Tuesday, 1 May 2012

BOVTS 2012 Graduating Directors

The Directors’ Cuts Season at the Alma Tavern, is a theatrical showcase for Bristol Old Vic Theatre School directing graduates.  It runs from May 1-26th.  On a rainy afternoon last week, Anna Girvan met for a chat with the 2012 graduating class.

Timothy Howe, Iain MacDonald, Anna Simpson, Ellie Trevitt
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Channings, 1.20pm 
Clifton, Bristol





What drew you to directing? Anna- Originally, I thought I wanted to be an actor.  In my drama society there were plays and a style of theatre that they just didn’t do. The only way to get them on was to do it myself, so I thought, ‘yeah, well, why not? I’ll give directing a go!’ I got the bug from there. It was hugely satisfying having a vision in your head and seeing it manifest, better than you could have envisioned, on the stage.

Tim – I started directing at school, just me being the bossy child. But in the final year some of us wrote a musical from scratch, directed and put the whole show together. I got bitten by the bug then. Like Anna, I went onto University, putting on work that other people weren’t doing which complimented my degree scheme.

Ellie – I was an actor for five years. I was forced into directing really. My part in a piece I was doing was literally taken off me and I was told I was to direct a festival piece instead, so I directed it, kicking and screaming, but loved it, absolutely loved it. I then spent four years directing for small companies up North before coming here.

Iain – I was a member of the Scottish Youth Theatre which is like the National Youth Theatre but… up in Scotland.


The first thing I did was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and from that I got asked to be in SYT Productions which was the semi-professional wing of SYT and we did a play called Dying For It, which was an NHS funded TIE thing… it was a lot better than it sounds.

All chuckle at this.

It was about sexually transmitted infections. It toured really successfully for about two years. I got on really well with the director and…

At this point we were interrupted by magical waiter who turned Anna’s pot of English Breakfast tea into Camomile tea and then back again. I suppose you had to be there…

Just after that I got more involved and realised I just got on better with actors rather than as one of them. I preferred being a collaborator rather than anything else.

What is your first theatrical memory?

Tim –I went to see pantomimes for many years at Nottingham Playhouse, near where I grew up, and there was this glorious moment…the Dame had gone swimming and he suddenly just appeared from a fly and was swimming in a UV scene. The actors around him were all in black with big cut-outs of neon fish, it was just amazing. I can’t remember anything else about that play apart from that one moment.

Ellie – We didn’t really go to the theatre when I was young partly because we didn’t live anywhere where there were theatres. That sounds weird but true, so I saw a lot of German Opera and a lot of Russian Ballet with big touring companies that came fairly nearby.  Other than that… my Dad as King Rat at the local pantomime. He was brilliant, the rest was rubbish, so from a young age I was put off pantomime but I do still like Opera, particularly German Opera.

Iain – The first thing I remember seeing, was a pantomime at Eden Court in Inverness, the closest sort of theatre to me. It was Postman Pat, the pantomime and they had real cars, which was amazing. I have one memory of a van driving on and the man, who clearly wasn’t the Pat, I knew that… but it looked like him, he came on with a man dressed as a cat as well. Oh… and I remember at school I was in the Easter show and I was Doubting Thomas, which is quite ironic now, these days.

All laugh.

Anna – My family aren’t theatrical in any way so I didn’t see much theatre apart from the odd pantomime, which didn’t particularly stick with me. I mainly got into it from being the annoying performing child who liked being on the stage. For me, I was more like 17 or 18. I got this brilliant drama teacher who showed me that theatre didn’t have to be a naturalistic drawing room drama where everything had to be literal, it was the first time, which sounds odd at that age, I came across the concept that theatre could be about ideas or it could be physical or it could be anything but an exact reflection of reality. That was the big revelation that got me into it more.

So, the first of your Directors’ Cuts Season starts next week. Tell me a little about the plays you have chosen and why?

