Thursday, 30 December 2010

Merry Christmas/Happy New Year

If anyone's out there in the ether reading this - I hope you had a lovely Christmas/festive season and have a brilliant New Year.

2011 already?*


*Yes I know it's technically still December, but go with it people!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Location, location, location

To be a director, do you have to live in London?


Friday, 26 November 2010

You Know It When You See It?

I recently had dinner with an actor-friend of mine, Joe Jameson. Amongst the 'oh how's so-and-so doing? Any castings coming up? How's the family doing?' chat, the conversation found its way round to the difficulty of knowing, as an audience member, critic, or awards-judge, what impact a director has had on a production.

I mean, unless you've ever been in a rehearsal room (which vary enormously from production to production, company to company and director to director), how can you tell what a director does?

What does a director do?

In some ways it might sound utterly bizarre for me, as a director, to even raise the question. But I have often found myself watching the final runs of a play I've been working on for weeks/months and wondering where I finish and the work of the actors and production team begins. The line is so blurred. Theatre is so collaborative, you feed off each other's ideas and imaginations, and - quite rightly - the actors and stage managers/hands must end up with ownership. They, after all, have to live that show night after night.

For me, I think the role of the director really is as a visionary (apologies for the poncy-ness of that statement) and facilitator. You have to have the idea for how to approach the production in the first place, choose the actors, and facilitate them towards their understanding of the text/character/world. Also, you work closely with designers (set, costume, lighting, sound) to create that world. For me, the audience experience is particularly important - I like to plot the experience from the moment they enter the auditorium, using particular lighting, soundscape, music, even pre-show movement with the actors, to create the atmosphere of the play. When I was working on 'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me' I specifically remember agonising over the choice of exit music, as I dithered over the way I wanted people to feel as they left the theatre. I was adamant that I didn't want silence, and after the ordeal of the play I felt that music with some kind of uplift was essential.

But all these decisions are not necessarily always made by a director. And once the show has opened, it can take on a very different form after a period of performance - as a natural response to how it's been received.

So does that make my job redundant? And how do you assess the quality of a director?

I guess you know it when you see it.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

News from the Front Line

Last week I was fortunate to have a short stay in London with nothing to do but watch theatre. I saw three shows: the somewhat mediocre writing but beautiful music of 'The Human Comedy' at the Young Vic, the excellent 'Blood and Gifts' at the National, and the work of one of my favourite writers - Simon Stephens: 'Punk Rock' at the Lyric. Three very different shows, three very different experiences, but a real inspiration.

At the moment I am undergoing what can only be classed as a Learning Experience. I am in the full throes of casting for my next show - which itself is still not completely written, attempting to plot my next year in terms of balancing my own projects with the necessity of getting paid work, while trying not to become overly obsessed with the tv show 'Criminal Minds'. Of the lessons I am learning (script writing & editing, casting, dealing with agents, fundraising, tax, professional relationships), there are three that I am finding particularly important, and difficult to accommodate.

1. PATIENCE - waiting for the emails/letters I've sent out, as well as job applications to bear fruit is a long process - one that I never really appreciated before.


3. COMMUNICATION - I thought I was a good communicator, and I am, but more important than conveying ideas is the effectiveness and efficiency of communication. Happily my email inbox is improving in this respect.

But I have already learnt two very valuable lessons, one from a very good friend and fellow director - Matt Lloyd Davies. That is:

All will be well. It's not rocket science, we're not curing's just a bit of storytelling.

And the other is what I would call a mantra if I believed in such things:

Play the long game.

So. Who wants to play? :-)

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

What is an 'Assistant Director'? (Theatre)

There are several 'ways in' to directing professionally, and one of the regularly recommended ones is to assist a director or company whose work you respect and want to be a part of (assuming you can get the gig). Most of the time this will be voluntary, and you probably won't even get paid expenses. But what does an assistant actually do? And why on earth *should* anyone pay them?

