Tag Archive | "Directing"

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Feature: Spotlight on Adam Penford

Posted on 15 April 2014 by Tom Powell

You probably won’t know the name of the director Adam Penford. But it’s pretty likely you or someone you know will see something of his work this year. Because Penford’s productions have that highly coveted attribute – they’re being seen by thousands upon thousands of people. As we speak, his revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1987 hit A Small Family Business is running on the National’s cavernous Olivier stage, and he’s about to commence rehearsing a touring version of One Man Two Guv’nors. Not bad, especially as his route to the metaphorical director’s chair started seemingly by accident: “I’d applied to five English courses, and on a bit of a last minute whim applied to LIPA, the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. I got a place to study acting but as soon as I got there I realised I didn’t want to be an actor.”

We speak on the phone, and he’s unrelentingly warm, personable, and sincerely tries to answer each question. It’s easy to imagine him in a rehearsal room, speaking in the same considered manner. “I knew I wanted to work in theatre, but I didn’t know in what capacity – I knew I didn’t want to work on the technical side, so I suppose that meant I assumed I’d be an actor…” He laughs gently. “I must have been a very very naive 18-year-old because I didn’t really think about what other artistic roles there are.”

Two contrasting experiences of working with professional directors at LIPA – one incredible, one, erm, a bit less so – ignited and then sustained his desire to direct. Which has taken him to where he is now, overseeing Ayckbourn’s ASFB . What’s it like working with the most popular living British playwright?

Penford hesitates for a second. “You get summoned up to Scarborough, where Alan lives, to have lunch – I think all directors who do his work in the UK have to do that – and it’s basically a getting to know you lunch, but you suspect there’s a little bit of sussing out involved.” Enthusiasm gushes from his voice. “But he’s lovely, really lovely.”

It was intimidating, too, to be working on the infamous “arena stage” of the Olivier. “It’s an incredibly hard space to work in. The one thing I held on to was that Alan had specifically written it for the Olivier in 1986/87 so we knew that it had worked. But for a long time I wasn’t sure how. For a time the temptation would be for the actors to play it out – like you would if you’re in the cast of King Lear  – but what we discovered once we’d got on stage with the design was that Alan had been incredibly clever – what he’d essentially done was divided that huge space into little boxes, i.e. rooms in the house and that allows you to play it much more intimately. It took me and the creatives and the actors until we did the tech with the actual set to realise that, of course, Alan knew what he was doing.”

The play is arguably more than a domestic drama – perhaps more than other Ayckbourn plays, ASFB is steeped in its own history. It’s a play about an honest man’s choice between his integrity and protecting his family. The family, of course, are up to their eyeballs in furniture retail – a small family business. Mark Ravenhill called it the most important political play of the 1980s, and as I saw Ayckbourn interviewed on stage at the NT Platform before ASFB, the night before this interview, he’s aware and more than a little proud of how it’s been seen as a response to Thatcherism – to a culture of unfettered greed, selfishness and individualism.

Surely this resonates with the current social and political climate? “I think when Nick [Hytner] programmed it, he was certainly aware of that. You could argue that socially it’s deteriorated or that it’s just become the norm. But more than the sort of headline grabbing stuff, it’s the little things that during rehearsals kind of popped out at us – just on a very personal level – it’s…” Penford pauses to grasp for words, and then gives us his own take: “We’re all primarily programmed to be selfish, because we’re all programmed to survive, and so I think even on a personal level rather than on a big headline level, it remains relevant.”

“But I think, as with most Morality Plays, the issues it raises are timeless. Jack’s choice is between leaving his family vulnerable or taking action, he opts for the latter as I think most people would in theory. And whilst most people would condemn murder or drugs smuggling, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when you as an audience member would have made the opposite choice to Jack. The message of the play is deliberately not as straightforward as some commentators think it is and that is still the case today.”

