Originally written for The Stage.
Ben Kidd is puzzling over what it means to be a director. Does it mean being in charge of a production? Is it about getting the most out of actors? Is it to do with serving the vision of another, or being the author of your own work? “Being a director only really consists in making decisions,” he eventually concludes. “You’re trying to assemble as many people as you can who you think are really really good at what they do – designers or writers or actors or whatever – and then you’re basically saying ‘that and not that’.”
We’re chatting in the bar of the Young Vic, something of a spiritual home for Kidd. It’s the theatre where he was given some of his early assistant directing opportunities, where he received the Genesis Future Directors Award in 2012, and where his Dublin-based company Dead Centre are about to present the London premiere of their show Lippy. “The Young Vic was somewhere that I found a like-minded assortment of people who thought about directing as a thing,” he explains.
Kidd arrived at directing via acting after training at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. While training and working as an actor, he was “schooled in this idea that a director helps actors to connect with the text and delivers the play”, an idea that he has progressively broken away from. “There’s a perception of the director as being someone who is either birthing or yielding somebody else’s vision,” Kidd observes, adding that he is more interested in how directing might involve an element of autobiography.
“When I think back to who my gods were growing up, they weren’t theatre directors,” Kidd says. Instead his idols were writers and musicians – he names Bob Dylan and Patti Smith – who poured something of themselves into their work. “It would have been nonsensical if all their work didn’t bear the hallmark of who they were as people,” Kidd suggests. He believes that the same should be true of directing; he wants to “create a new thing in the world”, a thing that bears his signature as a creator.
“If you go and see a Katie Mitchell play, they basically all look the same and feel the same in a sort of profound way,” he offers as an example. “That’s not a bad thing. That’s because she’s in there, her politics are in there, her concerns are in there, and she’s filtered those concerns through artistic practice. That is what real artists do.”
Mitchell has clearly been a major inspiration for Kidd in the process of discovering what directing means to him. He recalls a workshop during which she demanded of the participants: “What do you want to achieve? Find out what you want to achieve and then find out the best way to achieve it”. Whether working with Dead Centre or freelance directing for the likes of the Young Vic and Headlong, this is advice that Kidd has tried to stick to.
He admits, however, that building a career as a director is “really hard”. Despite winning the Genesis Future Directors Award, directing a main-stage tour of Spring Awakening for Headlong last year and gathering a string of awards for Lippy, Kidd still only directs part-time, a situation that is common among directors in the UK. “It does seem to be that directors’ pay hasn’t kept up with pay elsewhere in the industry,” Kidd says, reflecting on the recent research into directors’ fees. “We subsidise the industry because there are loads of us who really want to do it and will kill for a job.”
On the one hand, this lack of money can be liberating and encourage greater risk-taking. As Kidd puts it, “you gain the bloody mindedness to make what you want because you’re not going to make a living from not doing it, so you might as well do it.” But on the other hand, the financial insecurity of making theatre can restrict who enters the profession and impoverish it as a result. “An art form probably is better if a wider section of society is in it,” says Kidd, “it’s going to have more interesting stories.”
Kidd has another thought about the role of the director. “I think that the job is just about returning an audience to a sensation you had when first read a play, or when you first heard of an idea,” he says. The best shows, he suggests, are built around points when that sensation is briefly captured and the mood suddenly changes – what a friend of Kidd’s describes as “David Bowie moments”. “Great plays often hinge on a moment or a series of moments that are a shift in atmosphere, a shift in emotional resonance, a dropping out of the world. Something happens where the world changes.”
Photo: Tristram Kenton.