Category Archives: Favourites

The rewards of rural touring

Originally written for the February House Theatre Guest Blog.

Fol Espoir developed Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain in collaboration with Steeple Aston Village Hall

Fol Espoir developed Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain in collaboration with Steeple Aston Village Hall

As well as being a freelance director I run Fol Espoir – a theatre company that tours to regional arts centres and rural networks across the UK. Small-scale touring is not exactly the glamorous end of the arts industry. On tour, we normally play a new venue every night – which means lots of driving, get-ins and a different bed every night. If we’re performing in rural venues like village halls, we’ll also be setting up our own lights and sound, getting lost in back-country lanes, and trying to perform on a stage that might have no cross-over, no wings, and a storage cupboard masquerading as the dressing room.

Despite these challenges, touring Fol Espoir’s work to far-flung communities is of deep importance to me. I grew up on a small island where my only access to theatre was the few companies that braved the overnight ferry. Those shows are embedded deep in my understanding of what theatre is, and I still have vivid memories of them today. As an adult I also want to make Fol Espoir’s work accessible to as many people as possible – wherever they might happen to live.

It helps that small scale touring, particularly to rural venues, is one of the most rewarding ways I know to present work. When we take over a village hall, we’re doing more than providing a night of live entertainment; we’re giving everyone in the area an excuse to come together, socialise and strengthen the ties that make their community strong. We’re also made to feel incredibly valued. In regular theatres you can often feel like one more act on a busy schedule. When we play a village hall we’ll might be the only professional act in that area for a while – the audience understand the effort we have made to bring them our work, and the organisers (nearly always volunteers) ply us with pre-show coffee and post-show beer, cook us dinner, help us find local accommodation and get incredibly excited when we host the evening’s raffle. There’s an event-like quality to the evening, nearly always a big turnout, and the joyful atmosphere you get when everyone knows everybody else. These perks make up for all the hard work, and the impact we’re having on local communities is clear.

We booked our first tour off a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe, which is probably still the most direct route into small-scale and rural touring. If you are braving your fortunes (and bank balance) at Edinburgh, preparation is everything. Research what venues are likely to be interested in your work (for example by checking out the tour schedules of similar theatre companies to yourself), email programmers well in advance of August, and understand that there’s not much money in touring at this level, so cast-sizes need to be small. If Edinburgh’s not for you, there are many other ways to get started – for example by developing a relationship with a regional venue, or applying for local scratch nights, emerging artist schemes, mentoring programmes or writer’s groups.

To find out more about rural touring, I’d recommend the National Rural Touring Forum‘s website – especially their introduction pack Rural Touring In a Nutshell. Until 14th February you can also apply to be part of their 2016 New Directions Showcase – where companies perform small excerpts of their shows for rural promoters. Bear in mind that not all shows are going to work in a rural setting – village audiences encompass a huge range of ages, and are mostly up for a ‘good night out’ where they can socialise, have fun, and be entertained. That’s not to say more challenging work doesn’t tour to villages, but it’s undoubtedly a tricker sell. If you think your works comes under that category, it might be worth chatting to the NRTF about which rural schemes will be interested – like conventional theatres, each scheme has its own programming flavour. Having an interval in your show is also a big bonus, as is a willingness to deal with the sometimes lengthy booking process that most rural networks operate.

The past few years have not been kind to the arts, but since 2013 Fol Espoir has completed two tours that took in over thirty venues each, and our November 2016 tour of Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is already fully programmed. In other words, there is still hope. While it may not be glamorous or easy, small-scale touring is still alive, and comes with rewards of its own.

More about Fol Espoir at http://www.folespoir.co.uk

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A few gross generalisations about British versus German theatre

Vienna

Tales from Vienna Wood at the Deutsches Theater, directed by Michael Thalheimer

This year I made two trips to watch theatre in Germany, mainly in Berlin. Both trips were fascinating and exciting, and this post attempts to describe some of the differences I noticed between the UK and German theatre cultures. Two caveats should be borne in mind:

1. This post is based on about twenty productions seen over four weeks, so not exactly a large sample size. Also I don’t speak German, so am inherently biased towards shows with surtitles, or shows based on well known plays. When I did get to more radical offerings (eg my two trips to the Volksbuhne) I had NO idea what was going on. Which was kind of interesting in itself, but didn’t exactly allow me judge the work on a deep level.

