Overcoming artistic ‘burnout’ by Russ Hope

Russ HopeForging 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.

Great Expectations - Great Expectations

Rehearsing Great Expectations, directed by Nikolai Foster (Chapter 4)

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.

Getting Directions - rehearsal shots

The rehearsal room for Dick Whittington and his Cat directed by Steve Marmion (Chapter 2)

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.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Natalie Abrahami for Headlong (Chapter 3)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Natalie Abrahami for Headlong (Chapter 3)

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 by Russ Hope (£12.99)

Getting Directions by Russ Hope (£12.99)

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.

NHB are thrilled to have just published Russ Hope’s Getting Directions. To order your copy with 20% off click here – no voucher code required.

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THE GOD OF SOHO Special: with director Raz Shaw

Raz Shaw, director of The God of Soho

Raz Shaw, director of The God of Soho

In part two of our special feature on The God of Soho, director Raz Shaw tells us what it was like bringing Chris Hannan’s wild and raucous script to life for Shakespeare’s Globe.

You have previously directed productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet for the Shakespeare’s Globe, but this is your first contemporary play. How did you come to direct The God of Soho for the Globe’s distinctive space?

Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe phoned me up in November last year. He sent me Chris’s treatment version, which was gloriously mad – it made wonderful sense and at the same time didn’t make any sense. It was brave and courageous and rude, and funny and moving – and yet, in some ways, indecipherable. I thought there was so much in it, it was bursting at the seams. I had no idea what the end result might be, but there was something about it that was intriguing, exciting, unique and scary. And I only like to do work that scares me or there’s no point, I think.

'The God of Soho' Rehearsal Shot

Iris Roberts (Clem). Photo: Simon Kane

What has proven the biggest challenge, or surprise, in bringing the script to life for the first time?

I’ve discovered that doing a new play at the Globe means two things. One, you have to be very respectful to the author’s words. And two, you have to embrace the Globe in all its forms. Sometimes that means you need to direct a scene in a slightly different way, from how you might have done had it been indoors in a ‘conventional’ theatre. I think that what the Globe gives any play, especially a new play, is an extra resonance and relevance because it reaches out immediately to the audience, and the audience responds right there in the moment. In a really positive way, we hear the words more, we feel the emotions more and we listen to the story of the play more. So for me, the biggest challenge has been to imagine where it needs to sit – how it can resonate best in the Globe. I think the biggest surprise to me is that despite its huge moments – very funny moments, rude moments, very sexy moments – it’s actually about tiny emotional details. The story of the play is very real, it has three very real love stories; the biggest challenge is to make sure we focus on that and at the same time allow it to breathe in a theatre the size and style of the Globe.

With its large cast, sharp topicality and brash language, do you imagine that The God of Soho will be a popular choice for amateur performance in the future?

I do! It’ll be a fun journey to take. There are eleven actors in our cast, with two what are called ‘supernumerary actors’, who only come in for the final rehearsals and do simple, non-acting things, like opening doors and all that kind of stuff – but still feel part of the cast. With thirteen actors, and seven in the band, there are over 120 costumes in this show, as there are actually loads of characters.

The God of Soho: trailer image

Click to view The God of Soho trailer

Part of the fun of doing a play with loads of roles is that all the actors can have a main character, and then they can all kind of let go and have mini-characters too. For instance, there’s a song in the play called ‘Sexier than Sex’, which is very rude. It’s about the Goddess of Love’s journey into King’s Cross and Soho for the first time, and she’s looking for something to hold onto because she’s been rejected by her lover in heaven. One of the things she is hoping to find out is what sex is on Earth. The song is quite vulgar, and requires an assortment of characters from the sex trade, from prostitutes onwards, and would certainly be lots of fun for amateur performers.  Almost every single one of those little parts has something about it that would make it unique and fun to play. Even if those parts don’t have many lines, they certainly have some memorable moments.

Chris Hannan’s new playThe God of Soho – opens tonight (27 August) at Shakespeare’s Globe, running till 30 September. Click here to purchase tickets. NHB are proud to publish the playscript alongside this production – to order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).

The God of Soho: jacket

The God of Soho by Chris Hannan (£9.99)

*The God of Soho ticket + drink offer!*
A Yard ticket & a Post-Show Cocktail for just £10 when booking directly through the venue. Use the code ‘pcdsftw’ or quote ‘Something for the Weekend’ when calling the Shakespeare’s Globe box office on 020 7401 9919. Cannot be claimed retrospectively. Usual terms and conditions apply. Purchasers must be over the age of 18. Please note Yard tickets are standing only, but have the best view of the stage.