Depending on where you stand – the stalls or the gods – Ayckbourn is viewed as a national treasure or as a purveyor of middle-brow, middle-class stuff. Penford is firmly in the former camp, and explains the latter as because, “Alan’s work, even the darker stuff, is effortlessly amusing and usually about ordinary people and there is a snobbery around that. Also, there is an idea of tortured artists slaving away for years to achieve their single masterpiece and Alan’s quantity of work (70 something plays) doesn’t fit that image.” He acknowledges that bad productions have taken their toll as well.

His advice for young directors draws directly from his own experience. “The first thing is that there is no set route. Look at any successful director, and they will have a different route.” His own breakthrough came in doing a course at the National Theatre Studio in 2009 – I get the impression that since then he’s been under the wing of Nick Hytner. Penford speaks incredibly warmly of Nick, and of Alan, with much more sincerity than someone who simply knows which way their bread is buttered.

Our time’s up. He’s off. To direct yet another massive play.

Adam Penford will be talking about A Small Family Business at the National Theatre on 15 April at 6pm. A Small Family Business plays at the National Theatre until 27 August. One Man, Two Guv’nors will be touring to over 30 cities in the UK and Ireland and opens in Sheffield in 12 May.

Tom Powell

Tom Powell

Tom's dramatic writing has won the National Radio Drama Award, and the Cambridge Footlights' Harry Porter Prize. He is a co-founder of PinchVanishProductions and an Associate Director of Dippermouth. He is currently enrolled in the Writing for Performance MA at Goldsmiths.

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Blog: Young directors – fear and magic in the rehearsal room

Posted on 10 March 2014 by Young Directors

I’ve run rehearsals in the past for very small projects; I’ve been an assistant director sitting in on rehearsals and taking notes, giving feedback and providing all manner of support. But nothing is as terrifying as when it hits that you’re a young director about to lead rehearsals for a group of experienced actors, in a professional setting, to be showcased as your directorial debut to your peers, colleagues, mentors, industry and the public. And that’s exactly what I felt as I headed towards my rehearsal venue (the fabulous Theatre Delicatessen!) one a Monday morning.

The reality is quite different. Actors and directors are both human beings, and together, through trust and support, fears and anxieties are allayed. Once in the rehearsal room, I found myself much more relaxed and all set to go. If you’ve done your research, know your text and have planned your rehearsals then the door is truly open for collaboration, teamwork and the generation of ideas. There is a common goal shared by everyone in rehearsal room: to create a piece of theatre.

As a director, the key is to be prepared, to have faith in your ideas and to trust in your approach. If you have nothing, or very little to go on, how are your actors meant to put their trust in you? If you have no idea how your day will go, what units of text to work on and what point you want to be at by the end of the day, how will you get there? My own rehearsals involved a few hours preparation during the weekend before, allocating a rough amount of time to chunks of the text – it allowed us to focus on everything from language and subtext to character development to movement around the space. But what that planning also gave us was the freedom to break from it, to ask questions and to explore uncharted territories. With preparation comes freedom and openness.

Openness also relates to your approach in the rehearsal room throughout the whole process. It’s unlikely that any production will benefit from a solely Stanislavsky-based approach, but nor will it flourish with a wholly physical, movement-based approach. Being open to bringing a variety of techniques and exercises to the process is beneficial to all involved, and it will only help with keeping things fresh and moving the production onwards. With a text like Thirst by Eugene O’Neill, it was absolutely necessary to have a balanced approach, very much text and movement, and I found myself discovering new ideas and techniques as I went along, not least Chekhov’s ‘Psychological Gesture’, peacocks, Agwe and Degas’s dancers. Otherwise, we might all have drowned in weighty, dense language…

With all this coming into play, the process constantly moves forward, with discoveries and excitement pulsating through. Our final rehearsal, a day of Points of Concentration to keep things alive and fresh whilst consolidating and building on all the work we had done, was a fantastic and inspiring day as we could see all our hard work coming to fruition.

From the initial, pre-rehearsal thoughts to the final day, through trust, sharing, collaboration, preparation and openness, what once seemed terrifying becomes pure, indescribable magic.