2. This post could be taken as a massive criticism of British theatre. As I’ll discuss at the end, there are lots that I think we do well – especially when it comes to popular entertainment. I also think that there is a growing desire to do things differently here. What I realised in Berlin was just how conservative our mainstream theatre scene is. The nearest analogy I can think of is to English football twenty years ago, when everyone was stuck in 4-4-2. Or British food thirty years ago, when everything revolved around meat and two veg.

Photos of all the shows from my most recent trip are at www.pinterest.com/johnhcwalton/december-berlin-trip.

– A unique live event
Brits love plays, Germans love theatre; it’s a subtle difference, but a crucial one. Whereas in Britain we place a huge emphasis on literary merit, German theatre makers take as much inspiration from dance, music, philosophy and the visual arts. In England, we ‘serve the text’. In Germany, the text inspires a live event that is unique and artistically valuable in its own right. It’s not that the text isn’t important in Germany, it’s just that it’s considered one element of the many that make up a live performance.

– Hard work
British theatre has a gentle relationship to the audience that tends to emphasise narrative, comedy, sentimentality and an emotional connectivity between character and audience. Germany theatre is not relaxing, and it’s rarely ‘fun’; there is a mistrust of narrative, and the work is often frustrating and exhausting. As an audience member you’re expected to work, to make up you own mind about the playwright and the director’s intentions.

– Diversity
Directors in Germany have very individual approaches, and the result is an incredible diversity of theatrical styles. If you want absurdist pop, go see Rene Pollesch; psychological realism, head to Stephan Kimmig; something that straddles the line between genius and egotistical anarchy, check out Frank Carstof; perhaps you like your theatre hard, unsentimental and suffused with echoes of Greek tragedy? then Michael Thalheimer might be the director for you. The list goes on. In England we disparagingly refer to this as “director’s theatre”, but why should the writer be the only creative force in theatre? Why shouldn’t we go to the theatre to see the artistry of a great director? Yes, sometimes the ego of an untalented director destroys, but when it works, great directors are brilliant artists in their own right, exploding the text onto the stage with a kind of delirious brilliance.

– Bold acting choices
In the UK there’s an emphasis on making subtle, nuanced acting choices. In comparison, I love how bold German actors are – when they play something, they really GO for it: when they are desperate, their is genuine panic on their faces, when they are cruel, they can be pitiless. Yes, they all seem a bit nuts and spend a lot of time naked and shouting, but it’s incredibly exciting to watch.

– Contemporaneity
There’s something incredibly urgent about German theatre. Like Britain, much of the new writing is highly political. Unlike Britain the priority of revivals is not to revel in literary triumphs of the past, but to interrogate life as we live and construct it today. Dialogue is modernized, plots adapted to the present day, time-specific references updated and contemporary texts interpolated. The idea of doing a piece in period costume is practically anathema. In contrast, critics in the UK pounce on any director that takes a more conceptual approach or dares to meddle with centuries-old texts. What we’re left with are often little more than museum pieces.

– Aesthetics and atmosphere
German theatre is deeply atmospheric and stunningly beautiful. Yes there’s more money for set and costumes, but equally I think there’s a much more romantic notion of theatre-making that cherishes considerations of aesthetics, mood and mystery.

[Side note: Apparently there are two broad types of designers in Germany. Those that work closely with the director to achieve a unified vision, and those that talk very little with the director, and just hand over a design with a kind of ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ attitude. I kind of love this, because it exemplifies a genuinely inter-disciplinary approach.]

– Rationalism vs complexity
In Britain we get annoyed when we don’t understand something quickly (just look at the near-ubiquity of audioguides in art galleries). In theatre, this often results in a demand for easily comprehensible narratives in which complex situations are reduced to opposing sides of a dramatic conflict. German theatre tends towards the messy, complex, incomprehensible and mysterious – but is that not a truer reflection of life?

