Never before had I felt this way about anything. I think I had been searching for something like this to point the way and give me some direction. The play was the Alchemist by Ben Jonson directed by a young but no less impressive director Sam Mendes and with a cast that included Jonathan Hyde, Joanne Pearce and David Bradley. It was magnificent! It was theatrically clever, quite long as I remember though it didn't seem that to me, but by god it was so very very sexy. It was a real slap in the face that said – ‘this is what you should be doing you idiot’ !! I walked out of that theatre changed forever. Completely hooked.
After I tried to see every production, I read as many plays as I could, I became obsessive as I believe you should be. From there I strategised about how I was going to be like the actors on stage. In my total naivety I planned to go to the Guildhall School of Music & Drama because the Alchemist programme had said, in very small writing, that they had close links with the RSC, but first I had to learn more about theatre. I enrolled on a BTEC in performing arts from NESCOT college in Surrey where I took a crash course in theatre. I soaked up as much as I could about theatre from lighting to sound to direction and so to acting. I had a lot of passion but not a lot of skill as an actor and not much idea what to do. The skill I needed came from a teacher called Leo Dove who was a seasoned actor and could see my limitations as an actor, and so when I auditioned for the Guildhall he encouraged me to do something different....surprise the panel, he said. At my first audition I performed a Shakespeare sonnet. I think it was sonnet 17 – ‘Who would believe my verse in time to come’… I don't think they had ever had someone come in and perform a sonnet before but that was enough to get me through the first stage to the workshop stage where I performed a piece from Edward the Second by Christopher Marlowe, that was again a surprising piece. By a minor miracle I managed to squeeze in. I know I was incredibly borderline in being accepted because I had to perform my piece to the whole of the teaching faculty at the end of the day, but I had a champion in legendary voice teacher Patsy Rodenberg who saw a raw, unpolished actor in me. The odds were somewhere in the region of 3000-1. Sadly I think nowadays it's even worse and I am not sure I would get in today or be able to finance the training.
Have you always been specifically interested in directing or have you tried out other pursuits?
After graduating from the Guildhall I went on to be a jobbing actor for over ten years where I spent a quarter of that at the Royal Shakespeare Company getting nominated (totally unexpectedly) for the Ian Charleson award for classical actors in 2001 alongside Chiewetel Ejiofor. We both lost! David Oyelowo won! It's sounds like bragging but this is a cold fact I am very very proud of – I was suggested for the awards by the late great Lord Attenborough who saw my performance in Stratford upon Avon and saw an old fashioned character actor in me, and I think that's fair to say I was definitely that. For the other three quarters of my career I did a bit of rep out in Ipswich, some awful telly (for the money) and generally worked around doing actory things.
During this time I did the odd bits of directing for friends but never sustainedly so. Having done most of what I wanted with my career and particularly having worked a lot for the RSC I decided to change my career. I ran out of ambition actually as an actor and didn't feel I could sustain a classical career because the work for me wasn't there. I decided to leave. It was after this that I tried writing with the London Playwrights Collective but I found it too isolating. To be a writer you need to be able to enjoy your own company and have the sort of mind that tells stories with endless imagination, whilst sitting in a vacuum.
I always have and still enjoy the collaborative element of theatre and that is how it led me to switch to being a theatre director full time about 3 years ago. I think back to the first play I saw and what strikes me was that I was fascinated as much by the staging as I was by the acting. Maybe my mind was made up then about what I would do later but I loved being an actor and still have the utmost respect for those on the sharp end of an audience. It's the noblest of pursuits.
How did you get involved in directing?
During my acting days I dabbled with helping friends out with rehearsed readings and workshops, and discovered that I was quite good at inspiring actors and had a bit of vision for plays. When I took it seriously I learnt through trial and error really, making many mistakes. Luckily people kept wanted me to direct things, so I can't have done too bad a job. I also joined the Young Vic directors scheme, an inspirational course ran by Sue Emma's that provides workshops and support for early career directors. I have taken part in lots of workshops there including the brilliant springboard week which allows new directors to experience workshops with seasoned directors. At the same time I directed anything I could get my hands on. I am a big fan of new writing festivals such as Little Pieces of Gold, Offcut, Miniaturists, Rapid Write Response at theatre 503, these festivals are a bit like a repertory system for directors and actors because they allow you to work with different writers over a very compressed period of time.
Surprisingly when I first started directing I thought I would direct the classics, particularly Shakespeare, but to my shame I haven't been near a Shakespeare at all. My career has sort of veered off into new British and American writing and revivals. I accept that maybe I have a talent there but given my acting history it's a fascinating irony not lost on myself. The last two and a half years has been spent saying yes to offers to direct and no to the odd job I thought wasn’t right for me for various reasons.
Are there any particular projects that you have enjoyed the most and why?
There are two projects that particularly stick out in my mind. One of my early projects was Fortunes Fool by Turgenev. I inherited the project from a director mate who got a paid job, not knowing the piece at all or the translation. Unbeknownst to me the version the company had been using had not been cleared for performance by the translator and as luck would not have it a big theatre was using the same translation for a performance at the same time. The producer received a letter telling us to cease and desist from rehearsals but we were quite a way into rehearsals by that point. I remember that day very well because after an interesting discussion with the producer, we decided to press on and make our own version. I emailed a two page letter spelling out exactly where we were to the whole company and asking them to invest in a version we would write ourselves, with not much more than a vague idea of how we were going to do it. It was a Churchillian call to arms. The actors responded magnificently and even though the show was a little over an hour long we still managed to improvise a script that became the Parasite and I am very proud of what we achieved then.
