Ria Parry is in a reflective mood as she nears the end of rehearsals for Albion, the new play by Chris Thompson which opens at the Bush Theatre next week. “It’s funny when you look back and realise the moments where things shifted, even though at the time you don’t quite realise that’s what was happening” says Parry. “It’s nice to look back and go ‘ah that lead to that and that lead to that’.”
Graduating from Royal Holloway with a degree in drama and theatre, she gave herself an ultimatum: “I wanted to work in theatre” she says resolutely. “I had absolutely no money when I left and was in a lot of debt as most students are, but I needed to kind of push on at that point and my resolution was that if it was anything related to theatre I would say yes. And if it was anything related to theatre that paid me I would say yes.”
Now an established director with credits at the Young Vic, the Unicorn Theatre and Salisbury Playhouse, her route into the profession is more varied than most. “I spent a few years doing lots of different things – anything from workshops to bits of project management to little bits of acting, little bits of assistant directing – anything that would pay me and that could go on my theatre CV.” Unlike so many theatre graduates who can be unwilling to compromise when it comes to job roles, Parry took a more pragmatic view: “My aim was to earn a living from theatre even if that meant that I wasn’t quite pinning down what I would be doing.”
In her early twenties, she took up a full-time position at Watford Palace as an assistant producer and then a creative producer. “I remember thinking this is a career I could explain and I can earn some money and I think I’m good at it”, she says. “I think everyone has that pressure when you sort of go ‘What do I say I do when my Mum asks me?’”
As well as keeping her mum happy, Parry realises with hindsight that her time at Watford Palace was a key moment in her fledgling career. “I spent two years at Watford Palace and it was really, really useful”, she reflects, “but at the same time at the end of those two years I was more convinced than ever that I wanted to be more creatively involved in making shows and – essentially – I wanted to be a director.”
Ever the pragmatist, she formed her own company, Iron Shoes, with director John Hoggarth, and together they decided to take a show up to Edinburgh. “It was the first thing that we’d properly done together, going under a company name, and we said ‘let’s present a bit of new writing and see how it goes’”. CRUSH premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2009, winning a Scotsman Fringe First Award in the first week. “It went incredibly well” she says fondly. “It was a really great summer. So we then from that point went ‘Okay maybe we should make this a more permanent entity’.”
A couple of years later Iron Shoes returned to the festival with a production of Gbolahan Obisesan’s play Mad About The Boy, winning a second Fringe First in the process. But it could all have been so different. “In fact”, she says, “if Edinburgh hadn’t gone as well as it did I don’t know if we would have carried on – but because it did…” she trails off. Because it did, Parry has been invited to direct the new play from one of the most promising new writers to emerge in the last year. Albion by Chris Thompson is the result of a commission from the Bush following the success of his début play Carthage at the Finborough Theatre earlier this year.
The Bush Theatre has been kind to Parry. When Madani Younis took over as Artistic Director in 2012, Parry and Iron Shoes were decidedly on his radar. “He was just working out who his associates would be and what companies and artists he’d like to have around him – who connected with him on particular ideas and aims and tastes.”
Younis and Parry share a resolute commitment to new work, but there’s more to it than that. Albion looks at the rise of the new far right in modern day Britain. Having explored inter-generational conflicts in Mad About The Boy, I ask whether her work is always so politically engaged. “I’m interested in a wide variety of work, but I absolutely am interested in work that is politically engaged.” She continues, warming to her theme, “I suppose the route I go in with is what is the relevance and why is it happening now and I know Madani and me have always kind of linked on that as well.”
One of the more surprising features of Albion is the near-constant presence of karaoke. Set in a pub in East London on karaoke night, Parry explains that her production has music coursing through every scene. “Karaoke makes sense for this world and these characters because they are all very much rooted in the real world if you like” she explains, “but they can’t quite express themselves just through the language they have at their fingertips”.
Thankfully, Parry has the skills at hers to handle such a technically complicated show. “I’ve got a lighting designer, a sound designer, an arranger, I’ve got a video designer, we’ve got someone mixing sound live, a full stage management team so everyone is running around crazy busy,” she says with remarkable calmness. “If I didn’t quite understand what they were all having to do or the pressures that they were under then I can imagine it being a really difficult week”.
What might have felt like meandering or mum-pleasing at the time has proved vital to her practice. “I feel like I know how to bring it all together now,” she says. “And that is from working in a building and from trying to learn as much as possible about things that aren’t theoretically my responsibility but ultimately absolutely are”. You sense she never wants to stop learning.
Albion is at the Bush Theatre until 25th October. For more information and tickets to go the Bush Theatre website.