Nick Hern Books may be small in scale, but the names on the book spines are big. Since leaving Methuen in 1988, Hern has published over 100 plays and books about theatre. He works from a tiny office in his west London home with one other permanent member of staff. Yet his combination of good sense and intuition has resulted in a cracking list that includes many of the talking-points of recent months: Tony Kushner's sell- out success Angels in America, Billy Roche's The Cavalcaders, Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, and The Skriker by Caryl Churchill. This week they are joined by Butterfly Kiss by Phyllis Nagy, and Notes from the Gods, a selection of Gielgud's youthful scribblings on theatre programmes, published today to mark his 90th birthday.
The list conjures up pictures of publishers brawling in the stalls to get their hands on such gems as Kushner's play, but the reality is far more civilised. Indeed, they used to be more cut and thrust in the days when new plays were published months after their stage premieres and rival publishers would sit tight at previews, keeping their opinions dark until they were back at their phones.
Now that many new plays are published alongside the production, the thrill of the chase has been replaced by the challenge of the gamble. The possibility of mistakenly choosing a flop is always hovering in the wings.
'It's like backing racehorses and seeing which one comes good,' says Hern, 'while all the time believing that if they do fall at the last fence, they are capable of running again.'
Occasionally you come across a dead cert. When the National Theatre suggested Hern take a look at Angels in America, he was back on the phone to them in no time. 'At first, I was daunted by the sheer height of the script on the desk. But, 15 pages in, it was compulsive. It wasn't a brilliant piece of perception on my part, frankly. It leapt off the page. It's wonderful with a new writer to feel utter certainty about the play.'
Such instances are rare, however, and since Hern publishes mainly new work, the risk of his judgement misfiring is substantial. The financial rewards are not great either: Hern's average print-run of a new play is 1,500, selling about 500 copies in a good first year. So what's the attraction? Aside from enjoying the gamble, Hern regards his role as 'serving theatre from the sidelines'. His list is underpinned by a desire to make significant drama more widely available. As well as publishing new voices in British theatre, he has produced several instant collections of new foreign drama and has just launched a series of pocket-sized versions of the classics, which he feels reflects a current trend: 'Classic revivals have suddenly become very popular.' And, as he points out, publication can give plays a life beyond the initial production.
'John Clifford's Light in the Village was picked up by a visiting American producer and taken to Oregon, where it played in a 2,000-seat theatre from April to September. John made more money in that period than he's ever seen in his life before. That's the power of the printed play. It can travel in a way you don't expect. And there's a very nice bit in Tony Sher's The Year of the King in which he says that, as a child in South Africa, he lived off the Methuen new play list. It was his only way of keeping in touch with the theatre world.'
Which brings us to the nitty-gritty. Apart from theatre producers and out-of-town actors, who actually buys printed plays? 'I don't think there's much in the way of impulse buying,' Hern concedes. 'If I stood outside this house with a barrowload of my books, I couldn't give them away.'
He agrees, too, that plays, like musical scores, are not intended to be read just on the page. What appears in print is only half the event. 'Sometimes, I think I'm guilty of running with a play that reads well, but will probably never be brilliant on stage.' Yet, he says, there is a surprising interest from the theatre-going public:
'The play texts in most demand are those where the play as performed leaves you with unanswered questions. I feel that particularly about Edward Bond's plays. Caryl Churchill is another one. Her plays are very complex - however funny you find them on stage, you want more time to consider them.'
Hern roves the London fringe and the major reps, looking for promising writers with this quality. But even when he decides to go with a new play, there are hazards in working with a living medium. Publishing deadlines don't allow for the hefty rewrites that often happen in rehearsals.
'I have gone to press with plays that have changed a lot,' says Hern. 'Pravda was a classic example - they cut the opening scene completely in rehearsals. So, on the first night, the audience opened their copies of the play and started reading something entirely different from what was happening on stage.'
Hern hopes to avoid a recurrence of that scenario at this week's Almeida opening of Phyllis Nagy's Butterfly Kiss. He's impressed with her writing: 'It's kind of crystalline - very hard and sharp, and very confident.' All the same, he reflects that there are no guarantees that his horse will come good. 'There is a sense that her time is right, and I think it will be good. But it's certainly a nose job.'
'Butterfly Kiss' ( pounds 5.99) is published this week to coincide with its run at the Almeida, London N1 (071-359 4404). 'Notes from the Gods' ( pounds 12.99) is published today
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