Anna – I’m directing the first show, Disco Pigs by Enda Walsh. I came across it when I was studying in Ireland and the script really intrigued me. The language is unique. It’s a kind of Cork phonetic and Irish slang mixed with the characters own baby language, so it takes you a few minutes to get into it and understand, which is a brilliant challenge to direct and act. It also keeps changing location very quickly and runs at 100 miles an hour in the way the two characters live their lives, so you can’t take a naturalistic approach with it. It leaves it very open for a director to figure out how to best tell the story. I re-read it over the summer of the riots when there were all these debates about wayward youth.  These parallels then struck me and I thought it might be something interesting to draw out.  It’s just a gorgeous love story at the end of the day, between these people who could be really awful and despicable. They just drink and take drugs, beat people up and rebel but it is the relationship between them, which makes them very human. You see their vulnerability under all the bravado.

Tim – I’m directing The Yalta Game by Brian Friel. I didn’t have any ideas about what I wanted to do for my Alma, so I read lots of plays.  Yalta was quite an emotional reading. I cried at the end because it was such a powerfully simple story, about two people who fall in love, know they can’t be together, but try anyway. There’s something about the hopeless romantic in me which connected with that. I then discovered it was Friel’s take on Chekhov. I read into Chekhov’s work, life and his musings on the concept of marriage. He said ‘if you don’t want to feel loneliness then don’t get married.’ I wanted to take everyone on that emotional journey.   Just because you live for the moment and you love them doesn’t necessarily mean that it is all good. We get this glossed over image of the Hollywood idea of love. I’m quite a cynic when it comes to stuff like that so that was nice to push my boundaries and do something on doomed love.

The theme of love has come up a lot here and I see that is the theme of the Alma’s this year?

Iain – We were asked to come up with a theme and it was the day before and I thought ‘shit I forgot about that’.

All laugh.

Iain - I emailed everyone and said ‘God, I know this is a bit loose but… love?’ you know, ‘discuss’ and the next day the programmes were printed and it’s ‘love’ and petals everywhere.

Anna – So it loosely emerged after we chose them.

Ellie – It did seem to be the only common link, didn’t it? But it didn’t influence our choosing.  Mine is more about obsession than love. I’m directing After the End by Dennis Kelly. It was a wild card choice for me. Like nothing I’ve ever done before. I’ve mostly done family shows and comedies.  There were two things that got me excited about the play initially, the first being the space. They are in this nuclear bunker and can’t get out and that is all they have, this one small space between the two of them. I was excited about exploring that and it became very important how the space effects what happens. The next was the individuals, Mark and Louise, and how they are so totally different by the end of the play. I was interested in tracking that journey, where all of those changes happen, and getting to the truth of that.

Iain – I’m directing Knives in Hens by David Harrower, arguably the best writer in Scotland right now. It’s quite dear to me because it is one I’ve wanted to do for so long.  I was a bit worried, because it’s the most performed Scottish play outside of Scotland. It’s also a bit sentimental as the play is dedicated to George Gunn who is a poet and playwright in the North of Scotland and he tutored me and he tutored David when writing the play, so there is a weird passing the buck thing going on. The play is all about language and I’m all about working with text. I suppose people could read into it and think its about the transition between rural to urban culture or its about knowledge being the fall of man, but really at its heart it is a fable, a love triangle and storytelling.  I’m a big fan of simplicity. We are telling the story in the easiest way and the simplest way.  The audience will take different things from it and though it is just a story it’s got a dream like quality to it, a good dream. Strangely life affirming but at the same time quite harsh and stark.

You all work quite closely with the designers at the BOVTS. So tell us a little about working with them and the spaces you are creating.