The fact is that the role of the AD is entirely dependent on the temperament of not only the AD themselves, the director and the company, but also the nature and size of production, and the experience that the AD can bring. It is likely that if you land a gig AD-ing, but have never done it before, you may be given less to do or say than if you have more experience.

ADs are more prevalent in large, funded companies, such as the RSC or at the National Theatre. They are particularly useful in large-scale, large-cast productions, but because of funding limitations, these are not only hard to create but also hard to get into. Also, like any partnership in the creative industry (and, yes, the relationship between the director and AD does need to be a partnership - even if it's unequal), you tend to see the same directors using the same assistants.

But what do they do?

1. Research (historic periods, literature, playwrights, prisons, torture) - quite often the AD can become the 'go-to' person for any information pertaining to the text in question. On the plus side, you quickly become an expert on one or two topics. Remember that the internet is both a friend and enemy when it comes to accuracy...

2. 'A second pair of eyes' - this is the biggest part of being an AD. To know and understand the vision of the director for the production (obtained through discussion and attending as many preliminary meetings as possible) so that you can monitor the show in rehearsal and performance and help it remain true to that first idea. This can require questioning certain decisions in rehearsal, and it's important to learn how to 'take' being shot down with an idea you may yourself think is really good - but isn't liked by the main director. An AD needs a thick skin!

3. Sometimes, if the cast is very large, particularly if it constitutes children, and the rehearsal period short, or if the director cannot attend a rehearsal, the AD will lead (parallel) rehearsals. This can be quite scary, and relies on the company accepting the AD's authority. Sadly this is not always the case, but in general casts and crew are supportive of everyone in the room. This can be one of the best parts of being an AD - you get to flex your directing muscles for once! But equally, you still have to hold true to the director's vision, so it can be truncating. In some companies (e.g. RSC), the AD is fully in charge of rehearsing the understudies - and can be involved in casting them from the available actors. However, again because of financial constraints, fewer companies are able to employ understudies.

4. Monitoring the show. Generally, once a show is open, that's the end of the director's job. They may check up on it throughout the run - but usually a maximum of once a week. As an AD, I have (so far) always been encouraged to see the shows as often as possible. This keeps a company on its toes, can provide much-needed reassurance/guidance if things aren't working for any reason, and helps keep the director in touch with the show without having to actually attend. In some ways, it also gives the AD more ownership of the show, as you can be more directly involved in note-giving than at other times in the process.

5. 'Resident'. On some productions, the AD will be attached to the show almost indefinitely. If the show transfers, and the original director is unavailable, the AD may well lead the re-rehearsal period. ADs will follow tours of the show, and can end up with a more pastoral than creative role. For long, established runs in the West End, the AD will rehearse new cast members when they join the company (classic example is Chicago), and this again can give you a stronger sense of ownership than may originally be felt in primary rehearsals. This tends to be the only time that an AD will (or should) definitely be paid for their work.

These are only a few of the things that ADs do. Sometimes, the AD just has to sit in the corner and shut up - this is certainly the stereotype. Quite often you become a PA to the director as well as AD, and in many respects you can become a 'buffer' for the director - taking enquiries from other departments to set up meetings, running the director's schedule and taking care of little errands. You are also - potentially - a social bridge to the actors. It is a useful skill for an AD to be able to 'take the temperature' of the feeling of the rehearsal room, and know how to manage it on the director's behalf or warn them in advance if trouble is brewing.

Fundamentally, I think the AD is the director's ally. The person they can turn to and say 'this is shit, isn't it?' or 'this is great, isn't it?' and receive positive, constructive feedback. You are utterly on the director's side, but - and this is important - not just a 'yes' man.

And if you can do that - lay aside your own ego in support of a production - and enjoy it (and it can be immensely rewarding), then AD-ing may be the way forward for you.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Life after drama school

They try to prepare you. Everyone says going into theatre - especially as an actor - is pretty much the most precarious career you can choose. Well, the truth is that it's no easier for directors - and we don't have the luxury of a boost from a possible agent.

But, fair's fair, we can at least generate our own work more easily.

Or can we?

