School Links Are Proving an Education

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Originally written for The Stage.

In straitened times, collaboration is a word that seems to be constantly on the lips of those working in theatre. While this is no reason to drop the fight for arts funding, financial challenges have had the silver lining of producing a number of surprising but fruitful partnerships, be they between fellow artists, artists and venues, or across organisations.

Among these collaborations, some of the most creative and supportive are those that have developed between theatre makers and higher education institutions. This is not a new link, as universities and drama schools have long nurtured the next generation’s theatre makers, but now several organisations are looking at how to strengthen, build and innovate these connections, offering benefits that go both ways.

In many cases, such partnerships are born out of financial necessity. Clean Break, for example, have a 14-year, “multi-faceted” relationship with Royal Central School of Speech and Drama which was originally part of a funded education initiative, but their more recent partnerships with institutions including the University of the Arts and Rose Bruford had “an economic imperative” alongside the broader goal of widening participation. Director and writer Vicky Jones, meanwhile, admits that a real advantage of DryWrite’s partnership with Oxford School of Drama is that they do not have to raise funds for the projects they collaborate on.

Although higher education institutions are also facing cuts, universities and drama schools usually still have more resources at their disposal than independent artists – resources which are increasingly being shared. James Stenhouse, one half of performance duo Action Hero, explains that a great benefit of their relationship with the University of Chichester is the opportunity this affords them to make work in a well resourced environment, an opportunity they might not otherwise have.

Often the starting point for more extended partnerships is a simple teaching relationship which then develops into something deeper. Practitioners from Clean Break regularly deliver lectures for Central, while the foundation of DryWrite’s relationship with Oxford School of Drama is the company’s collaboration on the students’ third year show, which forms a cornerstone of their course. DryWrite now work to deliver a “unique and bespoke” final piece with third year students, bringing in playwrights such as Patrick Marber, Penelope Skinner and James Graham.

However, as Stenhouse is keen to point out, independent theatre makers do not necessarily have to take on regular teaching posts in order to make a living. Despite Action Hero’s long relationship with the University of Chichester, neither Stenhouse nor fellow artist Gemma Paintin are on the staff, and Stenhouse stresses the danger of getting “caught in a loop where we’re training the next generation of artists to teach the next generation of artists”.

In an attempt to break this loop, several of the organisations nurturing such relationships point to their vital role in bridging the gap between higher education and the reality of the theatre industry. At the most basic level, theatre companies working in partnership with higher education organisations can offer work experience for students, but often relationships extend much further than this.

Paul Hunter of Told by an Idiot, whose relationship with RADA was the product of “completely artistic reasons”, explains that the school’s principal Edward Kemp was “very interested in the notion of actors making more of their own work”. As a result, Told by an Idiot have begun developing work with students right from its earliest stages, a practice that they hope to build on. Similarly, one of the crucial aims of the University of Chichester’s relationship with Action Hero – and, more recently, with artists’ collective Forest Fringe – is to offer their students a real sense of what it means to be a working artist.

While most of these relationships have developed through a combination of necessity, accident and artistic curiosity, the longstanding partnership between Accidental Collective and the University of Kent has roots that go back as far as the company’s inception. When co-artistic directors Daisy Orton and Pablo Pakula decided that they wanted to make work together after graduating, the university offered them the opportunity to become their first supported graduate company, acting as “guinea pigs” for a new initiative to retain theatre makers in the region.

The company have since taught at the university, collaborated with academics on a number of research projects, events and publications, and established Pot Luck, a performance platform supporting contemporary theatre makers in Kent. “It’s set us on a very particular path,” says Pakula, recognising how rooted they now are in the local area. “Our practice has been strongly shaped by the region, and by our position between the university and the region. We have, in some ways, acted as a bridge.”

For Sam Hodges, the new artistic director of the Nuffield Theatre, it is important that the theatre’s relationship with the University of Southampton – on whose campus it sits – stretches further than just its arts departments. Since taking the reins he has been working simultaneously on a number of new initiatives, many of which link the activities of the theatre with the university’s leading science and engineering departments, with the aim of creating a “pooled vision and strategy”.

“It makes sense that in a bid to perfectly reflect and embody the qualities of its environment, the theatre should create work that is provocative and intellectually stimulating, provide opportunities of training and professional development, and develop a profile and reputation which reaches well beyond Southampton into the national and international field,” Hodges explains.

