If I thought summer was busy, Autumn and winter has been a whirlwind! Not that I’m complaining. I’ve been extremely lucky and have had one excellent opportunity after another, quite literally back-to-back. By way of not sugar-coating things, I have to say, while it has been amazing, it has also been exhausting and by the time I got to Christmas I was very ready for a break.
Things kick off in mid-September with a two day placement at the Young Vic theatre in London. For two days I share an office with the Taking Part team, whose work with young people and local communities is fully integrated into the life of the theatre and complements and enhances each of the shows the Young Vic produces. I applied for the placement inspired by the Young Vic’s ethos and reputation in terms of participation work. Sometimes in theatres there is a sense that despite saying the right words, the participation programme is quite separate from the artistic programme and is considered less important by the overall leadership. I don’t have that impression at the Young Vic. Its work with the local community is at the heart of its identity and that is very evident in how they do things.
Over the course of the two days I am fully welcomed into the Taking Part family, overhearing their chats, attending team meetings about various projects and being shown round all other departments. A few highlights include randomly sitting next to David Lan (outgoing Artistic Director and theatre legend) at the daily briefing and being asked by him to start the meeting by introducing myself and what I do, chatting with wardrobe who are currently trying to work out how to amend Juliet Stevenson’s costume in Wings to draw less attention to her bum and talking to the Director of the Taking Part team about Joy Unspeakable and different approaches to the participation aspect of it. Oh yes, and hearing from absolute theatre legend Peter Brook whose play Tierno Boker at Warwick Arts Centre first inspired me to want to make theatre. Or should I say secondly inspired me? My very first inspiration ever was a performance of a show called Coloured Children Flying By about plantation slavery at the now defunct Nia Centre in Moss Side, Manchester, which I saw at about ten or eleven years old.
My overriding take away from the two days at the Young Vic is just how fundamentally critical ethos is to everything. The reason the Young Vic Taking Part work is brilliant, and it is, is of course because the team are thoughtful, knowledgeable and really good at their jobs but also, more fundamentally than that, because they, and as far as I can tell, the whole building really does believe that the work they do to directly involve local communities is equally as important as the artistic programme, and can be expected to be as artistically excellent. It’s a great example of how believing that something is possible makes it so. I’m reminded of that Henry Ford quote,“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”
A certain amount of self belief is required to be a theatre director and my next project, Come Closer: Memories of Partition, puts this directly to the test. I am simultaneously excited and a bit nervous to be directing two pieces of theatre for the Royal Exchange Theatre. Whaaat? I know. The Royal Exchange Theatre won The Stage magazine’s Regional Theatre of the Year award in 2016 and its shows regularly feature in national theatre critics’ top ten lists of, “shows to see this season”. It’s a theatre to be reckoned with at the national, as well as regional, level.
Memories of Partition is a multi-partner project run in collaboration with Manchester Museum, University of Manchester, Greater Manchester BAME Network and Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre. The Royal Exchange have commissioned ten South Asian writers and spoken word artists to write new monologues inspired by the Oral History archive at Manchester Museum, in order to reveal the untold stories of the significance of Partition and the impact still felt today. Five up and coming local directors have been invited to direct two monologues each, for performance in seven different locations, including the main stage at the Royal Exchange. I am one of those directors. Eek.
The brief from Matthew Xia (Associate Director, Royal Exchange) is that it is to be all about the performance and not about any of the supporting elements that ordinarily go in to making up a full theatre show i.e. sound, lights, design etc. As he puts it, “It’s not just low tech, it’s no tech”. Got it. There is nothing to hide behind. This is an excellent discipline and actually a blessed opportunity to focus in solely on the craft of acting and directing and the actor/director relationship, without any other elements clouding the picture. Kind of like how Picasso went off on a mad one with Cubism eventually but not before he had learned how to do brilliant observational drawing.
My two monologue pieces are very different. part it, part not (lower case intentional) by Afshan D’souza-Lodhi focuses on the experiences of a young, British, Muslim woman, who has inherited a halal butcher’s shop due to her husband’s death and whose dual parentage – part Indian, part Pakistani – creates a complex identity to negotiate and practical barriers to cross border movement at seemingly every turn. iDENT by Ravi Thornton is an interactive piece in which audience participation explores the possible outcomes of a future in which artificial intelligence is in control. The last remaining humans are forced to choose which pack they will be loyal to and pits genetic inheritance against rival forces such as romantic love, enforcing the requirement that loyalty to only one pack is possible.
