Manchester-born radio dramatist, playwright and actor, Vanessa Rosenthal continues to have an illustrious career, which began in the late 1960s. JLife’s Evangeline Spachis spoke to Vanessa about her work, life and upcoming projects.
You’ve had a long and varied career, working in radio, television, film and theatre. What would you say is your favourite medium to work in and why?
Each medium has its challenges and rewards but for me it’s always been live theatre that comes first. There’s nothing like the feel of a live audience. Each audience has a subtly different personality. You learn to tune the performance to the audience. It’s truly a two way process.
Currently I’m working on a stage play for three actresses based on a celebrated French woman writer and resistance fighter. I’m also very interested in the work a University of York academic has done in bringing to light the comedies performed by prisoners in Thersienstadt. These currently are only available in German. The fact that they were comedies in the midst of the unspeakable is remarkable.
Does living in North Leeds provide you with a challenge with your contributions to BBC Radio 4 and the arts? Is there a healthy dialogue between London and the North?
I came to live in Leeds in 1971 on my late husband’s (James Walsh) appointment first as deputy, and then as registrar of the University of Leeds. I’d met him in Manchester when he was in the administration at the University of Manchester and I was a drama student at The Central School of Speech and Drama. He was originally a Leeds undergraduate and the first ‘homegrown’ registrar of the university. As a Leeds post-graduate student he’d got to know Leeds quite well and from the beginning suggested the Roundhay area rather than the more obvious choice of Headingley.
I think the divide between the North and London is as great as it ever was. There’s a London tendency to dismiss the regions in arts terms as outer-Mongolia. For individual actors it has slightly improved. One works through an agent and as long as one can be in London for an interview or audition the next day, an exact address is not the key issue. However, in terms of networking and contacts, London remains the mecca. Obviously family life made Leeds my permanent home (I have two married daughters living now in Derbyshire and Berkshire and five grandsons) but I would say whatever I’ve done career-wise has been against the challenge of living outside London. This is not quite the same for a writer. The BBC in Manchester is a very important part of the whole institution and has a long history of nurturing new writers.
As a prolific writer and dramatist, what is it about certain pieces of literature which make particularly inspiring stories for radio?
This is a difficult one to answer in a nutshell. First and foremost writing for broadcast must have a strong narrative appeal. In some ways it has parallels with the novel in that place and time are so important but unlike the visual image of film or television these can be evoked through dialogue and sounds effects. The best broadcast writing has to make you ‘see’ exactly where you are and each listener’s scene-setting will be different from the next. I am drawn to literature that articulates the drama in real people’s lives – the minutiae of daily lives. I enjoyed re-creating the world of Jane Austen, the world of the medieval Paston family. So much had echoes with lives today over a span of hundreds of years: worries over work, money, housing, bringing up children, unfavourable marriages.
How does being both an actor and a writer work together?
Being an actor has helped enormously in being a playwright. Alan Ayckbourn once said to me that actors make the best playwrights. All those hours stood on stage over the years in various parts gives you an instinctive feel for the rhythm of dialogue, the rhythm of a scene. You absorb structure; recognise when it’s not there and then you learn stagecraft: how you get a character on and off the stage.
You are a founder member of Script Yorkshire, an incredibly influential organisation which supports broadcast media, new writing and performance in the region. How does it help emerging writers?
As a support network and a place to make contacts Script Yorkshire is invaluable. In the beginning when we started as a group of about 10 or so we were flying a flag for new writing in the regions and hollering to be treated seriously. Script Yorkshire has now grown and grown and become highly professionalised running workshops led by significant writers and setting up vibrant branches across the whole region. Funding remains a key issue but in spite of that we now have serious recognition and our members include acclaimed writers, novelists, playwrights, and television writers. Our much missed President David Nobbs who died this year gave generously of his time and support.
You grew up in Manchester, how did your upbringing inspire your career choices?
My career choice was undoubtedly influenced by my mother who for a brief time before her marriage had been a professional actress. She took me to the theatre from an early age, read Shakespeare, Browning, Keats and others to me and my sister, and encouraged me to join Amateur Dramatic Societies like Altrincham Garrick and The Unnamed Society.
You’ve starred in and adapted a number of Jewish-themed plays, how has your faith influenced your work?
Undoubtedly my Judaism has played a major part in my work as a writer. My broadcast play, ‘Exchanges in Bialystok’ is set in Poland and deals with the Holocaust. It was chosen to represent the BBC at The European Script Broadcasting Union in Helsinki. ‘Karen’s Way : A Kindertransport Life’ – my stage play about the poet and survivor Karen Gershon, played the Edinburgh Festival and then was invited to perform in Jerusalem. Another broadcast play’ Say It With a Kiss’ dramatized the real-life letters of a deaf Jewish couple in the 1920s as they faced the challenges of the quota system in their desire to emigrate to the USA. Their deafness was against them. He’s an East End boy and she’s a Liverpool girl and was an arranged introduction in the beginning.
As an actor some of the most important roles for me have been in Arthur Miller’s plays: Beatrice in ‘A View from the Bridge’; Fanny Margolies in ‘The American Clock’ and Linda Loman in ‘Death of A Salesman’. Essentially they are all Jewish women to me.