Theatre in Wales

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Autumn Theatre Book- Lively Study of Eight Directors

Theatre Director Book

Russ Hope , Nick Hern Books , November 8, 2012
Theatre Director Book by Russ Hope Three virtues run through this book. They are the attentiveness of the close-up view, the enthusiasm and the sense of authorial modesty. Russ Hope opens in 2005. He is crouching in a university lighting gantry. Peter Brook is visiting and rehearsing, near incomprehensibly, far below with a single actor. It is a nice start for this study, subtitled “A Fly-on-the-Wall Guide for Emerging Theatre Directors.”

Hope steps down from his gantry to witness eight pieces of theatre in the making. The companies range from the well-established- the Globe and Young Vic- to the small and feisty in the form of Bristol’s Action Hero.

Hope captures the principles that underlie directors’ work. Matthew Dunster sends a note to his “Troilus and Cressida” cast: “My rules on approaching anything are simple: CLARITY-STORY-DRAMATIC EFFECTIVENESS. I want it to be clear and exciting.” By six pm on the rehearsal’s first day the company knows how the production looks and feels. Nikolai Foster has learnt it is best to absorb the script thoroughly before rehearsal: “I want to be intuitive and open to what’s going on….observing and working in the moment.” Joe Hill-Gibbins works with his designer before rehearsal “building up and tearing down sets from whatever objects are nearby”.

Fight director Kevin McCurdy starts by teaching baby steps for the use of swords on stage. “Go slower, slower; slower is better” is his mantra. There is all the difference in the world between a character storming out of a door that is three feet away and one that is twenty feet away. Early blocking is ill-advised. Directing, says Joe Hill-Gibbons, is “really about getting actors to move and explore ways of expressing thoughts and feelings.” Poetry, says Matthew Dunster, takes care of itself when the meaning is clear to the speaker. It is all in the text , not in historical context or biographical detail.

The directors are constantly attentive to the world they serve. Steve Marmion listens hard to his audience. A pun on Rodgers and Hammerstein- “Salmon-chanting evening- dies on stage. Dominic Dromgoole says it is the nature of the Globe that it needs “big lungs, big action, big thoughts.” Hope’s epilogue includes a paragraph headed “Intelligent isn’t enough” Matthew Dunster: “there is only one kind of director to aspire to be, which is an audience’s director.”

“Getting Directions” runs down slightly towards its end. OperaUpClose became resident company at Islington’s King’s Head in 2010. The venue has achieved a remarkable re-invention as an alternative opera venue- it was host to Dic Edwards’ “Manifest Destiny”. The short chapter on “Don Giovanni” lacks the confidence of earlier chapters. It is a debatable view that “opera is widely considered ossified”. Should the author take the Euston to Newtown train any September he would see the opposite. His slight discomfort can be seen in a sentence like “Opera is hard going on the voice (infamously so.”) In place of the attentive eye and ear he tells us he is wearing jeans and t-shirt and holding a glass of beer.

This is the first book by Russ Hope and he would have benefited from a stronger editor. An index would be useful. It is admittedly addressed to the emergent director but the odd piece of jargon like “god mic” would be better offloaded to attract the general reader. OperaUpClose is declared to be “unfunded”. Not so; it is funded by someone. The invoices have to be paid.

Stylistically, the writing has a habit of “putting” redundant inverted commas around normal language; thus “unhinge” the whole aesthetic, a production has a “big idea”, the audience sees Pip “lose” Estella, opera is contrasted with “straight theatre”. One sentence piles up an indigestible seventy-three words.“For he” grates. “Enormity” is used wrongly on several occasions. Although it is acquiring undertones of size its meaning is wickedness. Simon Stephens’ contribution to a pantomime is called an examination with “forensic detail.” No, a playwright does not apply forensics to his craft.

These are irregularities in a book with a distinctive content. It is not the last word on directing but complements the different approaches in the recent books of John Caird and Katie Mitchell. Hope has seen the director, not profiled here, who knows he is the smartest person in the room. He has seen a production with no centre from a director who is fearful of his players. These are not the artists he observes in “Getting Directions”.

They work in a profession where there are not enough jobs. There is never enough money. “Unless you need to go into theatre, don’t” says Steve Marmion “because you will wonder why you didn’t choose to lose your mind for something else.” Hope closes with a beautiful metaphor of the nickel of theatre beneath the gold. “But either you fall in love with the nickel underneath, or you do something else. That is the difference between infatuation and love.” His last words “Now go make something.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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