Directors on Directors: Women theatre directors give credit to those who helped them along the way.


A photo of the book front cover on top of green and beige waves background

Rosemary Waugh is an award-winning art critic and journalist, specialising in theatre, dance and visual art. Her reviews, interviews and essays have been published by titles including the New Statesman, Condé Nast Traveller, The Financial Times, The i, The Evening Standard, The Independent, Time Out, The Stage, Exeunt, Artists and Illustrators, OOF, The English Garden, The Dance Gazette, The Globe and Art UK. She is also the author of an extensive collection of theatre programme notes for shows on in the West End.

Rosemary's latest venture is a book which focuses on Women Theatre Directors, below she provides an excerpt of some of the interviews featured.

Directing theatre is a lonely business. Or it can be. That’s something I’ve been told many times when interviewing directors over the years. The long hours away from home. The strange isolation of being the one who should(?) have all the answers. The total horror of press night. And the adrenaline crash the morning after.

But one of the things I found most joyful when interviewing 24 of the UK’s leading women theatre directors for a new book, Running the Room: Conversations with Women Theatre Directors, was how quick they were to pay homage to the colleagues who helped them along the way. The mentors and artistic directors who nurtured and programmed them. The slightly older directors who acted as role models and sources of advice. The other directors, creatives and assistants who work alongside them while they create work. The people who make the whole business feel less of a solitary pursuit.

Here, in five extracts from the book, are five women theatre directors celebrating the people who have helped them succeed, in very different ways:

Tinuke Craig on Joe Hill-Gibbins and the ‘Why not?’ attitude:

Joe Hill-Gibbins is a huge influence on me. I assisted him at the Young Vic and one of the great things about working with Joe is that he really uses his assistants. He does extensive prep for all his shows and he involves his assistant in that right from the beginning. So, you start working with him about sixteen months before a show opens. That involves meeting up a couple of times a week, or whenever is possible, and talking about the show and going through certain aspects of it. It makes you feel like you are genuinely making a difference to how the production is taking shape and being helpful to him.
But above all, what he demonstrated to me in the rehearsal room is this attitude of: ‘Why not?’ He’s fearless about trying anything out, with the assumption that if it works then we’ll figure out why it works later and if it doesn’t, then that’s not a problem. I still have this thing in rehearsals where I’ll sometimes feel the need to be a bit apologetic. I’ll be like: ‘Um… so I’ve got this idea for a dance and we can try this out because it works for this reason, but if it doesn’t work then we can scrap it, but I think it would be a lovely idea…’ Whereas Joe would just be like: ‘Would it be fun if they danced? Great! Let’s dance!’, and then if it worked, he’d say, ‘Oh and it also works for this intellectual reason…’ I think his approach works because it’s just infinitely more positive which helps get the actors on side and it means you’re brave, and try more things, even if they don’t work out. I try very hard to hang onto that ‘Why not?’ quality.

Lynette Linton on Rikki Beadle-Blair and accidentally becoming a director:

I accidentally became a director! I started off thinking I was an actor, which I think is because that’s the performing arts profession you see growing up, on telly and things – particularly if you’re not from a theatre background. Directing doesn’t seem like a ‘job’ until someone actually explains it properly to you. I also thought I might become an author, because I loved reading novels so much and had started writing while still at school. I then went on to do an English degree and, afterwards, joined the National Youth Theatre, still thinking I wanted to be an actor. But it was at the NYT that I met the actor and director Rikki Beadle-Blair, and he basically changed my life, because he saw something else in me – something other than being an actor.
He gave me a free ticket to the new-writing festival he was running at Theatre Royal Stratford East, which was my local theatre. I went along and, almost immediately, I thought: ‘Oh my days, I need to write a play!’ So, I wrote a play called Step which was first on at Theatre Royal Stratford East and then, after being rewritten slightly, toured to schools. It was when I took a step back from the piece – originally I was also performing in it – that Rikki asked me if I’d ever considered directing. I was like, ‘Umm… no!’ And he replied, ‘Well, you’re basically directing now.’ He saw this thing in me before I saw it in myself. So then he invited me to shadow him and be in the room when he was professionally directing. I learned so much from him. He kept encouraging me and sent me on courses, and eventually I started to think: ‘Okay, maybe I am good at this. Maybe I am a director…’

