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Alumnus of the month

Martin Prendergast (BA English & Theatre Studies 1988-91) has gone on from Warwick to become Director of Communications at the National Theatre. Here he talks through his career path which has led to him taking one of the UK's leading arts positions. Also, as we celebrate LGBT History Month, he shares some insights into the changes he's seen since coming out as a gay man at Warwick in the late 80s.

MartinHow did get to where you are now?

I graduated in English & Theatre Studies in 1991 and almost immediately moved to London with no money, no job and nowhere to live. It was a bit hand-to-mouth at times. After working in bars, restaurants and clothes shops I got a job at The Times & Sunday Times publishing Birth, Marriage and Death announcements. From there I moved to Dewynters, a theatre specialist advertising agency which at the time was based on Leicester Square, which felt like my big break in the big city. I then joined Guardian News & Media where I worked for 10 years, meeting my husband along the way. I left there in 2007 to join the National Theatre, first as Deputy Director of Development & Head of Corporate Affairs, and for the last two years as the Director of Communications.

What did you get from studying at Warwick?

It was so brilliant to be able to engage with the world around me through academic study of theatre, whilst also making work on stage.

At one point I was discussing Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, the play about the AIDS epidemic, with Tony Howard’s seminar group (who is still there I am thrilled to see), whilst at the same time being in a WUDS production of the play in the Arts Centre. As a gay man coming to terms with my sexuality and working out who I was, this was really powerful stuff.

To be able to bring my political and sexual identities into my studies, whist at the same time bringing that play to life on stage every night, was a formative experience and I owe so much of current self to that time. And that’s what’s great about Warwick: you get a degree from one of the best Universities in the world but you also get the space and the opportunity to become who you are.

What are the most challenging parts of your work?

It’s the scale of it as well as the unpredictable aspects of the work. I work 7 days a week, with early starts and late finishes, and I’m always on alert for events that have an impact on the National Theatre. But that’s also what makes it so exciting. You can be preparing for an awards ceremony one minute, welcoming Paul McCartney to the theatre the next, and then dealing with the discovery of an unexploded WW2 bomb in the Thames, all in the space of a few hours or days.

You’ve taken an unusual career path, what inspired you? What lessons have you learned?

Make it happen yourself – don’t wait for it to happen by magic.

The secret is to find out what other people need and give it to them on terms that work for you.

Be a ‘yes’ person. It’s normally better to say yes to something and make it work, than to say no out of caution: exciting things can happen. But getting the right balance of boldness and caution is important too.

What have you done that you are most proud of?

I play the piano and sing, so doing two sold out charity gigs at the NT and one at Wilton’s Music Hall is something I’m very proud of – there’s another coming later this year.

These concerts are in the memory of my childhood friend Jane Bardsley who was at Warwick with me and was General Secretary of Warwick Students’ Union in 1990-91. She died of bowel cancer in January 2014 and I do the concerts in her memory and to raise money for charities she would approve of. This year’s charity is the Fawcett Society, the UK’s leading charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights.

It’s LGBT history month. What has changed since your time here?

In 2010 I married my husband Mark on the roof of the National Theatre. It was the best moment of my life and I feel wonderfully lucky every day.

When I was coming out at Warwick the AIDS epidemic was at its height, Thatcher was still in power, Section 28 had just been enacted and there was a general sense of persecution and discrimination of LGBT people. I received a bit of homophobic abuse in my 2nd year which rattled me more than I wanted to let on at the time.

I was very politically motivated at Warwick. I went on demos and marches, and we did mad, crazy things like turning the fountains pink – just because. It was an act of defiance that helped us feel stronger and braver about who we were.

And I owe a lot of my confidence, my resolute determination to always be myself, to be proud and happy about who I am – all the time and everywhere – to that politically motivated me who’d lie down in front of the traffic at the drop of a hat at some perceived discrimination. I loved it and it makes me proud to look back on it now. And it makes me laugh a bit too. We really were very angry quite a lot of the time. There was a lot to be angry about.

