Monday 16 May 2011

Nancy Baker

Nancy Baker is originally from San Francisco, California.  She is a theatre director and lives in Los Angeles.  She doesn’t own a TV or a microwave.  It’s not so much that she’s an earth avenger, technology just escapes her.  

I caught up with Nancy on Skype.

Nancy Baker
Friday, May 13 2011
Los Angeles 3pm
Bristol 11pm

What are you working on at the moment?

I was approached by a medical organization to have actors put on scenarios. They’ve asked me to put that together and its… all a bit experimental in the corporate world.  Theatrically, I’m looking at places out of a LA, to do this play, sending out proposals and such.  It’s a play I’ve done before so just working on finding space and money.  We’re always looking for money.

What’s the play?

It’s called Dear Mrs Baker, and oddly enough, its about my mom.  About the guys in Vietnam who wrote her letters, there were more than 50 of them.  The play takes their writing and creates this dual world, of this San Francisco house with Vietnam surroundings.

Why were the soldiers writing to your mom?

She is an interesting women.   She’s pretty conservative.  She didn’t like all the protesters and thought that was very disloyal.  She met my dad at a USO dance, so what does that tell you?!   There was a man in 1965 that wrote an Op -Ed piece to the local paper saying,

Soldier: While you guys are protesting, we are dying for the right to protest

My mom was so embarrassed by the protesters that she wrote him a letter saying,

Mom:  Not all of us feel this way. I don’t really have much to offer you.  Here are some cookies.

He shared the cookies.   Those guys sent thank you notes and then it snowballed from there.  She wrote to these guys for five years.  And when they came home, they’d go through San Francisco and my dad would collect them from their base and my mom would throw a big welcome home party.  The Vietnam Memorial Wall’s 30th anniversary is in two years.  Were trying to get the play up in other places, so that it will easily go to DC. 

What would you say is your directing style?

Hmmm…laughing. Outcome specialist.  I was an actor for 30 years and I definitely have an acting/Meisner approach.  I like it to be a very collective process, in a way, but I also believe in steering a ship and have it reach an ultimate, visual conclusion. I don’t tend to be too autocratic but the vision is the vision.   Stubbornly chill.

What is it like being a theatre director in Los Angeles, the land of film and tv?

Lonely.  Its interesting because you’ll be at a theatre event and someone asks what you’ve done, you tell them, and they turn around and say,

Someone: Well darling, you haven’t really don’t anything have you?! 

Nancy:  Hmm.  I thought the Kennedy Center was pretty impressive! 

It’s a funky dynamic of doing theatre in a non- theatre town.  What’s particurlarly frustrating for me is, theatre actors have tread boards, versus on camera where its all very minor, small and intimate.  The camera does so much for you.   That doesn’t play to the 50th row of a theatre where you have to be big, without losing that intimacy.  A lot of actors in LA aren’t theatre trained and have more difficulty with that.

Who or what inspires you?

What, would be fear.  I’m really inspired by people working and struggling and the moment right before they make it.  It makes me want to keep doing it.  It makes me curious to the work being the most important thing. The people who are really still hungry.   I'm inspired by people’s hunger and motivated by fear.  There you go!

What type of theatre are you drawn to?

Original theatre, the classics, fluff, social commentaries. Any art that makes someone think and feel is successful.  As a director, if I’m reading a play and half way through it hasn’t made me care, I move on.

What are the challenging aspects of making theatre during our current economic times?

Theatre is expensive.  The devil is in the details.  Space is expensive, electricity is expensive, printing.  It makes theatre owners less willing to risk and makes theatre companies have to struggle so much more to get stuff made.  There are funds but you have a lot of people competing for those. A lot of film actors try and throw together a show because they want to be seen, an agent wont show up, but they want to say they’ve been in something, because at least they’re working.  That has value.  That's WHY they look for those funds. You have to get creative about how you are going to fund something.

Dream projects?

It would be at the Gate Theatre in Dublin with Anthony Hopkins, Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Day Lewis.

