Hello and welcome to the first interview on isthedirectordead. Hope all had a good Sunday. It’s been very exciting contacting artists and setting up a structure for these interviews. Sharing analogies about our work, our process and aspirations are things we don’t do too often but really should. I like to think of these interviews as mini creative injections from artists who are helping to shape the evolution and maturity of art and creating work that is challenging, provocative and innovative.
Simon Godwin is a theatre director. He is Associate Director of the Bristol Old Vic. He is also author of Ting Tang Tommy! He has directed at the Bristol Old Vic, The Royal Court, West Yorkshire Playhouse. Most recently he’s been tackling some big questions, conflicting storylines and multi-dimensional characters in Brian Friel’s play Faith Healer, currently playing at BOV until March 5th. I had the pleasure of meeting with him earlier this week to have a chat about his craft.
SIMON GODWIN interview Feb 21, 2011, 3:30PM
Studio Theatre, Bristol Old Vic
What is your earliest theatrical memory?
My earliest theatrical memory is seeing Michael Crawford in Barnum and this was a show about the great circus impresario. It was at the London Palladium and I was amazed to see Michel Crawford giving a highly physical and flamboyant performance. Most of all by his ability to tightrope walk which he’d learnt for the part.
Who or what in the theatre inspires you?
Well the man that’s inspired me ever since I was 16, through his books, through his work and through hearing him speak in intervals during that period between then and now, is Peter Brook. I guess I am not alone, or at all in a minority there, since his influence has been colossal. But he is somebody I’ve always felt spoke to me very personally and very profoundly in his search to marry the different levels the theatre is possible. In the straddling of the earthly and the celestial, the sense of dirt and…hmmm…what would be the word… ascension, which the theatre is capable of.
How would you define your style as a director?
Hmmm. My style is quite plain. I think it attempts above all to be clear. That’s a really important part of the theatre that I make. That the production acts like a window, through which one sees the play and my job is to make the window as transparent as possible. The performances, the set, the music-- as transparent as possible…to open onto a bigger space than the individual contributions of the creative team. So my search as a director is how can I be like a telescope that one looks through the work to see a space bigger than oneself.
What are the qualities you look for in an actor?
Flexibility. Accuracy. Humour. Then that most mysterious quality…presence. In a sense that’s the hardest thing to define, but the easiest thing to feel.
The lighting and set design of Faith Healer, play intricate roles in setting pace, mood and intimacy. Can you tell us a bit about the designer/director relationship?
Well I think for the last few productions that I’ve directed, starting with Far Away last year, I’ve tried to prepare much more carefully and more detailed way based a lot on the writings of Katie Mitchell, which I found really helpful. The more one prepares, the less one leaves to chance and the more you prepare, the clearer your guidance or provocations can be to your designer, your composer and ultimately to your audience. So for me, by burrowing more deeply into what the playwright envisaged and what the detail of their world is, I found myself to be in a much more helpful relationship in how I relate to a designer. Mike Britton who’s done the sets for Faith Healer trained as an architect and you can feel he has a very strong sense of how environment should be organised to promote… or to create or evoke an atmosphere. That’s a really, really difficult science of atmosphere and that’s something I feel I am still learning a lot about. I was really lucky to have Mike’s sense of atmosphere, allied to a real attention to detail about this mercurial text that Brian’s written, that’s hopefully contributing to that open window or that clear window that I spoke about in the beginning.
How do you feel the current economic climate is affecting directors, especially those just at the beginning of their careers?
