The show directed by Nicholas Hytner most likely to be familiar to Americans is "Miss Saigon," which ran for more than a decade in London and New York. This may seem an odd credit for the director of England's National Theatre. "Balancing Acts," Hytner's shrewd and engaging memoir of his 12 years at the National, makes it clear that from the moment he took charge in 2003 his mission was to shake up the traditional repertory and make it as broadly popular as a blockbuster musical. He aimed to expand the National's audience by reaching out to people who thought it was too expensive, too stuffy or both.
His first step was to offer a £10 Season: four plays with ticket prices comparable to a movie admission. It was a smash: Attendance averaged 92 percent during Hytner's inaugural season. "For a tenner, they were up for anything," he writes of the £10 Season audience, 30 percent of which had never been to the National before.
Actually, the tenners brought fairly standard National fare, ranging from Shakespeare ("Henry V") to worthy contemporary drama (David Mamet's "Edmond"). Hytner was careful to provide for longtime National attendees with "Mourning Becomes Electra" and "Three Sisters." He ventured farther outside the box later in the season with "Jerry Springer — The Opera," which he gleefully describes as "an amoral marriage of trash television and high art." It's obvious he's prouder of "Elmina's Kitchen," a play about Afro-Caribbean Londoners written largely in dialect Hytner acknowledges was difficult for white people to understand. "It was . . . way past time for people who got every word of it to find out about their National Theatre," he states unapologetically.
That wide-ranging first season set the tone for all that followed. Hytner worked to recruit playwrights as varied as the audiences he sought, taking particular pride in increasing the number of plays by women. His goal was a democratic, diverse National Theatre producing many different kinds of shows for many different kinds of people. He wanted to get them young. During his tenure, the National did stage adaptations of young adult books — "His Dark Materials," "Coram Boy" and "War Horse" — so brilliantly theatrical that they reached far beyond the family audience. All were the results of a collaborative creative process made palpable in Hytner's vivid account. He has a particularly keen appreciation of scenic designers' vital contributions in shaping physical space to illuminate a play's themes.
He also acknowledges the directors who gave the National a scope beyond his own tastes, including Howard Davies's reappraisals of Gorky and Bulgakov, Deborah Warner's productions of Brecht and Beckett and Katie Mitchell's rigorously avant-garde renderings of Greek tragedy (though Mitchell's ignore-the-audience approach prompted notes from Hytner reminding her that "audibility and visibility are negotiable only up to a point").
His own directorial efforts alternated between Shakespeare and new plays, with the occasional classic comedy thrown in when he felt a season was getting too grim. Whether he's describing his work on "Hamlet" or on Alan Bennett's "The History Boys," Hytner's view of the director's responsibility to the play remained the same: "If you have nothing to say about it . . . you end up draining the life out of it. [But] when you discover a personal stake in a play, you need to balance your personal connection to it with the need to connect it to its audience."
The key to making that connection is the actor, and many of the best pages in his memoir contain Hytner's perceptive and appreciative sketches of English masters such as Michael Gambon, Richard Griffiths, Simon Russell Beale, Helen Mirren and Fiona Shaw. It's not just that Hytner relishes the way actors use their personalities to put flesh and blood on the bones of a script, understanding that "plays are only dimly detectable until they are performed." He loves actors because they embody the theater as a living tradition. When Maggie Smith takes him to discuss "The Importance of Being Earnest" with John Gielgud, it thrills Hytner to know, "I'm two degrees of separation from Oscar Wilde, I'm eating lunch with someone who knew his lover, his director, his actors."
Hytner wants that tradition to belong to everyone. If he seems wary of the classics, it's because he refuses to gloss over the vast gulf that separates Elizabethan and Restoration drama from 21st-century experience. He wants to make sure they speak to us now, and he's a staunch supporter of color- and gender-blind casting, so that the more diverse audience he cultivates can feel the theater includes them. He faults Britain's schools for failing to provide an arts education that would make theater (and music, dance, and visual arts) accessible to those beyond the cultivated few. "Too many of our fellow citizens leave school without the introduction they deserve to the cultural riches their taxes pay for," he complains.
This generous, pragmatic spirit is what makes "Balancing Acts" not just a colorful theatrical memoir but a rousing statement of theatrical faith.
Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America."
By Nicholas Hytner
Knopf. 320 pp.