In your work, what practitioners have you personally found most useful? Is there any method that you subscribe to most?

I don't have any rigid method as a director – to me, having a set formula for how to approach a project denies the uniqueness of each project. There will always be different people, different energies. It'd be like trying to make a cake, but with ingredients that make a stew. Instead you're looking for how the different people all work, and trying to curate and sculpt that. In terms of practitioners,  there are several directors who I think are really fun and are worth looking into at the current moment - Thomas Ostermeier, who runs the Schaubuhne is an artist I really admire – his work is very embodied, very alive. There’s also great director called Michael Thalheimer – there's lots of his work on youtube (although it's all in German!) but he distills massive stories into simple yet incredibly articulate architectural and acting-style gestures.

Is there one 'go to' exercise or rehearsal technique that is a constant through any of your rehearsal processes?

I assisted a director, Tim Carroll, at the Globe, and his approach was really interesting, He works (or certainly did when I assisted him) in ‘washes’ - exercises you can apply to a section of the text, and they might just throw up some interesting shades or textures.
One of my favourite exercises, and it's quite straightforward but I often use it, is  asking actors to click on each new thought. And to find as many clicks/ new thoughts as possible. I personally am really excited by the feeling that the actors are discovering/having each thought, in that moment, in the room, in front of us – you, me, the audience. The alternative is somethings things can get a bit general, a bit one note - like ‘I’m going to play this bit the colour of blue’. Whereas we all, as people, have millions of thoughts in a second, and I’m more interested in all the different colours and thoughts we can have.

So, if you have a chunk of text, you decide that that speech you are teasing out information from someone – but you might tease out that information in  a number of different ways, all in one paragraph. Helping actors find the different tactics, or colours ( the blue, red and green)within a section, and then trusting the audience to see the whole mosaic is the aim. By clicking on each new thought, it helps you find where each of those colour shades or shifts might be. That to me always feels like a very simple, but useful process to do – asking the actors to find as many new thoughts as they can.

Another exercise I use is – I ask actors to say “say this” at the end of the line and ask them to think in their head what they are hoping to hear in response. So it might go “to be or not to be, that is the question, say this [and then you pause to think what you want to hear] and then you click”.  It’s a useful exercise in helping you as an actor work out what you're hoping/ wanting to happen as a result of you speaking  – it’s a very active form of actioning. It allows your actors to be very imaginatively invested in the material, rather than just an intellectual exercise that rewards the actors with the best vocabulary (which actioning sometimes can be).

I’m going into my final rehearsal of an MA piece this afternoon – do you have any tips of how to approach the last rehearsal and tick off all that you hope to achieve?

Firstly good luck! I think trust that even if you feel that there's loads of details you want to insert in, you've done the basics. A last session for me in quite often determined by the cast – do they want to do a run, do they want to go over specfic moments. I personally wouldn't be coming in with a massive new note “oh, by the way, you're adopted!” just because that might throw the cast. You have probably done all the work that you need to do.

It's about trusting that your process, even in a short rehearsal period, has asked the big questions, ensuring the actors are confident and comfortable with what you’re presenting. So, my advice would be to trust the process, trust your own process.   But then, it's a balance thing. If it's massive change and you can rehearse it in properly, then maybe do it, but just be very aware and sensitive to the nature of live performance. If you're going to give your cast a big note just beforehand, it might throw them and might detract from the work you have done. Play it by ear.

What do you look for when working with fresh drama school graduates? 

Like the Alec Ferguson, the old Manchester United manager used to say - “if you're good enough, you're old enough”. That is sort of true of drama school graduates. I guess as a director you are hoping for someone to work with that has the maturity to go straight into a professional rehearsal room, and not feel daunted, not feel nervous; someone who'll thrive in that environment. But I think that is very well taught in lots of drama schools, so often graduates come out as great professionals.  

One thing it's maybe worth saying, which I've observed from having worked with both students at drama schools, compared to working in more public facing institution, is that some things are discussed  more at a drama school, which you don't necessarily have the time to do that in rehearsals for a public facing production. Character work, particularly is done more by actors at home rather than in rehearsals. I wonder if that's because often in drama schools there's more of a jump for young actors to have to make, whereas in public facing work, you tend to cast age-appropriately( for instancr!)  Once you’re in the rehearsal room you'll discuss the relationships, you’ll analyse the stuff that comes from the text, but you hope that actors come with lots of that character work done.  You're looking for actors who bring something of themselves to that part, and hope that the play has something that really speaks to parts of themselves.  

In terms of what I’m looking for... you're  ulitmately just always looking for the best person for the role, and it doesn't really matter if they are just out of drama school - you're just looking for the person who fits what you saw in your mind when you read the play, and how the characters might fit together (obviously, with agreement from the casting director and other members of the team).

I would have no insecurities that you need to have ‘done’ something beforehand. Everyone starts somewhere, and one of the greatest joys has been working with people who just started their career, as they come into rehearsal s wide-eyed and excited by the whole prospect of it. That’s a really thrilling energy to have in the room.  

Do you ever write your own script to direct? If so, how long does it take?