Anna –Coming here and working with designers was a new experience and I had no real ideas for Disco Pigs. I knew I wanted the space to be multi-purpose, to engage with certain ideas I’d been exploring which I wanted to draw out via the design and capture this idea of the youth culture. I told Max, my designer, he was very free to do whatever and a week later he came back with this design that somehow managed to capture everything I’d jabbered on about for about two hours. It works wonderfully. Max is very passionate about it. From the outset he just said he really loved this play and engaged. It’s great because you feel you have a creative partner. It can be a daunting process so it’s nice to have someone to throw those ideas at and bat them about at you.

Tim – Faye is in quite an abstract world in her head, so to bring her into a play that is Friel’s take on Chekhov, and see how she might make that work in harmony with her, was quite interesting. She brought stuff to the table that means we’ve even moved the time in which the play was set as a result to give it a different feel and sense of where it is. She pushed me in directions that I didn’t think would come up, different ways to go with the play. We spent a lot of time talking about the film Brief Encounter and how similar it is to the play and film noir. We drifted around that for ages and that pushed me into thinking about the music, so I got original music written for the piece. It’s quite an exciting set as it is about complimenting the actors and telling the story yet still has an imaginative quality to it.

Ellie – My designer is Sarah June Mills and we found early on that we were thinking in the same direction. She’d already done a lot of research on nuclear bunkers from other projects and knew a lot about them. We went slightly less realistic towards the end of the design, well… we haven’t built a nuclear bunker on stage, let’s put it that way. We have a ladder we can climb, bunk beds and a chemical toilet, and we’ve both got really excited about that. But again it was just about creating the right space to build the right atmosphere for the cast to give their best performance and Sarah does that really well. It’s gorgeous.  I love it.

Iain – I was pared with Hadla, which is great because we both drink quite heavily.

All laugh.

No just kidding. She’s from Scotland as well which is just a coincidence, it wasn’t just because we’d be able to understand each other.


Hadla’s terrific because she had so many ideas and so did I.  I come from a touring theatre background so whenever I was doing designs in the past it was whatever would fit in the back of a van. It’s great working with Hadla because I’ve realized that under-design is just as fatal as over design. We had so many ideas and we went the long way around to come back to the thing we started with, which was that the language is the most important thing and the acting.  We wanted something that would compliment but not detract. It’s a play that is quite a snap shot of scenes inside and outside, in a bar, in a tree etc so it had to be functional, it couldn’t be too defined, it is all about atmosphere for us.

Do you think you have a particular directorial style or approach?

Anna – I approach texts and work in a very physical fashion.  A lot of people do it bottom up but I tend to do it top to bottom, working from the outside-in. It’s the idea that the unconscious mind knows things that the conscious mind doesn’t.  Sitting around a table and analyzing for a week feels like an English Literature class. I just want to get things up on its feet, analyze on it its feet as you go and try things out. That’s how you discover really.

I saw an interesting tweet from Company of Angels asking if starting rehearsals with read-throughs is a thing of the past for directors now?

Anna - I usually don’t start with a read-through. I feel like if you sit down and do a read-through, or just sit down for too long, you’re avoiding doing the play. It’s almost an avoidance technique. With this play I did a very informal read-through with a few drinks and snacks and just went a bit mental with it and then after that it was straight away on its feet doing physical experimentation.

Ellie – Our first day was a picnic in the sunshine and we did a read-through, but not in any formal way. For me the first day is about building a team with that company and for that play, whether they have worked together before or haven’t doesn’t really matter. In our case we all knew each other reasonably well and just went on a picnic and had bacon sandwiches on a gorgeous sunny day.

Iain – I get quite textual about stuff and I will always start with a read-through. It’s a good place to start, if they don’t know what they’re saying, when they are standing up they’ll really struggle. It’s a building block starting around the table and it’s about striking a balance. It also depends upon the project and what you’re doing changes from play to play. I never get rid of the table I just move it to the side.


I’m quite gradual and ultimately for me I’m most interested in the audience because they are the ones that are coming to see it and if they don’t hear ‘Once upon a time…’ then I think they are going to find it really difficult. I always ensure the story is priority. One of the most important things you can do as a director is love the play you are working on because it is infectious and the other people will love working on it too and it’s great to be able to share my good positive burden with other people.