– A culture of risk
I recently watched the BBC’s ‘On Stage’ series about regional theatres across the UK. On the whole, I found it immensely depressing. With huge funding cuts, our theatres are limping on with enough subsidy to survive, but little capacity to take risks; commercial models are celebrated, and subconsciously we’re all chasing the West End transfer that might save our finances. In Germany, generous subsidies and limited opportunities for commercial exploitation have created a theatre culture that rewards risk. You might say, ‘lucky German theatres with their big subsidies’, but compared to many other countries, we do still subsidise the arts generously. We just seem to spend to spend huge amounts of it on stale versions of an ever-diminishing repertoire…

– The grass is greener?
It’s easy to be excited by the novelty of wildly different work, but I’ll admit that after two weeks in Berlin I was gagging for a bit of Alan Ayckbourn. German theatre is aggressively intellectual, highly conceptual and hard work on the audience. What’s more, the industry seems to be horrendously dominated by white, middle-class, male directors; there’s little ethnic diversity amongst actors; and the theatre buildings themselves can often feel bare and underused – temples of high art as opposed to all-round community resources.

As my own work shows, sometimes I just want to laugh, relax, have fun, enjoy a good story and forget about how difficult everyday life can be. British theatre excels at this. What’s more, at its best, British theatre can be insightful, beautiful AND entertaining at the same time. I just think it’s a shame that we relegate risky, difficult work to the fringe, or occasional imports at the Barbican. The Schaubuhne this month premiered new productions by two of the UK’s finest directors – Katie Mitchell and Simon McBurney. Those productions will make their way here eventually, but it’s a sad reflection on our cultural ambitions that their talent, and the inspiration they might give, is slowly being drained overseas.

Edinburgh Fringe 2015

fringe

September arrives and yet another Edinburgh Festival sets into the Lothian air. For the first time in over a decade of Fringe-ing, I was up without a show. A strange affair, lacking the adrenaline of other years but certainly made up for by actually having time to hang out with friends, play with their kids, sight-see and, shock-horror, get to bed by midnight every day… a very grown-up affair.

Another big difference this year was not having a performer’s pass (which gets you free entry into other shows at your venue). Normally I’d watch a lot of stand-up, sketch-comedy and circus for free. With a limited budget, I decided to prioritise theatre. In hindsight, perhaps not such a good choice – I now realise how the heady mix of genres is what I so love about the Fringe.

One thing I definitely should have remembered though is how disappointing the International Festival tends to be. With a new Director and what looked like an exceptional line-up, I got sucked in again, booking for Ivo van Hove’s Antigone, Robert Lepage’s 887, Max Richter’s Four Seasons/Memoryhouse and David Greig’s adaptation of Lanark. Yet again though, alongside the vibrancy of the Fringe all these shows just felt bloated and leaden; it’s perhaps no coincidence that my favourite (Lepage’s) was also the most intimate. Many years ago the international festival used to run an exceptional series of late night shows at the Hub. Now it seems that only bigger is better.

I suppose my constant gravitation to the International Festival is part of a bigger dilemma I’ve been facing in my own work. Am I more interested in ‘art’ or ‘entertainment’. My pretentious side drags me towards the International Festival, Forest Fringe and Summerhall, where I’m nearly always left cold. Meanwhile, my non-theatre friends take me along to less culturally ‘valid’ work like The Last Great Hunt’s Bruce or The Pajama Men and I have a fantastic time. Which is not to say I don’t like serious work – I thought Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation was exceptional. Too often though I was frustrated by theatre-makers who think their message or artistry trumps their obligations to the audience. Or to put in another way, the biggest lesson I learnt this year was that my tastes aren’t as high-brow as I’d like them to be. Which actually is great. I can stop lying to myself, put down Hans-Thies Lehmann’s Post Dramatic Theatre and focus on creating the work that I do like to watch. Work that is thought-provoking, beautifully created and entertaining.

For example, my other stand out shows were Iphegenia in Splot and The Solid Life of Sugar Water. Both shows revolved around the loss of unborn children, so hardly light subject matter. But both had me laughing, crying, were beautifully staged and left me with a lot to think about. Iphegenia…, probably my stand-out show of the festival, finished with one of the hardest punches I’ve ever experienced. I was in sporadic tears all the way home.

A couple of wider issues also struck me this year. Firstly, I was disappointed about the predominantly introspective nature of the work I saw this year. Maybe I just missed them, but where were the big political shows? For all the shtick comedians get about taking over the fringe, at least some of them seemed concerned about what is going on in the world. Not so for the majority of theatre-makers. Have we all been cowed into submission? Do we think audiences don’t want to face these types of questions? Or has theatre become so middle-class that first-world problems are all that count?

