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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Spotlight: LONDON VIA LAGOS – a festival of vibrant new plays linking Nigeria and the UK, at Oval House Theatre

London Via Lagos festival logoThe London via Lagos festival at Oval House Theatre in Kennington, running until 10 July, celebrates contemporary British Nigerian playwriting with two exciting new plays by Arinze Kene and Lydia Adetunji. Here, exclusively for the NHB blog, the authors tell us about what inspired them, and how they went about writing their plays.

Arinze Kene: on Little Baby Jesus

I would describe Little Baby Jesus as an original narrative through the eyes of ‘young London’. It’s about three inner-city teenagers. It has three separate timelines, which all start to intertwine and come together as we discover our three main characters have a lot more in common than was originally apparent.Little Baby Jesus jacket

‘Identity’ was a big theme that kept coming up in the rehearsal room – ‘identity’ and ‘individuality’. All the characters in the play are struggling to find themselves. By the end of the play, they are very different people from when they started out on their journey.

For me, growing up was all a battle between who I was inside and who I thought I should be – in order to fit in. It went from the trainers I wore right down to the type of girls I was meant to fancy (In Little Baby Jesus, in Kehinde’s case, it’s mixed-race girls, or ‘mixed-race-girl syndrome’). I dumbed myself down a lot to fit in, and don’t believe I gave up the front until after my teens – luckily there was still enough ‘me’ left to salvage.

Here’s a line that came up in rehearsal on ‘not being yourself’: you can front all you want but eventually you’ll crash and burn’.

Akemnji Ndifernyen (Rugrat)

Akemnji Ndifernyen (Rugrat) in rehearsal for Little Baby Jesus. Photo by Robert Day

So Little Baby Jesus looks at the inciting incidents which force our characters to grow up and not shy away from being themselves.

The idea for the play first originated as a poem in 2006, before I began writing plays. It’s inspired by a school trip, a pilgrimage that I went on when I was 14. We were on a long ‘religious walk’ (a compulsory outing at my Roman Catholic secondary school) and I and my two friends got lost. I always wanted to write about it and firstly it came out as a RAP (Rhythm And Poetry) – “lost on a pilgrimage, yet attaining the virtues of a pilgrim”. Then, in 2009, I was assisting with a workshop at the Young Vic, working with youths from pupil referral units, and the consistencies of the workshop disturbed the “quicksand part of my mind” and the idea came to the surface. Every evening after the workshop, I’d walk to the South Bank and write for about three hours, then get home and scribe for another two. It literally poured out of me. I had things I was meant to be doing but I was a slave to the idea. In the summer of 2010 I went to Paris for a week to finish writing the play (I ♥ Paris). I’d sit outside a café and spend 30 minutes people watching, then 10 minutes writing – repeating this all day for a week. In the evenings, I’d go out to a hip hop club, or have drinks with friends – just so’s I could detach myself from it and come back fresh the next day with a new look. I finished writing it in Paris, but it went through some more drafts after that.

Seroca Davis (Joanne) & Fiston Barek (Kehinde) in rehearsals for Little Baby Jesus

Seroca Davis (Joanne) & Fiston Barek (Kehinde). Photo by Robert Day

Before I wrote plays I was into live music. I still am. Music is my first love and is an inspiration behind a lot of my ideas. There’s often something light playing in the background while I’m writing. I love listening to Terence Blanchard or Tania Maria when I’m writing dialogue. I feel like my writing is poetic and rhythmic because of this. I also listen to a lot of hip hop and love the wordplay. I read Langston Hughes poems over and over again. I’m also a fan of A. Van Jordan. I think this is what gives me my edge.

I would say that this is the first thing I’ve written that I really love through and through. It’s so inspired by things that I went through when I was growing up that certain parts make me feel uncomfortable and others will never stop making me laugh. I’m happy to share these ‘inside jokes’ and such.

Fixer image by Chris Hondros

'Fixer' – photo by Chris Hondros, photojournalist, 14 March 1970 – 20 April 2011.

Lydia Adetunji: on Fixer

The central character in Fixer is Chuks, a Nigerian man who works as a go-between for foreign journalists who come to the country in search of a story. At the start of the play, a militant group has attacked a new oil pipeline, and Chuks becomes entangled in the competing demands of the militants and the reporters who are there to cover the story. It’s about Chuks’ personal dilemma, but takes in themes like corruption and how far people will go to compromise their principles.

Fixer started as a short play that won the Almeida Theatre’s WRITE competition in 2006, when it was not much more than a few scenes where a couple of journalists try to buy up a fixer. That evolved into something that brought together various interests – I’d spent time in Nigeria as a child and wanted to explore the struggles of everyday life there. And having worked in journalism I was interested in the role of fixers in getting news stories. An early version of Fixer played at the HighTide theatre festival in 2008, and since then the emphasis of the play has shifted more strongly onto Chuks and his dilemma.