Tim – I always think there is time even if it’s three weeks in to say ‘right, we need to go back to the table with this scene because we’re all barking up the wrong tree. Let’s go back to day one and start again with this scene.’ You need the opportunity to be able to do that. I started this process slightly differently because of various commitments, but in my first two days of rehearsal neither of my actors saw each other. I did one day with one and one with the other and the next day we did nothing to do with the play.  We just listened to music and talked about love songs. It wasn’t until the following week that we finally put it on its feet and I just threw them in the space and said, ‘lets look at what comes out. We’ve discussed the play, we’ve discussed your parts, we’ve got a shared pool of thought, let’s see what happens.’ Then we went back to the table again and worked the scenes and the monologues individually. There is a place for a read-though, it’s how you decide to do that that makes it.

Ellie – It also changes on the project.  We’ve had a really relaxed rehearsal room for my play. We’d not block it,  just go wherever you feel like it, chat, laugh and tear it to pieces in whatever way is right for that moment. I’ve done more trips out than I have before as research with any other project. Suzi (Preece) and I went to see a lady called Tracy Richardson who works for a charity called Kinergy. They’re a group that council people who have experienced sexual violence or abuse. It really helped Suzi and I get our heads round some of the issues that come up in the play. Last weekend Johnny (Gibbons) and Suzi spent a few hours in a dark cellar with a torch just to get used to what it feels like to be in such a small space and no way out.

What do you think are the positives and negatives in this current economic climate?

Tim – A distinct positive is that everybody’s just as hard up as we are and as desperate to do work and get work on. We are coming out of a school with a great bunch of actors and there is a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’.

Iain –A friend of mine worked on a North Sea oilrig for 15 years before he figured out he wanted to be a playwright and he always says to me, ‘you’re so lucky that you’re this age and you know what you want to do now because it’s much better that way’. We’re not any worse off or better off.  Without money things are much less complicated. It has always been difficult, I’m just lucky that I know what I want to do.

Tim – And I suppose the other things that comes out of this financial and political upheaval there is a lot of new work coming out of it. There is now something to work against and document and put on stage.

If you were to take anything from your training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School into your careers, what would it be?

Anna – Apart from the name? Which is always handy.


Iain – My shopping budget has got pretty good.

More laughs.

I hardly spend any money on food anymore so I hope I can stick with that for the rest of my life.

Tim – I suppose it’s just the knowledge that it doesn’t matter about anyone else, it’s about the work and the here and now. It’s given me a lot of strength and confidence. I have to have faith in my work and know that it is good. I can hold it up against other people’s work and know that it holds its own.

Anna – It is very self-affirming. Makes you think ‘maybe I am on the right track with this whole directing thing’. It’s very easy in any kind of arts career to have doubts because of the difficulties, but I think that BOVTS makes me think it is possible, it can be done. We got in, and fingers crossed, if we work hard, we’ll get stuff afterwards as well.

Ellie – I just feel like I’m leaving with a whole load of tools that will be useful in the future. I’ve got things coming up that wouldn’t have before this and people I can pester for help, so all in all it’s been just what I hoped it would be in that way.

Anna – Contacts.  Contacts are invaluable.

Iain – It’s just good to know you aren’t barking up the wrong tree. I’ve always wanted to work in Scotland. I’ve never been secretive about that so I think going away from somewhere to do something and then coming back is always more useful. The training has been great too!

Have you been given any advice at the school, or out of the school, that you think you’ll take with you on your way?

Anna – Hum….

Tim – John Hartoch (Head of Acting at BOVTS) told me not to worry about money. We were talking about starting our pensions and he said, ‘do keep some money for a rainy day but if you see something that you think you should pursue and its going to cost you some money don’t be afraid to do it. You don’t know when that opportunity might come along again.’ He’s not regretted any money he has spent.  Another bit of advice from him was ‘remember where you park your car because after a long day at the theatre, you want to remember where that is’.