I think writing is really hard! I'm betting that quite a lot of you will probably try to write something over the course of this lockdown – but it's really difficult isn't it!? I've not written anything for the stage. I've written a short film over the course of a lockdown, which is literally six pages, and I have no idea how it will ever get made - but it's a really interesting exercise and I think it's worthwhile everyone trying to write something, only because it teaches you the craft and effort that is needed to create something from scratch. So, the next time I direct, I'll be so much more considerate when I suggest cuts!, and appreciate even more the blood sweat and tears that went into it.

In terms of how long it takes, I guess the answer is how long is a ball of string. But I think the benefit of being a writer is that you don't have to put anything out into the world until you are satisfied enough with it!

What is the casting process like at the Orange Tree for The Sugar Syndrome – does it depends on the director?


In that instance, the casting director put together a list of names of people she thought might be right for the roles. There were certain challenges in The Sugar Syndrome in terms of casting, in terms of age, experience, maturity, the sensitive material of text - all those kinds of things. We put together a longlist -, and then put it on Spotlight with open submissions - I remember there being over 300 applicants for Dani (one of the main parts), which is really hard because you just don't have time to see everyone.

So then you're working off hunches and feelings about the role;  what are the characters like, do they look a certain way? Are they from a certain part of the world? And all those kind of things. And then you try and meet as many people as possible in the time you have. We then cast it incredibly quickly, over the course of two and a half weeks. We did lots of auditions for Dani especially, we saw maybe between 30 or 40 people, and had recalls for 2 or 3 of those. And then you have a longer chat, do a bit more work, and it's exciting to hear what they thought of the play - a couple stood out for being really excited by the play. That felt really important, actually, because every show is a collaboration with your actors – you want someone who will bring energy to the role. I assume this process is fairly typical of most casting processes.

What do you do when an actor you are directing disagrees with a note or something that you are saying?

That's the million dollar question isn't it! Because as a director, you're trying to steer the ship and if someone says (metaphorically), ‘well, no, I think the ship should go in this direction’, that's really interesting. I hope you could use it as a conversation starter with the actor - 'Why do they think that the scene should be played this way?' Or what is compelling them to push themselves in that direction?

I think it offers a really interesting opportunity for you as a director  - why is the actor picking up on this element? Having a conversation to understand where they're coming from,  and the more you understand where the actors coming from, well, hopefully what's happened is they've hit on something that you've sort of glossed over, or generalised.

Alternatively,  if you have a really strong reason for why it should be some other thing, it might be you haven't explained yourself fully, and you might need to articulate your thinking more clearly, to the actor, whilst still allowing space for them to be inventive and creative within that framework.

Again it depends what the instance of disagreement is, but I think explaining the moment in the context of the play as a whole is a good thing, because as director you're the external eye, so your job is to keep an eye on the whole piece. Is a particular choice feeling a bit inconsistent? Well , I think you can diplomatically say this. Or it might be a basic staging thing -  I.e. ”I know you really want to go off in this corner, but actually if you go off in that corner, that’s going to cause a traffic jam later”, or “ I think there's a really cool visual moment that we can achieve together, can we try it like this”?  Try to keep in mind that the production is something you’re making together – it’s an actors job to look at their individual elements, so it can be important to trust their judgement.

How do you find meaning in plays as you watch them?

That’s hard to answer! But I suppose make sure you’re really engaging – it's about opening your mind up to what you could be watching. Assume that everything, every element, is a directorial choice, because it probably is! Then of course, you'll meet the director, go on about a particular moment, and discover that it was a last minute fix designed to cover up a quick change, or something!

I haven’t directed before – How much of your work is preparation and how much is found in rehearsal?

I think preparation is really important. I personally do quite a lot of preparation. I think Katie Mitchell’s book is a great one to read, if you’re looking at what preparation to do in advance - it's a really thorough and rigorous book that compels you to know the play inside out before you start. Sometimes that can be a bad thing, because it means that you might have already decided in your head that things have to be a certain way. Be careful about that.  

I think Katie Mitchell’s method allows you to feel really confident on the material working on, which means you'll hopefully have something to offer the actors. But also they're coming in as autonomous artists in their own right, and you don't want to be puppeteering. The idea is do loads of preparation, but be able to throw that preparation away, and see what the cast offer.  

Now, in the process of making up a play, often you'll have designed the piece in advance. I tend to know why I want to tell a certain story, what's important to me, what I want to communicate – and through this, your collaborations with your design team will be coming together to create the visual world of the play – you'll have some kind of design. I do think,  you need to know why you’re doing this play and what kind of things are you hoping to pull through; it becomes the lens though which you make the rest of your choices – casting, etc. With The Sugar Syndrome I had a clear idea of what the play was about for me –  and I wanted everyone to be on board with that vision. So in the recalls and auditions, I talked through the design with the auditionees, so that they all had a sense of how we were going with the production. I guess it also means that if you are completely up front, and they take the job, they know what they're walking into! And you can see if your actors will mesh with your idea of what is important in the play.