Part of the Memories of Partition project involves the directors working with the writers in a dramaturgical capacity to help them refine their drafts in advance of the rehearsals. This is a new and brilliant opportunity. I really enjoy working with each writer to build a relationship, understand what they are trying to achieve and help them to think about their writing as a piece that will always, ultimately be brought to life in 3D, with living, breathing actors.
The rehearsal week itself is manic. With so many creatives all on the same project and a variety of other Royal Exchange main house shows in various stages of rehearsal, the building is heaving. Coordinating the logistics of who is rehearsing where at what time is not a game for the faint-hearted. My two actors Jennifer Key (iDENT) and Shakera Louise Ahad (part it, part not) are both great and work really hard with the fairly short rehearsal time we have, bringing great integrity to their acting process. It is not until the first day of performances, a series of pop-up performances in unusual locations around the Great Hall of the Royal Exchange, that I get to meet the other four directors working on the project. Two of them (Ben Power and Kash Arshad) I already know but the other two (Nicole Morris and Caroline Kennedy) are new to me. As is often said, directing can be a very lonely road, a feeling a leader of any kind probably knows well. So once we have all established (through a series of clicks and whistles) that none of us is going to be an arrogant know-it-all and we are all genuine, collegiate people, we have a very lovely time sounding off vigorously and geekily about all the challenges of being a director. The clicking and whistling gets very intense (as the beer flows) and by the end of the project we are all best of friends and thinking of starting a revolution.
The performances themselves go well. The complexity of the multiple performance locations mean that some pieces work better than others in certain spaces but most pieces have both their ideal spot and their not-so-great spot, so overall it balances out across the performances. Overall, within the constraints of the project, I am really pleased with my two pieces and get some very positive feedback from the New Writing Associate at the Royal Exchange who is especially pleased to see how part it, part not has translated from page to stage. She’s the big boss of the project, so that’s nice.
iDENT – images © The Royal Exchange
part it, part not – images © The Royal Exchange
I quite literally have no time to breathe before immediately starting my next project the next day, also at the Royal Exchange. For those of you who read the summer blog, I’m delighted to say that I did get the job of Assistant Director on Parliament Square, which is this next project. It’s a pretty awesome opportunity. Written by the young yet extremely successful writer James Fritz, the play won a Judges Award in the 2015 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting and everyone in the building is #veryexcited about it. Jude Christian, the director I will be assisting, is also a young but experienced director who has directed at the Royal Court, The Lyric Hammersmith and The Gate, amongst others. And then there’s me. Mirror check. Whaaat?
Going in I’m a little bit scared. Having been on Memories of Partition for the past three weeks I have had very little time to prep in advance. When I had my interview I specifically asked what prep I would be expected to do in advance, in case I felt it was too much and maybe would have said no. Jude simply said, “read the play though a couple of times” which on one hand is great as that is literally all I’ve had time for and on the other hand is a bit terrifying because if I was directing it, I’d probably have done months of preparation, so I feel a bit on the back foot.
The cast is lovely, as are the stage management team. After a short, informal talk from Jude about the play and her thoughts on it, the rehearsal process begins, as many do, with a read through of the play in full. It really is a brilliant script and even just listening to a fairly straight reading is very exciting, it crackles off the page.
The first week of rehearsals is fairly experimental. Parliament Square is a three act play, and each act is stylistically very different, so it is a significant challenge to figure out what theatrical language will serve each, very different act best, while also maintaining an overall coherence. Among a variety of other tasks, one of my jobs is to undertake research into burns wounds (the main character sets fire to herself as an act of protest) and to liaise with Jude and the cast to feed this research in. This is something of a balancing act as the approach to the piece is non-naturalistic and Jude is continuously aware of not taking the cast down a naturalistic rabbit hole with too much nitty gritty factual detail. Yet at the same time, they need enough information to be able to believe in and invest in the world meaningfully. It’s a tricky balance to get right.
A bit of light relief is provided by a trip to see the Royal Exchange’s current main house show Our Town with the stage management team and some of the cast. I’m unfamiliar with Thornton Wilder’s classic play and its metatheatrical style feels surprisingly current given it was written in 1938. It’s a great show and the famous role of ‘the Stage Manager’ is competently played by Youssef Kerkour. Last time I saw him we were in the same rehearsal room as he got into the skin of ‘Mitch’ in A Streetcar Named Desire, when I was Observer Director on Sarah Frankcom’s production back in 2016. Small world.
Rehearsal images from Parliament Square – images © The Royal Exchange
l-r by row: Esther Smith and Lois Chimimba, Kelly Hotten, Kelly Hotten, Jamie Zubairi and Seraphina Beh, Kelly Hotten, Damola Adelaja, Joanne Haworth and Seraphina Beh. You can also spot me in background here and there!
