Directing 101 at Cygnet Theatre

I’ve been given the incredible opportunity to take part in three directing workshop weekends at Cygnet Theatre in Exeter. Cygnet is a training theatre and a bit of a second home for me – I’ve been part of the backstage team for several productions over the last two years (operating lighting, requisitioning items from friends, family and employers to use as props, reupholstering furniture with a staple gun…).

The first directing weekend took place in October and gave four directors the chance to work with actors on a series of short scenes, led by Amanda Knott, Artistic Director of Creative Cow Theatre Company.

Here are my reflections at the end of the weekend.


I am a fierce self-critic and have struggled with accepting that I’m a beginner at directing and am bound to make mistakes – mistakes that have doubtless been made by many people before me.

This weekend has changed my view of that, and of myself.

Directing isn’t something you can learn from a book – as Amanda said at the end of the weekend, it’s different every single time, affected by what you’re working on, and who with.

Her workshop was a chance to throw myself into making mistakes with an open mind, learning from my experiences and the work that other people created.

Where to begin?

For each of our scenes, we had around two hours’ rehearsal time, with either one or two actors.

For me, the first 15 minutes or so of each rehearsal were somewhat terrifying – the text streamed away into the distance before us with limitless possibilities and paths to take. This made me inclined to get everyone up on their feet and acting immediately to relieve my internal stress, and indeed, a scene doesn’t start to take any kind of shape until the actors are moving around.

But as the weekend went on, I found that holding out and allowing that start of rehearsal time to involve discussion of the text made the rest of the process much more cohesive. After a first read-through, stopping to look over the text in detail and resolve any confusion or disagreement about meaning meant that we all had a more unified idea of the shape of the scene, particularly the shifts in emotion within it.

An alternative way of looking at that first 15 minutes is as a moment of great excitement – limitless possibilities are a pretty brilliant thing to have at your disposal if you can avoid being overwhelmed by them. Everything you begin to do with the actors starts to forge a path, or several paths, through that unfurling text. Ultimately, too, there is no wrong path – you might change your mind about the direction you’re going in but that’s part of the process of developing the piece.

That moment of potential panic can become a gift to the director to start to guide the rehearsal in a direction of your choosing.

A moment of potential panic can become a gift to the director.

Who, what, where, when?

Our first task was to create a scene without words, using two actors and a chair – a seemingly simple task but one that probably caused the most confusion of any that weekend. The possibilities should have been limitless, but as an English grad, I initially found the idea of a scene without text perplexing.

With some great ideas from the actors, we developed an awkward encounter between a light-fingered cleaner and her former employer in a doctor’s waiting room.

In fact, having no text to fall back on made me concentrate on the location, movement and backstory. As Amanda then explained, one of the first rules* of directing is to ensure the following things are clear:

  • Who are the characters?
  • Where are they? (Inside/outside? Somewhere familiar/unfamiliar? In a formal/informal situation? What’s the weather like?)
  • When does the scene take place? (What time is it? What period?)
  • What do the characters want?

It sounds incredibly simple but it was impressive how many of us had at least one of these questions vague or unanswered.

Similarly, in my second scene (an abusive moment between Roy and Lesley in Jim Cartwright’s Two) I think we could have a built a clearer, more detailed shared image of the characters’ lives outside the scene. We spent some time discussing the characters as individuals, but (perhaps due to my first-15-minute-stress) less time working out what their life together looked like.

The resulting scene was brilliantly performed, but there was a sense that it existed in a vacuum. If I were to come back to it, some improvisation of other moments from the characters’ lives might give the scene extra depth.

* I use ‘rule’ very loosely: if directing does have rules, there seems to always be examples where the best course of action is to break them.

Sound and vision

For my third scene I was given a monologue from Jim Cartwright’s Road – Helen’s speech to the soldier (from Act 2). On first reading I was uninspired and confused. Home from a night out, Helen brings back a soldier who is absolutely smashed off his face. Deploying a series of cringeworthy strategies, from dancing around him to feeding him chips, to forcibly moving his limbs, she tries to get him to sleep with her. While there was comic potential, it felt like an embarrassing and frankly weird thing to do – I couldn’t make sense of her as a character.

Overnight, I did some research about the play – written about Thatcher’s Britain in 1986 and set in Lancashire, at a time of high unemployment with the coal industry in decline. It is typically staged in traverse or promenade, and walks its audience through the lives of one road’s residents. I worked through speeches that, at a glance, look dense: noting where pauses are implied and working out Helen’s train of thought.