To have been able to look forward 19 years see myself marrying the man I love in front of all my family and friends, with the blessing of the State, would have been amazing. The lives of LGBT people have changed beyond measure in the last 20 years and it’s something we should protect fiercely, especially now.

What drives you?

Working at the NT means that I work with some of the most creative and brilliant people in the world – it’s fantastic and a real driver to be surrounded by people at the top of their game, whether that’s on stage or in the administrative departments.

Working in an industry I love and for one of the world’s great cultural institutions is also a great motivator. My husband works at the BBC and feels the same. We all have those days when going to work is hard, but working in a sector you love, doing something worthwhile that you think makes a difference, makes it so much easier.

On top of that my job can be quite stressful and that can be quite a driver. And when you work somewhere that makes you proud, you want to get it right and you don’t want to screw up.

What single thing would most improve the quality of your life?

More sleep and safer roads in London (I cycle to and from work).

What was your favourite aspect of your course?

Having three years to immerse myself in the academic study of theatre has been really valuable throughout my career. Also, I now know the etymology of the word ‘obscene’ which comes from classical Greek theatre where horrific things happened off-stage, or ob skene. (You’re welcome).

Is there anything you wish you had done differently during your time as a student?

I wish I had spent even more time making music and being in theatre. You never have that much time again and it’s such a joy.

How do you balance work and life?

I could probably be better at this. I start early and I finish late. My work email is something I look at if I wake in the night and certainly first thing in the morning when I check the day’s media coverage of the NT.

But my work is also my social life, to a degree. I love theatre so staying late doesn’t feel like a burden – I get to see some of the world’s best theatre, for free, as part of my job. I still get a buzz for that, which is pretty great.

I also make sure that Mark comes with me to the theatre otherwise I’d never see him. And I suspect that not having children makes life a bit easier to balance.

If you could choose another profession, what would it be?

Classical pianist or cabaret pianist and singer. Maybe both. I’d love to have a one-man show at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Where do you hope to be in 10 years’ time?

It’s hard to know what comes after a job like this in a place like this. I’ve only been doing it a short while and I’m not thinking too far ahead right now – but if I’m still here in 10 years that’d be fine by me.

In a fantasy world I’d also love a little place in France. And I’d love to still be in the EU.

What three objects would you take with you to a desert island?

A Steinway Grand Piano. Netflix (is that allowed? Is there broadband on the island?). And Mark (not strictly an object) – he’s very practical and we’d be off that island in no time.

What are your favourite memories of your years at Warwick?

There has to be a bit of theatre in there, so the last night of The Normal Heart is a very special memory. Taking Maeterlinck’s The Blind to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1991 was also a very formative experience – never before performed in English. And never since I don’t think. We also went on a theatre tour of post-Communist Poland in a white minibus with a LGBT play called This Island’s Mine, which was quite something …

Being with Jane when she won the election to become General Secretary.

Falling in love for the first time, with someone I’m still friends with.

Do you have any advice for new graduates?

Write a list of the 10 places you most want to work. Get in touch with a senior manager in your preferred department ask for 20 minutes of their time to find out what they are looking for in their recruits – find out what they need. Then put together a pitch that demonstrates how you can meet those needs.

Choose your first proper job carefully. It’s likely to be what you do for the rest of your career.

Also, have as much fun as you possibly can. There’s plenty of time for work later.

FACT FILE

Age: 46

Lives: Camberwell, South London

Education: Royal Latin School, Buckingham, Stantonbury Campus Milton Keynes, Warwick University 1988-91

Career:

  • 1992-1993 Birth, Marriage and Death announcements, The Times and Sunday Times,
  • 1993–1997 Media buyer, Dewynters Advertising Agency
  • 1997-2007 Arts Manager, Guardian News & Media
  • 2007–2015 Deputy Director of Development & Head of Corporate Affairs, National Theatre
  • 2015–present Director of Communications, National Theatre

Interests: Classical piano, theatre, politics, travel