If so, this lack of political will is something the arts are paying for – because if we take Edinburgh as a microcosm of the country at large, we’ve allowed ourselves to be utterly exploited for other people’s gain. Who does fantastically out of the Fringe? It’s not the performers, most of whom go home thousands of pounds in debt, or barely struggling into the next financial year. It’s people like the hoteliers, the shop-keepers, the bar-owners, the restauranteurs, the landlords, the big-name comedians and a handful of lucky shows. There’s been talk of a ‘tourist-tax’ for people visiting Edinburgh in August, which sounds like unworkable nonsense. But why can’t Edinburgh Council fully sponsor the Fringe Society’s running costs so that each company didn’t have to stump up the £295 registration fee? After all, it’s the artists who create the festival and the artists who bring in the business – in any other industry we’d be on commission.

My inspirations

This is an incredibly self-indulgent post about my favourite books, film, tv and theatre. There is a reason behind this indulgence though. Often I think we make work because we think it will sell, or it will promote our careers. By revisiting my (mainly childhood) inspirations, I’m hoping to spot similarities and patterns. Perhaps by doing so, I’ll learn more about myself and my own work. Perhaps I’ll get ideas for the future.

Books
I was a pretty unhappy kid. Especially at primary school, books were my escape – I would seek out the darkest corners of the playground, hide away, and read. By age eleven I had I made my way through pretty much every book by Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Willard Price and the Goscinny/Uderzo Asterix partnership. By age fifteen, most Terry Pratchett books had been added to this list.

There are lots of similarities: each author wrote a long series of books that had adventure, escapism, and unbreakable friendships at their hearts. I loved the stories of runaway kids colonising a secret island, Hal and Roger’s (ethically dubious) missions to collect rare animal species, Roald Dahl and Terry Pratchett’s humungously witty fantasies and the endless feasts of wild boar in Gaul.

When it comes to ‘grown-up’ authors I’m much less well-read – around the age of fifteen reading was replaced with booze, cigarettes and a group of friends who accepted me for the weirdo I was. From the little I have read though, War and Peace is for me the greatest of all novels. I adore its epic sweep, heart-wrenching romance, fascinating characters and constant soul-searching. Other than Tolstly, I also love Hemingway‘s brutal muscularity and Scott Fitzgerald’s floating lyricism. Peter Carey, always quirky and offbeat, is the living novelist whose work I’ve read the most.

Most of my shows are inspired by books – probably because most playwrights seem to shy away from grand vistas of novels or history. Theatre doesn’t have to be full of chamber pieces. 

TV / Film
Comedy leads the way for me in TV and film. From my childhood, I retain a huge affection for Dad’s Army, the Carry On movies and the Naked Gun trilogy. I’m not sure how well the latter two have stood the test of time, but Dad’s Army remains an absolute classic. All three delighted in ridiculous characters, absurd situations, and hilariously stupid shenanigans. All three are also jam-packed with big physical-comedy numbers. Perhaps that’s why I loved them so much over wittier products.

There were also two serious films I watched over and over again: Excalibur and Dead Poet’s Society. Excalibur tapped into my love of epic and fantastical adventures. In Dead Poet’s Society I found so many personal resonances – characters desperate for a sympathetic father figure, trapped in stiflingly institutions and exploring sex and sexuality for the first time. My parents took me to see it at the cinema, and I remember bawling my eyes out. “O Captain, my Captain!”. Melodrama at its finest!

As I’ve got older, three film directors stand above any others – David Lynch, Marcel Carne and Wes Anderson. Each treads a fine line between beauty and pretentiousness, but at their best they combine visionary artistry with gripping entertainment. There’s also something fantastical about the work of all three – they all shed naturalistic trappings to create unique and majestic universes. In an increasingly bland cinematic world, their work could never be confused for anybody else’s.

Theatre
As a kid living in Jersey, I didn’t get to see that much theatre. One company did visit every year though: the mask-company Trestle. Fantastical, funny and deeply entertaining, their physical storytelling captivated my childhood imagination. If it hadn’t been for Trestle I wonder if I’d be making theatre today.

