Julian Wickham has a lot on his mind. There’s a fire that burns within the 27-year-old – the sort of all-consuming passion that afflicts most creative types.
Julian’s thing is theatre, but had he found a different vocation – base-jumping; salsa; cookery – he’d doubtless be just as enthused. As it stands, the culinary world’s loss is Edinburgh Stage School’s gain.
7 months ago, the theatre director left his home in Barcelona and moved to the just-as-cultured-but-slighty-colder city of Edinburgh. The ambitious Londoner has big plans afoot, plans that involve theatre production, festival shows, musicals and possibly world domination.
Ed Uncovered caught up with Julian Wickham to discuss his masterplan and shed some light on Edinburgh’s newest stage school.
London > Barca
“My dad was a dancer in the 80s but that’s the extent of my connection with the performing arts,” he begins, tapping an e-cig against the palm of his hand. “I went to drama school myself though and trained as an actor, before deciding to go to a different country and do things on my own terms.”
That different country was Spain, where Julian spent three years building up what was to become Barca’s largest independent theatre.
“The English Drama School welcomed expats and anyone else who could speak English; we would basically welcome them through the door and train them up. I employed a number of teachers and we would produce what you see on the walls here.”
He gestures at the posters adorning his neat office. “At its height we had around 90 people a week. The English Drama School ran for 2 ½ years and at the end of each term there’d be a show in the theatre that I ran.”
All good things come to an end however, and when the theatre closed (“It was structurally unsound and the government condemned it”), Julian set his sights on Scotland.
“I didn’t have my theatre any more so I thought ‘Barcelona, it’s sunny, I’ve had a great time over here’ but I figured if I’m gonna do this properly…” he trails off.
“I’m from London originally as you can probably tell from my accent, but my girlfriend’s from Edinburgh so I thought it would be a lot easier to transfer things over here.”
He still wears the remnants of a Spanish sun tan, a faint hue that will have to carry him until the Scottish summer kicks in. In his tight white shirt, grey trousers and polished brogues, Julian Wickham looks every inch the English gentleman, his dark hair slicked back, immaculate, just like the office from which he is holding court.
There are framed prints – The Graduate; An Unfortunate Christmas – and an ornamental fireplace flanked by mock pillars that evokes the National Monument on Calton Hill. Signed theatre prints and an ornamental skull, its roof caved in (by a claw hammer perhaps?) complete the look.
Barca > Edinburgh
Upon arriving in Auld Reekie last September, Julian wasted no time in setting up Edinburgh Stage School in a rented space on Buchanan Street. So far, his efforts would appear to be bearing fruit, with the fledgling school’s Monday and Thursday classes now supplemented by a drop-in Sunday service. In May, Saturday classes will also be launched to keep up with demand.
By his own admission, Julian doesn’t do things by halves. He taps his e-cig emphatically. “I’d never been to Edinburgh before but I threw myself headfirst into it.”
“I really like the city,” he continues, running a hand across his neat facial hair. “The arts community have been very positive about a newcomer arriving on the scene, whereas in Barcelona, because we were the first of our kind, it inspired other groups to spring up. By the time we left there were three other groups all vying for the same audiences so there was lots of bitchiness, whereas over here, it’s an established scene.”
“Before I moved here and was doing my research, I thought to myself ‘There’s so many other companies doing what I’m going to be doing, am I even gonna get any students?’ but I don’t have anything negative to say about Edinburgh. So far so good.”
Lifeline Theatre Company
In addition to running the stage school, Julian has found the time to write two new plays, which will be performed by his Monday and Thursday classes respectively.
“Having a school in Edinburgh, where everyone speaks native English, is a huge plus for me. In Barcelona, it was the English Drama School. I couldn’t call it that over here – I’d get kicked out of Scotland,” he laughs, “but over there, some of our pupils could only manage conversational English, which was challenging.”
The Londoner appears to relish stern challenges: the first play he has penned since arriving in Edinburgh tackles the thorny issue of Scottish independence.
“Independence is the name of the show, but there are two different plays set within it. The first one, called London’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, is about a young man who’s moved to the capital. It’s set four years in the future and deals with the experiences he has as an exiled Scot.”
While the producer doesn’t want to give too much away, he notes that the play features “a crazy landlord who’s a Scottish nationalist but is also happy to be in the UK” and the adoption of a Scottish currency called the Thistle, which, coupled with an adverse exchange rate, forces its protagonist to pay exorbitant rent – even by London standards.
Independence is to be a play of two halves, with the second 45-minute segment a more sombre affair: “It’s set in the Orkney Islands, again, four years in the future, with the scenario being that Scotland failed to win independence.”
The plot involves a militaristic organisation called the SPA that plans demonstrations and bombing campaigns in England. When the play’s protagonist begins dating the leader of the Orkney SPA, it sets in motion a conflict between her lover and her father, who is bitterly opposed to the group’s agenda.
“It’s a bit more extreme this play, but it highlights what could happen, and took me a lot longer to write,” concedes Julian. “With both plays, I simply want to highlight an independence scenario that could arise from either outcome.”
“I really don’t wanna take a political stance on this at all,” he adds.
Lifeline and Leith
As well as producing Independence and Naked Women (“a new play revealing how insecurities can eat away at and ultimately consume us”), Julian is bringing Lifeline to Leith Festival in June. The play, which runs from 20th-22nd at South Leith Parish Church, features “characters ranging from hardened criminals to cheating housewives, teenage tearaways and guilty aristocrats”.
With pivotal scenes set in a Leith cafe, the play – like Independence – would suggest that Julian has quickly taken to Scottish life. Lifeline, which has since been updated, was the most popular play he ever produced in Barcelona. To maximise its prospects of success, the producer has cast only the best actors from Edinburgh Stage School.
While there’s no doubting Julian’s ambition, pleasing audiences – and critics – can be a fickle business. What if the final product fails to live up to scrutiny?
He laughs drily. “To be honest, I’ve never had a bad review yet. I’ve had interesting reviews. But I wouldn’t take criticism personally, no. If it was constructive, I’d take it and I’d learn from it. We got a really good review for the last play we did in Edinburgh and that was a good starting point.”
Julian talks proudly of his class of aspiring actors and casual thespians, describing the satisfaction that comes from seeing once-timid souls grow in confidence, to the point where they are boldly delivering monologues to a packed theatre.
“As I tell the actors, ‘Do a good job because the internet will live forever. In five years’ time you might not be a part of the Edinburgh Stage School, you might be working in a bank somewhere, but if people type in your name, if they search hard enough they’ll see whether John Smith fluffed his lines, so everyone’s name’s on the line not just mine.’“
In addition to overseeing two plays at Leith Festival, Julian Wickham has big plans – plans that may involve writing a musical and finding a theatre to serve as a permanent base for his stage school. He’s considered his future beyond Edinburgh Stage School, but right now, it is his everything.
“Edinburgh’s been good to me and with the service I’m providing, everyone seems to be having a good time,” he concludes. “People will go to a drama school and they’ll pay for a block of ten classes. We don’t charge any upfront fees; we’re very transparent. The fees they pay go towards producing the show; costumes; makeup artists. All of our courses – the Monday and Thursday classes – are leading up to a performance. We don’t just learn a technique for ten weeks and then ‘Bye’.”
He stands and points to a prop on the wall: “You see that sword there? That was from a really dark production I did of Beauty and the Beast. It’s still got some of the fake blood attached to it.”