UPSTAIRS / DOWNSTAIRS – DIRECTING IN THE LITTLE THEATRE STUDIO

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I’m currently directing a play in the studio called The Country by Martin Crimp. It’s a modern play that drips with menace and barely repressed eroticism (or at least, I hope it does) and it’s my third directorial effort in the Studio.

Compared to the traditional Proscenium Arch of the main stage, the studio has important differences. For one, it offers flexible staging arrangements. On my first play the audience were on one side, staring straight at the production; in my second they were on two sides, like theatrical tennis; for The Country they are branching onto three sides. Count them, three – we are almost surrounded. But this flexibility is appealing, and no matter what the formation, the actors and audience will be close together, intimate, and connected.

The studio also offers the chance to do plays that may not appeal to so broad an audience, but which are challenging or suited to a smaller venue. They might even be, I hesitate to say, “edgier.” We can have more “Adult Themes,” which we try to specify on the posters so audiences aren’t surprised by all the stripping, stabbing and swearing (of which there still, sadly, isn’t that much).

Directing in the Studio:

Choosing the play

The Studio suits simple staging, with a minimum of set and a maximum of suggestion. I like shorter, more intense plays with smaller casts and a lot of room for interpretation. The Country has a cast of three. It’s around an hour and twenty minutes long, runs with no interval, and asks the audience to fill in a lot of gaps. It’s about the relationship between three people and the simmering undercurrents of a marriage.

Preparation

One of the stranger things about directing is that you live with the play a long time – it can be months from the point where the theatre sanctions your production until you actually start rehearsal. I don’t like to block any moves in advance as I’d rather work it out with the actors, but I’m always itching to do some kind of preparation. For The Country, we researched pictures of the kind of cottage the characters live in, images of standing stones (can’t get enough of these) and mapped out some of the more obvious backstory to give to the actors. It gives us an agreed starting point – if one actor is picturing they live in a massive mansion while the other pictures a hellish hovel, they are not acting in the same production. The same if one actor thinks they’ve been married for fifteen years but the other thinks five days. As many things as we can agree before we start gives us a solid foundation to build on.

Rehearsal

I’ve not directed any of these actors before and don’t know any of them that well – but I’ve seen them all in other productions so they have my complete confidence from the start. One of the lovely things I enjoy about acting is you get to moan a lot – you can do your bit, then go and have a cup of tea and opine how it could all be so much better! When you’re directing, you don’t have this privilege – which is a struggle as I like to moan. If you’re directing and it’s not very good, it’s no one’s fault but your own, and you need to find a solution. I’m not very imaginative, so I rely on the cast to come up with ideas – but I am good at telling if the ideas work. Rehearsals are sometimes like this – trying different things until we settle on one we can agree on. It is nerve wracking in one sense, as I don’t know when we start what form the production will ultimately assume. People often describe a director as being good because “they know what they want,” which worries me as I really don’t know what I want – I just know the play very well, and until we arrive at something successful during rehearsals I only have an idea of the general tone and the “intention” of the author. But that’s the fun of it, unless it all goes wrong. It has taken us four weeks to work through the play chronologically and make our decisions about each bit so we have a rough shape to polish. I think it’s okay so far. I’ll just have to moan to myself in the mirror.

Show Week

I am sort of confident: the play is brilliant, the cast are individually superb and it just needs me not to muck it up. The poster says we have Adult Themes, and I also want to make sure we sell out, so I need to up the ante on the sex, drugs and rock and roll. There is a bit of sex and drugs in the play. I may add some rock and roll over the intro.

So it’s on its way, and as a director I am always filled with gratitude towards the myriad other people who make the theatre run and get the plays on and know how to do all the other things I don’t know how to do. Thank you to them. If you do come and see The Country, let me know what you think – genuinely, I would like to hear people’s honest opinion. Otherwise how do you ever learn anything? Seek me out and give it to me straight – if you do make me cry, I’ll hold in the tears until I get home. I will keep my eroticism repressed. Look me in the eye and tell me the truth – I’ll be in the bar afterwards wearing a blue cardigan and a ginger beard.

Pip Nixon

‘The Country’ plays between 24th-27th June.

http://www.thelittletheatre.net/whats-on/the-country/