I boarded for my sixth-form and had an amazing drama teacher who took us to see the best in contemporary theatre. Two trips in particular blew my mind: Steven Berkoff’s East at the Theatre Royal Bath and Mark Rylance’s Antony & Cleopatra at The Globe. I’d never seen anything like them before – they exploded with physical energy, incredible storytelling and an unashamedly profane sense of humour. Anarchic, badly-behaved, they completely changed my ideas of what theatre could be.

The next big wave of influences came in Paris, where I had enrolled at the Ecole Philippe Gaullier. Firstly there was Philippe himself – undoubtedly the single biggest influence on my theatre-making process. I guess he was the perfect match for my tastes. Like me, Philippe’s not hugely high-brow, but he does insist on beautiful performances, clear story-telling, and the light of humanity shining strong. He also loves to laugh, but has no fear of the tragic. He taught me to never be boring, to put the audience at the centre of everything, and to never let reverence for the text destroy its live possibilities.

At the same time as studying with Philippe I was being exposed to some of the international demi-gods of theatre: Ariane Mnouchkine, Robert Lepage and Robert Wilson. Their ambition was extraordinary, their sense of spectacle utterly compelling, their visual imaginations unbounded. In comparison, British theatre nearly always feels wimpish and parochial.

Which is probably why it’s so difficult for me to list any huge inspirations beyond my time in Paris. I’ve loved the work of Hoipolloi, the immersive experiences of Punchdrunk and the bravery of my good friend Philip Burgers (aka Dr Brown). Writers like Crimp, Mamet and Simon Stephens continue to enthrall me. I’ve also learnt a huge amount from assisting Irina Brown and Cal McCrystal – generous friends and teachers who have dedicated so much of their time and patience to my artistic growth.

Every now and again I’m blown away by something new, but I have to say it’s getting few and far between. I guess that’s inevitable – in theatre at least, there’s very little I haven’t seen. Increasingly these skin-sweating-heart-racing moments are more likely to come from other art-forms: films like Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty or events like the Burning Man Festival. What’s interesting is that reading through all these favourites, there are clear similarities. I clearly love epic and fantastical story-telling; with a few notable exceptions, overt naturalism doesn’t get a great look in; there’s also a huge love for comedy – especially of the anarchic variety. Interestingly enough, there’s little love for overtly philosophical works. Either I want to be blown away by impassioned stories beautifully told, or I want to watch stupid idiots slipping on banana peels. I wonder if the two can go together?

Who are you?

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.

Eleven things I learned from directing Haroun and the Sea of Stories

I just finished directing Haroun and the Sea of Stories for East 15’s Physical Theatre course. Here are a few of the things I learnt…

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– The bigger the challenge, the more I grow
Haroun and the Sea of Stories is one of the most complicated plays I know – it’s got a split narrative and huge action sequences – for example Haroun flies through space, swims deep underwater, battles shadow-warriors, discovers a magical ‘Sea of Stories’, escapes from a huge melting ship etc etc. It’s a divine story, and I knew it would be ideal for the students on East 15’s Physical Theatre course. Ultimately though, I wanted to direct it because of the enormous personal challenge: I had no idea how to stage it; I wasn’t even sure I could. Testing myself and the cast was hard work, stressful and often unpleasant. But we succeeded, often beautifully, and both the cast and myself grew hugely as a result.

– I could have been a lot better prepared                                                                                           I’m never sure what the ‘right’ level of preparation is, because I think it’s crucial that a cast has full ownership over what they’re performing. I’m also much keener on discoveries made in the rehearsal room than those intellectually cooked up at home. But by delaying design decisions until mid-way through rehearsals, there were knock-on effects elsewhere, and I was playing catch up throughout. I’m not saying that all decisions should be made before rehearsals start, but I do think there are some things – like my personal responses to the play and its dramaturgical structure – that I could have explored much more in advance. The sad fact is that preparation time is a luxury, and directors just aren’t paid enough at the moment to have it…

