The right direction: unravelling the roles in the theatre awards

When we congratulate directors on a job well done, do we know what we’re congratulating them for?

Thu, Feb 13, 2014, 01:00

The nominees for best director at this year’s Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards don’t mean to sound ungrateful. But none of them are entirely sure why they are here. This isn’t that they are unhappy with their endeavours, but because, they broadly agree, it isn’t easy to detect the hand of a director within a finished performance.

When we congratulate a director on a job well done, then, do we know what it is we’re congratulating them for?

Often, at its best, it should be invisible

“My really short answer is no,” says McSweeny, good-naturedly, from his home in New York. McSweeny is nominated for his work on the Gate’s A Streetcar Named Desire , which leads the field with six nominations in total.

“I think my own parents aren’t really sure what directing really is. The work of a director is always going to have a bit of mystery around it. Often, at its best, it should be invisible. It should appear as though everything that was done onstage should make so much logical sense that, of course, that’s how you should do it. Sometimes one gets noticed for the directing because you’re doing something evident. There are plays that call for a more showy style and plays that call for a more restrained style. But I think it’s always hard to disentangle the creative threads.”

This year’s awards, however, reflect some effort to do just that: to reverse-engineer a performance into its parts. In previous years there has been a high correspondence between nominations for best production and best director, as though they are umbilically connected. For 2013, only Streetcar is nominated in both categories. Does that suggest a clearer distinction between a director’s signature and the cumulative achievement of a production?

‘The nomination is a recognition of collaboration’

Corn Exchange’s Annie Ryan prefers to see her nomination as a tribute to collaboration. Nominated for directing a

pared-down version of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms , which relocated the American tragedy somewhere closer to Northern Ireland, Ryan speaks with self-deprecation: the strength of her work was in her performers, she says, in her designers, their collaboration. “I think the nomination is really a recognition of that.”

Directors can assert their presence more forcefully, however. Ryan’s Commedia dell’arte-inspired work elsewhere with Corn Exchange is so recognisable, you could consider it a brand. In Desire , Ryan presents O’Neill’s phonetic southern dialogue as Ulster dialect – creating a place that was neither America or Ireland, “but somewhere in between”. This is an arresting concept: directors are known by their choices.

‘Most directors might not even understand what they do themselves’

Gavin Quinn may be easier to trace in his work than he is in the world: he is currently touring Australia with Embers , Pan Pan’s radical transposition of Beckett’s radio play into a performance piece using a skull sculpture, light and sound. He is nominated for two productions: Embers and Opera Theatre Company’s vigorously reimagined Carmen (also nominated for best opera). Speaking from Brisbane, Quinn agrees that directors can make themselves conspicuous as the “author” of a production’s aesthetic, “but they have to earn that right. In other words, you have to be good at it. People probably see directors as an organiser or the boss, without necessarily understanding what they do. And perhaps most directors might not even understand what they do themselves.”

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