Justin Audibert in Gruesome Playground Injuries rehearsals by Ludovic des Cognets

The UK premiere of Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries is being staged at The Gate until 16 February. Mariah Gale and Felix Scott’s performances have already been highly praised in this intense 80-minute two-hander, described variously as a “crazily watchable anti-rom com” and “a fiercely honest story of modern America”. I chatted to Leverhulme Bursary-winning Director Justin Audibert about working on the show, his advice for young directors and what the future might hold.

Let me say now that the answer to that last point involves discussing the sex lives of the over 65s; a statement which I hope goes some way to demonstrate Audibert’s lively character and that he’s an interesting director. Trained on the Theatre Directing MFA at Birkbeck University, this 31 year-old has got his foot firmly in the door. He is Resident Director at the National Theatre Studio, holder of the 2012 Leverhulme Award, Associate Director at the Finborough and an education practitioner for the RSC and Told By An Idiot. So it’s no surprise he’s been heralded as “one to watch” on the back of this recent production.

Audibert is drawn to plays that “question why human beings do the things that they do”, and sees all art as a great reflector of the choices of humanity. He looks for writers who “create dialogue that has something to it, a wit or a character”. Upon first read of Gruesome Playground Injuries he was impressed by the sharpness of the writing and the way it “zings off the page”. He was also excited by the challenge of having to show the two characters moving from age eight to 38. A lot of rehearsal was spent “filling in the blanks” of their relationship between the ages, work that manifests itself in the show’s transitions.

In Audibert’s words this play is “a time hopping dysfunctional love story between two damaged people”. The rehearsal process was spent untangling this love story, and examining the nature of pain. Audibert describes himself as a text-based director, taking a Stanislavskian approach of discerning character’s objectives and obstacles and “looking for the clues with the actors in the text”. He learnt from Katie Mitchell’s book The Director’s Craft to seek the events in each scene – events that make everything shift for the characters. Working in this way he and the cast “made a set of choices that gave us an agreed set of parameters through which we were going to tell the story”.

He describes being a director as having “a desire to tell stories clearly”; it is the director’s job to coach the actors “so they feel as confident, happy and committed as they possibly can while they’re on stage, and have a clear sense of why they’re telling this story”. The big questions Audibert identified in Gruesome Playground Injuries are “why do we sometimes have relationships that are bad for us, and why do we love people that are damaged?” To help explore these in rehearsal he worked with movement director Joe Wild. Looking at the physical signifiers of age, and also of pain and injury, was combined with the focused text work. One of the major questions examined movement-wise was “the difference between pain in an immediate sense and long term decay”.

It’s certainly not an easy subject to work with, but Audibert explains how the rehearsal room always maintained a fun atmosphere: “anytime we got a bit stressed we’d play a game, run around the room like idiots or eat cake”. He speaks fondly of the process of working with his entire team, and says the show wouldn’t be what it is without the input of all involved. Lily Arnold’s design, for example, hugely influenced the acting and choices made. Audibert has a very clear understanding of the director as collaborator, as the facilitator of “a dialogue between artists” and shares the following piece of advice about his craft: “Mostly directing is about speaking the different languages of the people you work with accurately… If you do that, you have a happy team and a happy team makes good work.”

Another major piece of advice he offers young directors is “ don’t get yourself in financial debt to work” and “there’s no such thing as a big break, you just have to keep working at it”, which is wonderfully refreshing to hear. Reading this advice, you may pin Audibert down as a sensible, non-risk taking director. You’d be wrong. His dream production to direct is “a version of Spring Awakening set in an old people’s home with all OAPs”. Why? Because it’s a play that touches him every time he reads it, and “nobody talks about the sex lives of people over 65”. A very valid point and I agree with him that it would be a fascinating process where a young director could learn a lot. He also wants to direct King Lear, seeing it as the “greatest parable of humanity of them all”.

Gruesome Playground Injuries plays at The Gate until 16 February. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.gatetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/gruesome-playground-injuries.aspx.

Image credit: Justin Audibert in rehearsals for Gruesome Playground Injuries by Ludovic des Cognets