As I approach him, Alex Thorpe is sat outside The Dog House pub in Kennington, scribbling notes on a script. His biggest directing project to date, Lee Harvey Oswald opens at The Finborough Theatre on 3 November, so understandably he is immersed in preparation. Nonetheless, he is friendly and excited as we discuss the play and his career so far.
Raised in the Lake District, Thorpe studied drama at school before embarking on a BA in Theatre Practice at The Central School of Speech and Drama. From working with PunchDrunk, to placements with the National Youth Theatre and Little Angel Theatre, he gained experience of production, project management and running workshops. This proved invaluable upon graduation, as he was accepted as a trainee workshop leader at the Almeida. Here, he was introduced to assistant directing, which led to a successful application to the MFA Theatre Directing course at Birkbeck. The course included a ten week placement at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, where he learnt about the actor’s process by training alongside acting students. Upon finishing the MFA, he became the resident Assistant Director at Sheffield Theatres, where he worked on four productions: Don Evans’s One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show (directed by Dawn Walton), Stephen Sondheim’s Company (dir. by Jonathan Munby), Harold Pinter’s Betrayal (dir. by Nick Bagnall) and Michael Frayn’s Democracy (dir. by Paul Miller). When Democracy transferred to The Old Vic, Thorpe was thrust into the world of West End assistant directing. Since then, he has built upon an already impressive portfolio, touring with One Monkey and assisting on Henvy VI at The Globe.
Thorpe’s extensive CV is a credit to his persistence and ambition. Director Nick Bagnall told him, “You don’t ask, you don’t get,” so when Bagnall recruited for his mammoth production of Henry VI parts 1-3, Thorpe put himself forward immediately, despite admitting that he felt under-qualified for the job. He was rejected at first, but persevered. After a long conversation with Bagnall, Thorpe convinced him that he could take up the challenge. Reflecting on a successful tour that included several battlefield performances at the historic sites of the play, it seems Thorpe lived up to his promise.
It was on this job, assisting Bagnall, that Thorpe fell into his stride: “When I’m assisting, the role changes with each venue and director. At The Globe, I’d sit beside Nick, and be an ear for thoughts and ideas. I learned to be sensitive about when to chip in and when to step back.” It also fell on Thorpe to run scenes and make sure they stayed fresh as rehearsals wore on. Working with ever changing environments during the battlefield tour was “a baptism of fire in some ways”, but one that prepared Thorpe well for his current project.
Lee Harvey Oswald came about after Thorpe approached Neil McPherson at The Finborough to say he would like to work there. After discussing the playwrights Thorpe was interested in, a theme became apparent: “The idea of having a huge massive story told through the individual; iconic history told through people.” Macpherson suggested Lee Harvey Oswald, a play by Michael Hastings, which hasn’t been staged in the UK since the sixties.
The script fuses extracts from the Warren Commission’s official report into the assassination with domestic scenes of Oswald, his wife and his mother. The story is told “through two ridiculously powerful, wonderful, feisty, interesting women. And the commissioner helps to sellotape that journey.” The central question posed is whether Oswald, a man who failed so often in his personal life, could have worked alone to murder the president.
How did he go about finding the right cast? “It’s all been me ringing people I’ve worked with and found interesting and saying ‘can you help me?'” Matilda James, head of casting at The Globe, gave Thorpe his first major experience in a casting session during his time there. “She opened so many doors for me. We created a list of people and ideas, and she made the phone calls. We aimed for the biggest names we could and ended up getting them in all of the parts. We were gobsmacked.”
On working with actors of such calibre, Thorpe comments “I was tentative, tiptoeing, wondering if my way is the best way to facilitate their process. I would have adapted if necessary, but they’ve gone with me on the journey, and it’s worked for them and me.” Does he feel he is developing a style as a director? “I don’t know. It’s my first major project. It might not be the same on the next show. I want to do 20 or 30 productions and then go ‘that works well’.”
It becomes clear during the interview that Thorpe is not just passionate and ambitious, but also pragmatic. He admits that “it’s incredibly hard financially” and advises aspiring directors to “have no shame in going back to a part time job”. Whilst facing economic challenges, Thorpe’s commitment to forging relationships within the industry has paid dividends. He recommends writing to industry professionals regarding their work: “Go and see as many plays as you can. If you like the work, write, email, say thank you. I continue to write to people. ”
What does the future hold for Thorpe? “I’m so happy to play the long game. I love it. I don’t feel like I want to climb a ladder. I just want to make work. Fingers crossed it’ll be for producing houses.” From meeting Thorpe, and observing his passion, energy and ambition, it seems likely that this will be the case.
Lee Harvey Oswald, A Far Mean Street of Independence Brought on by Negleck will run at The Finborough Theatre 3-22 November. For performance dates and more information, visit the Finborough’s website.