Crucially, I also listened to the music mentioned in the stage directions, and discovered that music is enormously helpful for me in understanding character. For this scene in particular, Helen’s record choices are named as ‘Barry Manilow or Frank Sinatra’ (as a 90s kid, my knowledge of both was vague). Knowing this was, in Helen’s mind at least, a seduction, I went for Could it be Magic? (Manilow) and Fly me to the Moon (Sinatra), and hearing them changed the entire feel of the scene. At the heart of lines like:

“you’re the real quiet type aren’t you? Still waters run deep or what? … I like loners. That’s why I sent Maureen to fetch you over tonight. That uniform, dead romantic.”

is not lust but romance – in her tiny flat, in a rowdy road in a languishing town, Helen is imagining a Prince Charming who could carry her away.

I explained some of my research in rehearsal and we listened to Could it be Magic? together. I think it got across the mood of the scene as I envisaged it, in a way my currently stilted and limited directing vocabulary could not. We ended up using the songs in our performance to add another layer of meaning to the scene.

How much is enough?

Having spent some time researching, it was important not to then dictate my ideas when we came to rehearse, but instead to use that awareness of important and potentially challenging moments in the scene to guide where I focussed our time and effort. Although the short timeframe meant we didn’t spend as much time exploring different possibilities as I would have liked, the way Helen moved around the soldier in his chair as the scene developed grew entirely from rehearsal.

Interestingly, this scene which I felt was the least prepared and the most complex of the four, full of stage directions and intimacy, was probably my greatest success of the weekend. The audience response was fantastic and they seemed engrossed in the humour and sadness of the encounter. A lot of this was due to being blessed with a fantastic actor, but also being almost-but-not-quite-there in rehearsal meant that her outstanding performance happened on the stage rather than in the rehearsal room – the actors didn’t get over-comfortable in the scene which by nature needs to feel incredibly awkward.

Going off-script

Feeling my way as I was, over the course of the weekend I began to be more assured about departing from stage directions or textual conventions.

For my final piece, a scene between Falstaff and Mistress Quickly from The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act 3, Scene 3), we took Amanda’s invitation to “go wild” at face value – one of the actors had the idea to set it in a modern-day Hollywood movie studio, and we ran with it.

Falstaff became a Weinstein-esque producer sleazing on an up-and-coming female actor in her dressing room, and judging by the audience’s reaction, it worked – we got a good balance between comedy and creepy. At moments Falstaff’s behaviour was arguably uncomfortable to watch, but as the #MeToo movement has revealed, similar scenes have been many actors’ reality.

I’m not sure if the whole play would work in a Hollywood setting (I was asked about this after showing the scene) but I think it’s food for thought – the Merry Wives of Warner Bros?

Freedom to adapt the text was also important in Road, which includes intimate stage directions such as “She puts her tongue in his ear” – directing this, I was highly conscious of my lack of experience and anxious to protect the actors’ wellbeing while not shying away from the scene’s themes. With such a short timeframe to get something on its feet, and actors who’d signed up for the weekend, not for this scene itself, I reckoned I had to judge it based on the feel and mood in the rehearsal room – cutting the text as we went and asking the actors if they felt comfortable as often as possible along the way. I had here a brilliant guide in the actor playing Helen, whose consideration of and trust in her co-performer was an enlightened example.

Falstaff became a Weinstein-esque producer sleazing on an up-and-coming female actor

Ultimately, what I took away from the weekend was this: while directors need to project confidence (a trait I’m working on!) in their decisions, the work and the actors, a good foundation for successful directing is to bring honesty, trust and an open mind into the rehearsal room. Partly due to the warm, receptive attitudes of the actors I was working with, I was unafraid to say if I wasn’t sure about something or if I’d realised a previous idea wouldn’t work. That honesty and trust opened up room to develop – both the scenes and myself.


Directing tips to remember:

  • Bring an open mind and your full attention and energy into rehearsals
  • Explicitly give the actors time and space to share their thoughts about the scene
  • There are no stupid questions and no bad times to ask them – the director’s role is to support the actors
  • Take the first fifteen minutes to discuss the text and agree a direction
  • Use research time to create a mental image of the scene, and note important events and potential challenges. Your ideas will inevitably (and positively) shift and adapt as you rehearse.
  • Take a break and get away from the space at lunch. This is a chance to remember reality outside of the world of the play, but also to chill and not speak to anyone – as an introvert, that’s how I recharge, ready to engage whole-heartedly in the next session.

