Energy Exchange: directing a cast of two

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It will be easier today; there will be more people in the audience, and they will give you energy. Eat their energy.

These are the words of encouragement I gave my two students on an irritatingly bright Saturday afternoon in the top floor Eurythmy studio at Rudolf Steiner House on Baker Street. They arrived, as had become their custom, late and tired, their eyes saying more than their words about how wrung out they felt. I gave them the above advice and quietly crossed my fingers, praying it would be true.

They milled around, occasionally helping as my Mum and I tore my bedsheets in half and taped them to the windows in an effort to create some semblance of darkness before 4.20pm when the metaphorical curtain would come up.

Over the previous couple of months, as line learning and punctuality proved a constant struggle, I wondered if I had made the right choice: if a two hander was even healthy for 18 year olds, or if picking Nick Payne’s Constellations, a heart-rending portrait of relationships, was over-stepping the lines of appropriate material. But we pressed on, and tried our best to build up a piece of work worthy of their efforts.

Almost six years ago I made my directorial debut, a production of Macbeth that took up a Summer of friendship and tireless work, and left me feeling let-down. Despite word-of-mouth reviews such as: “this is the best Macbeth I’ve ever seen” or that “I don’t usually like this play, but your production was great”, the tiny audiences we garnered were a disappointment and the flagging energy in the room seemed to walk out in the middle of each performance.

I have always laid that at the feet of our miniscule production team: five people to direct, design, light and perform a full-scale Shakespearean play? It’s no wonder that with little to no time to focus on publicity we failed to draw the people that had come out in droves two years earlier for An Ideal Husband. And it is true that for theatre to really be alive, you have to give your audience life, and allow them to channel it right back at you. There must be some exchange, and provided the play is good, the bigger the audience, the better the return.

After Macbeth it was four years before I even dared think the wish to direct another play. Then, in the Summer of 2015, I stumbled into the wrong meeting, a High School year planning session, and when discussion of the forthcoming Class 12 play arose, I found myself offering to direct it before I had even considered what that would entail. It was perhaps the most ill-advised and wonderful thing to which I have ever committed, and less than a year later, my students were onstage consuming the laughter and tears of a well-stocked theatre as I sat in the wings awe-struck by how brilliantly they rose to the challenge.

But Constellations was an entirely different beast. For a start, with almost no budget, and no plans for public performance, we opted to share our work in a space that would hold no more than 30 people at maximum capacity. Secondly, as part of a school, we knew that the students and teachers would make up the vast majority of our audience, but at the same time Constellations is barely appropriate for High School students, let alone the rest of the school. Thirdly, with only two roles in the play, we weren’t just lacking the energy of large audiences; we were also lacking the energy of a full, dynamic team of actors and producers.

As it turned out, that third point was really the most powerful. Small audiences suited the intimacy of the piece, heightening both the vulnerability of the roles and the tension of their many awkward interactions. But spending two intense weeks in a classroom as just a trio of creative people took it out of us. The play itself deals with some very difficult and mature themes, and to hold that between just three people, two of whom have not yet even graduated from High School, proved an immense challenge.

If I had known then what I know now, I might not have chosen this play. But at the same time, I don’t regret it. My students achieved something truly incredible, and for all the pain, sweat and tears, we laughed ten times over, and I cried as the final lights went out, filled with the kind of pride that only comes from watching young people outdo themselves over and over again. We both underestimated and rose to the challenge, and if I had to, I would do it all again.

And with this amazing, tiny production behind me, I cannot convey just how excited I am to spend a Summer working with a full cast on a production we can open up to the masses. Watch this space.

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