FEATURE: The man whose world’s the stage
It was the school holidays and like many mums Gill Whatley was looking for something constructive to occupy her teenage son.
But she could never have forseen the result of packing the reluctant 16 year-old off to a summer school in drama.
He emerged not only with a new passion, but a whole new future.
Now, not that far down the line, Alastair Whatley is running the busiest touring theatre company in the UK.
Given his parents’ verdict on his first stage appearance, aged seven, the drama course was not an obvious choice.
“I went to Old Buckenham Hall at Brettenham, which in those days was an old fashioned all-boys boarding school,” he says.
“I took part in a school production of Julius Caesar – playing one of the conspirators.
“Mum and Dad said it was the longest three hours of their lives.”
The theatre never figured strongly in his childhood.
“We may have gone to the panto once a year but we were not a theatrical family at all.
“The only link was that we think my great grandmother, who came from Czechoslovakia, may have been an actress.”
Nevertheless, the summer school still seemed a good bet to the mother of a bored teenager.
“I was dragged kicking and screaming by my mum to the Theatre Royal in Bury. I didn’t want to do it at all,” says Alastair.
“Then I had this moment ... they were doing a lot of improvisation and everyone was terrified of it.
“But I suddenly realised it was something I could do.”
The moment was life changing. By the time he was 18 he had no doubt he wanted to be an actor.
Alastair, who lived with parents Gill and Michael at Whepstead, had been all set to do a history degree at Cambridge.
“I changed courses and went to do drama and theatre studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, instead.
“And for better for worse, richer for poorer I have been married to it ever since.”
He quickly realised that acting alone was not enough for him. He wanted to direct too.
There were limited chances at university and they went, quite rightly he says, to more experienced people.
But he was not going to give up that easily. He set up his own ambitious venture – a rip-roaring production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
And in 2005 - on a wing and a prayer and £1,500 - he took it on a national tour.
It was the birth of The Original Theatre Company, which in the last 10 years has gone from strength to strength.
“I was a first time producer with lots of ambition but not much experience and made a lot of mistakes, but I learned from them,” he said.
“We performed it in all sorts of places from pub gardens, village halls, football stadiums, and on a clifftop.”
He also brought it to his home county where venues included the Abbey Gardens in Bury.
Local appearances meant his parents found themselves playing host to the entire company with around a dozen actors crammed into the family home.
From that first tour it was onwards and upwards. Alastair was on a mission to bring great drama to every corner of the UK.
The company has gone from struggling newcomer to the cutting edge of touring theatre and now does more performances each year than any other similar group.
Last year it made more than 300 appearances in front of audiences all over the country.
“I often find myself in a different town every night. My life is lived out of a suitcase,” he says.
“There are very few towns and cities we haven’t toured to.
“Considering the economic climate and funding cuts I suppose what we manage to do is quite remarkable.”
Finding ways of paying for the productions is not always easy. They are large-scale with big, impressive sets.
Original Theatre tends not to do things by halves.
Up to 90 people can be involved in the planning stages, although the core group that goes on tour is usually less than 20-strong.
But he approaches the financial challenges with the same determination that launched the company in the first place.
One of the plays on this season’s bill, the smash-hit comedy Invincible, lost its expected Arts Council funding because of budget cuts.
But rather than call it off he is raising the cash in other ways including crowd funding.
“Just writing an application can take months, but if it’s rejected we’ll still find a way to make it happen.
“Others might give up but we don’t.”
Terence Rattigan’s wartime love story Flare Path, another of this year’s productions, is financed by company investors who will share in the profits.
The company has just published a five-year plan setting out its vision for the future of touring theatre.
It states their ambition to work with brilliant people on brilliant stories that excite, entertain and challenge audiences.
“The vision is changing,” it says “from survival to leading the pitch, collaborating with large audiences and helping to shape the UK touring theatre scene.”
In the last three years Tom Hackney, who started with the company as an actor, has joined Alastair on the production team.
At the moment they only go to venues with upwards of 350 seats ... partly because any less would not be financially viable, and partly because their sets won’t fit into small spaces.
But they hope in the future to develop another strand that would allow them to perform in smaller theatres.
Their aim is to give audiences a chance to enjoy all kinds of drama from tried and tested favourites like last year’s Three Men in a Boat, to new works like Invincible.
Torben Betts’ sharp and spiky comedy about a middle class London couple who downsize to the north of England – said by some to out-Ayckbourn Alan Ayckbourn – is a highlight of their 2016 programme.
“The idea is to try and regenerate the touring landscape, to keep fresh blood coming to the theatres,” Alastair says.
The company is making numerous visits to East Anglia in the coming months.
Bury’s Theatre Royal is hosting its production of Flare Path from February 29 until March 5.
Invincible arrives in Bury at the end of March, before moving on to the New Wolsey Theatre at Ipswich and Colchester Mercury at the end of April.