And points to improve:

  • I would like to improve my vocabulary when talking about my work to others. I was so impressed by the fluency and accuracy with which my fellow directors shared their ideas.
  • Notice my posture and body language when watching rehearsals. Are they supporting what I’m saying?

Here goes…

Hello and thank you for looking at this blog! After 5 years of various sensible, 9-5 graduate office jobs, I have decided to throw caution to the wind and actually go for it in a field I really care about – theatre making.

I have a place on a Master’s course in directing, starting next July, and in the intervening months I am attempting to prepare myself for this.

The current plan:

1. Get as much experience as possible.

I’ve done a lot of stage management and dramaturgy, but have so much to learn about directing. I’ll be taking any opportunity I can find to shadow, assist or interview directors, and helping with as much theatre as possible.

2. Do the set reading.

I am pretty slow at reading, but am hoping if I get through as much as possible before it starts, I’ll be able to actually enjoy attending the course and commit my time and energy to the practical elements.

3. Improve my stamina with a gruelling exercise regime.

‘Gruelling’ for me currently describes any exercise at all. Since breaking my foot in March this year I have become devastatingly unfit, so any movement will be progress, but the aim is to be fit enough for long weeks of intensive practical work.

4. Save some money.

The jury is still out on how to achieve that one.

5. Improve my speaking ability and self-confidence.

I can communicate fairly well in daily life, but put me in front of an audience or a crowd and I am about as engaging as a jam sandwich. I want to learn to communicate my vision for a scene or idea in a way that inspires people to share it.

I might also do a bit of travelling and see some more of this world. Excellent for a rounded, wide-reaching perspective on life and people; potentially problematic for item 4…

Keep reading for my experiences, reflections and recommendations, and let me know your own in the comments.

What do you think makes great theatre? Any productions you’ve really loved?

Is anyone else out there in a similar apprentice-director position? I’d love to hear from you.

Measure for Measure

The King’s Shakespeare Company at The Bierkeller, Bristol

21st July 2014

measure for measure

This was my first visit to the Bristol Bierkeller, and the venue could scarcely have been better suited to this production. We entered through a dungeon-like passage and up a flight of stairs into a vast stone-floored room with a half-timbered ceiling, full of golden lamplight and shadowy corners: the ideal atmosphere for a production of Measure for Measure set in the Weimar Republic’s underground cabaret scene.

First performed in 1604, Measure for Measure opens with the Duke of Vienna mysteriously departing from the city, leaving his deputy, Angelo, to enforce the laws against sexual misdemeanours which have lately grown lax. Angelo’s first act is to sentence young gentleman Claudio to death for impregnating his fiancée, prompting Claudio’s sister Isabella to delay taking her vows as a nun to plead for Angelo’s mercy. On meeting Isabella, Angelo discovers he is not as morally infallible as he thought, and offers Claudio’s freedom in exchange for Isabella’s virginity. Isabella is appalled, but the Duke has returned to Vienna disguised as a friar and is devising a plan that will save both Claudio and Isabella…

Turning Shakespeare into a musical was an audacious and innovative move from this student theatre company, and made for a unique production with some unexpected and often very funny moments. Under Lauren O’Hara’s direction the songs worked like soliloquys to reveal the characters’ motives and history, and rather than clashing with Shakespeare’s words, they gave the play a modern resonance.

But Measure for Measure is not simply a comedy. The entertaining vaudeville of the bawdyhouse and the commoners’ buffoonery were always tempered by the very real threat of execution. Dictatorship haunted the boundaries of the just, lawful society Angelo was trying to create, embodied in the sunken eyes and mechanical figure of the provost (Ria Abbott). This civil service automaton moved everywhere at a quick march, staring blankly ahead. This made it all the more effective when she suddenly relaxed and addressed the audience, lamenting the injustice of the punishment she was forced to inflict on Claudio (Dom Blight).

The cast showed uniform versatility in taking on multiple roles, making even the minor characters credible as individuals. Hannah Elsy especially was almost unrecognisable as screeching prostitute Mistress Overdone (think Les Misèrables), in contrast with her articulate Isabella. Dom Blight’s cross-dressing cameo as a nun went down a storm, while Rupert Sadler (Angelo) gave an excellent comic turn as Elbow, the bumbling local constable with no understanding of personal space. Sadler’s doubling as two authority figures at opposite ends of the social scale effectively unsettled assumptions about class and virtue, prompting us to consider whether anyone really has a claim to moral authority.

