Sunday, September 03, 2017

Fame and fortune: the Cambridge effect

One thing that you often hear when at Cambridge, usually said by people not at Cambridge, is that you're going to university with people who will one day be famous. For me, at least, that never seemed very realistic at the time. I'm feeling reflective now, though, so here's a quick look back.

I was involved in at least 20 theatrical productions in Cambridge, depending on how you count, but the first one was a biggie: in December 2004, when this blog was in its infancy, a bunch of us got on a bus and performed Romeo and Juliet in venues around Europe (mostly Switzerland), then at the ADC Theatre in Cambridge in January 2005. This is the European Theatre Group tour, and, considering that it's featured folks like Stephen Fry and Sir Derek Jacobi, it's a good place to start in more ways than one.

My role was as a humble "fresher techie". I'd assumed that my experience of occasionally pressing buttons on a 20-year-old lighting deck and carting props around for the Tideswell Community Players would set me up well for this. In fact, I was touring with several people who'd worked with state-of-the-art sound and lighting setups at their secondary school, who had serious ambitions to go into technical theatre, and who took the whole thing very seriously. I certainly learned a huge amount - it was another instance where I had to rein in my inherent arrogance and lap up what was thrown my way. Once or twice, being able to speak semi-decent French or German actually made me more useful than just another pair of hands. Most importantly, I guess, I had a great time. Anyway, enough about me. More important are the interesting people I was touring with.

Twelve years later, the fame thing is very clear when you look at the cast. The most striking fact is that, of the eleven of them, six now have their own Wikipedia pages. Obviously that's not a perfect proxy for stardom, but not a bad indicator of success either, given that all these people are broadly the same age as me. The standout is probably Lydia Wilson, who played Juliet and has now played a good-sized role in a flippin' Star Trek film, but it's hard to compare. Two of the other cast members, Simon Evans and Alexandra Spencer-Jones, are now successful directors in their own right (as is the director of the play, Max Webster). The other cast members I know about are also doing just grand for themselves. On the crew side, the only one with a Wikipedia article that I know of is designer Simon Fujiwara, but of course crew by their nature prefer to stay in the shadows, on the whole.

What does all of this mean? I revisited this lot out of curiosity, not because I wanted to make a point, and I still don't. There are lots of points to be made. The obvious ones are about nepotism and about the Cambridge brand value. While there's obviously something to be said for both of those, it's also the case that, to the extent to which one of those is explanatory, the other is less so; and there are also questions about the direction of causation. The other obvious point is that people who go to Cambridge are often very capable and (perhaps even more importantly) incredibly ambitious. And that there are established routes into the theatre world that people are aware of should not be very surprising to anyone: it's not a huge industry and by its nature has to cluster around particular cities, neighbourhoods, and theatres. Furthermore, who you are, and who you can be, matters in theatre - for actors it probably matters more than anything else, and so it would be hard to envisage a theatre industry that wasn't nepotistic at least to some degree by necessity. Good looks don't hurt either (and I now know that good looks are much more a matter of hard work than I was aware in 2004-5).

So you're welcome to read into this retrospective what you like. It's clearly illustrative of something.