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The profession of directing is barely a century old. On Directing considers the position of the director in theater and performance today. What is a director? How do they begin work on a play or performance? What methods are used in rehearsal? Is the director an enabler, a collaborator or dictator? As we enter the new millennium, is the very concept of directing under increasing threat from changes in thinking and practice? The full diversity of today's approaches to directing are explored through a series of interviews with leading contemporary practitioners. On Directing is a landmark book about the director's craft.
Pete Brooks, who was born in Northern Ireland, is a writer and director. He studied English at Leeds University; after spending a year in France, he wrote an MA dissertation on Doris Lessing and the French existentialist novel at Leeds University. In the same year (1978) he was awarded the Buzz Goodbody Award for directing Barrie Keefe's Abide With Me. In 1979 he co-founded Impact Theatre Co-op. Impact toured nationally and internationally until 1986. From 1986 to 1992 he was a full-time lecturer in Theatre Studies at the universities of Lancaster and Manchester. During that time he formed Insomniac Productions and directed a number of highly successful and influential shows, including Utopia (1988), L'Ascensore (1992), Woyzeck (1993), Claire de Luz (1993), Peepshow (Paper Boat Award, Glasgow Mayfest, 1997), Carnivali (1998) and Natura Muerta con Insectos (Santiago de Chile, 1999). In 1993 he abandoned academic teaching and concentrated full-time on creative projects. He now divides his time between Insomniac Productions and freelance work, and is currently developing a number of film projects. He lives in London and spends much of his time in Chile.
What is your starting-point when making theatre?
I begin with an idea or a theme that I want to explore, usually something that I've had in my mind for years. Then there is a secondary starting- point, which is some kind of crystallizing idea, perhaps a narrative, or the idea for a character as performed by a particular actor, or an idea about staging. Still Life with Insects (1991), for example, was a narrative play that contained an idea I wanted to investigate. The situation was that two characters, twins, had been lied to by their father as a philosophical exercise. I'm fascinated by the idea of deliberately misleading an audience; in this piece I was also looking at the difficulties for all of us in negotiating a postmodern reality.
In L'Ascensore (1992), Claire de Luz (1993) and Sangre (1995), which were performance pieces, I was interested in their workings in relation to the gaze of the audience. I was playing with illusion in a filmic sense; I have a theory that as soon as we see an image framed cinematically we immediately think we will be entertained. One of my most insightful experiences lately was a production of Claire de Luz at the Riverside Festival in Stockton-on-Tees. This festival is for street theatre and Claire de Luz is really an art piece, languid and poetic, and I was warned that the audience was not accustomed to seeing work like this. In fact it was a great success and I think this was because of its framing; the way the shape of the frame could change and move. The audience felt as though they were watching a false film; they were used to film as a medium and felt they could understand it. Film is something people of all classes are familiar with and this is not true of theatre, which is still elitist and, I regret to say, a form that isn't necessarily associated with pleasure. I think if the audience had seen the piece on a stage in a theatre building they wouldn't have had the same relationship with it and perhaps wouldn't have enjoyed it.
How do you work in the rehearsal room?
Before I even reach the rehearsal room I have developed a close creative partnership with my designer. There are two designers who I've mainly worked with: Simon Vincenzi and Laura Hopkins. I develop the whole vocabulary of the piece with the designer and think out how the text, music, colours and staging work. I have a very strong sense of the language of a piece before I begin working with the actors.
What happens in the rehearsal room depends on the show. Unlike many other practitioners I don't have a strong methodology because one show is often quite different from another. I made a piece based on Georg Büchner's Woyzeck called A Cursed Place (1993), which was almost hyper-real in its appearance. I spent many hours in the rehearsals working on the characters and their interaction with each other in a conventional way, though the piece itself was not conventional. I am most concerned with the overall concept of a piece. So the lighting designer is just as important as the actors; by that I mean that the actors are simply part of a performance.
I think I probably work far more like a film director than a theatre director. To be honest, if directors cast well they should be able to solve a lot of their problems. If you work with a group of actors who are more or less an ensemble you can give them freedom and then edit what they do. I worked like this with Impact Theatre Company and now with Insomniac Productions.
Sometimes I have an incredibly specific idea of, say, a two minute sequence in a piece; I'll know because of a sense of rhythm akin to music. In other sections I'll think there are a number of alternatives and what matters is that the actors are comfortable with what they are doing. I remember a story someone once told me about Pina Bausch. She allegedly rehearsed a woman relentlessly for three days, saying only: 'Do it again.' The woman's sequence involved a rail of clothes, and at the end of this period the woman broke down, began to scream and shout and hurl all the clothes on the floor. At that point Pina said: 'That's perfect!' It's an apocryphal story and it paints an ambiguous picture of a director.
