As an acclaimed theatre producer in one of the world’s major cities, Burntisland boy Neil Laidlaw has to pinch himself most days. It’s a far cry from standing behind the counter in his local bank, as Mark Good finds out.
Neil Laidlaw was transfixed. A raw, if unashamedly keen first year dramatic studies student, he had diligently made an effort to attend the fourth year students’ end-of-year show. What he saw spawned a love affair that shows no signs of subsiding.
The show was The Steamie. Dawn Steele (Monarch of the Glen, Wild at Heart, River City) shone as Mrs Culfeathers but it was the reaction of the audience members that left Neil spellbound. He said: “I looked over and the wee Glasgow ladies in front of me were laughing and crying.
“It was just brilliant. There was Dawn, in her 20s playing a character in her 70s. That was my first exposure to the show and it has been a favourite of mine ever since.”
Fast forward to the present day and The Steamie is celebrating its 30th anniversary, touring all over Scotland. Neil is producing the show for the third time, describing it as “unique” in its charm. “Normally, casting is king,” he said. “With The Steamie, the show is the star.
“It defies expectations. Outside Scotland, people don’t know anything about the show but I can take it to every theatre in Scotland and it will sell.”
Neil’s admiration for The Steamie is clear, as is his pride in his alma mater, where he was to study after catching the acting bug as a youngster. (His father lived in Scone, in Perth and Kinross, and had taken his son to pantomimes at Perth Theatre – Neil’s mind was made up by the age of eight).
By 17, he was planning to return for his final year of high school in Burntisland, Fife, but having obtained the grades necessary to enter the RSAMD and a couple of years shy of meeting the age requirements, his dad encouraged him to work instead. Thus followed a spell working as an office junior in a bank. It may not have been a highlight of his career but it unearthed an aptitude for working with figures that were to stand him in great stead for the years to come.
“I really wasn’t enjoying the job. I was doing amateur theatre and was pretty sorted. I had a car, a mortgage, the lot. I decided to jack it all in and run off to the circus, as it were.”
Having sacrificed the stability of the life he had come to know, Neil pinned his hopes on becoming an actor but his teachers at the RSAMD felt his true talent lay elsewhere.
“I thought I was an actor. Russell Boyce, then Director of Drama, asked me to tell him the difference between an actor and a performer – ‘you are a performer, not an actor’ were his words.
“That was crushing at the time, to say the least. Then Andrew McKinnon, who was Head of Drama Postgraduate Studies, asked me if I had ever thought about being a producer and I never looked back.”
With the support of the institution, Neil began seeking opportunities to further develop his skills, gaining placements with theatres and opera companies across the country. He continued: “It’s not just about what the institution gives you, it’s about what you can take from it. You have to go out and make it happen and the Academy supported me 100 per cent” [the lure of referring to Scotland’s national conservatoire as the ‘Academy’ remain strong with this one].
Of the highlights from his time as a student, there are many – not least Trader Joe’s, a dearly departed public house which was, at one time, a favoured student haunt.
Fame Fridays were a hit, involving dancing, singing, make-up and poetry. Neil also recalls directing and producing a student production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which starred Steven Cree (BA Acting 2001). “Musical theatre is the greatest form of theatre – when it works. I am slightly obsessive about it. At that time, the music school was viewed as a different world but we collaborated, so opera singers and instrumentalists worked with student actors. The musicians loved it because they didn’t get the chance to play repertoire like that very often. It was a huge amount of work, a really big deal for me, but it gives me the freedom to pull together this huge production.
“I think it’s important for all higher education facilities, particularly those in the creative arts, to foster an environment where students feel safe to express themselves. You need to have a safety net to allow you to discover what you can do.”
Upon graduating from the Royal Conservatoire in 2001 with a BA (Dramatic Studies), Neil spent a brief spell working in Scotland but soon found himself drawn to London’s bright lights. Now an acclaimed commercial producer, Neil Laidlaw Productions works across both new work and revivals in the West End and Broadway as well as UK and international touring. One of his roles sees him involved as a production accountant on Wicked, a position he ironically credits to his teenage spell working in the bank.
Sitting in the Royal Conservatoire’s Wallace Studios, a new addition to the institution since Neil’s student days, it was clear that a great deal of affection clearly remains for his alma mater.
He added: “If it wasn’t for this institution, the encouragement I received there and the direction it gave me, I wouldn’t be doing what I do today. That set me on this path so for me, there is an element of giving back. I often think about the people who are beginning their studies today. I hope they get as much out of the experience as I did.”
Information on Neil Laidlaw Productions is available at www.neillaidlaw.co.uk