I was having lunch with Mountview’s principal Stephen Jameson this week, and as he looked over my directing CV, I could see him getting increasingly confused. Finally he asked with a frustrated gasp: ‘Who are you?!’ It wasn’t an unfair question. My CV doesn’t exactly read like it’s supposed to.
Firstly, pretty much everything I’ve worked on has been new or devised. Reading the show titles, it’s impossible to know much about them. Was ‘Those Who Do Not Remember’ a comedy about dementia? A tragedy about forgetting your trousers? Neither: it was a Mike Leigh-style play about an evangelical religious and environmental cult… hardly obvious.
Secondly, in the past five years I’ve directed stand-up, sketch comedy, clown, bouffon, psychological drama, new writing, circus and an outrageously pretentious Japanese modern Noh-play. Next year I take on my first opera. I’ve loved the challenges and variety of all these forms, but it doesn’t make me easy to put in a box. Which, after air-kissing, is pretty much the theatre industry’s favourite past-time.
Thirdly, as Stephen pointed out, I really should have some establishment credentials by now: staff-directing at the National, a Jerwood assisting award, a directing bursary, an associate-director post at a regional theatre. I’ve got precisely none of these. It’s not that I haven’t tried, it’s just that none of these places ever wanted me. Maybe they couldn’t work out who I was either. Or perhaps my approach isn’t conceptual enough for their esoteric application forms. Maybe I’m just not good enough. Either way, I’ve spectacularly failed to convince the mainstream theatre world of my brilliance.
So my first response to Stephen was a spluttering, slightly slutty, ‘What do you want me to be?’. I struggled on, with Stephen valiantly trying to help out: ‘where do you see yourself in ten years time?’, ‘who in the industry do you think you most resemble?’, ‘what do you want to direct?’. They’re all perfectly valid questions, but not ones I’ve ever spent much time thinking about. For me, directing tends to be an extension of whatever I’m currently interested in. My only real long-terms goals are to continue exploring these interests, improve my craft, and earn a decent living. It’d be nice to end up with a string of West-End hits, the adulation of my peers and a dedicated module in the GCSE drama syllabus; but ultimately, I just want to make work that challenges and fascinates me.
In the end, I was able to give Stephen an idea about the kind of shows I’m currently thinking about, and we bonded over our desire to make accessible, popular work. But his question has bugged me since. Why do I make theatre? What makes my work unique? Who am I?! These questions are well worth exploring.
Looking back, there really hasn’t been any artistic rationale behind the shows I’ve chosen to make. Normally I’ve got a bunch of ideas swirling around my head, and the major rationale been to favour the pragmatic over the esoteric ones. ‘Winston On the Run’, ‘Dr Brown Because’ and ‘Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain’ are all shows with safe, popular appeal. They have piqued the interest of theatre-programmers, established Fol Espoir as a touring company, and helped me earn a living. But none have been particularly risky (Dr Brown might look it, but I already knew Phil was a comic genius). The only times I’ve really gambled has been in drama schools.
Perhaps this rationale should change. Five years ago I was just desperate to get paid as a director. Now I’ve proved that’s possible could I be bolder? But in what direction? That’s why Stephen’s question became so bugging. What kind of risks? What is it that I really want to achieve?
It’s going to take me a while to answer those questions – I want to think about my biggest influences, my favourite theatre-makers, and what truly inspires me to make work. I’ve also got to face my major issue: a never-ending guilt that I plough my talents and energy into what I love doing, as opposed to helping those less fortunate than myself. I could be saving lives as a doctor, defending human rights as a lawyer, or doing great works for charity. Instead, I make entertainment. How can I justify this?
It’s a question I’ve struggled and struggled with. Recently though, two things helped me to think differently: the Conservatives got their majority, and a week later my show ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ opened. One signaled (for me at least) five more years of miserliness, misery and spiteful government; the other was a joyous play full of hope, fun, light and beautiful storytelling. The comparison was inescapable. I might not be out there campaigning for a living wage, but I can bring joy, laughter, imagination and the beauty of the human spirit into people’s lives. It still won’t help the industry put me in a box, but it’s a f**king great reason to make theatre.