Forging a career in theatre directing is no mean feat, and for every director who reaches the peaks of success, there are many burnt-out casualties littered along the roadside. In an aim to avoid his own creative burnout, Russ Hope shadowed eight of the UK’s most exciting young theatre directors, with unprecedented access to that most mysterious and alchemical of places: the rehearsal room. His new book, Getting Directions, records the processes, practices and personalities he encountered, and suggests how other emerging theatremakers can avoid their own artistic exhaustion.
I am writing this the day after the start of the London 2012 Olympics and I am still in thrall to Danny Boyle’s spectacular Opening Ceremony. In interview, Boyle explained that the performance, which involved 10,000 volunteer performers, would celebrate ‘the best of us’: the formation of the NHS, the importance of ordinary people – factory workers, enlisted soldiers – in shifting the gears of British history, and the power of popular music to unite communities, from rock ’n’ roll to grime. That Boyle’s definition of ‘the best of us’ annoyed a few commentators on the political right may only have made him smile.
But to present an ‘impartial’ view of British history would not only be boring; it would be impossible. Stories are about choices, and staging any event means making a thousand editorial choices, big and small, from what to include and what to remove, to whom to cast and where to place the cameras. Whatever your politics, there is no denying that Danny Boyle is a director who is confident in his aesthetic taste and moral judgment. He wants to affect the audience and holds opinions about his subject matter. These qualities are, I would argue, prerequisites to any claim to being an artist, particularly the latter, without which, one is merely an imitator.
In constructing the ceremony, Boyle embraced in spectacular style the challenges of a particular brief, venue and set of circumstances, forging Olympics rings in the air and depicting the Queen skydiving into the stadium alongside Daniel Craig’s James Bond. Even if the stories are eternal, the toolbox is always specific.
Let us look back a few years. It is the mid-nineties, and Danny Boyle, then a successful theatre director, is preparing his first feature film, Shallow Grave. On the other side of London, I am eight years old and writing my first song, my dad’s acoustic guitar laid flat across my lap. Its opening lines were:
‘Cruisin’ with my baby
Café beside me, maybe
We might stop
For a hamburger today.’
My dad came into the room and, as kindly as he could, suggested that I consider writing about some experience closer to home: I was too young to drive, too young for a romantic relationship, and had never yet called a woman ‘baby’. Aside from its decent effort at scansion, there is little in the song worth saving.
I recall this because, despite the temptation to do so, it would be a mistake to ridicule my past self. At the time I had been listening to The Beach Boys and Chuck Berry, and their style and form had rubbed off on me.When, years later, I shifted my focus away from music and towards the theatre, I began in much the same way, with imitation: watching actors, and dissecting plays and stories with a keen eye.
It is by using theory and practice that we learn how to design any kind of entertainment to fit the unit of time with which we have been entrusted by an audience. With repetition, we gain clarity over the type of work we wish to create, and we develop and enhance the dexterity and lightness of touch it demands of us. With each production, we pre-empt problems that little bit quicker, and solve them with less friction. With some luck, the hit-rate settles into a consistent level.
A career in the theatre, however, holds many dangers. It is a difficult industry in which to make a living: notoriously bleak employment statistics paired with low wages can be offputting at best and crippling at worst. While the internet has arguably democratised music and film, theatre remains a gloriously (and infuriatingly) people- and resource-intensive process. Only a few years out of university, an emerging theatre director might see his or her friends settling into graduate schemes and degree-conversion courses, and wonder whether the obstacles are worth their reward. For these reasons, my passion appeared to burnout some years ago. Occasionally, news of hard-won successes would reach me through texts or chats or Facebook, but each week I would hear too that some friend or acquaintance was moving on.
We burnout because we have lost sight of what we want for ourselves, or because the reasons that brought us to this career no longer reflect who we have become. There are a few options in such a scenario. In my case, I decided to take a sabbatical. I swore off theatre for six months, refocusing the use of my time to books, friends and cooking. When I was ready to re-enter the world, I emailed Matthew Dunster, a director I admired, to ask if it might be possible to shadow him for the duration of a production upon which he was about to embark. Matthew was gracious with his time, granting me full access to the production, all the way from its inception through production meetings and rehearsals and performance through observation and hours of one-on-one interviews.
Following this, I posed the same question to other directors, and soon I had gathered enough material and experience to formulate an idea using my observations of directors at work.
Getting Directions, the resulting book, grants unprecedented access to the rehearsal rooms and thinking styles of some of our most brilliant young directors, revealing some of the most diverse approaches to directing being used today. The directors involved are very different people, but I believe there are strong similarities in how they conceptualise their work and communicate with their teams, and in how seriously they take their responsibilities as both managers and as artists, making sense of their place within an industry and having something unique to say about the world.
The productions featured are nothing so grand as an Olympic Opening Ceremony, but they display similar levels of drama and diversity: Greek tragedy at the Gate; Tennessee Williams at the Young Vic; panto at the Lyric Hammersmith and a touring Dickens dramatisation to pick out a few. One of the book’s aims is to prevent creative burn-out by encouraging readers to consider adjusting their focus and ask new questions of texts, of companies and of people, most importantly themselves. It is a book about creative relationships, principles with which to approach problems, and good judgment.
Getting Directions does not promise quick fixes, but if you’re new to theatre, it could help you get your head straight in a challenging arena. If you have been around for a while, it may help you adjust your posture, reassess your motives, and teach you some new tricks along the way.