The most valuable thing I have learned in the last few months while beginning my journey as a theatre director, is how important it is to get new experience. Having trained and worked as an actor, I started directing at the beginning of 2015. As soon as I had my first job under my belt, I wrote to all the directors I’d worked with and whose work I admired, asking if I could assist them. The wonderful Robert Shaw Cameron got back in touch and by the Spring I was working at Theatre503 assisting him on I and The Village by Silva Semerciyan. When it came to casting my next show, Nights by Alex Bower (which returns to the White Bear Theatre 22 – 26 September) and I hit a rough patch, I had lots of people to guide me. Paul Robinson, Artistic Director of Theatre503, was particularly helpful, putting some names my way and introducing me to his casting team. Shortly afterwards, Paul called me asking if I was available to interview for the position of AD on his next project.
And Then Come The Nightjars charts the friendship between Michael, a widowed Devonshire farmer and his local vet, Jeff, as they battle the Foot-and-Mouth pandemic of 2001. Before rehearsals began we went on a field trip to a farm in Dartmoor and met Phil and Mandi Heard whose entire livestock was slaughtered in 2001. Phil described how, once the government had announced the contiguous cull policy, whereby any livestock within a 3km radius of an affected area were to be destroyed, much of his time was spent tracking FMD on a large Ordnance Survey map. It quickly became clear that geography was key. Early into rehearsals and with the help of Bea (Roberts, the writer) we marked on maps where the fictional Ashwalden lay within the Devon countryside and in relation to the Tamar River. In our minds’ eye we all held the image of Phil, carefully marking with a compass each of the rings of disease as it inched closer to his prize winning Charolais bulls.
A play short in length but of epic proportions and spanning 13 years in just over an hour, an essential part of my role as Assistant Director was to create a timeline of events. Initially, it was important to get down the key dates that related to the disease. The Foot-and-Mouth crisis was a highly complex issue; falling in the same year as a general election, every procedure in relation to the disease became a political manoeuvre. On 7th May, Tony Blair announced the new general and local election date, national press attention turned to the upcoming general election and all press conferences on FMD were cancelled for the duration of the election. Despite this, the contiguous cull policy and ensuing crisis continued to escalate. Interesting facts arose. In June 2001, MAFF changed their name to DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), then on 9th July they announced (under their new name) that mistakes in the diagnosis of FMD led to the unnecessary slaughter of over 200,000 animals.
Now, with a good handle on the arc of events that year, we have started to mine the text itself for facts about Jeff and Michael and add them to our timeline. When did Michael, Jeff, Sheila and Helen celebrate New Year’s Eve together, watching the fireworks from the hay loft. How long ago did Jeff “try it on with Shane Dimpsey’s missus in front of everyone, including him, in the beer garden of the Drake – with no trousers on?”! Gradually we’re being drawn in to the fabric of this world.
My assisting experience has taught me how essential it is to be intuitive and supportive in a rehearsal room. Sometimes it’s not helpful to chime in with your thoughts and opinions when the space is already fraught with feeling, differing perspectives and emotion. Keep a notebook, be selective and choose when it’s a good moment to ask a question or make a point. As an assistant, supporting the director should be your priority, while of course absorbing as much as you can about the creative process.
And Then Come The Nightjars is at Theatre503 2 – 26 September.
Image: Jack Sain