Acting was my childhood dream – now I’m at the National Theater

Duncan Hess spent 40 fulfilling and fascinating years directing for the BBC: ‘Every news program there was; Antiques Road Show; I’ve traveled all over the place making documentaries…’ His career culminated with overseeing the company’s coverage of the Queen’s sacking last September. It was Hess who chose to show Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby’s footage that shocked the nation. “You didn’t queue at all!” he says. “They just walked by.”

But all the while Hess had been nurturing another dream, one that was born at age 15 on a school trip to the RSC in Stratford to see a production of Henry V. “I didn’t understand Shakespeare very well, but I found the whole experience exciting. There was a wonderful Welsh actor named Emrys James who did that [the chorus’s speech]: ‘Oh for a muse of fire that would soar to the brightest skies of invention.’ I cry when I think about it now.” Excitedly, he wrote to the RSC asking if he could come back and hang out between shows and bag a floor at the community center to sleep on. He returned several times, listening to records of his hero Laurence Olivier in his sleeping bag at night after performances.

He joined the Manchester Youth Theater and played a tiny role in Julius Caesar, but his teenage theatrical successes stopped there. His parents, he says, discouraged him from acting professionally. One uncle was a successful actor and comedy writer, including for Morecambe and Wise, and they feared his glamor had turned his head. “Mum and Dad thought I was very impressed with his jet set showbiz lifestyle; but that had absolutely nothing to do with it.”

He enjoyed the BBC (“I have no regrets; it was fantastic fun”), but his passion for theater never waned. “We walked a lot, my wife and I, and every time I sat in the audience I thought, ‘I want to be up there.'” It was a need, he says, stronger than a desire, and like this As his 60th birthday approached, he decided to do something about it. After trying out some acting classes, he enrolled in a part-time acting diploma course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, filling evenings and weekends learning his craft. He’s by far the oldest, he says, but “I had a great time, I really enjoyed it.”

Playing a small role in a well-done little play and getting 60 people to applaud – I found that so rewarding

His second career took off in earnest in 2020 with auditions and roles in London pub theater productions and it was only at that point that he felt confident this new life was really for him. “I wasn’t scared, I remembered my lines and didn’t hit the furniture. It’s important, of course, but that’s it Thrill.” He had worried that his only dream was to play leading roles on prestigious stages. “But to have a small role in a successful little play and to see 60 people clapping their hands was so rewarding. One reviewer called me “an obvious highlight”!”

The 65-year-old, who has retired from television, has amassed the building blocks of a burgeoning acting career: an agent, the all-important Spotlight casting directory entry and his big break in two comedies with Birmingham Rep in Spring 2022.” What a thrill to go out and strangers laugh at what you say!” But it’s not easy. Casting can feel like closed shop – one top agent asked him with brutal honesty, “Why on earth would anyone book you when they could book Kenneth Cranham?” The two look alike. His age also limits the range of jobs. “The only roles I see advertised that I can audition for are either I have dementia, I’m recently widowed, or I’m terminally ill.” Meanwhile, on Spotlight, he says, “All I ever see is Santa work,” he says . “I could make a good living from it, but it’s not what I want!”

That’s why he took on his current role. He sits in his dressing room at the National Theater in London, waiting to continue in Phaedra, starring Janet McTeer. Hess is a so-called “supernumerary” – a non-speaking part. “That’s such a terrible word. The definition is “in excess of the required number”; ‘not wanted or needed’.” The rationale for this, he says, is, “Casting at the National Theater know what I look like now – it’s as simple as that. If a me-shaped hole pops up in the next three months…”

That doesn’t mean it’s not exciting in and of itself. Being alone in the building, he says, is “absolutely exciting. They’ve all been here: Gielgud, Richardson, Judi Dench… When I go to the urinals, I think, ‘I wonder if Lord Olivier had to pee here…’” He says he walked through the foyer and demonstratively had his NT -Lanyard showed up for a while but stopped when too many people mistook him for a usher.

The part is easy. “I sit in silence for ten minutes and eat spaghetti,” he says. “I just pretend to talk to my fake son and then look shocked when something shocking happens. Then I’ll take the train home.” But it’s exhausting, and he feels bad for leaving his wife alone six nights a week for two months (although she’s very supportive of his new career, as is the rest of his family ). Still, standing on the National’s Lyttelton stage when the audience is barely 10 feet away is extraordinary. “The lights go out, the curtain goes up and they’re only illuminated by the exit signs, so there’s a kind of glow — it’s electrocuted.” There are 800 people in the auditorium, he says. “Any moment, at least one of them will be watching us!”

Did he wish he had made the switch sooner? “God, yes. It’s strange that 50 years passed between falling asleep, listening to Laurence Olivier records and entering the National Theater.” But he’s making up for lost time and may still have 15 good years left, he says. He wants the casting directors to understand that and is frustrated by the ageism he encounters. Theater courses for “up-and-coming talent” are often reserved for those under the age of 26. “But I show up! I’ve been stuck in this shriveled old doll for 60 years and now look at my dazzling wings!”

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