My years working as a journalist have definitely shaped the way I work, which tends to be quite research intensive. But it has also influenced the themes I gravitate to – those points where cultures collide in an increasingly globalised world, and why systems work the way they do. I think many of the ideas in Fixer have significance beyond Nigeria – it explores how people are buffeted by interconnected forces far outside their control. But drama and characters come first, and I do want the audience to be entertained as well as stimulated. Fixer jacket

Oval House Theatre, BEcreative and Spora Stories present London Via Lagos – a festival of new British-Nigerian plays, celebrating the work of African-heritage, UK-based, world-class playwrights. Little Baby Jesus is playing to 15 June, and Fixer from 21 June – 10 July at Oval House, south London. For 2-for-1 tickets to see Fixer between 24 – 30 June, use the promotional code JOURNALIST when booking online or by phone (Tel: 020 7582 7680) through the venue.

Nick Hern Books proudly publish the playscript for Arinze Kene’s Little Baby Jesus and Lydia Adetunji’s Fixer. To purchase your copies with free P&P (UK customers only) click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout.

And for the chance to win a pair of tickets to see one of the plays, enter our May 2011 newsletter competition by clicking here!

A double-dose of fun: revisiting VERNON GOD LITTLE

Jacket image: Vernon God Little (new edition)

Vernon God Little (new edition) by Tanya Ronder

Playwright Tanya Ronder sheds light on the experience of reworking her 2007 adaptation of Vernon God Little, the Booker Prize-winning novel by DBC Pierre, for the Young Vic’s fortieth anniversary season.

When the idea was proposed of redoing Vernon God Little at the Young Vic, it took precisely one second to be 150% behind the idea. The whole creative team and cast had fallen in love with the project the first time round. As a book it has everything – grotesquely funny characters, an insane but almost believable plot, and a beating heart at the centre of it, born from such depth and emotional intelligence, it’s startling. The politics, the philosophy, the comment on our current world and the sheer, vivid joy of trying to stage it was a theatrical combination which captivated us all.

So where’s the rub? Delivering, of course, the second time around; stepping up to the block, having worked at all those improvements we ‘knew’ needed to happen at the end of the previous run. As at the end of any run, we came away thinking, ‘Ah, now we understand what it needs…’ ha, ha. So, firstly, I set about reducing it by 10 per cent; I used to cringe throughout the whole first act’s last incarnation, knowing there was too much in there, too many characters, too much plot. The task was to reduce the foliage without cutting off the path of any vital sap.

Vernon God Little at Young Vic, 2011

Daniel Cerqueira (left), Joseph Drake (centre) and Nathan Osgood (right) in Vernon God Little. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Then the major, tonal task of the whole piece was to adjust the balance of satire and tragedy – a line which DBC Pierre treads so breathtakingly well in the book. But, we are in Vernon’s head on the page, with him every step of the way, so the appalling horror and loss which underpins it all is never far from us. Trying to reduce the to-audience stuff (another note to self) but upping the emotional stakes was the key challenge. One of the things we had set out to do in the first incarnation, intended until the last minute, was to have the ghost of Jesus, Vernon’s best friend who has just killed all their classmates, on stage. However, we simply didn’t find the right actor back then, and decided to cut our losses and put him on film instead. This time, we started the hunt earlier, and we weren’t going to give up.

The other thing we wanted to do was to celebrate the musical numbers in it even more. We had Country and Western music threaded throughout, but this time we set out to find an entire cast who could sing, so that we could boost every number almost to the level of a musical. Then I wanted to clean-up all the story arcs, make them more archetypal, firm up the back stories, help the audience pick their way through the glorious chaos of characters and places Vernon bounces through.

Vernon God Little at Young Vic, 2011

Lily James (Taylor) and Joseph Drake (Vernon) in Vernon God Little. Photograph: Johan Persson

Result of all these intentions? I have never been so nervous at any first preview. Despite the beautiful final rehearsal-room run, the bar felt higher than ever. It wasn’t as if we’d cocked it up the first time – what were we doing, unpicking it all? Ugh. That first preview felt, to me, less clear, more confusing, less vivid, than it ever had before! But of course my memory was of a highly evolved show from 2007, when the actors had been pacing it up and finding their lights and moments with the great skill and dexterity which they each brought to it. I had to stand back for a few days and let the team do their extraordinary preview work (as well as a bit of re-writing along the way to help clarity…). Several previews later and press night come and gone, I now feel very proud of the work. I’m as in love with it as I ever was, and when there’s an audience full of youngsters in there, the place rocks. I feel unimaginably lucky to have had the chance all over again to paint this distinct canvas with DBC’s extraordinary words and world.

Vernon God Little is currently playing to March 12th 2011 at the Young Vic, London. To purchase a copy of the new edition script (£9.99) click here.