I’m Tom Littler, I’m a freelance director and I’m also the Artistic Director and Executive Producer of Jermyn Street Theatre, which is just down the road from TRH, one of our closest neighbours. I arrived at Jermyn Street in 2017, and at that point it had been a receiving house for a very long time, which means it was a theatre where other people would bring their shows and rent it. In 2017, we changed and became a Producing theatre - we finance and creatively produce all the work that we stage in one way or another - we often collaborate with other regional theatres & companies.
Before Jermyn Street, I spent a year doing a Masters degree at the University of Cambridge – it was a total change and a lovely new adventure. It has taken me onto a side career of doing some teaching, but theatre is 90% of my work. Before that, I was associate director at theatre 503, a brilliant new writing theatre in Battersea - I would recommend everyone to get to know it & their amazing work.
I spent most of my 20s as a freelance director with varying degrees of success - I had a handful of years that went really well, but also some when I felt like I could never get a job. There were some very encouraging and exciting bits, and some very bleak bits. But overall, it was a very happy time where I worked all over Europe as well, which felt like a great privilege. During that period, I was also running a production company where a couple of times a year I would produce & direct shows that would be in theatres like the Arcola, Finborough and Jermyn street, where I am now.
At the beginning of my career I was an assistant and an associate to a whole variety of directors, mostly in the commercial theatre - West End and touring. I suppose the three main figures I spent lots of time working for were Alan Strachan, Trevor Nunn and Peter Hall – he gave me the most of my early work.
Even further back, I did an English degree. I come from Devon, and I don’t come from a ‘theatre family’ - theatre was something that came later in my teenage years, and I explored at University. It was a great opportunity to make lots of big plays without having to pay the actors!
How do I get into Artistic Directing? Where should I start?
I would speak to people who are already in those types of jobs and see if you can find out more about it – if you’re an actor/director you will (hopefully) have been working in theatres that have them, although every building is different and every company is different. See if you can go to these people and offer them a coffee, and they would probably be very willing to chat to you.
Could you elaborate on the difference between being a Director and an Artistic Director? What are the skills you’d need to develop?
They are really different skills. I would say as a director you’re looking after your rehearsal room, you’re planning, you’re focussed on one project at a time – what's right in front of you. As an Artistic Director, you’re probably doing that too, but you're also thinking far far far ahead - about the next season and the season after that. You’re having to split your brain into different bits. You’re also thinking about the commercial viability of everything you’re doing, the marketing, the fundraising, are your staff okay, you’re thinking about the building. I mean now at Jermyn Street it’s flooded (although the water’s now gone, thank goodness). That being said, lots of those skills you’d develop from being a director in a room, the skills you’d deploy in say a technical rehearsal – looking after lots of things at the same time, these skills are transferable.
What methods and processes do you like to use as a director?
I guess that you might think of me as an “actors’ director” maybe, I like my process to be quite light - I think rehearsal rooms should be very safe, playful, and really fun. I don’t do very much by way of exercises or games, I think a lot of actors really benefit from getting on their feet, not spending too much time sat round a table analysing the text. I think when you have a strict process, it can work very well if there’s a particular kind of work you want to make. But for many actors, they will have come from all kinds of different backgrounds, they will have all different types of training. For lots of people, the sooner the actors are working practically, that’s when they start to relax. Your biggest enemy creatively in a rehearsal room is fear. The idea of being exposed on stage is a really frightening place to be. A huge amount of our job as directors is to make failure feel like its banished territory - it’s a word that doesn’t really matter. You need to be able to hold your actors in a place where they feel like you know they are excellent. You want everyone to have a lot of fun and laughter - actors will put plenty of pressure on themselves without you adding lots of pressure too!
If you want a kind of roadmap of what I do in rehearsals - I would stage the play really early on. If I have four weeks (which would be a nice longish period), I’d stage it in the first week or two, scene by scene - I always work in order. I would, at the beginning, spend a few days sitting talking, then quite quickly get working practically, adding on a little more detail each time. Scripts go down around halfway through the process. Designers then come in more frequently, and I tend to focus them more on joining one scene to the next, which needs solving early on in the process to get some flow, so the production isn’t getting in the way of the actors. I would say it’s the same for all types of theatre I do - although there's differences between rehearsing a new play and something that’s 400 years old.