Perhaps the most exciting element of these emerging partnerships is their potential to create unique and unexpected outcomes, often through the collision of different artistic approaches. Hodges’ attempt to bring together art and science is one such instance, while the pairing of Told by an Idiot’s highly visual aesthetic with the more traditional actor training of RADA is another prime example. These unanticipated benefits can even have international reach, as with the cultural exchange that the University of Chichester have helped to establish between Action Hero, Forest Fringe and a group of artists in San Francisco.

The real opportunity of these new collaborations, as Hunter recognises, is to open up both artists and students to new possibilities. “Sometimes I think you can learn and be provoked more by going to a place that feels different, rather than aligning yourself always with people who feel familiar.”

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The Nutcracker, Nuffield Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

As Chris Thorpe acknowledged while discussing Northern Stage’s Christmas show, there is something about this time of year that feels intimately tied up with stories. Whether it is fairytales, stories of Santa or the tale of the nativity itself, the festive season is drenched in narrative. The story chosen for this year’s family show at the Nuffield Theatre is one so familiar that it has become part of the cultural fabric of Christmas, but the creative team have approached it from a slightly less familiar angle. A play with songs rather than the well known ballet, this is a Nutcracker with no Sugarplum Fairy and rather more back story, taking its lead from ETA Hoffman’s original tale.

Unfortunately, the story is the very element that lets this production down. Here, young Clara’s journey into the Land of Sweets and the central battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King occupy only a fraction of the stage time, the greater portion of which is taken up by exposition and scene-setting. The darker elements of Hoffman’s short story are welcome antidotes to what can be a queasily saccharine tale, but their incorporation into Hattie Naylor and Paul Dodgson’s script is decidedly laboured. We find out plenty about the curse of the Nutcracker and how he came to be the enemy of the wicked Mouse King, but all in a series of scenes that play out like an extended prologue. The first act ends beautifully, with an image to send chills down the spines of the children in the audience, but there is a niggling feeling that it is only just getting to the heart of the narrative.

This adaptation is also one that suffers from something of an identity crisis. The conventions of audience interaction are called upon early on, as the performers enter through the auditorium and talk to the kids on the way, but from this point onwards the piece is torn between fourth wall storytelling and pantomime style involvement. The narrator figure is an odd fit with the rest of the show, while the recruiting of the audience to hurl foam balls during the battle scene – while undeniably great fun – jars awkwardly with the action that has preceded it. Neither simple storytelling exercise nor riotous panto romp, The Nutcracker wants to be both at once, but struggles to knit the two genres successfully together.

There is, however, a fair sprinkling of magic in Blanche McIntyre’s production. The opening scene is a delight, pulling out all the tricks of the stage to establish a mood of enchantment and wide-eyed wonder, while raising several gasps from its young audience in the process. These moments of dazzled awe are the most rewarding, reminding adults as well as children just how magical theatre can be. Rhys Jarman’s design does a lot of the legwork, offering a series of charming transformations, while the cast bring an infectious energy to the range of roles they are asked to adopt throughout the twisting narrative.

The production is at its best when playful, whether that is the deliciously hammed up villainy of the Mouse King or the cheekily self-aware conclusion. At the end, the characters leave us deliberately in doubt about the nature of what we have seen, embracing the more uncertain and dreamlike qualities of Hoffman’s tale. Implicit in this ending is a question about stories themselves – why we tell them, what they mean to us, and when they become real. It is only a shame that it takes this long for the storytelling to come into its own.

Tom Scutt: Deceptive Minimalism

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Watching Constellations, Nick Payne’s delicate exploration of love and the multiverse, I struggled to keep my eyes off the balloons. Like a birthday party run riot, Tom Scutt’s design was full of the things – white, weightless, hovering above the stage. Throughout the show, these floating objects spoke continually to Payne’s themes, lightly hinting at atoms, at possibilities, at easily punctured hope. In a similar way, 13 was refracted through the huge black box that dominated the stage of the Olivier, its nightmarish presence suggesting everything that was so disquieting about Mike Bartlett’s vision.

“It’s just a black box; it’s just a load of white balloons,” Scutt says when we chat in the Royal Court bar, acknowledging the simplicity of these designs with a smile. He goes on to describe his design for The Djinns of Eidgah, currently running in the Court’s upstairs theatre, as “just a load of string”. This simplicity, however, often contains within it great complexity. While Scutt’s portfolio features an impressive range of work – from the minutely detailed pub of The Weir to the magical landscape of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – it can usually be characterised by an intellectual depth that belies its surface charm.

When I suggest that the deceptive minimalism of the sets for Constellations and 13 is what makes them work, Scutt nods, but jumps in to qualify the uncluttered clarity of these concepts. “You can tell when simplicity is simplicity because of ease and when simplicity is simplicity because of something that is constantly feeding the audience,” he explains carefully. For Scutt, design is always about feeding the audience, about offering them something beyond a straightforward setting for dramatic action.