Final question.  Is the director dead?

Every symphony needs a conductor.   Every ship needs someone steering it.  Theatre is ultimately a lovely, visual piece and in order to do that I think you have to step outside and have someone minding the vision.   Actors, if they’re doing their job properly are to close to see, so for me, it’s not possible to do a successful piece without a director.

Thanks Nancy for sharing your thoughts!

"I will say nothing to an actor that cannot be translated into action." Elia Kazan

"The essence of the stage is concentration and penetration. Of the screen action, movement, sweep."  Elia Kazan

Sunday 8 May 2011

Sam Ellis

Sam Ellis, is originally from Vancouver, Canada and lives in Bristol, England.  He is a film and theatre director who has had a few different lives, traveling the globe from Vancouver Island, to Germany, and Scotland.  He is an alum of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Sam Ellis
Saturday, May 7th 2011
Clifton, Bristol 1:30pm

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working with the Bristol Acting Academy, and directing their showcase.  It’s a bit teaching and directing. I’m really enjoying enthusing people, seeing new talent, and encouraging that talent. Because I have a family, having a steady income is more of what I’ve been focusing on.

How did you get into directing?

I was a policeman for three years, before going to drama school.  I started doing corporate role-plays as a police officer and working with a corporate company, when the director of that company left.  I said I’d fill in until they found a proper director.  I was still there after four years making films for the Crown Prosecution Service and Lord Chancellor's Department, dealing with crews and big budgets.  I became a director by default.  I found it very fulfilling, to get actors together and tell a story.

What do you look for in an actor?

Courage.   Courage, to be open and honest. To give it a go and not worry too much if they succeed or fail.   Integrity.  I certainly wouldn’t be looking for ego.  An actor’s ego gets in the way of  the work.  Generosity is very important when working in a team.  The ability, to tell a beautiful lie, truthfully.

How does your work as a director and actor inform you as a teacher of acting students?

I encourage and help them feel safe, so that they’re in a safe place to explore.  I’m not necessarily out for results. I’m after a sense of ownership from the actor, because ultimately, from there, comes a sense of truth.  I feel that theatre really is an actor’s medium, I think you’re there to help the actor find the truth in the scene. That truth is what's important to an audience rather than any obvious director's input. Good theatre direction should almost go unnoticed.

Who or what inspires you?

Frank Capra.  It’s a Wonderful Life, for it's story telling.  I love anything by the Cohen Brothers, Tim Burton.  People that have a quirky take on things.  Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman.  [Steven]  Spielberg, who I’ve been lucky to work with on Saving Private Ryan.  I was inspired being on the film set, and as the actor thinking ‘oh I’ve got three hours before I shoot this thing’  and then looking at the director whose thinking ‘I’ve got three hours to solve this thing’  It’s a lot of troubleshooting, problem solving, as opposed to the actor who is trying to conserve his energy for the scene.  So watching that, and watching him work very closely with his crew, was hugely inspiring. There was no ego.  He was completely open to the expertise of his team.  That made me realise, that what you do as a director, is you facilitate a creative team.   To bring out the best in each of those members of the team, that’s what the job is!

Dream Projects?

I was an actor for 20 years and have been a director for 9.   My aspiration really, is to continue making money doing what I love.  As a kid, I had this fantasy novel, that if I had the money, I’d like to make it into a film.   I always hope when I read a script or screenplay that it will excite and inspire me.  So I hope I keep getting inspired.

Final question.  Is the director dead?

Theatre is an actor’s medium and it should be an actor’s medium. A good actor has the ability to almost self-direct, an innate ability to understand what’s needed and get up and do it.  But if you have a group of actors, trying to direct by committee, then that’s doomed really.  You need someone to facilitate the process and to buffer the actor from the theatre management.  Free the actor to be creative.  Film is very much a director’s and editor’s medium.  A director is very well alive and kicking in film.  I’ve seen performances created in the editing room.  The shots, what you are getting the audience to look at, that’s all from the director’s point of view.  Without a director, film wouldn’t happen. I think the director is most definitely not dead, they are needed in both fields but for different reasons.