Iain –George [Gunn] has always helped me through with things.  He said, ‘if you don’t believe in yourself no one else will’. If you come from areas that don’t have a theatrical tradition or active theatre environment it is very easy to self doubt and feel that your work is inferior or that you want to tell certain kinds of stories that aren’t popular. I mean who wants to do anything that’s popular?


Anna – It’s quite difficult to pick one thing but probably something from Clive Hayward. We were talking about how there were different approaches and I was being pushed in new directions and he said that was great obviously and be open to that and learn but don’t lose sight of what you love doing and don’t let anyone tell you that the style that you enjoy most is wrong and not as valid. You can so easily be guided in another direction and start to doubt that what you were doing before was wrong or not as good, so it was nice to hear that. I’ll keep hold of that.

Ellie – I worked with Toby Hulse (Director) at this school and I remembered how much fun it is to tell stories.  Which is why I do what I do. I grew up in a whole family of storytellers. My Dad writes plays and different people in my life tell fantastical stories.  Toby reminded me, with the way he is in rehearsals, that to have fun doing this is the most important thing. To play, that is what this is about for me.

Final question.  Is the director dead?

Ellie – Ha! Well I’m not!


Anna – Well I hope not, that will make leaving even trickier!

Iain – Ah, no. Absolutely not. There is a reason they exist. It gets muddied whether you call yourself a director or a creative practitioner,  but they are there for a reason. If nothing else you have to be the pre-audience, you have to watch it because they can’t watch it themselves.

Tim – It would be easy to say that they don’t exist but they are the driving force that keeps the whole thing ticking along and everyone in a creative mode. You can have five actors and they can all be great, but if anything starts falling apart in that collection they are just going to fall apart.  Where as if there is someone outside of that unit, who can take the collaboration and point it in the right direction, be that extra eye that is the audience, it just helps to craft it.

Iain – It’s like herding cattle really isn’t it.

Ellie – The sort of director I want to be is about finding the writers that you think the world needs to listen to. I like working with new writers. I read a lot of plays from unknown people.  Being a driving force in putting that work on or finding the opportunities. Even before you get to casting, even before you get to the rehearsal room it’s such an important job for a director to do.  I don’t think anybody else can do it, I think the director is the best person because they know the whole process, don’t they?

Anna – Theatre can technically exist without a director but funnily enough there didn’t used to be courses that would train directors like this. Directors emerged from actors usually who hit a certain age and decide they want to give directing a go. I would say it’s the reverse now, the director has become more prominent where there are people specifically training to be directors. The directors set up the parameters of the world of the play, of the story that the actors get to play within. Their job is to keep it cohesive otherwise you can get loads of ideas and who gets the final say? The director is very much alive and kicking.

Tim – There are times when it can go to the extreme and things can get so utterly director driven, that ‘köncept’ takes over.

Ellie – Don’t get me started on that kind of theatre!

Iain – Maybe there are types of director I wish were dead!


Thanks directors for sharing your thoughts!

Disco Pigs by Enda Walsh - Tues 1st May – Sat 5th May
Knives in Hens by David Harrower – Tues 8th – Sat 12th May
The Yalta Game by Brian Friel – Tues 15th – Sat 19th May
After the End by Dennis Kelly – Tues 22nd – 26th May

All shows start at 8pm with matinees at 2.30pm on Thursdays and 5pm on Saturdays at the Alma Tavern Theatre.

Tickets are £8 for all shows except a special £5 tickets for Thursday matinees!
Knives in Hens is also being taken to the White Bear Theatre in London on the 8th & 9th of July.

Special thanks to Anna Girvan for conducting interview on my behalf.  Anna is a theatre director and BOVTS Alumni. 

More on Anna:

More interviews to come shortly with Jesse Briton and Natalie Ibu.  My apologies dear readers for keeping you waiting...

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