The average cost of putting on a fringe theatre production is between £25k and £75k. Where does this money come from? Investors (but you'd be mad to invest in theatre - it's a true gamble), sponsors, fundraising events, private financing, grants and loans. With the proposed arts cuts looking to hit hard, it is expected that around 30% of companies will lose funding, and the small pot of money that currently exists will be even smaller, and have to go even further.

So, what does all this mean for a recent directing graduate? Well, thankfully I have a great support network, but relying on your parents and meager savings will only get you so far - and in the end self-esteem is based on personal achievement, not hand-me-downs. For now, I'm hoping optimism and sheer bloody-mindedness will get me where I want to be - being paid for my skills as a director or assistant director.

And if anyone knows of any bar jobs going in Bristol, let me know!

Friday, 21 May 2010

Someone Who'll Watch Over Me: Reviews

8/10 - Crackerjack
"...the first-rate acting, in a production beautifully orchestrated by director Hannah Drake, ensures a memorable night out."

In full:

**** - What's On Stage
"This is the fourth and final showcase of plays directed by the Bristol Old Vic’s graduating directors. Hannah Drake takes the reins this week, and what an excellent job she does, as this is a wonderful production."

In full:,%20Bristol%20Old%20Vic%20Theatre%20School.html

Sunday, 16 May 2010

A Performance

The first time you show your work to an audience is a nerve-wracking thing. Suddenly you wonder what exactly you've spent the weeks of rehearsal doing, whether it will be good enough, whether the audience will laugh (and, if they do, at the right things) and whether you'll all make it through. What makes it worse is that, once a performance starts, the director is - essentially - redundant. We are left to look on, feeling vaguely parental towards the actors, crew and production, possibly taking notes, and biting our nails furiously. This is ten times worse when the production you are doing is new writing, and there is no precedent for an audience's reaction.

Today's 'preview'/'open run' was one of the tenser performances I've been a part of. It started off very well - everyone (bar the stage manager) was on time and raring to go. Problem was, the venue was locked. No way in. After an hour of frantic phone calls, and the arrival of both stage manager and audience, we were able to access one half of the venue, and finally the other half thanks to the random happenstance that meant one of the audience members actually had a key to the building. Bizarre but true. Half an hour late, having had no time for a proper warm up, having rushed to set up the room, and having done practically nothing on my 'prep' to-do list, we showed our play to the audience.

And it went well! The cast and crew present rallied and played with conviction, heart, and discipline. Having seen the show in its every incarnation, I was more sensitive to its twangs and pulls, and I was probably able to see nerves that no one else could, but it was thrilling to see others as moved and entertained as I have been by this play.

If this is what they can do in such stressful circumstances, I can't wait to see it on the other side of the tech.

Thursday, 29 April 2010


I am writing this having survived giving a presentation about my graduation show to the Friends of my drama school. These are an interesting bunch - some wildly supportive, encouraging and enthusiastic, and others more reserved.

It was terrifying.

But, while I stood deer-in-the-headlights-style at the front of the room, trying to put into words not only what the play is about but quite what makes it so special, I realised a few things. On the surface, very little happens in the play - three men are locked in a room, and pretty much stay there the whole way through. But the emotion, the ordeal, the spirit and the struggle for survival are extraordinary. McGuinness' text is poetic, abrupt, sincere and challenging, and the experience the characters go through is unimaginable.

In our production - on a tiny stage in a cramped theatre above a pub - the audience seating becomes an extension of the cell. Our set has no tabs, and the walls of the theatre are the walls of the cell. The actors only leave the stage at key moments, and although the audience has the freedom of the interval, the visual continuity and picture that we are trying to achieve should - I hope - go some way to giving the audience a taste of what it might be like to be a hostage; thereby identifying them with the characters even more than the surface allows.

More than this, I found myself remembering how strongly I feel for the characters, and the play itself. I am so excited and proud to be a part of it - even more so now that we have been able to explore it in rehearsal. In a strange way, the break we have had to take since the first rehearsal phase has given me time to pause and take stock - and really appreciate the process of creating theatre. We are now two and a half weeks away from the first night, and I can't wait to see it come to life.

