Originally written for The Stage.
Beneath her eloquent enthusiasm, there’s a jangle of nerves in director Blanche McIntyre’s voice as we speak over the phone. It’s easy to understand why. After being widely tipped as one to watch and winning the Critics’ Circle Best Newcomer award, she is now taking on her biggest and riskiest project to date. This spring she is directing a new version of The Seagull with Headlong, touring to main stages around the country. For a director who has cut her teeth on the intimate spaces of the London fringe, it’s a huge leap.
The initiative allowing McIntyre to take this leap is Headlong’s emerging director scheme, which funds an annual midscale tour for a director in the early stages of their career. The programme, now in its fourth year, has previously supported work by Simon Godwin, Natalie Abrahami and Robert Icke, the last of whom is now the company’s associate director. The aim, as Headlong’s executive producer Henny Finch explains, is to stretch the artistic ambition of emerging directors within a touring structure.
“The key difference between this and other schemes is that it’s touring,” she says, keen to highlight the significance of this distinguishing factor. “It’s offering directors an opportunity to direct for a load of different spaces and to find out about how to programme for different audiences up and down the country.” Unlike building-based schemes such as the Donmar’s prestigious resident assistant director programme, Headlong offers emerging and mid-career directors the chance to present work on stages ranging from the Richmond Theatre to Newcastle’s Northern Stage, supported by an experienced creative and technical team.
Headlong’s departing artistic director Rupert Goold also points to the importance of creating work for different venues, explaining how his own early experiences of working both in London and regionally offered him “a great insight into different audiences and spaces”, with a huge impact on his subsequent practice. “I am a firm believer in giving people the opportunity to learn their craft in a practical way,” Goold adds, speaking of his desire to offer directors “chances to test themselves in larger theatres and a route beyond the fringe”.
The scheme that has allowed him to offer those opportunities first emerged through a partnership with the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, which as executive producer Kate Anderson explains has a long-standing relationship with Headlong and a strong affinity with its work. Seeking to pair an exciting director with a classic text, the project was first trialled with Simon Godwin’s production of A Winter’s Tale in 2010, followed by bold versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and last year’s widely acclaimed Romeo and Juliet. Anderson makes it clear that artistic quality has always been at the scheme’s heart: “It’s led by the work and by practising artists, rather than led by a scheme that has a fixed set of rules. That makes its aspirations very high indeed artistically.”
For McIntyre, this has meant the chance to work on a bold and ambitious scale, offering an interpretation of The Seagull that uses a striking design concept to “go back to what the nature of the play is and do something unusual with it that’s going to bring that out”. Scale is key here; by touring to a selection of midscale venues, the scheme offers a rare opportunity for directors to think outside the small confines of fringe theatres and studio spaces.
“It’s definitely working on a bigger scale,” says Finch, who is concerned that many mid-career directors currently get stuck producing work for smaller venues. The scheme also bridges a troubling career gap for directors and, perhaps even more importantly, does so within a specifically regional context. While many talented directors thrive on the London fringe, the step up to regular work for main stages is a massive and often daunting one. As McIntyre acknowledges, being offered an opportunity to take that step is extremely unusual: “The idea that there is a project that exists which allows someone to take massive risks, to allow a director to really test themselves artistically and creatively – and not only to do that, but to do it on a national scale in a whole range of different venues – is absolutely extraordinary.”
Finch sees Headlong’s scheme as a long term strategy, one that is vital in the current environment of funding cuts. She notes the contrast with her own experience of starting out in the late 1990s, pointing to the opportunities that allowed her and Goold to get where they are. “It’s very different now,” she observes grimly. “So we think we need to keep providing opportunities like the ones we had, which were much easier to come by then when there was much more money around. Because otherwise in 15 years time, when we start to look to the new generation of artistic directors, we’re going to be really impoverished.”
With the search beginning for Goold’s replacement, Finch is firm in stating that this scheme will continue under the company’s new artistic director, expressing a commitment that is echoed at the Nuffield. From both organisations, there is a sense that what they are doing is essential – not just for the individuals who directly benefit, but for the whole landscape of regional and touring theatre. As Anderson concludes, with reserved optimism, “none of us can change the world, but we can all do a little bit”.
Photos: Tristram Kenton