– I’m best when I provoke and then get out of the way                                                                      I used to think the director’s job was to solve every creative question. Unfortunately though, I don’t think I’ve got a great visual imagination, I’m not that funny, I’m not a particularly good writer, I’m a pretty mediocre actor, and I suck at staging big physical numbers. In other words, I’m probably the least talented person in the rehearsal room. What I learnt from directing Haroun is that it’s much better to set the right provocations and then get out of the way. I had an amazingly inventive cast who, when left alone, came up with much better ideas than I ever could. The same went for the design team – all they needed was the text and my own reference points (in this case a video-game called ‘Monument Valley’, my desire to create a story-book like world, and a collection of images I had stuck on a Pinterest board). In both cases, the best results came when I stood back, let the actors and creative team come up with their own ideas, and built upon what came back. I may suck at coming up with original ideas, but I know I’m a good editor.

– I’m happy about being hard to please
I can drive people mad by my demonic demands to make everything better, but even if it means scrapping something that hours of rehearsals have been spent creating, it’s worth it.

– Our tech rehearsal was much harder than it needed to be
In our rehearsal room we didn’t properly mark up the entrances and exits, didn’t plan how to use the theatre’s balconies, failed to make definite music choices, didn’t get our costumes or props in time, and spent zero time thinking about how to organise everything backstage. All these mistakes ate into our time in the theatre, and ultimately we had to rush the second half of the tech. Not only were the technical consequences on the first few performances clear, but we had to scrap our fire-juggling scene. Both avoidable. Both upsetting.

– It was great to do an early run
When I announced that we’d be doing an early run for an invited audience, I got massive daggers from the cast. But the earlier you get an audience in, the better. Not only did it remove any kind of complacency from the final week of rehearsals, but it showed us exactly what was working and what wasn’t. You see a show with fresh eyes when strangers are watching it.

– I’m not always going to be the most popular guy in the room, and that’s ok                            I want rehearsals to be brilliant fun, I do my absolute best to avoid working long days, and I hate rehearsing weekends. As the show nears opening night though, I can turn into a bit of a bastard. I once refused to let a cast go home on a Saturday night until they had written a draft I was happy with, and I’m not sure the Haroun cast will forgive me for how hard I made them work in the last few weeks. I also have a tendency to make significant last-minute changes. In every case, I’ve never regretted holding my nerve (despite near-mutinies). Hopefully as my directing skills improve I’ll get the results I want more efficiently. In the meantime, I’m going to have to get used to the dirty looks…

– I’m slowly getting better at vocal/text work, but I still have a lot to learn
In every single one of my last shows I’ve regretted not spending more time on vocal work. This time I did lead daily vocal warm-ups, but in my paranoia over the show’s big physical set-pieces, never did the crucial work on the actual text itself. Realising this at the last minute, I fished out my notes from Barbara Houseman’s Boy In Darkness vocal sessions, dragged the cast in on the Saturday morning before tech, and performed vocal triage. I surprised myself with how effective this session was – I’m not as bad with text as I thought I was. Moving forward, this is an area of my craft I need to continue making big improvements in.

– I want to challenge myself with something very naturalistic                                                   I’ve spent the last five years building characters, scenes and plots hand-in-hand with performers. I rarely work with actors who didn’t write their own lines, and almost never have to help the cast get ‘under the skin’ of a text. So there were points in Haroun, especially in the longer, more wordy scenes, in which I really struggled to be helpful. At some point soon, I’d like to direct a very simple, naturalistic piece where I don’t have to worry about the staging. It would be as big a challenge for me as the physical exuberance of Haroun.

– I love directing light shows with deep meaning
In the past eighteen months year I’ve mounted five shows. Every rehearsal process has been tough, but without doubt I’ve enjoyed directing the shows with a lighter tone to the more dramatic ones. That’s not to say that the more serious pieces weren’t successful shows. I learned huge lessons from Those Who Do Not Remember, and Boy in Darkness was a stunning piece of storytelling that I’m incredibly proud of. What’s more, the ‘lighter’ shows – Humble Pie, Instructions for American Servicemen and Haroun and the Sea of Stories – were certainly not frivolous; they were focused on serious issues like factory farming, international cooperation and the important of the imagination. What has become apparent to me is my love of making an audience laugh and think. Deep meaning yes, but embedded within a framework of playfulness, beauty and joy. There’s enough misery and ugliness in the world as it is; hopefully my shows can add to the other side of the scales.