Thanks Sam for sharing your thoughts!

“Conscious preparation leads to unconscious inspiration”.  Stanislavsky.

Sunday 1 May 2011

The Fantastic Four- BOVTS Graduating Directors

This week I had the pleasure of meeting up with the graduating students of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School Directing Course.  It is an excellent program, that offers four special and talented individuals the opportunity to develop and hone their craft.  Their final projects, called Directors’ Cuts opens this Tuesday 3rd May and runs to 28th of May at the Alma Tavern in Clifton, Bristol.
For more info on their shows and how to get tickets please visit;

The Fantastic Four
Anna Girvan from Newcastle, UK
Matt Grinter from Bristol, UK
Ed Stambollouian from Kent, UK
Emel Yilmaz from Istanbul, Turkey

You can follow all the directors and their news on twitter@BOVTSDirectors

The Fantastic Four Interview:  Anna Girvan, Matt Grinter, Edward Stambollouian, Emel Yilmaz
Thursday, April 28th 2011
The Arts House Café, 4pm
Stokes Croft, Bristol

You are all currently preparing for your final projects, what plays have you chosen to do and why?

Matt: I’ve chosen Orphans, a play by Dennis Kelly.  It came after a lot of frantic reading over weekends. I ended up at Ed’s house crying I haven’t got a play!  and he gave me this one to read. It was just so engrossing, captivating and drew me in ‘till the end and I just thought this is the one I want to do.

Emel: I am directing Country Music by Simon Stephens.  One of the big reasons why I am doing this play is because I love the story.  I read loads of plays and I think the story of Jamie Carris, who is the main character in the play, is much closer to my heart, my kind of approach and style in theatre.

Ed: I am directing The Aliens by Annie Baker, which is a new American play and had its premiere at the Bush Theatre in London.  This is going to be its first UK revival.   Like Emel, I read a lot of plays before choosing our Alma’s.  This was the first play that made me, laugh a lot and made me cry… a little.

Roar of laughter.

Anna:  Come on big man!

Ed:  Man tears, man tears! It just made me smile and smile and the minute I put it down I wanted to read it again. 

Anna:  I’m directing Contractions by Mike Bartlett. When choosing for the Alma, which is quite a small space you have to think in terms of time restraints and small cast. I  came across Mike’s work, first done at the Royal Court, and like any good book you don’t want to put it down.  It made me laugh and I like the sort of dark, surreal twist of things.  

What are the positives and negatives about being a student during our current economic climate?

Matt:  The positive is that you’re a student!  The negatives are to go into a world that’s unsure at the best of times and at the moment, is terrifying.  The good thing about being a student is you really get to figure out your game plan.  Its tough for everyone and being at the being of your career, its always going to be tough.

Ed:  Training as young directors at the start of our career, more than anything, its given us the confidence in our own practice to go out and make work in the real world.  For me, I think this year has given me the confidence to walk into a rehearsal room and say I’m the director, I know what I’m doing, here we go!   Yes, it’s a difficult time to be a student, but it’s important to have that confidence in yourself and your own ability and that’s what Bristol has given me.

Anna:  And I think as a director its quite interesting listening to talks from Peter Hall,  who just kind of fell into it, before directors were even a big thing.  It was just through friends of friends in Cambridge, hey want to work on something by some guy Samuel Beckett and it just doesn’t seem to happen anymore, through these circles of friends. Hopefully this is what this helps to do as well, create these networks that are oh so important nowadays. It’s not necessarily like you’ve got the one step ahead for having training but it does give you that confidence.  Its give you the experience of working on tours, small scale, large scale, you may have not gotten otherwise.

Matt:  Yeah, I think that’s it.  If you can create something that people want to see, you’ll always get an audience. Its not about going and finding jobs necessarily, its about creating something, you can create from, like we have with Edible [Theatre] in Bristol and like the group we have here.

