Best Seat in the House

July is shaping up to be an exciting month for theatre-going, according to my calendar. I can’t wait to share a number of reviews with you for a host of different types of theatre experiences.

This weekend, I’m off to the RSC, Stratford, to catch a preview of Miss Littlewood; next week I will be sampling some new writing from a fledgling theatre company who are presenting Sardines at the Drayton Arms; this will be followed by an immersive production of The Great Gatsby at a ‘secret location’ in SE1; and then I will be jumping onto the Hamilton bandwagon to find out what all the hype is about.

I’m not particularly fussy when it comes to picking seats at the theatre. If there’s one left and it’s behind a pillar, I will own it just for the chance to attend a piece of theatre that I want to see. Having said that, cost does factor into the occasion. I do like to see fair prices for seating. Given the choice, if I am going to see a musical or ensemble piece, my preference would always be to sit on the first tier, variably referred to as the Dress, Royal or Grand Circle, depending on the theatre. As a trained dancer, I love to be able to look down and enjoy the shapes and patterns of the choreography. Use of space ranks highly in my own directing and choreographing so I like to enjoy it when I’m watching other shows too.

I have friends who like to sit in the stalls and, in particular, in the front row of the stalls where they feel part of the action. They love the close proximity to the actors, being able to see them sweat and to make eye contact with them and show them their responses. Indeed they’ve enjoyed the occasional tweet from a performer who has appreciated their camaraderie during a rousing Master of the House. These are friends who are willing to be targeted by comedians or picked to step up on stage and take part in the likes of One Man, Two Guvnors. In their recent trip to see War Horse, they felt like they could reach out to touch Joey and the story was being told just for them. A truly magical experience.

Another friend is a sound technician. He also loves the stalls but prefers to be further back, taking in the sight and appreciating the sound from where he knows it resonates best in particular theatres.

Do you have specific seats or areas of the theatre that you like to sit in? Would you still book if your seats were not available?

Some people turn to the knowledge hubs such as Seat Plan or Theatre Monkey for reviews before making their selection of the best seat available. I’d love to hear your own experiences and why you like to sit where you do. Perhaps you have a preference for certain types of theatre. Let’s get chatting in the comments below!

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Doing what I love: a personal how and why of Directing

Where do you even start? It’s a question I’ve often been asked by audience members who enjoy their own role in the theatre set-up but find it hard to work out quite how and what the director does to create what the audience sees on stage.

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I recently enjoyed the honour of directing Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady for The Cotswold Savoyards, working alongside the terrifically enthusiastic cast at The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham. I had grown up loving the film and had seen the show on stage as a child. As a teenager I devoured George Bernard Shaw’s original play, Pygmalion, which inspired me to learn about phonetics and language and then, a decade later, to dissect and analyse the play with my Year 8 English students. By the time I came to direct the musical, in my 30s, I knew my favourite lines, the overarching themes and metaphors, the character objectives and motivation – and yet I was still hungry to delve further through physicalising the world that the characters inhabit.

Read, read, ponder and read

My starting point is always to read aloud and hear the voices of the characters so that I can start to understand what they want and how they interact. Before casting, I like to have drawn up character sketches and an overall vision statement for my aims in producing any show. I have seen numerous shows where directors or companies have penny of ambition but where ideas jar because they lack a core understanding of what is going on in the hearts and minds of the characters and, importantly, the playwright, pinning it all together.

In My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle undertakes a series of lessons to improve her prospects of becoming a lady in a flower shop ‘instead of selling flowers on the corner of Tottenham Court Road but they won’t take [her] unless [she talks] more genteel’. Eliza’s lessons bring about a change that Shaw saw as a metaphor for the time: the world poised for great changes instigated by the two world wars which served to break down the class divide and lay the foundations for a future with improved gender equality.  My Fair Lady really is a musical underpinned with substance!

I was so excited to work, not only with a very able and committed pool of actors in the leading roles, but with worthwhile material that we could get something from. Don’t misunderstand me, My Fair Lady has its imperfections but, in musical theatre, you don’t often find the depth of character or well-shaped dialogue that it boasts either.  In rehearsals, we really could unpick the meaning behind the dialogue, the songs and the relationships to highlight that Eliza Doolittle is so much more than a rags to riches Cinderella. She has the ambition of a suffragette and only lacks in society’s definition of intelligence because she is a product of her experiences. In her, we see both rebellion and submission but also a flame that keeps burning quietly and refuses to let her be overlooked. Just as Pygmalion violated his ‘ivory maid’ with his sculptor’s hands, Higgins’ abominable behaviour towards Eliza is a violation that is equally undermining. We side with Eliza out of sympathy and investigate whether we can eventually warm to Higgins as he (along with Pickering) goes from being ‘a pretty pair of babies playing with [their] live doll’ to an ‘ordinary man’ who is very much ‘accustomed to her face’?