The venue was not without its drawbacks: picnic-table seating on the flat meant that despite a raised stage, there were inevitable compromises in visibility at times. The Bierkeller is decidedly scruffy round the edges – one rickety hand-drier in the Ladies had ‘Fix me?’ written on it in forlorn felt-tip – but if anything, this added to the sense of making poverty fabulous conveyed by Pompey the tapster (Will Holyhead) and his associates in their spectacular opening number. Steps down from the stage allowed the cast to move around among the audience, involving us in some scenes and heightening the intensity of others. As Isabella schemed with the Friar amid the audience, the set behind her was blacked out in an effective image of the pair moving into a space of moral ambiguity.

Hannah Elsy’s Isabella was shrewd and clever, showing an outrage and disgust at her treatment by men worthy of a modern-day feminist. Occasionally though, the strength of her feminist fury overwhelmed a scene, losing some of the nuances of the play text. At the pivotal moment where Isabella pleads with Angelo for her brother’s life, the fast-paced delivery undermined the building erotic tension between them.

Freddie Fullerton was charismatic as the camp, alcohol-loving Duke whose knee-length black shorts and long cape gave him the look of a child dressing up in his father’s suit. But the stand-out performance came from Rupert Sadler as Angelo, the Duke’s uptight, prudish deputy left in charge of Vienna in his absence. To a modern audience, it is easy for Angelo to come across as inhuman, enforcing the law with unfeeling cruelty, but Sadler portrayed him as self-critical, meticulous and deeply concerned with doing what he believes to be right. A particular highlight was his show-stopping vocal solo ‘I Like Girls!’, which fully exploited the comic potential in Angelo’s explosion of rediscovered sexuality. Tearing off an austere greatcoat that lent him the air of a priest, he abandoned himself to the devil and rock ‘n’ roll.

This was the first performance and there will be one or two technical problems to sort out during the rest of the week. The keyboard accompaniment sometimes drowned out the singers, which was a pity because the songs (by Henry Keynes Carpenter) were excellent – full of comedy and intricate rhyme patterns. The Duke’s finale had echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Modern Major General’ in its verbose and fast-paced lyrics.

If anything, this production could have benefitted from some more songs: with only four, the cabaret theme wasn’t entirely convincing, perhaps because there were so many other elements jostling for space as the show attempted to reconcile Shakespeare’s Vienna and Weimar Germany. At times there was a sense that the production hadn’t quite decided what direction it aimed to go in. Yet adding more songs would have forced cuts to the play text, potentially removing some of the comic scenes that this cast does so well.

And arguably, Measure for Measure is a play that resists coherence. Its ending is notoriously difficult to stage, since none of the other characters speaks while the Duke provides his own resolutions to the narrative’s moral difficulties. After a moving final encounter with Angelo and Mariana (Florence Wright), the dauntless Isabella had no lines with which to resist her fate. Most disturbing, however, was the glee with which the Duke devised an apparently arbitrary punishment for Lucio. His comic charm rendered him all the more sinister as the other characters bobbed dutifully up and down to the beat of his vocal solo. This upbeat finale gave a darkly comic insight into the ultimate power of a political leader, which had particular resonance given recent events in Eastern Europe. Ultimately we were left with the question: if we’re laughing at the end, does that make everything OK? There was certainly a chilling poignancy to the only closure this production offered us, in the Duke’s final words:

What have we learned?

I am the Duke.

Measure for Measure is at the Bierkeller until Friday 25th July, as part of the Bristol Shakespeare Festival. Tickets are available from http://www.bristolshakespearefestival.org.uk/?page_id=2467#KSC

Shakespeare in Hell

Brite Theater and So Potent Arts at Exeter Phoenix

7th June 2014

SiH2_1

I watched Shakespeare in Hell as a volunteer steward at the Exeter Ignite Festival. I was stewarding for a few shows during the week, and had chosen this one purely because I liked its name – I’m always intrigued by productions that stage Shakespeare out of context. So when I arrived at the Phoenix, I didn’t really know what to expect. The synopsis in the festival programme read:

Follow Ariel through Dante´s nine circles of Hell to discover the blood spattered histories of eighteen of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters as they collide and converse with likewise guilty sinners from the Bard’s canon. A physical and emotional performance that takes you on a fast-paced journey through human wickedness and regret. What are you going to hell for?”