As in Constellations and 13, Scutt’s designs have a habit of excavating something within the plays they contain. This is perhaps a result of Scutt’s process, which tends to involve more reading and writing than it does drawing – a “dirty confession” for a designer. “I can’t really design unless dramaturgically I know what’s going on,” Scutt tells me, revealing that his process is “very argy-bargy with other people’s roles in the team”. While he shies away from the term “collaborative”, which he feels is over-used, Scutt is keen to dissolve some of the misleading distinctions between creative roles, explaining that “it’s a completely fluid affair when I’m working with a director”. When he first worked with Natalie Abrahami, for example, she brought in a set of storyboards, while he arrived armed with a heavily annotated script.

Scutt’s way of working, which he describes as a “really rigorous process of elimination of ideas”, also means that the design often takes shape relatively late into the process. But when it does finally fall into place, he knows that it’s right: “I don’t know what anything is going to look like for so long, and then suddenly it just lands and it makes sense.” Despite the dramaturgical rigour of his process, however, the designs that Scutt has been most satisfied with have all been born from instinctive ideas that “won’t fuck off”. “It’s intuitive,” he says, “the gut just goes ‘this is right’.”

This was certainly the case with 13, which was “there all the time; I just couldn’t get it out of my head”. The monolithic revolving cube was “tonally right” for the play, Scutt explains, rather than drawing on one particular theme. The image of the box represented “science and religion in one, it was Pandora’s Box, it was nightmares, it was an alarm clock, it was an iPhone and a laptop, a black hole that you stare into, it was 2001 Space Odyssey, it was the blue box in Mulholland DriveA similarly multi-layered collage of ideas informed the design for Constellations, which alluded to “synapses in the brain and atoms and sperm and weddings and parties”, while at the same time combining great beauty and profundity with something “shit and basic and sort of mundane”. In both instances, the design seized on something in the metabolism of the play without taking any literal inspiration from the text.

Although these conceptual designs might be some of the most rewarding, they are also some of the hardest – “it always scares the bejeezus out of me,” Scutt laughs. “It’s what Carrie Cracknell would call hard good,” he continues. “It’s really satisfying, it’s really crunchy and you really have to get your head round it.” But, for all his enthusiasm for the minimal and conceptual, Scutt also makes a vital clarification about his more realistic designs. “When I do a ‘naturalistic’ design, or a perceived naturalistic design, it’s actually not at all,” he says, expressing frustration at readings of his work which underestimate the work being done just below the surface. Whether it is the wild, playful quality of the taxidermy that cluttered No Quarter in the upstairs space at the Royal Court, or the fractured, schizophrenic tone of his design for Cracknell’s production of Wozzeck for the ENO, there is always more to Scutt’s designs than immediately meets the eye.

“There’s way more thought that goes into these things than people understand,” Scutt says, referring as much to other designers as to himself. We discuss Ian MacNeil’s hauntingly elegant designs for A Doll’s House and Desire Under the Elms, while I later think of the seemingly stripped backed simplicity of Chloe Lamford’s set for The Events and the amount of work it is quietly doing in that piece. Scutt suggests that the nature of the theatre culture in this country means that some audiences – and particularly some critics – are not “visually astute”, and that the expectations of naturalism often lead to a misreading of ostensibly realistic designs. “If someone sees a chair, they go ‘ah, I know where I am’, and so they quantify it in terms that they can relate to,” he explains.

As well as falling foul of misunderstandings about how design enters into dialogue with a show, Scutt thinks that designers suffer from a rigid and often inaccurate distribution of creative roles by critics and commentators. This is highlighted particularly by awards, which sharply divide recognition into job titles – something with which Scutt and the whole creative team felt uncomfortable when Constellations was showered with nominations. “We all felt really weird that anybody could be split up in that way,” he remembers. “We made a thing; it wasn’t a play with a design, it wasn’t something that you could just whack on stage and it just happens that everything else is really nice. It was a thing, and it’s only what it is because of all the tiny little things that come together in a weirdly relevant way.”

Scutt’s suggested solution, as well as demystifying the roles of various different individuals in the theatremaking process, is to break down perceived hierarchies of creation. “We should all be as unimportant as each other,” he says, grinning at this idea. “I think that’s when it’s really exciting, because everyone’s opinion is valid and nobody’s opinion is wrong.”

