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.
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 prepare 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.