As Parliament Square rehearsals continue, things start getting sweaty. We have a total of three weeks to rehearse before the show opens in Manchester (four weeks is the standard) and quite a short Tech of just a few days, rather than a whole week. By the beginning of week three everyone is feeling the strain of trying to wrangle this show to life. Because it is a piece of new writing, James the writer, is still making edits as we go, this is inevitably tough on the actors who have to learn new lines and consciously forget old ones, as well as forget discarded bits of back-story and plot, at a rate of knots. Meanwhile, some of the experiments we’ve tried haven’t necessarily produced the right results in terms of the visual language, the wardrobe department are pressing for answers and we’re getting very close to Tech week. On the plus side, everyone in the company is very much for this play and although there is an understandable element of folk letting off steam and expressing their nerves, no-one is bitching or sabotaging anything and everyone is ready to do all they can to make it work. It’s a great company.
Throughout the dress rehearsal, second dress and first and second previews, everyone is working manically to find the solutions we need to make what is, ultimately, a fantastic piece of writing, sing the way it should. It is a close run thing and I certainly go into press night with slightly white knuckles. The cast, especially Esther Smith (playing the lead role of Kat and recently Delphi Diggory in the stage version of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) are truly amazing and absolutely give their all for the press night performance. They lift the play by several levels into a performance that feels much more established and emotionally connected than by all rights should be possible, with such an amount of flux in the lead up. It feels like a small miracle and the post-show party is filled with exuberance and certainly on my part, a reasonable amount of relief. What a ride! Parliament Square has ten performances at the Royal Exchange and then, about four weeks later, opens again at the Bush Theatre in Shephard’s Bush, London for a five week run.
Parliament Square – images © Richard Davenport
Rehearsals in London (initially at the Hammersmith Lyric and then at the Bush itself) are lovely. Having already created a great show which has now had time to bed in, it is really just a question of checking that everyone hasn’t forgotten all their lines in the break (check), reworking the entrances and exits (it’s a rectangular studio instead of an in-the-round auditorium) and rehearsing some, fairly small, structural changes James has made to the script. Everything feels much more relaxed and it’s as if having done all that hard work in Manchester, we can now all really celebrate that with a much more fun and less pressurised rehearsal period.
Images: the newly refurbished Bush Theatre, complete with library of playtexts
The show opens in London to a very positive reception and my only job now is to visit the show during the run to give notes to the actors by way of maintaining the show as Jude would want it. I stay on for post-show drinks with the cast on my final visit to the Bush. It is hard to say goodbye to everyone as they are all such awesome people and great actors and I will miss working with them but this is the way it is. You form a close knit family for a very specific season and then, all of a sudden it is over. No wonder folk get the post-show blues. I console myself by going to see the absolutely phenomenal Barber Shop Chronicles at the National Theatre, this year’s Genesis Award winning director Nancy Medina’s play Yellowman at the Young Vic (where I also get to meet director Natalie Abrahami) and back in Manchester, the intriguing Chris Goode’s latest show Jubilee, at the Royal Exchange, which was rehearsing in the building at the same time as Parliament Square. Each of them is brilliant in its own way and is great food for inspiration.
Jumping back in time somewhat – in the gap between Parliament Square opening in Manchester and London, I jump straight in, again, quite literally, to another show, again as Assistant Director. This time, it is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the festive show at the Octagon Theatre Bolton this year. This particular adaptation of the much loved story has been written by Neil Duffield, a regular writer for the Octagon, particularly of festive shows for young audiences.
Due to working Parliament Square, I join rehearsals a week late and kick start with a chat with director Ben Occhipinti to get a bit of a handle on his plans and expectations. Ben, although young, is a fairly experienced director who initially joined the Octagon under the 18 month RTYDS scheme and then progressed to becoming an Associate Director there. As well as a director, Ben is an accomplished sound designer in his own right and is bringing that knowledge to bear on this production. Not that he is actually designing the sound, he is working with his frequent collaborator Rob Hiley who as Music Director has created the arrangements of the various carols that are woven throughout the piece, as well a developing the score for the show. However, Ben’s musicality as a director is essential to his overall vision of the piece.