My background in devising meant that I didn't go into a rehearsal room with a script. I'm changing that now and going in with a more complete script; I'm more interested in writing than I used to be. Improvisation has always been part of the process of making theatre for me. There is also a great deal of discussion, and I'll talk myself out of a corner with the actors. In an ensemble you have to conceive of the show as fully as possible between yourselves; once everyone has understood what is required the piece has to be realized together. The real problem with devised work is that you don't reach the realization of a piece until a very late stage – if ever. There isn't the time for reflection or redrafting. Once everyone has the show in their heads, staging it is not immensely difficult; the problems come when there are holes in the thinking. Ideally I would like the following: a primary stage of imagining the piece through writing; a second stage of imagining the piece with actors; and a third stage of rehearsal and reflection. At present the middle stage is the part where everything happens, and I'm trying to change this by doing more work at the first stage and finding more time at the third stage.
Could you talk about this language of theatre that you develop before rehearsals?
I mean the development of a language which enables the articulation of a particular show. I think it's more obvious in relation to film: the way a film is designed affects how the characters in it can and can't speak. Films such as Eraserhead and Bladerunner are genre-based and the language has to reflect this. I start to imagine a conglomerate language to do with the way people sound and look. I'm fascinated by what I call the grammar of a piece: I often can't articulate my ideas until the language is right. The best film and theatre directors understand this instinctively.
What does the term 'director' mean to you?
I make theatre because I want to see my own visions on stage. I am the primary artist within that process and I've always seen myself as an 'artist' rather than anything else. I often wish I could be interested in making Shakespeare come alive, which I think is necessary and valuable, but I've found myself on the margins of the art form as a result of different interests.
There is an insecurity in theatre which I've heard expressed in the question: as a director are you an artist or technician? Nobody knows quite what they are. Many actors, for example, want to believe that they are highly trained professionals, but the best actors I've ever worked with have been natural talents. I find this debate about director training alarming. We have to ask ourselves why train a director. In my opinion the best way for a director to learn is to be given as many opportunities as possible to work with practitioners from diverse backgrounds.
How do you differentiate yourself from other practitioners?
I see myself as very much within a modernist tradition, which in British theatre is still fairly underground. I feel connected to the development of drama and I read and watch classical and contemporary theatre. Contemporary British theatre writing bores me in the main. I'd rather watch productions such as Stephen Daldry's Machinal, and consider how they were made. There is some great theatre in Britain, but there is also an overwhelming mediocrity.
Who and what influence you?
If I have to name the work that has most influenced me or encouraged me to believe that theatre is still a vital art form it would be Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Pip Simmon's An die Musik, The People Show, Pina Bausch's 1980 and Forced Entertainment's 200% &Bloody Thirsty were all very important to me. I liked Steven Berkoff's work in the 1970s. I look to the European and American avant-garde, at artists such as Pina Bausch, Robert Wilson and Jan Fabre. I'd say my work has been innovative but not 'new' – it is certainly eclectic in its reference points. There is a dominance of theatre expounding a postmodern voice now. I find Forced Entertainment's work eloquent and moving but the sheer number of individuals cloning them fills me with despair. I developed my position within a plurality of voices during and after my student days in Leeds. I think that novel and film have influenced my work more directly than other theatre work.
What are your thoughts on audience?
I want to make work that is popular without being populist. Art is about pleasure, whether sensual, intellectual or paradoxically through the pain of emotional identification and catharsis. I think there are many ways of communicating with less sophisticated audiences. On the continent I've done a great deal of work that has played to audiences which cross all barriers of age and class. In Italy entire families go to my shows. Britain has a snobbish resistance to the avant-garde that is not true of the rest of Europe, where the avant-garde is perceived as an inspiring galvanizer of mainstream theatre. In Britain we reduce shows to this derogatory term 'fringe', which seems to assume that what we all really want to do is have a West End hit.
I want to make work which draws in an audience from varied backgrounds. I wonder whether the future lies in street theatre, in events such as the Riverside Festival.
Are there certain themes and preoccupations running through your work?
More a series of questions, I think. Who are we? How do we make sense of ourselves? How do we deal with being alone? With death? I've always been concerned with the relationship between theory and practice. We live in a world which is visceral and present, yet the theorists describe it to us in ways which are more and more elusive and fractured. What do we do about that gulf?
I feel caught up in the death-throes of our culture. Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc we've been watching the death of capitalism – it's thrilling and romantic in some ways, no one knows what will happen. I often feel that the twentieth century happened between 1914 and 1962 and that those of us born after the Second World War have missed it. I romanticize, but the most significant thing in our generation has been the collapse of the Berlin Wall; to have been part of Gertrude Stein's lost generation, to have fought in the Spanish Civil War, this was the generation that saw the twentieth century. I was sixteen when I saw Neil Armstrong land on the moon and that was supposed to be the dawn of a new era. It wasn't. When we think of World War Two we think of the received mythology of a war fought against evil, but our impression of Vietnam is of a government that didn't know what it was doing and the consequent destruction of countless people. Our generation's experience is one of chaos.