Emel:  Previously I was doing theatre and drama much more like facillating workshops and I was never able to specifically identify myself as a director.   Now I can quite confidently email a playwright and say I’m a director can I work with you!  That type of confidence and seeing yourself in your occupation… has been brilliant.  I just love being a student as well.

Anna:  I just can’t stop being a student!

My next question was going be about what you will take from the BOVTS directing course into your professional career and it sounds like confidence has been key for all of you.  What else will you take away from it?

Matt: It’s definitely people as well.  When auditioning for these shows, we said to everyone, come an audition even if you don’t think you are right for the part.  These are auditions for our next 5 shows!   These are the people we are going to be working with in the future.  And… friends for life.

All:  Awww!

You all seem to really connect as a group. What are some of the dynamics between you?  I hear you’re taking your shows to London together? 

Matt:  Yeah, we do seem to work quite well together.

Ed: Sometimes!

Emel:  Always love and hate relationship between me and Ed.  But we love each other.

Knowing smiles all around.

Ed: It’s been a bit different for us this year, because one of our directors called Selma, who was from Iceland, had family issues and had to go back.  So Anna, who did the course last year, has come back for the Alma season.  It’s been the three of us for a while and we bonded quite well.  Now its nice having Anna here from the viewpoint of a year outside drama school.  We’ve worked quite well together.  You mentioned our London run,  I don’t think it’s something the directors have done before together or at least not for some time. Because of our relationship, we decided to do it together.

Murmurs of agreement from all.

Emel:  Using this time, rather then competing but supporting each other as directors, is quite refreshing and I think everyone is enjoying that.

Matt:  Yeah, even you two. Gestures towards Emel and Ed.

Ed:  It’s nice to hear you say that!

Emel:  As I said, love and hate!

Ed:  It’s not a competition.

Emel:  Jokingly.  It will be!

Matt:  We're all pitching for one spot in the Brewery in September and we’ve all gone up for things at the same time, it’s always been a friendly banter. 

Ed:  There are so many people out there going for the same job, the same work, there is no point in us competing with each other. If one of us were to get something, it’s FANTASTIC.

Anna:  Half my jobs I’ve gotten because the directors had dropped out!  If you couldn’t do something, with your contacts, you can say hey, I know this director that would be perfect for it and you know they’ll do the same for you.  We’re all in it together. The more connections we can make, the more theatre we can make.  

Matt:  Definitely, definitely.  I don’t think we would’ve been able to get to Trafalgar Studios, if it wasn’t for the four of us.

Who inspires you?

Matt:  Ed.


Ed’s the big man here!

Emel:  The one to watch!

Ed:  Awesome.  That’s the end of the interview.

Matt:  Who inspires you Ed?

Ed:   One of the reasons I first got into theatre was because of my father.   He is actually, not in theatre at all, but he is hands down, the best storyteller you will ever meet. He’s Armenian, so he comes from that tradition of storytelling and he just tells a brilliant story.  All through my childhood, I heard these fantastic stories and thats what got me into it.  In terms of professional inspiration, it comes from a wide range of different artists.   

Emel:  It is hard to pinpoint one thing or person, there are so many.

Matt:  For me it’s Antonin Geller. He has the career I would love to have. I’d love to do what he did within film and theatre. He was one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met.  Very, very in touch, particularly in film, that makes the art form, seem like the secretary in the job.  He was able to stay true to what it was and made some of the most beautiful films and wrote the most beautiful plays of recent years.

Anna:  Companies that try and do theatre in different places other than the theatre.  That excites me. Storytelling in an unexpected way, people that want to push the boundaries. People like Katie Mitchell, who really made a female name for directors.  It was all your Peter Halls and Pinters and now Josie Rourke is taking over the Donmar [Warehouse]!  You’ve got female directors taking over huge spaces. Also, people who aren’t afraid of being the most unpopular person and be very much in their niche and say that's my style, I’m not trying to please everyone just to get a job.  Those types of people are very inspiring.

