John Shand's cheeky move that won over theatre legend Steven Berkoff

John Shand at his home in Katoomba. Photo: Wolter Peeters.
John Shand at his home in Katoomba. Photo: Wolter Peeters.

As most artists will readily admit, talent alone is often not enough to get you noticed.

Frequently, it also takes good luck and and a dash of old-fashioned chutzpah to get your work recognised.

That was certainly in the mind of Katoomba playwright John Shand when, nine years ago, he took a cheeky punt and left a copy of his latest script at the stage door of the Seymour Theatre, marked for the attention of legendary actor, director and writer Steven Berkoff, who was starring in a one-man show there.

Expecting the script to end up in the bin, Shand, also a long-time music and theatre reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald, “thought little more of it” and returned to working on his book, Jazz: The Australian Accent.

“About two weeks later the phone rang, and a voice on the other end says, ‘Is that John Shand?’ Steven Berkoff here, you sent me a script.’

“And so my knee started trembling and, blow me down, he said, ‘I think you've written a masterpiece, we should talk about it. When could we meet?’.”

Shand imagines he looked “like one of those speeded-up cartoon characters” as he rushed to meet Berkoff at his Kings Cross hotel.

“Half an hour later, he and I are seated across a coffee table from one another and he's reading back slabs of my script to me, saying, ‘This is great stuff! Why isn't this being produced?’.”

And now, almost a decade later, Guilt, a verse play based on the 1634 Loudun witch trials in France, will have its world premiere on January 8 at Washington, DC's Scena Theatre.

Steven Berkoff has championed John Shand's work every step of the way. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

Steven Berkoff has championed John Shand's work every step of the way. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

The play has been championed every step of the way by Berkoff.

“I searched everywhere and eventually there was a company that used to do my work in Washington, a small, bold company.

“I sent it to them [Scena Theatre] and they liked it,” said Berkoff, who is as enamoured with the play now as he was at the beginning.

“It was the quality of the writing, the power of the writing, it was so inventive.”

Berkoff was taken by both the play's fascinating subject matter and its highly stylised verse form, especially as he himself writes in verse.

“I just feel a passion that this must be seen and must be exposed to others.”

Reflecting on Shand's gamble of leaving the manuscript at the stage door back in 2007, Berkoff says, “As a writer, you have to take whatever steps you can.

“You've got your play, it's like your child.

“You've got to feed it and you'll do anything to nourish it.”

Shand will see the preview on January 5, which happens to be his birthday (“a rather nice confluence of events”).

During Shand's stay, Scena Theatre will also be reading another of his plays, The Last Drop, which has in the past been shortlisted for the Queensland Premier's Drama Award.

Shand, who earlier this year won the inaugural Walkley Award for arts journalism, has been writing plays for 43 years but sees Guilt as “career changing”.

“To get something quite substantial happening like this is a bit of a breakthrough,” he said.

This story first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.