'Work with what you have in the room'
What makes a good stage director? The four nominees for Best Director in The Irish Times Theatre Awards tell BRIAN O'CONNELLwhat it takes to bring their ideas to life
FROM NEW interpretations of modern classics in a traditional theatre setting, to devised work in site-specific locations, the nominations for best director reflect the rich diversity of Irish theatre productions over the past year. Here, the four nominees discuss what makes a good director and outline their respective approaches to getting the best out of a production.
“I knew I had a very good cast, and about 90 per cent of a successful production is the casting. When you know you’ve got a team who could play the Albanian phone directory backwards and make it interesting, you know you can put something together that might be noteworthy.
“We also had the extra adrenalin in that our play was to open the new Lyric Theatre. I thought it was a superb choice of production to re-open it, as it is such a gripping epic play. Without overstating it, the play has echoes for Northern Ireland.
“It involves a community that tears itself apart and examines how religion can be used to mask personal and social animosities. Watching it, you feel the gathering paranoia and experience the hysteria of the girls spreading into the community.
“It is also a celebration of the power of theatre as an art form. The old Lyric couldn’t have accommodated this type of production in terms of all the different aspects of the stage machinery. It was like test-driving a new Ferrari.
“The one decision I agonised over a lot was deciding to use natural Irish accents. It
was set in period costumes but by using northern and southern Irish accents, we made the Northern Irish connection more graphic. In terms of the language of The Crucible, it is shot through with the structure of the King James bible, and those turns of phrase worked in a Northern accent.
“I think off-site and site-specific work is very exciting whenever it works and is done in a very considered way. But if it is just a substitute for the quality of the work, making it all about the site, then it will be just as dodgy as a poor theatre production.
“I’d like to think I’m a much better director now than 20 years ago. You learn a lot more about human psychology and frailty, and frankly, my own varied life experiences and my own screw-ups are brought to bear on the work. I was a lot more autocratic back then. Now, the trick is to really tap into the collective brain and creativity and allow the best idea win. As a director, you are there to be the editor of that process.
“We got five nominations for The Crucibleand then one also for the Special Judges Award. We could end up like Avatar, which got 12 nominations in the Oscars, and only came out with one in the end for catering or something like that!”
The Poor Mouth
Blue Raincoat Theatre Company
“It is my first time being nominated as a director. The type of work we do is particular to the history of the company and we work historically as an ensemble company. Sometimes it works really well and you get something nicely complex. This show worked on a strong theatrical level and also had spontaneity about it. It was the most accessible of the Flann O’Brien works we did. I think as a director what I have learned is to work with what you have in the room. We take the text and improvise and try and improve the way we want to stage it. All the time, the performers come up with ideas and we follow them like Hansel and Gretel, following little creative crumbs. My job is two-fold. I need to set the context and then choose which of the ideas we are going to pursue. I trained in mime so when I started out all I knew was acting. It was harder to be directed by me then than now.
“I still do a bit of acting to remind myself how difficult it is. What advice would I give to someone wanting to direct? There is a great bit in Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, which has a letter from a guy in South America asking him how does he become a director. Brook replies he should go to a bookshop, buy a script, find the actors and put it on. That’s essentially how we started out with a Thomas Kilroy play we put on. The task then in the rehearsal room is to do your best to stay focused on assembling the piece and try not get too distracted by everything else going on outside of that.”
All That Fall
Pan Pan Theatre Co
“This is a play I have been reading for about 25 years. It is Beckett’s first radio play and it was quite revolutionary and personal at the time. It has been broadcast a few times in the last 20-30 years but we were interested in creating this special theatrical experience where the audience is immersed in the piece as a way to allow people hear the play in an intense and controlled way.
“Ideas come from thinking a lot about the play, really. The important thing for this production was the combination of people working with us doing sound and music as well as the co-director. The approach was different too. First we recorded the piece over 10-12 days, whereas normally that would be done in three to four days. Then we spent almost three weeks in post-production, which has a very different intensity and rigour to it. The most important thing was to make a rigorous recording and really look at getting every sound and moment orchestrated. It was a really exact production and that was one of the reasons I think people had such a good experience. It should have sounded as if the actor was in your ear.
“The rehearsal was the same because we were working with the text; the only exception is that we were sitting down a lot more. I worked a lot recording music and released an album a few years back for our production of Oedipus Loves You. We never do anything in a week or two.
“We tend to try and develop projects and rehearse them as long as we can. This allows us to make choices as against being forced into choices. It allows us and the cast a chance to get a real sense of the play. It is important your mind can do that so as to avoid bringing in habits you know worked before.
“Over the years I have learned that if you have a long rehearsal period, you don’t arrive at a panic-stricken situation. There is a tendency sometimes to put on things that are under-rehearsed. Honestly, the success of a production is often largely based on how much time you spend rehearsing it. It’s also important to be able to say no if an idea is not working. In terms of the award nomination, it is important for the standing of the company and an acknowledgement of the work everyone put into the project. I think also awards like this can chart turns and movements within a small artistic scene.”
“I am thrilled and humbled to be nominated amongst other directors I have long admired. I am a newbie to it all really and it was my first time going last year.
“As a director I work very closely with visual artists and we create work together. Most of it is off-site or site-specific. The work I like to make is site-specific work and within that it is about respecting physical architecture or a particular space. I am really interested in the role the audience plays. I like to let the audience loose in different spaces and curate their own experience and I do believe their presence makes a difference. It changes the traditional contract between audience and the work, and a lot of my work is in locations where you can establish an ethical encounter between audience members and performers.
“I am excited about the notions of place, space and architecture, so it is less about leaving traditional theatre. I’m very influenced by physical theatre and performance art and work that cross-pollinates forms. Particular sites allow performers and writers the opportunities to act in one space at the same time and create multiple layers. My job then is to build each layer on top of each other.
“I want to create something that people can see, touch, hear and smell. The term ‘audience’ seems inappropriate because it implies a group of watchers. We work a lot with the cast from the early developmental stages right the way through the process. We might take a studio space for two weeks and develop a response to an idea, and then we have a short rehearsal time of about two to three weeks.
“I’m really happy, as this is one of the most meaningful projects I have ever done. We created a 100-year history of one location in a quarter-mile area of the north inner city. It was not intended to be a documentary, nor in my mind a reflection of the abuse in institutions. It is about looking at the geography of one space and generating a real physical response to that building.
“I think we really strive to create a multi-layered project and from the moment the door closes behind them, the audience are as much part of the experience as they are witnesses to it. I believe theatre is active and not passive. I think the real power in theatre is in the moment of conflict between audience and performer. I think what I’m looking for is that moment when you as an audience member become really involved in it.
“Like when an actor calls you by name or a phone rings and you have to answer it. You can choose as an audience member to embrace that or to observe it.”