– Yet again, the actors saved the day
As usual, I was saved by the skill, talent and inventiveness of the cast. They went into the opening night exhausted, panicked and not really sure what they were doing; but somehow still managed to give an inspired first performance. As the run continued, the show just got better and better. Once again I thought I had screwed a show up, and once again, the cast saved my bacon. Actors really are marvelous beings.

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Devised theatre: ten tips for a truly creative collaboration

(Originally published on The Guardian’s Culture Professional Network)

Britain may lay claim to some of the world’s greatest dramatists, but solitary scribbling isn’t the only way to create theatre. “Devising” is a process in which the whole creative team develops a show collaboratively. From actors to technicians, everyone is involved in the creative process. Since the pioneering Oh What a Lovely War, some of theatre’s most exciting productions have been made this way.

It’s both an exhilarating and terrifying way to work. I love the challenge of creating a show from scratch, but with this freedom comes a significant catch: there’s no script; no safety net. I’ve spent most of the past decade walking this tightrope. From shows that have ended up touring nationally to flops I’d rather forget, here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way.

Be passionate about your source material

It might be a story you love, an injustice that enrages you or a question you can’t stop asking – just make sure you’ve chosen a starting point that fascinates you. This curiosity will keep you alive to new possibilities, make you fearless when things get tough, and ensure you’re always digging deeper.

If you don’t care, why should an audience?

Do your research

The more you know about your starting material, the freer your imagination will be within it. Research nourishes rehearsals, provides a huge wealth of material from which to devise, and gives authenticity to your final production. The latter is important; if an audience questions the world you create, it’s almost impossible for them to relax into the fantasies you’re weaving. Of course, if you’re creating a clown show, ignore all the above; ignorance will be bliss.

Get your material out there as soon as possible

Nothing gets me off my backside like the prospect of public humiliation. Without the pressure of a reading or work-in-progress night, I wouldn’t create anything. Early previews will stop you over-thinking, get you creating, allow you to test material and (hopefully) build a buzz for the show. If premature exposure sounds too terrifying, you can always invite supportive friends into your rehearsals.

Unite the whole company around a common purpose

Set aside some time early on to explore everyone’s personal objectives for making the piece. Then, as an ensemble, write a unified mission statement for the show. This might range from explicitly political aims to simply wanting to create a joyous evening of fun – it might even change as the project moves forward. It will provide an essential framework against which you can judge every decision you make and ensures that everyone is travelling in the same direction.

Keep an open mind

Few things will choke creativity more than your brainy ideas about what you think will work. Admit that you know nothing, keep an open mind and listen attentively to the people with whom you’re working. The smallest comments can spark Eureka moments, and there really is no such thing as a bad idea. Some of my favourite scenes were inspired by tiny glimmers in otherwise awful improvisations. It’s often the most disastrous rehearsals that tell me where I’m going wrong. As long as you’re venturing into the unknown, there’s no such thing as failure.

The importance of story is relative

Some people swear that story is everything, but it really depends on the show. If I’m adapting a pre-existing narrative, story will undoubtedly be high on my priorities. But sometimes it will only emerge once we start connecting the material we’ve made. In comedy, it’s often just a framework from which to hang the gags. What’s certainly true is that an early obsession with plot will close you off from many discoveries.

Always look for counterpoints

If your subject matter is serious, look for the moments of humour. If you’re doing comedy, remember that it’s probably not funny for the characters involved. Similarly, don’t get stuck in endless dialogue; the way you tell a story through action, movement, music, design, sound and lighting is just as important as the words.

Everyone works differently

Devising doesn’t have to mean endless improvisations. Let people create material in whichever way works best for them. Some of the best scenes will come when people are just given time to go home and write.

Don’t be precious

Throw away your rehearsal plans if they’re not helping, give your best jokes to another actor, consider moving your final scene to the start, simplify the plot-line, and mercilessly edit your show to the shortest length possible. I’ve never regretted any cuts or changes I’ve made to a show; getting the rhythm right trumps everything.

Stay optimistic and enjoy yourselves

Things will inevitably go wrong, but remember to keep looking for the joy and inspiration to create. Stuck in a hole? Play a silly game or get outside and do something fun. You’d be surprised how many good ideas come when you’re not trying.