This version of A Christmas Carol is highly musical, although obviously not ‘a musical’, more a play with songs. Anyway, it requires sufficient musical skill from the cast that they are all actor-musicians as opposed to straight actors, and will play the entire score and all songs live. The cast are all lovely and lots of fun, if a little tired. For the first two weeks of rehearsal, all but Marc Small (playing Scrooge) are also performing every night in the Octagon’s production of the Threepenny Opera, directed by David Thacker, which can’t help but have an impact on their energy levels during daytime rehearsals. I aim to be a general morale booster as well as drilling lines obsessively, particularly with well known northern actor Sue Devaney whose credits include TV series’ Shameless and Dinnerladies and who is a classic, down to earth, northern gal and b****y hilarious. We might be be pals for life.
Rehearsal images – A Christmas Carol © The Octagon Theatre Bolton
l-r by row: Robert Jackson and Marc Small, Director Ben Occhipinti and Marc Small, Young Company Team B, Young Company Team A, Sue Devaney, the whole company
By the third week of rehearsals it feels as if things really get going. The cast are less tired, mostly lines are learned and all rehearsals are on their feet, so there is an energy and pace to things. The show also includes a young company of twelve, who in two teams of six will perform in rotation during the eight week run – no small feat for performers as young as nine in some cases. Ben’s route into directing was via youth theatre and he is excellent to watch working with the young company, striking a brilliant balance between understanding that young people are still developing socially and emotionally but also treating them as professionals and expecting the same high standards of professionalism he expects from the adult cast. It is a great approach and one that the young people respond well to.
As a director, Ben is an interesting mix of highly engaged and very hands off. What I mean by that is that although he is at all times alert and extremely connected to what is happening in the room, he gives his actors an enormous amount of freedom to find their own way, dispenses with any kind of fixed blocking (interesting for the Lighting Designer) and relies heavily on simple repetition to allow kinks to iron themselves out, as opposed to trying to troubleshoot things intellectually. One big thing I definitely take away from working with him is the power of simple repetition.
By comparison with Parliament Square, the A Christmas Carol rehearsal process feels fairly relaxed. However, as Tech week looms into view, that inevitably changes. This is a show with a lot of moving parts: a cast of thirteen on any given show (and two teams of young performers to tech in), live music of two types (songs and underscore), most actors multi-rolling at least two if not three parts, all requiring costume changes (in some cases very speedy quick changes), a show that is being played in the round with all the sightline challenges that entails, a design that has knocked out the use of all lighting bars at the gallery level, a hydraulic flying platform complete with smoke-creating glaciator and several flown set components located in very different parts of the auditorium, with only one flyman (he does a lot of running!).
When not tasked to do anything more specific by Ben, I self appoint myself to the job of watching the show from every part of the auditorium, including the upper gallery which most of the creative team don’t have time to make it to. For actors the Tech is a weird combination of lots of quite boring waiting around, followed by the need to give 110% focus and energy to key moments at the drop of a hat, a bit like a film set. The boredom element gives rise to a game among several of the cast called, “Where’s Amy?” in which the challenge is to be the first to spot me in the house through the fog and blinding stage lights. I’m tempted to start sitting in extremely bizarre locations for the laughs but in the general atmosphere of stress and tension, that kind of farting about is probably more than my job is worth. I restrain myself.
Finally, the show is up. It’s a really great show and the Octagon audiences love it! Throughout the whole Christmas period and well into the new year, it plays to full or almost full houses every night and folk have nothing but good things to say about it, and believe me the Octagon audience will tell you straight if they think it’s a load of rubbish, as will kids. It’s been an absolute blast and as a very different type of show to anything I’ve worked on before, a brilliant opportunity to learn loads, all of which is scribbled down in the many pages of my A Christmas Carol little black book.
A Christmas Carol images © Richard Davenport
And that pretty much wraps up Autumn/Winter. Save for a return visit to the Royal Exchange for the Open Exchange Christmas Party and the chance to raise a glass, with much sadness, to Matthew Xia (Associate Director) who is moving on from the Royal Exchange to bravely return to freelance directing, and the lack of a guaranteed salary. I’m sad to see him go. In his two to three years at the Exchange he has done a huge amount to put in place development opportunities for emerging artists and directors in particular, he has spearheaded debate on racial diversity in the theatre industry (something I’ve no doubt he will continue to do) and quite frankly has been an all round good egg and an integral part of my journey of establishing myself as a theatre artist in Greater Manchester. I will really miss him. As I look around the packed Rivals bar, filled with a heaving mass of local theatremakers and building based folk drinking, talking and laughing together, I realise just how many of them I have worked with, work-shopped with and/or now count as friends, and I feel sentimentally warm and fuzzy inside as it strikes me what a great artistic community I am part of, and what a wonderful foundation this is as I launch into 2018, with all the many exciting projects and challenges it promises.
Cheers! Hiccup. I’ll see you there.