Emel: Going back to my background, I did community theatre and worked with Augosto Boal.  He inspires me a lot, in terms of storytelling, characters and how important characters are to storytelling.  He spent all his life using theatre as a tool for change.

Dream projects?

Matt:  There is a book that I have adapted, called The Otherwise Girl and I am hoping to make it into a feature length film.  I would love to work with my theatre company Edible Theatre and take shows from Bristol and successfully transfer them to the London fringe scene. My greater goals are projects rather than venues or jobs, but really, I just want to make a decent living doing all this stuff.

Ed:  I’d like to work at creating a new theatre space, don’t know where that would be, but that’s something that excites me a lot.  Programming new work and creating a space for artists as well as making my own work and directing.   Since I was eleven, I’ve had a dream of doing Titus Andronicus in a huge tent at Glastonbury. Beirut are going to do the soundtrack, circus performers and loads of fake blood! A multi-million pound project!

Anna: I agree with Matt that I'd like to just be able to make a stable living off directing theatre alone! I have always wanted to go back to Newcastle and set up a green theatre, in an old library on the edge of Heaton Park. It would be a hub for local arts and be very eco friendly (i.e. no touring companies from miles away, no/only disabled car park, bike racks, recycled sets, energy saving lighting, solar powered, recycled paper programmes and leaflets, only local bar snacks and drinks etc.   I'd love to direct a version if The Highwayman, a poem by Alfed Noyes, which I loved as a child.  I'd love to take it around the country to schools and towns in an old gypsy wagon with a troupe of talented actor-musicians bringing this poem to life through creating the sounds, smells, textures and images that it stirs in my mind when I read it.

Emel:  My doable dream project would be producing and directing my own writing and improving that way.  I would quite like to translate new writing from England into Turkish and produce it in Turkey.  There are so many good playwrights in England, that need to be celebrated more widely.  My big, big, dream job would be to be artistic director of the National Theatre.  As a woman and as a Turkish woman it would bring a different quality to it.  I really want to direct a play at the National Theatre!

Final question.  Is the director dead?

Ed:  I don't think the director is dead or dying but the role of director is evolving. Collaborative and company based work is starting to take more of a place in the mainstream. I think the hierarchy of director as god is a dead concept and the most exciting work for me is created when a director challenges the actors to lead the creative process.

Anna: The director is quite a new addition to the theatre and it has been changing its identity and definition ever since. There are so many more of us now and a lot more theatre happening as a result. We use the fact that we all have different approaches to theatre to our benefit and work together with other directors to create all sorts of different theatre and learn from one another. The director now is not just a young man educated at Cambridge that happens to know people who work at Stratford, though there are those lucky few, we now need CVs and references and 'internships' 'work experience' and 'placements' to prove that we are willing to work our guts out for nothing to make us a good director. We have more pressure in that respect but I think that so long the directors of today realise this and realise that the most important part of making theatre is to enjoy it, then the director will keep on thriving and evolving, as the theatre scene does itself.

Matt:  The director is not dead!  Theatre is the new rock and roll and although the roll of the director is developing and evolving it will always be an essential part of the creation process.

More on ANNA:

More on ED:
Ed just been involved in setting up a new fringe theatre IPhone app, Theatre Ninjas.  
Follow Ed on twitter@edstambo

Also, please help the gang raise funds to transfer their Bristol shows to London!

“Rehearsals are divided in two stages; the first stage is one of experiment when the cast helps the director. The second stage is creating the performance when the director helps the cast.”  Stanislavski

“Humans are capable of seeing themselves in the act of seeing, of thinking their emotions, of being moved by their thoughts. They can see themselves here and imagine themselves there; they can see themselves today and imagine themselves tomorrow.”
Augusto Boal

“But only if I believe that my directing talents will improve the material I'd be working on. I want to make sure I don't sacrifice beautiful material on the altar of my direction.”
Andre Braugher