Visions of visions

Watching theatre, I love to see beautifully constructed, impactful stage pictures oozing with stories and brimming with life. I knew that this was what I wanted to create and that the iconically stylish My Fair Lady would be a dream platform for such a goal. The importance of status in the Edwardian era was a gift in terms of showcasing the use of stage positioning to deliver a message and I was itching to draw out the obvious contrasts and underlying similarities between the Cockney gatherings and the elegant arrival at Ascot and the Embassy Ball.

At the opening of the show, the classes are brought together as the rich and wealthy depart the Royal Opera House, while the working class prep1043064are fruit, vegetables and flowers ready for the morning hustle and bustle of the Covent Garden market place. For me, this epitomised the premise on which I wanted to base the show – two worlds colliding – and  an image from a Renior painting stuck in my mind. So, it was at this point that any directing proper began and I sat down with my sketchpad and cast list and listened to the overture on repeat while I created my own ‘stickman Renior’ that would later become a still, revealed behind the theatre gauze, allowing the audience time to cast their eyes over the pregnant image ready to burst into action.

My sketchpad is my production Bible, brainstorm sink and reference point for every musical number and scene. One of the first actions I plotted was the surge of ‘posh folk’ moving forwards from their waiting place under the arches. Their black umbrellas and dark attire make render them sombre, somewhat intimidating and untouchable to the working class crowd that we grow attached to in the first scene.

It was important to me that every individual had a character and story and there was never a moment when any one person wasn’t doing something. One audience member noted that ‘whenever any member of the Ensemble moved anywhere they had their own journey, their own purpose’. Of course, they did. This was imperative to me. As selfish as I know I can be in life, the world doesn’t actually revolve around me so I was determined that it wouldn’t revolve around Eliza or any other character for that matter. Everyone had to have their own story, even if it wasn’t the one we were bringing into focus. I knew from the outset that Eliza’s first appearance, and Higgins’, should be subtle and unobtrusive. They, like everyone else on the stage, were one of the crowd. Thus, blocking ideas were recorded in my sketchpad with colour-coding, little arrows and meticulous notes against the music to remind me who would move where in the jostling crowd sequence right up until the overture intervenes with its own conclusive response to the ‘two worlds colliding’ when young toff, Freddy, knocks over flower girl, Eliza, prompting the series of events that will alter the course of her life forever.

Impact and outcome

Before watching the performance one night, an audience member asked me what I set out to achieve when I’m directing. ‘Do you like to be different? Do you like to create things that will make people say “that’s clever”?’ My answer is, as ever, multi-faceted. I like sincerity. I like to find depth in the characters so that the actors believe in them, truly discover them and build relationships with others based on what they understand about their own characters. I also like visual storytelling. I am obsessed with stage pictures and the idea that at any moment you could press pause and find stories in every pose, every gesture, every look. And I love symbolism. I love to know that the over-arching theme of two-world’s colliding is present and recurring throughout the play: it starts when Freddy crashes into Eliza; we see it again in Mrs Higgins’ eyes when Pickering reveals that Henry has plucked a flower girl off the curb; and it’s there every time Higgins tries to ‘ram’ his knowledge down Eliza’s ‘ungrateful throat’. I love the parallels that this theme reveals and how this can be echoed in the staging and choreography: Higgins stands lost outside his house in Wimpole Street, hands in his pockets, dreaming of Eliza, exactly where Freddy, who he has mocked, once did; the rich and noble spend their time and money at the Ascot races, where the ladies are paraded around by their partners, showing off their hats, whereas the working class while away the hours in the local pub, where the men show off the ladies and the ladies show off their bloomers in a right ol’ cockney knees up. In the Rain in Spain, a moment of dancing with Higgins is electrifying for Eliza, who has become so far removed from the whirling polkas and can-can of her cockney days. She is believed to be a Princess at the Embassy Ball and no longer fits in with the cockney rabble at her father’s impromptu stag do. 

‘Where is the line?’ asked the audience man. ‘Do you expect the audience to pick all of this out themselves? And if not, at what point is the symbolism just self-indulgent?’ I don’t know the answer. I guess it is self indulgent from the start and no, I don’t expect the audience to sit and analyse and notice. It’s nice when they do but it’s more about the production being a sum of its parts. Drawing out the parallels is an exercise in text analysis, it deepens our understanding, engages the  actors (sometimes) and helps to give greater purpose to the story we are telling. Fundamentally, it highlights the relationships, not just between individuals but between classes, social circles and so on. It highlights the truth, the relevance these happenings have to our own lives and the people we meet. What I’ve loved about our cast in My Fair Lady is their hunger to hear, learn, discover, draw on and invest in these ideas in the creation of a show that another audience member described as ‘empathy demanding… We feel so connected to the characters’.  And that’s what mattered.

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Photograph courtesy of @trevtography

I went to university and got a Drama degree but, no, I don’t want to be an actress. Still.