Jude Evans


Young Directors

Young Directors

StoneCrabs Theatre’s Young Directors’ Programme is a platform for young directors, centred around production, project management and theatre directing. The programme culminates in February 2014 when the young directors will put on the Play-ground Festival at the Albany. The 2013-14 Young Directors are: Eleanor Chadwick, Hattie Coupe, Emma Dennis-Edwards, Jude Evans, Camilla Gurtler, Lynette Linton, Antony Nyagah, Mariana Pereira and Katharina Reinthaller.

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Feature: Straight from the director’s mouth – 27 mins with Gbolahan Obisasan

Posted on 08 March 2014 by Rachel St John

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s cleverly titled play We are proud to present a presentation about the Herero of Namibia, formerly known as South-West Africa, from the German SudWest Afrika, between the years 1884 and 1915, took the US by storm, becoming part of a growing trend of exploring Africa, its past and its culture. The show has now been brought to London’s Bush Theatre, where actor turned writer/director Gbolahan Obisesan is taking charge of the show.

“I actually found out about the show whilst researching another play,” Obisesan says. “I had been receiving newsletters from Jackie’s agent and I saw the name of the play in one of them and found it intriguing. I eventually read the play and was moved; it was funny, challenging but very tragic.”

Drury’s play is about six young actors in their 20s, three black and three white, who are doing a presentation about the first genocide of the twentieth century. With themes such as race, identity, belonging and culture within the performance, it’s no wonder Obisesan jumped at the chance to get involved. Not many plays bring up the eye-opening reality of such a historic tragedy in a modern day context.

“I really wanted to put the play in front of a British audience and see how they’d respond to it,” Obisesan continues. “In the same way that Jackie Drury intended to engage the audience in the script, I wished to do the same with the production over here – making it poignant and relevant to the audience on a high level. I was excited to get into the rehearsal process with the actors, unlocking and unpicking the play so that it would work theatrically. The play explores an obscure historical event that deals with a lot of issues which the well-intended characters deal with. They become challenged, battered and broken on the legacy of what happened as they look into their human sense of identity.”

Obisesan, a London-based director, originally started out as a member of the National Youth Theatre wanting to be an actor. I asked how he transitioned into writing and directing so successfully. The National Youth theatre started up a programme called Short Nights where it challenged members to write a play. As a result, Obisesan wrote his first play, Roadside, about a young man dealing with addiction and mental illness. “People responded positively to it and I also directed it. It was then I wanted to learn more about what I could offer actors, but I also had more stories within me that I wanted to explore and share through the medium of theatre.” From there, he began looking for outlets to further explore this creative side – and became part of the Soho and Royal Court writers’ groups whilst undertaking an introduction to directing course at the Young Vic. “I was keen to find out which I felt a stronger pull towards without limiting my potential by focusing on just one.”

Which does he prefer, I wonder? Cue another chuckle: “In a way, I think they go hand in hand. Part of my motivation is to remain visible and to not feel limited. I’ve been lucky enough for people to acknowledge me as a writer and a director. As a director, you need to communicate the play to actors and decipher the message. With writing, it’s about sculpting characters, the narrative, and elements of the drama and its structure which may be helpful for the director. So to me, both are valued and they feed off one another. If a writing job comes up, I’ll take it. If a directing job comes up and it’s a play I really want to do I’ll probably take it as well.” He went on to describe himself as a “hired gun”, going where the money is. “You don’t want to be struggling or on benefits and there’s an integrity about making a living whilst having freedom, so the balance of writing and directing for me depends on where the work is coming from.”

Although he had a busy press day ahead, I took time to ask what advice he would offer to directors and theatre makers who are just starting out: “One of the biggest challenges for directors starting out is breaking into the industry, so just jump in with both feet and immerse yourself, rather than half exploring it. Take every opportunity you can and ensure that you’re being creatively challenged whilst learning about the things you’re lacking. If you have a sense of what you want to achieve and where you want to go, you’re more likely to find yourself gaining momentum and not stagnating.” Because from there, he continued, you can find opportunities to match your dreams.

