete noir, and it doesn’t happen very often, is people come into me and they say “I want to be a film actor. I don’t do theatre, I want to be a film actor”. I find that a bit hard. Obviously film and tv acting is hard to do and has a distinct discipline but if you’re not interested in theatre… I find you a less interesting person.
That’s a brilliant quote!
That is snobbish though isn’t it?
Is there anything you haven’t said and wanted to say?
Well, having worked in theatre all my working life I was a little bit… what’s the word… cynical about theatre, a little bit… ‘impress me’ but now in lockdown I feel like I’m a different person, I don’t think I’ll ever take that for granted again. I felt there was an awful lot of theatre that wasn’t terribly good, but it existed at least.
I heard someone recently who said “at this stage I could sit through anything!”
I do feel like that, I do!
Interview by James Yarker, Birmingham, September 2020.
For insiders Graeme Braidwood is a prolific and talented theatre photographer, principally working in the West Midlands, who has been a Stan’s Cafe Associate Artist since 2009.
It occurred to us both that we’ve never read an interview with a theatre photographer and that we didn’t know full details of Graeme’s fascinating ‘back story’, so here we attempt to fix both issues in one interview.