What advice would you give to people seeking to become an assistant director? Has the process changed?
Yes, it has changed – there are a lot more people wanting to be directors now than there were 15yrs ago when I was starting out. I suppose that’s a compliment to the industry that more people are seeing directors' roles and wanting to pursue it, but I also think the industry is broadening out what a director might look like. I guess in many ways I tick the boxes for what a “traditional” director might have looked like - white, male, went to a university. I think that very old-fashioned notion is hopefully being expanded and fractured and many more people are moving into directing. Don’t get me wrong, there have always been lots of female directors and directors of colour, but I think it is becoming a much more diverse profession, which has upped the quality of what we’re making as an industry and creating a much greater range of work.
There are a lot more schemes for people who want to be a director now, there are more training courses. I think when I started there was RADA or LAMDA, with 2 places each! Now there's lots of courses you could go on if you wanted to become a director. I am 50/50 on whether that is the right way in – of course there are brilliant courses, but they're also very expensive, and many people report that the very best thing about those courses is that they give you very practical, live experiences. So, if you can find a way of finding people who will give you chances to observe their rehearsals or to assist them, you might well be able to construct training for yourself which is just as good a course. If you’re already an actor, you might have gained a lot of the experience anyway, just by being in those rooms - it’s about spending time in rehearsal rooms, observing what works and doesn’t, what works for you, what you really admire, the kinds of moments in rehearsals when you can see a director has managed to help an actor make a breakthrough.
Advice for someone from abroad looking to relocate and work in the UK?
It so depends on your experience level and who you may have met so far, if you already know anyone who is working in the UK – it is very crowded, there are lots of people trying to do a relatively stable number of jobs. It’s not a secure profession – everyone has ups and downs, times that go well and times that are challenging. Seek out the artists that you admire, find those people and try and have a virtual coffee with them, so if you were to relocate here, they are willing to support you and they could give you introductions to the next load of people. It’s almost like a family. If you can stay loyal, working in circles of people who like your work and stay with people who can help you throughout your work, those rewards will come.
What was it like assisting directors like Trevor Nunn and Peter Hall earlier on in your career?
I assisted Peter when I was ridiculously young – he had a reputation for taking chances on young people, I worked on and off for him for 3 years. He was my chief mentor. He was someone who placed an astonishing amount of trust in people. With his assistants at Theatre Royal Bath, he ran two rehearsals room at once. He would have two plays that would run in repertory with each other, and he would have an assistant director in each, and go between the two rooms. He’d give you a chunk, maybe a scene or two to rehearse, and you’d just get on with it! Often with hugely successful actors. It was a dream apprenticeship that I will be grateful for my entire life. Being given that much trust but also the permission to get it wrong is an incredible thing. Also, I was working with these amazing actors at the top of their game who were willing to put up with a twenty something in the directing chair! I got so lucky.
When I went to work with Trevor it was a lot more musicals, although we did a play (Flare Path) at the Haymarket. They were often much bigger shows than I had done with Peter, and my job was often more technical, bringing different elements of the production together to make sure everything was working in harmony together. Musicals is a very different world from plays!
What were the differences going from running a theatre company to running a producing theatre?
I would say for me, when I was running a Production company, that company was mainly to facilitate my work as a director. So I had a responsibility to look after the artists in the room with me (actors, designers etc), but it didn’t particularly go beyond that. I also only had a responsibility to the audience seeing my show – you just make the best show you can and hope you sell enough tickets.
When you’re running a producing theatre it’s quite different - you’re trying to enable, encourage and develop the work of hundreds of artists across the board. You're also thinking really carefully about your audience, what they like or don’t like - they will tell you. You have a really direct relationship with them. If you're a regular audience member you have a kind of ‘stakeholding’ in a building. If you programme lots of things they don’t like, they might not come back. Audiences very much associate everything that happens within the building as your ownership – that’s why I wanted Jermyn Street to be a producing theatre when I came in. I felt there’s no point only having two shows a year that we poured our heart into, if the rest of the season might not reflect our values and the kind of work we’re really wanting to make.