How does this concern with history feed into your theatre work?
I become more and more interested in narrative. Stories are much more complex than I used to think. In the early eighties, confessing an interest in narrative was rather like confessing that you read pornography! Now I feel that there's so much chaos that we need stories; we need their structures in order to be able to get a glimpse at things. Many practitioners and university lecturers want to be 'postmodern postmodernists', and they legitimate poor performance work in the name of modern theoretical, post-quantum chaos. In the end you have to take a position; too many use the theories of postmodernism in order to avoid taking a position. There is a new orthodoxy abroad in the universities. The new theory is sexy and beguiling. I have taught in places where performances are called 'statements in action' – personally I prefer the word 'show'. I did a postgraduate degree and spent seven years teaching theatre; I left because I was meant to be teaching contemporary practice and I felt that I was losing touch with theatre altogether.
Where do you position yourself now?
I feel more and more on my own. In the last few years I've spent a lot of time in South America, South East Asia and Australia, so I feel less Eurocentric and I'm not interested in 'the scene'. I work best when I make work without thinking about what others are doing. I don't want to be seduced into changing my work for the benefit of funding bodies. One can be too easily influenced. Something like the National Revue of Live Art, for example, is a good thing, but it also helps to create an orthodoxy of its own, particularly in the institutions of higher education. I know, I've taught in them and seen it happening.
How would you like to develop your work?
My dream is to build a forty-nine seater construction which I could take on tour. The seating would be in rows of seven by seven and inside everything would be completely controlled by computers and projectors. I would make detailed, dark narratives. This is purely for myself, for research purposes. I was working some way towards this with Claire de Luz, for which we constructed a miniature cinema.
I'm not sure what the future is for Insomniac at the moment. I've become increasingly disillusioned with the endless compromises one makes in the name of funding, and there are many pressures and problems. I do a mixture of teaching and freelance work as well, and I look to develop the freelance angles.
I find it difficult to get excited about a show containing just three or four people now. I made a piece called The Girl (1990) at Lancaster University with thirty students; it's impossible to reproduce this in professional theatre.
In the next couple of years I'm determined to make a couple of independent short films. I'm disappointed by a great deal of theatre. I love it, but I am beginning not to like its transience; as I get older I want to do something fixed. The movies are available historically.CHAPTER 2
Born near Rotherham, South Yorkshire, Annie Castledine trained as a lecturer in Theatre Studies. Her early career was spent at Bulmershe College which is now part of the University of Reading. She became the Arts Council trainee director at the Theatre Royal York in 1979, after which she started working as a professional theatre director. While she was in York, she formed her own theatre company, Northern Studio Theatre, which was dedicated to the development of new writing in the north of England. Subsequently, Castledine was Associate Artistic Director of Theatr Clwyd from 1985 to 1987, and Artistic Director of Derby Playhouse from 1987 to 1990. It was during this time that she defined herself as a visionary and innovative director with a special affinity for plays by female playwrights. Among her most notable productions from this period are: Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (1987), Mary Pix's The Innocent Mistress (1987), Gerlind Reinshagen's Sunday's Children (1988) and Lucy Gannon's Wicked Old Nellie (1989). Castledine also co-produced and co-directed a number of projects, including Molière's The School for Wives, co-directed with Neil Bartlett (1990), and Marie Luise Fleisser's Pioneers in Ingolstadt and Purgatory in Ingolstadt, co-directed with Stephen Daldry (1991). Since 1990 she has been working freelance. She has also edited volumes 9 and 10 of the Methuen series Plays by Women. She was awarded the Bass Charrington London Fringe Award for Best Director (1989–90) and the Time Out Award for Best Director (1991). The Derby Playhouse was nominated for the Prudential Award for Theatre (1989). Her freelance work has enabled her to be involved with Theatre de Complicite and laboratory work within the Royal National Theatre Studio. She has also experimented with the form of the one-person theatre piece, notably Goliath (1996) and Hymn to Love (1998).
Excerpted from On Directing by Gabriella Giannachi, Mark Luckhurst. Copyright © 1999 Gabriella Giannachi and Mary Luckhurst. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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• Pete Brooks
• Anne Castledine
• Peter Cheeseman
• Declan Donnellan
• Tim Etchells
• John Fox
• David Glass
• Garry Hynes
• Phyllida Lloyd
• Ewan Marshall
• Simon McBurney
• Clifford McLucas and Mike Pearson
• Jonathan Miller
• Katie Mitchell
• Gerry Mulgrew
• Lloyd Newson
• Julia Pascal
• Ian Spink
• Jatinder Verma
• Deborah Warner