If Only I'd Known: Tristan Bernays

Start saving and get yourself abroad. At our recent Takeover festival at Rich Mix, IdeasTap reporter Samuel Spencer asked writer and performer Tristan Bernays what advice he’d give his younger self…

What is your name/age/job title?

Tristan Bernays, 29, Writer and Performer

What one thing do you wish you had known at the start of your career that you know now? 

That it’s okay to change what you do.

I came to writing after a few years of trying out lots of things. I originally trained as an actor at LAMDA but left going “Well, I definitely don’t want to be an actor.” I think I was good at acting but terrible at being an actor – at waiting around for roles and being patient. Plus, if I’d had to do one more class in which I pretended to be a bumblebee or a bouncy ball or a blob of wax I’d have thrown myself under a bus.

When I left drama school I worked in as many different theatre jobs as I could: administration, fundraising, stage management, box office… anything! I discovered that the thing I enjoyed and was best at was writing and performing my own work. I’ve still got a long way to go but I feel like it’s okay to have found it later. It’s absurd to think that at 21 you can know exactly what it is you will be doing until the day you die.

If you could go back and give your younger self some practical advice, what would it be?

1. Make yourself as open as possible to every single opportunity you’re offered. no matter how small. If it scares you, that’s probably a sign it’s a good thing. You might end up getting something amazing out of it, even if it’s only a funny story.

2. Travel to the Middle East before the Arab Spring takes place. In fact, travel anywhere. It’s a cliché, yes, but it’s bloody brilliant.

3. Learn a foreign language.

4. Stick some money aside every single week (say £50) and don’t touch it.

If someone had told your 16-year-old self that you would be a successful creative person in your twenties, would have believed them? Or did you have other ambitions? 

I never honestly thought about it. Perhaps being young and naïve, I assumed that I’d be successful fairly quickly. I’m not talking take-over-the-world, Bill Gates successful but I believed that I would be getting acting jobs and working at nice theatre like the National.

Then you get into the real world and it’s bloody hard and you have to start from the bottom. I wouldn’t say that I’m a massive success yet but I feel like I am definitely heading in the right direction. I have small successes, and they are the most important thing to cherish and celebrate before you make it big.

Is there an embarrassing episode from your past you wish you could edit out?

No, because if I messed with the past, I wouldn’t be the man I am today. That said, when I was 16, on a second date with my first ever girlfriend, she went to kiss me for the first time. I panicked and swerved to the side to give her a hug instead. She dumped me four days later. I still feel like a massive knob when I think of that.

Is there a single thing you wish you’d had or known when you started out? Something that has shaped the way you are today?

I wish. There’s no particular magic talisman that has helped me.  I taught myself to write based on all that I had ever read and seen in theatres – as well as in film, TV, books, comics, radio and art galleries. If you read and see enough, you’ll instinctually understand how stories are made – what works and what doesn’t work.

Is there a show of which you’re particularly proud?

I’m bloody proud of my one-man show The Bread & The Beer. It’s an epic story of John Barleycorn, the ancient British god of beer, partying, sex and madness. He wakes up in modern London, doesn’t like the boring world and grey people we’ve become and decides to teach us how have fun again.

We took it to Edinburgh in 2013 and are touring it this year. We’ll be at Soho Theatre in London in June.

What would you consider your ‘big break’? And how did you get it?

I’m not entirely sure I’ve had the “big break” yet, but going to Edinburgh with The Bread & The Beer definitely gave me exposure and put me on some people’s maps – all of which I hope will lead to more work and more opportunities.


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