Your theatre needs to have range, it can’t all be the same. If you like the work of a particular playwright you can’t just programme that work back to back. You can let your interests show, you can try and take the audience on a bit of a journey through playwrights or directors you think they’ll enjoy, but it has to be a meeting of your audience and your personal taste.
Can you describe your ideal post-Covid theatre industry? How can we positively come out of this?
It’s a massive question. There will be lots of questions to answer, quite apart from whether we can do social distancing or do safe theatre – but let's say in a year’s time, or once we’re back to ‘normal’, we're going to need a lot of government support to get back on our feet in a healthy way. We’re going to need that support to get into regional theatres. During the last recession, a lot of the Arts Council grants did stay relatively stable, but the local council grants for regional theatres were cut. That support needs to find its way to regional artists, and to offering cheap tickets, making theatre accessible.
How often do you programme classical work i.e Greek tragedies? Do you think there is the audience for it?
I’ve directed Antigone – I’d love to programme some Greek tragedies for Jermyn Street. You’d need to find a way of doing them convincingly in a small space, you’d need a theatrical language that made it compelling in that format - we only have 70 seats. Greek tragedies are written for these huge audiences, so you’d need to find the right way of doing it.
Could you talk a bit more about the difference between receiving and producing theatres and how that impacts new playwrights?
A receiving house won’t ‘programme’ your work as it sits and waits for the work to come to it – that applies to quite a lot of theatres dotted up and down the country and quite a lot of the theatres in the West End. They’re waiting for a producer to come to them with a show that they are taking on national tour. They will do a commercial deal to cover their costs. Producing theatres might or might not programme your work – based on their programming, money etc. Some theatres are much more open to new work – places like the Royal Court or Theatre 503 are mainly new work, at Jermyn Street we do 50/50% new work.
What are the main differences between directing musicals and plays?
Musical are much bigger and take so much longer. When I started working musicals, I couldn’t believe how much longer everything took. You rehearse the book scenes (talking bits) in a few minutes, and then hand over to your musical director and choreographer for the song and dance numbers. Then it might take them a day to do the first sketches of two minutes of song – music and dance just takes such a long time. As a director of a musical you’re often a bit further from the detail. You’re often overseeing, managing, looking after your team of creatives, making sure they’re all telling the same story. My contribution might be to watch everyone else’s work and saying ‘I love this this and this, can it tell better the story of how this character is at a turning point in her life?’ and then they have to go away and do it, refine it. If I’m directing a play, my communication is going to be much more intimate.
What advice would you give an actor who would love to work with you? Is it a bit out of place to get in contact directly – Do I ask my agent to put me forward?
I would say, in a way its proportional to how busy the director is. When I was younger and maybe I didn’t have much work, I would love when actors wrote to me and I would often have time to write back, go and see them in shows – but the brutal truth is, when you begin running a building, your days are already 14 hours long. You do become less accessible. It is very difficult for everyone – it’s hard for people to get to you, but it’s difficult because it makes you feel a bit rubbish about yourself, and your ability to support people – it’s not how you wanted to be. You thought you’d be able to respond to every email in a detailed way, but that’s just too hard.
I would say the more specific the ask, the better. It’s lovely to hear from you if you want to work with me, but I can’t really do much with an email saying that - you would be best to write with a specific request if you hear something is being cast currently, or it might be better to reach out to a casting director directly – they should be more accessible. As a director it’s always lovely if people have seen your work – you can’t help but be biased by it!
I loved Alls Well That End’s Well. Did you approach it with the concept already formed or was it something you were able to experiment with and find within the room?
So for those of you who didn’t see it, Alls Well That End’s Well is a Shakespeare - we gave it quite a big framing device, a lot of music with two pianos onstage – it took you into a dreamy, memory-play vibe. Yes, we did have the concept first. It took a lot of preparation to get to that point - it doesn’t mean we didn't find loads in the room - for example we hadn’t decided which songs/music we’d choose. With a Shakespeare I always cut the script first, in advance – I’m doing one next year (I think!) and I’m already working with the script. It takes a lot of preparation. As a director, the better you know the script and the world of it, the freer you can be in the room. You might think it would limit you but it doesn’t, it sets you free.
Is there anything you would love to see from artists during lockdown? How can we be proactive in this weird time?