I don’t think any of the audience members were prepared for how literal this description was. The announcement that there were to be no seats in the performance, and we would follow the action around a room, was met with looks of bewilderment and in some cases, annoyance. Wasn’t that somehow in breach of our audience rights? So with some trepidation, we followed Ariel’s beckoning arms into the Phoenix’s Voodoo Lounge, transformed by sheets, darkness and red spotlights, into Hell.

At first glance, the sparse, low-budget scenery (a gravestone made of foam and a shiny plastic severed hand) were reminiscent of a school play, and I could almost feel my fellow audience members steeling themselves to endure the hour-long performance. Yet once we (reluctantly) followed Ariel across the room to where a zombified Juliet and Ophelia were striking up a conversation – Juliet with her bloody dagger still wedged above her heart, and Ophelia’s face bearing the bloated decay of her death from drowning – we gradually started to relax. As the two women lamented their lost lives and looked back cynically, and often comically, at the love they killed themselves for, the audience’s laughter aided the adjustment to their unfamiliar proximity to the action.

Led all the time by the ethereal figure of Ariel (Dana Bowman), we shuffled backwards and forwards around the room to where each new tableau of characters had unobtrusively appeared while we were watching the last. Excellent lighting design combined with atmospheric backing music to create effortless shifts in tone, from the fiery rage of Richard III to Iago’s frost-bitten prison.

When we were asked to actually sit down at Titus Andronicus’ banquet table, the fourth wall was well and truly broken in a way rarely seen in theatre performances. The clear sense of “them and us” that usually creates a reassuring gap between the performers onstage and the audience was completely absent from this production – and this was undoubtedly its greatest strength. Our reactions were an integral part of the drama, and were frequently commented on by the characters – I was disconcertingly glowered at by Titus for laughing at Falstaff’s joke at his expense. Falstaff gate-crashing Titus’ party is one example of the play’s unique premise – all the key characters and plotlines are mixed together as Shakespeare’s greatest heroes and villains encounter one another in Hell. Rather than detract from the integrity of the characters, if anything the Shakespearean-style script by Kolbrun Björt Sigfusdottir and Emily Carding gave the performers scope to add greater depth to their portrayals, through playing their reactions to different situations.

The young all-female cast alternated between male and female roles with perfect ease, and gave convincing interpretations of all nineteen characters they played between them. At times however, they seemed to forget the premise of their production and revert to standard stage performance, delivering their lines at a volume that would have projected to the back of an auditorium, but felt artificial at close quarters. Moments of quiet – wistful murmurs or hissing contempt – drew the audience in to the action and were much more effective. Stand-out successes were Emily Carding’s Titus, Bryony Reynolds’s rueful Richard II and Kris Wing Jennings’ Shylock.

Melissa Barrett in particular excelled as Lady Macbeth, with a strong Scottish accent and grinning charisma that teetered always on the edge of mania. A barbed exchange between ‘Lady M’ and Goneril degenerated into a fight ‘to the death’ – and the realisation that in this version of Hell, the characters’ bodies were able to die more than once. The bittersweet mix of comedy and tragedy this scene provoked echoed the tone of the production as a whole, and was a striking reminder of the enduring human emotion present in Shakespeare’s characters, despite their temporal distance from today’s society.

In one particularly moving scene Volumnia (Coriolanus’ mother, played by Kris Wing Jennings) and Leontes (Bryony Reynolds) mourned their lost children, both showing more tender and sorrowful aspects to the characters than the plays allow for. This moment was especially intense for me, as Leontes’ grief turned to anger at his wife’s supposed infidelity, and he caught my eye. Looking directly at me, he spat,

‘Give me the boy: I am glad you did not nurse him:
Though he does bear some signs of me, yet you
Have too much blood in him’

and went on to declare to the rest of the audience that ‘I’ was an adulteress. Facing the rage and resentment in Leontes’ expression, I felt I experienced what it was like to actually be Hermione – accused of a ‘crime’ she knows nothing about and having to face down her husband’s accusation in a public trial. For the first time, I was aware of the strength that would be needed to respond as calmly as she does. This powerful emotional engagement that Shakespeare in Hell provoked served as a strong argument against Shakespeare – and theatre in general – being revered and elevated to the metaphorical status of ‘high culture’. The currency and power of Shakespeare is shown at its best when the audience is made to feel involved – that they have a personal stake in the narrative – and that is what Shakespeare in Hell does so well.