Milli Bhatia on smashing imposter syndrome and directors of the global majority:

I experienced some imposter syndrome early in my career, some of which was due to the way I was spoken to or perceived in certain spaces, and what many of the directors around me looked like. This is sometimes still the case, it just becomes easier to navigate when you refuse to shrink yourself in order to accommodate others. Much of that confidence came due to the support of directors and leaders that I worked alongside.
It was all part of a process that involved witnessing these incredible artists of the global majority – leaders, facilitators and directors – who were creating the kind of environments I wanted to be in. In my early twenties, I worked at the Bush Theatre and Madani Younis, the former Artistic Director, and the associate director Omar Elerian were very supportive. It was Madani that gave me my first ever professional production. I was so excited by how they worked with other artists and encouraged a process of collaboration. It was a similar story with the directors I assisted such as Pooja Ghai, Roxana Silbert and Lynette Linton, plus Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway, who created Artistic Directors of the Future, a programme for directors of the global majority who aspired to become artistic directors. The programme included events where we would meet existing artistic directors, which is how I first met Vicky Featherstone. It’s vital that I recognise the support and access that I have been given by other artists, and pay that forward.

Natalie Abrahami on collaboration and candor with co-AD Carrie Cracknell at the Gate Theatre:

We worked very much in partnership, like a marriage. Joyfully, we didn’t disagree, but we had a policy that if we ever did, we would never do so in public, so our team wouldn’t have any confusion about how the leadership was working and we could resolve it between ourselves. But actually, it never came up because we were very in sync with each other and were continually checking in.
We genuinely wanted to support each other as creative makers. We’ve always given each other very tough notes. Really, really searing notes that come from a place of deep love and respect. Carrie and I had already been noting each other’s work informally and we were excited about making that more formal. We would be each other’s dramaturg, artistic director and producer. We established this very candid approach where we would say everything we thought needed to change. Sometimes, the other person would say, ‘No, I love that bit! I’m not changing that!’ For example, when Carrie made I am Falling I had very strong feelings that a song element in it should be edited out and she felt equally strongly that it should stay. That became a useful benchmark for us, so in the future we would reference that moment, which meant it was non-negotiable part of the piece and had to stay. That relationship has sustained, and I always invite Carrie to dress rehearsals and previews, and vice versa. Her notes are invaluable.

Sarah Frankcom on the brilliance of assistant directors and what they can give a director:

It can be massively beneficial. For me, it’s one of the most sustaining and evolving relationships, and one that changes your practice as a director. I’ve found that working with assistants has made me look at who I am and how I lead a room. An assistant can offer incredible insight when you’re at your most vulnerable; they can give you information on how the entire collaborative process is going, including what others – actors and creatives – might be too nervous to say to the director. For the past ten years or so, I’ve placed an emphasis on learning from my assistants and allocating them quite a lot of responsibility. I see them as an integral part of the collaboration, not an afterthought. Traditionally, the assistant director was someone who looked after the show after the director had moved onto another project. But, for me, I want their creative brain in the rehearsal space as much as possible, because I'm a great believer that everything is much improved the more everybody feels they can put something into it. Every rehearsal has to be an opportunity to open as many windows and doors as you can. Because of that, I’ve actively sought out assistant relationships where people are really up for, and comfortable with, playing a big role in creating the work.
I also believe that, often, you’re meeting the future when working with assistant directors. I’ve received some of my most amazing notes from assistant directors and I've had some of my most devastating notes from assistant directors. And I’m not only fine with that, but I also actually think that’s amazing.


Running the Room: Conversations with Women Directors is out now and available from Nick Hern Books.

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