I suppose the answer being a theatre director, is being responsive to the financial climate you find yourself in. So in a way there’s never a perfect financial climate and yet negotiating the now is the director’s job. So we have an interesting example here with Faith Healer, which was that Faith Healer came out of a need to find a play to do in a small space, inexpensively. That’s the starting point for it, i.e a play that had a small cast and essentially one set. So one could look at those parameters as being highly restrictive and annoying and frustrating and compromising and a part of me did when I was told them. And another part of one could go, okay those are the boundaries in which I live right now, those are the constraints I am being asked to work in. How can I turn that into my advantage? How can I find a play that actually thrives on those conditions, which allows those conditions to be some kind of opportunity to create something special rather than a reason to create something disappointing? And that for me is at large the whole economic climate, creativity is free. Doesn’t cost anything to make something. And cutting your cloth accordingly is one of the least recognised but most important parts of being an artist.
What has been the greatest challenge so far as Bristol Old Vic Associate Director in identifying the needs of the Bristol community?
It’s interesting isn’t it about audiences and artists and the chicken and egg? Is it about my needs or the audience’s needs and where do the two converge, where do the two inform each other? I think that often when you are feeling something its very rarely the case that it’s an entirely private feeling. i.e often what one is feeling is what other people are feeling too in a time, in a place and moment in history. So by trying to know thyself, to quote Socrates, one’s also knowing your audience. I think what adds or can lead to other cynical choices in the theatre is when it appears to say, well this is what the audience wants. It’s a brave claim but often a hollow one. I found. So to create work, which I guess has that quality, which we call integrity, means for me work that comes from a genuine sense of commitment and involvement from the part of the artist creating it. And with Far Away and now with Faith Healer, two texts that I feel quite personally linked too, I’ve discovered that they can and do seem to speak to the audiences of Bristol too. And my job it feels like, therefore, is to stay in touch and in fact to go deeper and deeper into the form and pressure of the times as Hamlet says and how that carried and imprinted in myself.
Well I think Shakespeare is the touchstone, the one you come back to in moments in one’s life. I directed Hamlet when I was 19. Those plays remain with you and invite you to come back. I would love to do King Lear, at some stage. I think that’s such a vast, cosmic text. So brilliantly explores those two poles, the earthly and the heavenly, in a way that tragedy revolves around the vertical line. Which is the most dangerous, exciting and thrilling line of all, to look at, explore and experience. I’m thinking about doing a Greek tragedy at some stage, maybe the Oresteia. They are the first plays really that we’ve got remaining intact. So to go back to the very very beginning of those dramatical roots, which all else comes, would be very exciting. So it’s interesting that I discover my dream, my dreams lie in the realm of tragedy, becoming grownup and brave enough to tackle.
Final question. Is the director dead?
Ahh, well I hope this one isn’t. (Smiles) I sometimes feel like I am. I am assuming your question touches on both the need for a director and the question of directing in a way that is alive, that is functioning, alive to detail and for which you feel a living pulse. In fact I think historically the director is in a very strong position right now. Its easy to forget that the director has really only emerged in the beginning of the 20th century, much later than the writer or the actor. But as the century’s gone on I think more and more we’ve got used to, and with the influence of cinema, a sense of Artaud directed work. I was recently in Hungary where there are many permanent acting ensembles of the kind we are often nostalgic about in this country. Although it’s wonderful to see large groups of people working together over long periods of time, they are still dominated by the actor manager model. Often one of the actors will direct the work. There’s a kind of conservatism in the work that comes from the group not being consistently provoked and challenged by an external eye. Which I think culturally and artistically is very important and we in this country really value. I would say that’s really key to a living, breathing theatre. The question of how one keeps his own work alive …well I’ve gone through great periods where I felt very…sleepy in my work. And rather that I’ve made work that I find actually lethargic. It does take a lot of work to stay alive in front of the challenges that I set myself. How do I avoid compromise, how do I keep taking risks? How do I keep looking inside, because that in the end is where life resides.
Thank you Simon for sharing your thoughts!
“To play a part does not mean to identify with the character the actor neither lives his part or nor portrays it from the outside. He uses the character as a means to grapple with his own self, the tool to reach secret layers of his personality...We are dealing here with the painful, merciless process, of self-discovery.” Jerzy Grotowski