That doesn’t mean I know what I do want to do though. And twelve years later, I’m still trying to work it out.

University was, pardon the pun, the staging ground for a life of ‘I’m not quite sure’. Even throughout the course, I wasn’t entirely sure quite what I was honing and achieving. Yes, I did learn a lot and yes, I enjoyed several projects along the way but university is what you make of it and I would certainly do it very differently given the opportunity to go back and do it again.

What do I wish I could say to my younger self?

  • Make university about trying new experiences that you may never encounter again;
  • Stretch yourself and your mind;
  • Don’t make choices that will enable you to prove what you can already do: go and learn something different.

I know this now and have made a point of passing it onto students who are leaving school to go off to university themselves. This is followed with a mixture of excitement, pride and awe tinged with jealousy as I see my fledglings take flight and hear their reports back about their daring choices and the opportunities they’ve sought out to enrich their time away.

However, my failure to do this the first time round has certainly spurred me into making up for it since and I became even more of a hungry learner since falling into the teaching profession. During my decade as a teacher (sometimes of Drama, sometimes of English, sometimes of both and occasionally of neither), I researched and signed up for any theatre-related weekend courses I could find to enrich my knowledge beyond just seeing theatre -or worse still, teaching it without keeping an active involvement; a fear that became more and more real with the pressures and demands of the education system. I’d pop to London for workshops at the National and spent a day doing puppetry with Olly Smart at the Little Angel Theatre. If I couldn’t go and experience it, I was combing through pinterest and twitter for links to insightful interviews, video feeds and articles. I soaked up everything I could at the Edfringe and then took my sixthformers a year later to see and learn more with me. I didn’t want to just teach, I wanted to be learning the skills of the trade and hooking my students in with the latest trends and ideas in theatre so that they would be as enthusiastic as I was about its diversity and possibilities. I always came away from these sessions with a notebook full of ideas for schemes of work and projects that I jotted down on the train ride home. And as a result, even the children in the rural Cotswolds were getting to explore Alecky Blythe’s Verbatim Theatre, Toby Olié’s puppetry and Melly Still’s storytelling exercises, which to my mind is much more engaging than following a textbook drama course.

Leaving teaching: what next?

I loved my job as a teacher. Many of the students thought I was bonkers. They weren’t wrong but they were also being pushed to create innovative theatre in an otherwise sleepy countryside school and it was exciting. Often the ideas themselves weren’t mine but I felt honoured to be able to bring fresh concepts and interpretations into their learning space and to make them accessible. I loved the research too. It has kept me learning and that, I firmly believe, is something we should all strive to do with an open heart and mind.

The thought of having my own children scared me. I couldn’t work out how and when I would be able to leave teaching at a good time so as not to impact on the learning of the children that I had worked so hard with and cared about so much. There were exams and productions and there was no good time to ‘go’. On top of that came the fear that I wouldn’t be able to return to the job that I had given my life over to do and be a mum at the same time. Something was going to have to give. And with a wrench, teaching was it.

It was the best decision I have ever made. I stepped out of a cloud of stress that had built up around me and started to dull the reward and enjoyment of the job. Being a parent is a true gift. Not everyone is lucky enough to receive that gift and not everyone takes to it as well as others. I’ve found it more challenging than I could ever have imagined but it gave me the all-encompassing distraction I needed while I moved away from teaching and began to contemplate a new career.

Here and now

Two years on, life as a mum is pretty wonderful and I couldn’t ask for a more rewarding family life.  But the working world still tugs on my heart strings even though I am still not entirely sure what that new career is going to be. A great deal of reflection and active involvement in the things that I still know and love has helped me to take steps towards working it out:

THEATRE: To adopt and paraphrase Shakespeare’s metaphor, theatre is the dreamy stuff that rounds my little life. It is the sleep that I can’t live without and I’m never more at home than when I’m in the rehearsal room, working with actors and being an outside eye to help sculpt and fine-tune their preparation and performance work. I simply love directing and this has to factor somewhere, on some scale in whatever I go on to do.

WRITING: Having trained in TEFL and taught both Theatre and English up to Oxbridge level, I have extended my long-time love for literature into an ambition to write. Thus, my collection of beautiful notebooks continues to grow and the stories, poems and plays are beginning to seep out onto the page in the hope that something worthwhile might materialise in time. Writing doesn’t pay any bills but nobody ever followed a passion for the money.

NURTURING: There is still a large hole in my heart for education. Theatre outreach holds a massive appeal and my head is spinning with ways to make this work.

The question is, how do I find a way to balance parenting with investing time in an immersive new career. The blogging world holds inspiration as there are so many wonderful parents proving that it is possible. So while I learn, I’m here to join them and all the other bloggers who have written such helpful posts to inspire and get me started. If you want to follow, I will be here: exercising my passion for writing, continuing to delve into my love of theatre-making and hopefully still soaking up and sharing my findings along the way.