This goes some way towards explaining Scutt’s latest challenge. He has recently been announced as one of the associates joining new artistic director Sam Hodges at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton – a rare instance of a designer being offered a position of this nature. As part of a team that includes playwright Adam Brace and directors Blanche McIntyre, Natalie Abrahami and Michael Longhurst, Scutt will be offered an equal hand in decision making, marking a move away from the traditional division of roles.

“It feels like a really healthy and interesting step for me to be involved in decisions when it comes to programming and casting and the building, rather than just necessarily the designs,” Scutt says, adding that he is embracing the experience as a chance to learn and evolve as an artist. One of his first projects will be a reunion with Constellations director Longhurst to work on a new version of Caryl Churchill’s A Number, which is due to open in February.

The structure of a building and Hodges’ flexible approach to creative roles, meanwhile, might offer Scutt the space to continue following his gut. Because when design works best, Scutt suggests, it comes from instinct rather than intellect. “That’s how I feel design should work, that it works intuitively,” he reflects. “You don’t have to justify it; it just sort of happens.”

Photo: Geraint Lewis.

Taking Wing: Headlong’s Emerging Director Scheme

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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

The Seagull, Nuffield Theatre

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There’s a canny, twisting circularity to this bold new version of Chekhov’s gloomy masterpiece. In an early conversation between lovesick young writer Konstantin and his uncle Sorin, a throwaway reference is made to Escher – master of the impossible image. As the play progresses, this glancing allusion becomes something of a metaphor; as in the artist’s famous staircases, Chekhov’s melancholic characters climb only to descend, walking round in hopeless, navel-gazing circles until the paradox of existence itself becomes inconceivable. Here the beautiful is also entrapping, leading to a dead end or a sharp drop.

Headlong’s take on The Seagull was never going to be blandly traditional, but this new interpretation by playwright John Donnelly and director Blanch McIntyre injects Chekhov’s play with impressive vigour, achieving the often promised but rarely delivered feat of rendering a classic totally fresh. The production applies a new lens to the text by wisely resisting the urge to wrestle it into contemporary trappings – the troublesome horses are still firmly present, alongside vaguely modern dress – instead embracing its vaunted timelessness. Much as the Young Vic’s recent version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House lightly played with temporality, displacing the narrative enough that it could seem somehow both period and contemporary, Chekhov’s characters are knocked out of their time.

This temporal displacement works across direction and design; Laura Hopkins’ empty grey shell of a set, virtually robbed of visual reference points, could almost be the post-apocalyptic landscape described in Konstantin’s play, the occasion for which Chekhov’s cast of ennui-stricken bourgeois characters are initially gathered. Throughout the romantic entanglements and artistic trials that follow, a long seesaw becomes the striking centrepiece of the stage, visualising the delicate and ever-shifting balance between the various characters. As one individual ascends, another is dumped unceremoniously back to earth.

As well as drawing attention to its own fragile equilibrium, this production is self-aware in other ways. McIntyre’s approach is deeply concerned with the latent theatricality present within the metabolism of the play, making the characters – in particular the aspiring young artists Konstantin and Nina – sporadically conscious of their own appearance before others, turning to address spectators in sequences that raise the house lights on the audience. Writing, meanwhile, leaves its physical trace on the back wall of Hopkins’ set, vividly animating the act of invention that sits at the play’s core. Essentially, McIntyre reveals this as a play about art, about how the artist sees both themselves and the world.

These particular artists, however, are frequently unlikable in their existential angst, schizophrenically veering between egotistical vanity and brittle, crippling despair. In one pivotal scene featuring Gyuri Sarossy’s quietly self-absorbed Trigorin, the writer’s mental masturbation is strikingly paired with its physical counterpart – a wanker in every sense – as he brings himself to climax while Irina hails him with a verbal assault of praise. Alexander Cobb’s whining Konstantin is little better, weakly reaching for a transcendental ideal that is quickly overshadowed by jealousy, while the excellent Abigail Cruttenden as his narcissistic mother incessantly struts, preens and flirts, the consummate actress in love with her own performance.

For all that stultifying stasis is foregrounded – stillness is central to the make-up of the scenes, while McIntyre is a director unafraid of onstage silences – there remains a certain muscularity to this production, a momentum beneath the lethargy. This is largely down to the vital aggression of Donnelly’s text, fuelled with much the same expletive-laced energy as Benedict Andrews’ revelatory, vodka-drenched Three Sisters, yet equally capable of subdued introspection. Chekhov’s characters might be in love with talking, favouring philosophising over action, but here no words feel wasted. As one character sardonically puts it, “there’s an art to tedium”, and it’s one that this production masters with fresh, fierce, invigorating intelligence.

Photo: Tristram Kenton.