Later I directed a short piece of new writing for theatre 503’s Rapid Write Response. The idea of the evening is that writers respond to the show that is on at the theatre with 10 minute short plays. In an evening there could be up to seven short pieces all dissecting the themes of the main play with varying perspectives. The piece I am most proud of was called Pop by Mexican writer German Munoz. It reads as a modern fairy tale with an innocent young man, a big bad wolf type character and a lot of pink latex balloons. It was very tricky to direct because within ten minutes you need to set up a world believable enough for audiences to invest in. A few things stick out in my mind about that production that made it particularly poignant. Firstly it looked very beautiful. German had written the piece with the existing set firmly in mind. It was beautiful, tragic and poignant. Secondly an excellent actress and good friend was in it and she had been suffering for many years with ME, a particularly debilitating illness. This was her come back to the stage for the first time in seven years. She was nervous – I was nervous. But she was an absolute legend and on the two nights we played -the play flew. The audience entered into the heightened theatrical world and loved it to pieces and even though it was only short it packed a punch well above its weight.
What do you find are the most important attributes of a director?
Passion for theatre, bravery, patience for the process, humanity , humility, empathy with the cast/ writer/production team, vision & imagination, listening skills, tactfulness.
What do you find are the main challenges of being a director?
When you start as a director I think it is how you find your style or brand. I did a workshop with a brilliant director and she pointed out that the first couple of years are really all about finding a working methodology and finding your directing truth. All directors are different and certainly at the beginning of your career it is tempting to direct like Rupert Goold or Lyndsey Turner for instance, but you need to find your own way into directing and that can only come about by trial, error and bravery. I personally find that trying to find the right project is really difficult. What makes a good play? What makes an exciting theatrical adventure for an audience? These questions I keep coming back to and ones that have slightly driven me mad because you keep going round and round. I have decided that there is no such thing as a perfect play but only there are choices you make as a director that affect the outcome of the piece. Such as the actors you pick or the designers you choose. With the best of your judgement you should choose as brilliant people for the play that you can. But searching for ‘that one play’ is a fallacy that doesn't exist but we all still search.
What are your aspirations for the future?
I want to keep learning and keep refining my style, and hopefully one day soon get the chance to direct at the National theatre on a truly colossal stage. I really love a large canvas where the actors play scenes across the width of the acting area and this style of play is truly epic compared to an intimate studio theatre. Also I would like to explore more newly written pieces that really delve into what it is to be human.
Who would you consider to be incredibly talented at the moment- and this can be in any field- directors, actors, writers, etc...?
I’m a huge fan of director’s Lyndsey Turner, Ivo Van Hove and Ian Rickson who arguably have directed my three favourite productions over the past few years – namely Chimerica, View From The Bridge and Jerusalem. These plays really took my breathe away and inspired me. Carrie Cracknell is also a director I enjoy seeing her work whenever it's on. I recently saw Clippies at the Southwark playhouse by a director called Chelsea Walker which I thought was a superb play and brilliantly directed. And a visionary director who I think is just so brave is Robert Icke who currently is associate director at the Almeida directing productions like 1984, Mr Burns and The Oresteia. There are some excellent directors out there who are raising the bar in theatre to ever lofty heights.
Have you got any advice for anybody thinking of becoming a director?
Do it. It's a great thing to be doing. I won't lie to you there are days when I think what am I doing….am I mad but when you get going it's great. If you think you’d like to direct then my advice is do as much and as many varied things as you can early on. Make as many mistakes as you can away from the pressure of big jobs. Clock up those directing miles directing anything that will come your way and find your brand of directing. Form relationships with new writers you admire. Find actors whose work you enjoy and get them involved in whatever you are doing. Find rehearsal space that is cheap and form a relationship with them too. Form relationships with everyone from producers to stage managers. Be obsessed. Go and see theatre. Challenge yourself to think why something worked or something didn't. Be brutal (privately) with your criticism. Many directors think shorter term but really you need to strategise for the long term. You aren't going to walk into the National theatre and get a gig straight away and so you need to figure out how you could get there. There is no one way. This takes time and diligence. Finally, when you do make a piece of theatre really think about why you are making it, why is it relevant now and make it as best as you can.
What are you currently working on?
II am at a very early stage of developing with an Irish writer a brand new play to coincide with the centenary of the Irish Easter uprising that discusses where Ireland is today in comparison with 1916. This we will try to produce here in London in 2016. I have just secured the rights for productions of House of America and the one man show Envy, both by Ed Thomas that will be produced in 2016 in London and Wales. Also there is an American play by a Chicago writer that I absolutely adore that I am working on getting the rights for. Finally I am preparing short character/audience interactions for a special guided tour, as part of the Deloitte Ignite arts festival in September at the Royal Opera House and I have some research and development work that I will do with writer Christopher Harrisson in collaboration with Theatre 503.