Nicola Sanderson (1982-1984)
Actress, Director and Playwright
Nicola Sanderson returned to Hereford Sixth Form College for International Women's Day in 2012.
During an interview Nicola told students of the long and winding road that led to being an accomplished playwright.
When were you here at Hereford Sixth Form College, and what did you study?
I was at Sixth Form College between 1982 -84. I studied English, History and Psychology.
Were there any particular tutors that inspired you?
Sue James was a great English teacher. She was the only tutor who taught in a seminar structure. Sue encouraged debate and discussion. Her teaching style meant I wasn’t completely unprepared when I got to university.
Can you remember what your ambitions and hopes were then, and when you were thinking ahead to choosing a university?
I wanted to be an actor but I think I always knew I didn’t want to restrict myself to the narrow focus of drama school so I applied to universities. Also I did one audition for drama school, Bristol Old Vic, and the experience was so traumatising I decided not to repeat it.
Which University or College did you attend in the end, and what did you study there?
I went to Manchester University and studied Drama.
What do you recall as the highlights of your university days?
Sadly, not many. I didn’t really enjoy university, having worried that drama school would be too narrow, I found the course at university so academic and unpractical that I struggled to fully engage. Instead I did a lot of work with a community theatre group that had nothing to do with university and we took shows toEdinburghand performed all overManchester, doing devised pieces and new writing in youth clubs, community centres and theatres which was great. With hindsight I’m still pleased I went to University, it’s given me a breadth of reading and a way of thinking about text that I don’t think I would have acquired otherwise.
From university where did you go - and how did this lead to your present role?
I moved to London straight after graduating and worked for the RSC backstage for a while. I still wanted to be an actor but couldn’t afford to do any more training. A friend told me that if you did a PGCE (a year’s teacher training) at Goldsmiths you didn’t have to do much teaching and they gave you money to set up a theatre company. Incredibly this turned out to be true. Four of us on the course started our own company and devised a play to tour to schools. We then went on to produce new writing in fringe theatres inLondon. One of these shows ended up winning several awards and attracting a lot of attention. From my role in this play I got my first agent, my first TV job and was cast in a show at the National Theatre.
What is your present role?
I’m an actor and writer. I also direct a youth theatre. I sometimes work as an actor for the corporate world, role playing to help businesses with recruitment and training.
What does your job involve?
As an actor I work in TV, theatre and radio and that can mean going anywhere in the country and sometimes abroad for the work. Now that I’m writing more I get to stay at home instead of having to find digs in other people’s back bedrooms so it’s much nicer and comfier than being an actor. It’s also quite a lot harder work but ultimately more satisfying.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
The best part is creating a piece of work that you’re really proud of, that didn’t exist before. Working with very talented people who are at the top of their game and learning from them. Currently, I’m working for the BBC, so I’m in the extremely privileged position of having a voice to create characters and write jokes for the large and discerning Radio 4 audience.
The worst parts of both acting and writing are the rejection and financial insecurity.
How has the work changed since you started?
There’s less of it. It’s hard to make a living as an actor. Especially a female one. It has become even more difficult as funding for the arts is cut and drama budgets on TV and radio have been reduced.
What are the pitfalls in your line of work?
It’s very easy as an actor and writer to think that success will breed success for ever. It doesn’t. The busiest people put an awful lot of work into getting the next job, it’s not just luck. Keeping up with contacts, networking, contacting directors you’d like to work with, that’s all very important and I wish I’d realised it earlier on in my career.
What has been your best work experience to date?
Although I’ve been quite lucky as an actor and been in lots of shows that I’ve enjoyed doing, my best work experiences have come out of my work as a writer.
The creation and subsequent commissioning of the BBC Radio 4 comedy series that I co–write with Christopher Douglas, Beauty of Britain, has been and continues to be a great experience. We are currently writing the third series of six half hours to be broadcast in August 2012. Apart from the satisfaction of the writing itself, we get to have an input on the casting, directing and editing of the series too. I also play one of the regular characters. There are no other medium where you are allowed, and indeed encouraged to have that level of control over your work.
Have you received any particular accolades or awards?
My first play, Diamond Hard, won the Almeida Theatre’s new writing competition in 2006.
If one of our students felt "I'd like to follow that route and do that job" what would you recommend to them?
If you want to be an actor perform in as much as you possibly can. Say yes to everything and work out how you’re going to fit it all in later. Also go and see as much theatre as you can afford to. You can only be good yourself if you know what good looks like. It’s much easier to access archive performances now via the web and the National Theatre also screens some shows in cinemas so there’s no excuse not to take advantge of all that. Create your own work. If you’re a drama student you’ve probably devised work as part of your course, that’s writing and it doubles your chances of having a lasting career if you can do it. Again it’s much easier to record your work on film now and upload it for potential employers to see. Many TV and comedy shows are commissioned on the strength of a ‘taster tape’ that the writers or performers have put together themselves.
Where are you living now and what projects are you working on?
I live in London. I’m currently busy writing my radio series, Beauty of Britain, so I have work until June. Beauty of Britain has been optioned for TV development by Hat Trick Productions so we are trying to think of ways to make the show work for a TV audience instead of a radio one. I’m pitching ideas for a new radio comedy series and I’m also trying to get a commission for a radio play.
One piece of advice for our students.
Pursue a subject at university that you truly enjoy. Don’t go to university just because it’s what everyone else is doing. I’ve always created my own work and I’ve ended up having a longer and more varied career than a lot of my contemporaries. A career in the arts is not an easy choice. The pay is mainly low or non-existent and you will be rejected more often that not. But you know that and it won’t put you off. It didn’t me and I’m happy that it didn’t, because I love what I do.
Photo credit: Ruth Figg, Hereford Sixth Form College