I think it’s one of the most creative times, if you’re not preoccupied – you can daydream. You can watch loads of stuff, read loads of stuff – music, dance, arts, ballet, theatre. There will never be so much online again for free – If you’re in the mood for it, it’s a wonderful way to broaden your artistic horizons. You can never be too greedy as an artist or director to soak up all those influences! At some point it will enrich your work.
If you want to be really proactive, you can join play reading groups, set yourself reading challenges, make sure you have loads of pitches ready under your belt so you’re ready to go when the theatres reopen. With that said - whilst it might look like the most proactive way to be, it might not be the healthiest – it’s totally fine to take your foot off the pedal. No-one knows when we’re going to reopen right now. If you want to use the time to daydream, just to read and to watch – those things are extremely good for you.
What do you think what might be programmed in theatres post-lockdown?
If there’s a recession, which is likely, that will make some theatres (particularly in the commercial sectors) risk adverse. But, the biggest hits are often big risks! The biggest risks are often the most successful shows. Take Cats for example – stupid idea for a musical, massive hit. Les Misérables - take a French novel and make a massively long musical out of it – turns out to be one of the biggest hits.
Great success is normally born of risk. The commercial and subsidized sectors are aware of the importance of taking risks. I don’t believe the warnings that “everyone will just want to watch comedies, with Hollywood stars”. Theatres will continue to take loads of risks, there will be lots of new work.
Of course, it will be a slightly different period, but none of the artistic directors I know is thinking of changing their policies. I don’t think there will be a massive retreat or upheaval.
What do you look for in a script?
In a script that I’m directing, I look for something that takes me to another world. I don’t necessarily want to look at a script which looks like my life or similar to mine – I want to go on a journey. However, I want to relate to the characters. I don’t want to be told what to think, but I want to be asked what to think. I want to be moved; I find it hard to engage with a script if it doesn’t in some way pull on your heartstrings. I want the audience and I to feel like we’ve experienced something with the characters – I want to feel like that could only happen live, through being in the room and sharing that, and it may have changed me in some way – given me a feeling I didn’t quite know I had! I mean that’s a lot to ask for. But it’s really hard to say what makes you like a particular painting or novel etc. It’s really personal.
What advice would you give your younger directing self?
I would tell myself to worry less about getting it right or pleasing anybody else. It took me a long time in my career (it was more things happening in my life!) to not care so much about whether people liked my work or understood it. I think it began when I started making work instinctively, from the heart that I think I became a significantly better director. If you can somehow look over your shoulder less, it’s a great gift to yourself.
I wish I had known that often, really good directors don’t say very much. They support people in the room, and they trust them. They may guide and push ideas. But whenever you’re talking in rehearsals, you might be closing things down as much as you’re opening them up. So be careful.
What is your most unexpected lesson you’ve learnt whilst working on a project?
I think working on Strindberg, where everything happens onstage – he doesn’t care what happens offstage. That flies in the face of everything we were taught on Stanislavski, on how to shape characters. That things are just true when you say them – it’s very confusing at first. It taught me loads about directing a play, but people do often speak before they think. Sometimes weeks sat round a table can be detrimental to the quality and spontaneity of something you make, especially for things pre-1900. The playwrights pre-1900 just don’t think like us - Shakespeare simply doesn’t understand psychology in the way we understand psychology – it's about whether its ‘true’.
Do you think that it’s possible to work across assistant directing for opera, theatre and musicals? Or is it better to focus on one avenue to build your career?
Opera assisting is a specialist job. If you’re keen to get into Opera – just do that. The production will be revived for the next ten, fifteen years - you might be the person who goes and revives it around the world.
It’s less common to revive other directors work in theatre. You can do both – I’d love to do opera but I don’t get asked as much as the moment! I would like to move sideways, and people do move sideways between the two.
Finally, I just want to say, I don’t think there is such a thing as a career ladder or a race in directing - it feels like that early on. But the shape of my career has been completely unpredictable – one thing leads onto another in a totally random way, often there's good bits, bad bits. It’s not that you get a ‘big break’, or that everyone hates your last show and you never work again. The reality is much more chaotic - If you can be loyal to the people who you work with, and people want you back – that is the thing that gives careers longevity, and it feels more rewarding than trying to scale some horrific imaginary ladder that wasn’t there in the first place.