A Director’s Tale

What to do when you’ve got to produce that ‘difficult second album’?

I’m not sure what happened! I was laying out the rope that marked out the playing area for A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year and I must have had a rush of blood to the head from bending down. Next thing you know I’m haranguing our dear old Chairman about the popularity of the show and how we couldn’t let that kind of popular following slip away. And then for some reason I said that I’d be ‘more than happy’ to direct again the following year. For 24 hours it was a brilliant idea – MND went as well as we could ever have expected; the crowds loved it , the cast loved it , the committee loved it. It was the best thing I’d ever directed. And then as Costard said ….Oh Balls!!

How on earth was I going to better or even equal it! In reality, no one (including me) expected me to, but that’s your challenge as a Director, you always want to do better; if you’re not learning and improving, what’s the point?

I genuinely thought for a second I should throw in the towel rather than have to compete with myself, but ( I admit ) pride wouldn’t let me. I’d given myself a point to prove – now I had to work out a way to do it.

So back I went to the drawing board, knowing that compared with MND I was already 6 months behind the curve. I’m not sure anyone realises how long the creative process works – maybe I overdo it, but I change my mind constantly about the way I want to present the play I’m directing. With a structured, modern play you don’t have to worry too much, the script tells you what to do , but when it’s Shakespeare you have to think about the interpretation because that gives you the whole structure and feeds into every little detail of the play the audience will ultimately see. If you’ve not done this before the auditions, the cast won’t know what they are doing and you are going to end up with a mess.

I drew up a shortlist, the usual suspects, things the audience will know – Much Ado, Twelfth Night , As you like it , I even considered non-comedies, A Winters Tale, The Merchant of Venice. Nothing was floating my boat. In the end, while I was on holiday, I decided on Much Ado because it’s probably (next to MND) the best crowd pleaser and everyone I spoke to seemed to think it was a great idea. However, there was a problem, as although I’d seen it loads of times, I actually didn’t know it that well.

Then I got a text ……

Out of the blue one Michael Beaven sent me a random text saying he’d just read Love’s Labour’s Lost and it was very funny. My first thought was to wonder what on earth the dear boy does for recreation! But then a light went on.

I knew the play – very well, I’d studied it and I’d been in it. And I suddenly realised that I’d been forgetting the most important thing, that above all else the Director has to know the play and REALLY know it. If you don’t know the play, you have no chance of developing a (for want of a better phrase) vision of what you want the play to be.

I also knew that I’d know the play better than any of the cast – because in some cases people hadn’t even heard of it. This was a massive advantage because anyone who does know it knows a few things about it –

  • it’s long – very long!
  • It’s wordy – probably Bill’s wordiest!
  • It’s an early one – ergo he did better ones later on.
  • A good proportion of it is totally inaccessible and irrelevant,

Ideal then!

If the the committee had had an inkling then, I’m pretty certain someone would have told me I needed my head testing. But they didn’t and I was pretty certain that with some cuts, some added business and (crucial this) the right casting, we could make something special of it.

The thing that I heard most was that it was a ‘brave’ choice – I think they meant ‘brave’ in the ‘stupid’ sense. But I was pleased – after MND I felt like it would have been too easy just to roll another crowd pleaser out – this was a challenge!

I’d convinced myself – now I just had to convince a cast. To do that I needed an interpretation that was reminiscent of what we had done with MND but didn’t feel like we were repeating ourselves. Another key factor in the choice of LLL was the setting – at the end of MND the monastery had looked stunning lit up and I really wanted it as a back drop – MND’s staging had been radical so I didn’t feel the need to better it. LLL was perfect as it’s the only Shakespeare play where all the action takes in a single location – against the Manor House – the stars were aligning!

In MND the premise had been EastEnders up for a picnic, now I needed something that would work with this play. There was a lot of agonising; poor old JB got all the possible interpretations thrown at him when I visited him in India – serves him right for taking me on such a long road trip. When I came back I was convinced it was going to be set at a Rugby Club with a visiting women’s hockey team. But something wasn’t right. It just wasn’t falling into place. Then, out of the blue, I heard a news item about an old golf club finally overturning years of tradition by allowing women into the clubhouse – it was appallingly sexist to the point of misogyny- and bang – it all fell into place – the golfers, the ladies visiting the spa, the green keeper, the club steward, the bar maid – it just worked. I had my theme; I had my space, now all I needed was a cast.

I felt very confident at the auditions, contrary to popular belief I don’t pre-cast – ever. You just never know what’s going to surprise you (who remembers Doug auditioning for Puck – game changer!!)

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With a couple of exceptions, no one ended up in the roles I thought they would. Casting is all about balance; in this play getting the pairings of the royals was also important. It’s also about making sure that you are putting people into the larger roles who can handle it, because those are the people you can rely on and can carry the play.

You always have to be mindful that we are an amateur group and when you are directing something as big as a Shakespeare play you have to have a balance of people who don’t need quite as much direction, so that you can also work with the less experienced people and bring them up to a level beyond what they think they are capable of.

At the auditions a few people surprised me as much for destroying my preconceptions of what they could do, plus there were some new people there too. Over the two auditions I got really lucky – some things slotted beautifully into place, some were less obvious. Again, I was looking for my ‘Doug as Puck’ moment and it was when Andy read Ferdinand with his ‘oop north’ voice things began to make sense – I suspect he was after a different part, but he’d sown the seed!

I always cast the same way – select the obvious ones and build round it – Paul, Granville, Sean, Andy, Nancy and Lisa got set in stone early on and from that core I was able to build what I thought was a very strong cast.

A few things caused us issues along the way – losing Rachel was a big blow, and I thought for a while I might have to step in myself, but after thinking it over it suddenly became obvious that I could move Nicky into Costard’s role with Greg becoming Dull. What a decision that turned out to be with Nicky turning in a performance right up there with the best we’ve seen on a Water Lane stage!

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Originally I rehearsed it in groups, as I did with MND, but after 3 weeks it became apparent that we needed flow so I changed the schedule and ran it chronologically- it just needed it – it was that kind of play. Ultimately, I think the final performance benefitted too as we didn’t get a full cast at rehearsal until 2 days before the show.

I pause here to mention sound and light – one of the things I loved about MND was the freedom to choose music I wanted to set the scene – music is important and evocative – and it can have a profound effect on how an audience sees a play – I had so much fun choosing the music for this play, but I would bore you to tears if I talked you through the reasons I chose the music I did for each scene. It was a six month long process – but I hoped it worked. The only thing I will say is that I agonised about the finale music – after the Imagine Dragons last year, I really didn’t want to get it wrong – but the feel and the sentiment of ‘Adventure of a Lifetime’ was so apt, once I’d thought of it, it couldn’t be beaten, especially since I worked the dance out in my living room looking like a total idiot!

Not much surprises me about amateur theatre, but I was stunned on the Tuesday at how everyone pulled it out of the bag – it was the first proper run through. It was like a performance- all the hard work that everyone had done came into play and even I was taken aback at how good it was.

I could write volumes here – but I’ll resist – the one thing I’d like to end on is ‘trust’ and in this context I talk about Granville, Will, Michael and JJC – you have to trust they know what they are doing – and they do – they really do. Having people like that running everything else allows you to direct the way you want to – and it’s the heart and soul of our little group. It’s also the thing that makes someone fly back from India because they don’t want to miss it.

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Richard Pink – Director – Love’s Labour’s Lost – Water Lane Theatre Company – July 2017

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