For me, The Sugar Syndrome was about two things. Empathy and shame. It was a play about four character who were all in some ways, deeply ashamed of themselves, and what the play does, by bringing them into contact with each other, was enabling empathy, a judgement-free zone. Whereas in their normal lives, the characters were judged as ‘the bulimic girl or ‘the paedophile', the play created situations concerned with creating  empathy for both, and then exploring that with an audience. Would an audience have the capacity for empathy for characters who are easy to write off? And at what point does that stop? Where do you draw the line? I spoke a lot about that in auditions because I felt it was really integral, and if the actors didn't get on board with it, then early on we might have problems.

This is a slight digression, but I think a helpful note for directing. I remember going to a workshop with Carrie Cracknell very early on, and she said ‘as a director, if something goes wrong, it’s on you’. You have to be confident enough to take responsibility on in the process – you oversaw the design, the casting, everything. You have to take responsibility for things going wrong and also being comfortable speaking out and collaborating.

So, that was a long answer(!), but, essentially do loads of preparation but then forget about it, trust the actor's instinct and yet hope that you can guide the whole team towards your overall vision, whilst giving them the space and autonomy to do their job– ha!

What are your favourite plays/shows you’ve seen?

You should all watch the Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Hamlet, just because it's incredible. I also loved As You Like It at The Globe in 2012 – it was done by a Georgian company - it was really charming. You can watch it online.  

I have a list somewhere of my favourites, but those are the ones that come to mind immediately. Oh, Girls and Boys by Dennis Kelly was sensational, with Carey Mulligan. Umm. Blackwatch. Laura Wade and Lucy Prebble I love.

What would be your advice for audition nerves?

I think breathe – try and let the meeting go at your own tempo. It’s unfair, perhaps, for me to say as I talk so fast, but I do try and slow down. So make sure you slow down as well – it makes the room feel safe, and calm. Maybe try have a quick chat when you first get there – even just chatting about your journey, or something good you’ve seen recently. We're all just humans, after all. Even Rufus Norris is in lockdown!

And remember, a director wants to cast you as much as you want to be cast. You can solve a problem for them! It's not as much of an inbalanced relationship as it might appear. They're probably thinking “we’re about to do this play and we're not going  to find someone for this part!”.

What is your process of putting the vision of the show from your mind onto the stage?

I work with really good collaborators who can translate what I think into a reality, and make it better because they know more than me! With set and lighting designers,  I try and put together Pinterest-style boards of things that really speak to me and show these to collaborators where we first meet. And I’m always excited to hear what they’ve got to say.

What is the most unexpected lesson you've learned working on a show?
 
You learn a lot from your mistakes as a director. I learnt that every actor is different, every relationship you have is different, every play is different. It's about being flexible.

I think the most unexpected lesson is probably just about trusting your gut – if you have that twinge of doubt, it will almost definitely grow massively over the course of the project. And with casting – it's so vital. I think as director sometimes we can be naïve - we might have heard that actor X is tricky, but we'll be convinced that I (ME!) are the director to make it work. And then it isn't, and you realise it was arrogant of you to disregard your instincts and the advice.
You just want a bunch of legends – then it feels like a collaboration you can enjoy being a part of.

Actually, the other unexpected thing is that, what with directing being a solitary game, with you caring about the project from the get-go, witnessing a creative team and cast gradually take the piece on, run with it, caring about it as much as you do, that's unexpected and inspiring and humbling and joyful.

When approaching a well-known text, do you actively try to find a new way to approach it?

I've not done that many super well known texts yet, but on any play, old or new,  you are always going to have your own approach to it. By definition of you being unique. So -  if you can clear away all the stuff that you think you know about it from the performance history, and just try and read the play fresh, then the questions (and answers) that come forth will be unique, and lead to something new.

I think it’s a danger to say, “I as a director have got to bring something new to this”, because you can end up with gimmicky work - “it's Hamlet, but on a speedboat!” Perhaps it's better to explore how the play speaks to you as an artist - “what is it doing to me, and what can I bring to this?”. You as a human being will always have something unique to say, because you are a unique human being (as we all are).

So then, for example, if you're doing Hamlet, you've firstly got to imagine  what it would have been to see it originally, in the 1600s, just to try to get close to what the original impulse was. You might later choose to go against this, but I think you need to be as clear as you can about what it was. Because, then, that'll help you understand how the play might have originally worked. Once you've done this, you'll have lots of questions  - if it's (for you) a play about grief, well, the ghost could literally be on stage throughout, wordlessly, ominously haunting the action and Hamlet, so he can never get over his dad.

But the questions you ask about the play will also be unique to you. The important thing to remember, I think, probably is: whilst we think we know the stories of classic plays very well now, the audience originally didn't. Just as in a new play, which you don't how it will end, what can you do to make the play to feel unexpected. How can you take it off the traintracks?  You've got to treat each play as though it was written yesterday, and that the audience don't know what’s going to happen. And maybe that in 'this' production, something might be different this time. You just try and make everything fresh and unexpected and inventive as a result.
So no, I don't think about actively trying to find a new way; I trust new readings will come out naturally, by definition, because you'll all be a new set of eyes working together in that moment. And hopefully something fresh will emerge.