Friday, 16 April 2010

SWWOM: End of Phase One

We have now finished our three weeks/twelve days of rehearsal over the Easter break for 'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me', which is also the main rehearsal phase. It's been challenging but highly rewarding, and the run yesterday was tremendously exciting to watch. Fundamentally, we achieved two goals: to have a performable play, but with enough space to grow before we actually open.

And now comes the biggest challenge of all: maintaining a show whilst going back into full time classes and rehearsals for other projects. We will not have an opportunity to rehearse together again for two weeks, and then only weekly (for definite) until we open.

Come along and see how we do!

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

SWWOM: Week Two

Today was the first day back in rehearsals for my graduation play after the Easter break. The play is Frank McGuinness' 'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me'; about three men taken hostage in Lebanon in the 1980s. Although the play is based on real events (in particular, the experiences of Irishman, Brian Keenan), all the characters in the play are fictitious. It's known as the "bad joke" play i.e. 'An Englishman, an Irishman and an American...etc', but it's one of the most moving things I've ever seen/read. Even now, in rehearsal, there are moments that leave me speechless (and that's pretty unusual!).

So far the rehearsal period has been a mix of long-form improvisation and careful text study. On the first day, in an attempt to give the actors some taste of what a real hostage might go through (albeit in a sanitised, 'safe' environment), I arranged for four other volunteer actors to ambush us mid-rehearsal and conduct a hostage simulation for the rest of the day. Using fake guns and covering their faces with balaclavas and scarves, the hostage takers burst in shouting gobbledegook. They forced all of us down onto the floor and blindfolded the cast. I was then free to (silently) watch and orchestrate the remaining events of the day. These included interrogations and terrorising (using a rolled up newspaper to aggressively hit the floor and walls around the actors, randomly stroking their hair, alternating between anger and comfort, and moving them round the room at random), culminating in the actors one-by-one being led out of our building and into next door to a room that had had its windows and doors blocked up with black fabric. When they needed the toilet, the cast were escorted - blindfolded - across the hall. Their lunch was brought to them and consisted of: a roll, a hard-boiled egg, some jam and a lump of cheese. This was a day's ration of food that Brian Keenan received during part of his tenure as a hostage. The 'cell' was the actors' home for three hours. In total, the exercise took 6 hours.

This may seem an extreme way to begin rehearsals for a play, but there were certain circumstances that allowed me to take such a liberty. First, all the actors - at a previous read-through - had asked to take part in a lock-in of some kind for 48 hours (even more extreme than my own devising). And second, we had worked as a company on a trailer for the production and so had already built up a level of trust. The rewards of that day have been extraordinary. It serves as a kind of shared language and "reference book" for the discoveries we've later made about relationships and behaviour between the hostages. For example, the rapid conditioning of human responses (e.g. whenever the guards entered the cell, the actors would automatically retreat to their corners and cover their eyes) and bonding together were stronger than I could have imagined. Other interesting things that cropped up was the suspicion of new arrivals, the characterising of the guards ('It's Ok Man'), and the confusion of not knowing whether it was day or night and the body's instinct to shut off and sleep in order to cope.

Other long-form improvisations we've done include two hours of the actors as themselves 'in the cell' (tied by the ankle with rope to the walls) - to have some experience of the boredom of life as a hostage; character-building improv set before their character was taken, as well as exploring scenes preceding the action of scene one (e.g. the first meeting of Edward, the Irishman, and Adam, the American). Always, these exercises are rooted in trying to explore facets of the text, and today was the first time the actors actually stood up and spoke the full text aloud. Now our focus has shifted from background and building up emotional and physical memories to mounting the action of the play itself.

Exciting times!

Saturday, 3 April 2010


Hello and welcome to my Directing blog :-)

I'm about to go into my final term at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School as a student Director. Here I will be listing all my past, current and future projects, as well as giving an insight into the life of an aspiring drama director. I'll let you know how I get on in the big bad world after graduation - I hope you find it interesting; and feel free to join in!