All this is easier if you live in or close to London – but what if you don’t? “Remain visible,” he advises. “Get involved with your local theatre the best way you can – even if it means writing a letter with regards to what you’re interested in. They might be able to lead you in the right direction or support you by making the theatre more open to you. When it comes to being taken seriously, how you present yourself on a professional level is very important. So make adjustments if you need to. It could be your sense of style, how you communicate or your attitude in how you relate to things. As long as you can present strong ideas and back them up there’s no reason they won’t take you seriously.”

We are proud to present a presentation about the Herero of Namibia, formerly known as South-West Africa, from the German SudWest Afrika, between the years 1884 and 1915 is at the Bush Theatre until 12 April. For more information and tickets, visit the Bush’s website


Rachel St John

Rachel St John

Rachel is an aspiring playwright and theatre enthusiast who graduated from Kingston University in 2012. She currently works as a freelance writer and part-time babysitter, and is a regular volunteer at the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth.

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Blog: BBC Performing Arts Fund Fellowship

Posted on 19 February 2014 by Hannah Butterfield


I’m a few months into my BBC Performing Arts Fund Fellowship with Third Angel now, and I’m in a sort of whirlwind of making, thinking, learning, watching, meeting and talking to new people (who know their stuff!), and making decisions about what kind of theatre I want to make. As I mentioned in my previous blog, I am experiencing an on-going, long-running professional identity crisis because actually, the Choreographer Hat fits just as well as the Singer Hat. And not forgetting the Lecturer Hat. And the Ensemble-Based Multi-disciplinary Contemporary Theatre Maker one (but this doesn’t fit on a business card very well).

I initially wondered if this project was going to help me figure this out, but I think I’ve discovered that I don’t need or want to. I love theatre, I make theatre and I want to find as many different ways of doing this as possible. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the endless ways in which a performer can communicate with an audience. Is there a ‘best’ way? And how might we measure the success of these communicative devices? Does it matter?

On Saturday 25 January I saw Third Angel’s most recent work, The Life and Loves of a Nobody, a co-production with Sheffield Theatres at The Crucible Studio Theatre. It appears to be the story of a woman called Rachael, but as I sit trying to understand who this woman is through the narration of the two performers, I eventually give up. I’m not giving up because I have lost interest or because I don’t relate to this woman, but because I have decided she isn’t a woman at all. She is humanity. She could be the woman sitting next to me, or the man behind her, or me. The piece is set in traverse so I also have a backdrop of dimly lit fellow audience faces behind the unfolding narrative.

The series of events of ‘Rachael’s’ life are presented chronologically, though the subtle shifts in performative devices allow the sections of narrative to become fragmented and sometimes contradictory. I experienced a kind of comfortable anticipation for what might happen to her next, with a lingering, underlying sense of menace that I couldn’t quite place. There is great pleasure to be found in the low-tech evocative images that are presented throughout. In a few moments, a block of high-rise Sheffield flats emerged; the flickering light of a little girl watching television can be seen, with the lights of the street lamps reflected in the canal below.

The materials for this image consist of grey wooden blocks, a small torch, and some fairy lights on a simple string pulley system. This is my favourite kind of theatre. The same thing is never said or shown twice, but the creative form is ever shifting, each picture or moment contributing to the wider picture of the show. It is simple and meaningful and a little bit magical.

As I move further into the making process of my new show (yet to be officially titled!), I’m working predominantly with the concept of a one-woman ensemble show that critiques the world in which I live, and hopefully the world in which you live too. I’m very eager to put my one-woman choir in front of an audience! Watch this space…

Photo by Flickr user Thunderchild7 under a Creative Commons Licence. 

Hannah Butterfield

Hannah Butterfield

Hannah Butterfield is a theatre maker and facilitator based in Leeds. She is interested in ensemble and multi-disciplinary performance work, and has recently been awarded a BBC Performing Arts Fund grant working with Third Angel.

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