Hannah Drake is a theatre director from Tickenham, North Somerset. She studied at St. Andrews University and got her MA in Drama Directing at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. She is attracted to very good writing and has directed productions of Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, Into the Woods as well as several radio dramas. More on Hannah:
March 23, 2011
Downs Tea Room
Bristol 11:30 am
It’s a sunny day by the Downs in Bristol, and we are sitting outside having some tea and coffee. The view across to the downs we can see girls playing Lacrosse, and the field to our right boys playing football. The clinking and clanking of teacups to saucer can be heard and the murmur of adults deep in conversation. Giggles from children and trucks loudly passing by set the ambiance.
What are you working on at the moment?
Just yesterday I had a design meeting for a production of the Importance of Being Earnest which I’m doing at the Redgrave in September. What I’m learning very quickly is, especially when you’ve got a classic text, if you want to move it to a different period, you have to have a goddamned good reason for doing it and trust the text.
What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
The best advice my mum ever gave me was to be financially independent. Don’t have debts to other people, which I think you can take into any sphere of life. It’s not quite as hideous as saying follow your own star. Probably the best advice I’ve had in a theatrical context, is there is no right answer. It’s not about being right. We’re in a society where from very young, people are tested. You do exams, exams, exams and if you just answer the right question, just get the right thing, you are validated as a human being. And in the arts it’s completely the opposite. It’s more interesting seeing people be spontaneous and alive rather than formulaic and correct.
Advice you’d give to another young director?
You have to be incredibly patient, not only with the process of trying to build a career but also with people. That’s the biggest thing I learned from Andrew Hilton, to trust the process and to trust the actors and it will work. And that comes back to its not about being right, it’s about experimenting. Meet people. It is, sadly, all about who you know. Talk to people whose work you admire. And probably the biggest thing I would say is don’t be an asshole, ‘cause nobody likes an asshole.
Who or what in the theatre inspires you?
I love unconventional staging, I love thrust staging, in the round. Immersive theatre--
(Guys passing by “yeah I did that mate. Saved myself loads of money by buying a bike...” We both laugh)
I like theatre when you’re really close to the action and when it happens around you, I find that very exciting. I unashamedly love musical theatre, with the proviso that its not band musicals, like Mamma Mia where you’ve taken music and you try and construct a story around it. I mean it’s an interesting exercise, but I don’t find it particularly engaging. But the interesting stuff, coming out of America particularly. There’s a lot more musical scratch nights. Mercury Musical Developments work with new musical theatre writers and there’s some interesting stuff coming out of there. I think that for me, what’s really inspiring above all, is music. I’m a little bit obsessed with, at the moment, Max Richter. He’s very much in the realm of like Ludovico Einaudi where its repetitive piano music and it can… paint worlds. I find that really inspiring.
What is your earliest theatrical memory?
Ummm… I think it’s the Bristol Old Vic but it could be the Weston Playhouse, I'm not sure. I have this memory of a Saturday or Sunday morning, and of walking through the doors of the dress circle and it was quite steep. Taking my seat and being very excited and it was quite special. It’s that overwhelming sense of going into an auditorium and the expectation and excitement of something about to happen. That's why we make theatre, it’s that experience you have as an audience member or as a performer, and that relationship.
In the age of twitter, facebook, etc do you feel that theatre makers have to catch up or somehow adapt to the ever-dwindling attention spans of today’s audiences?
I was thinking about this as I was driving in, about how theatre responds to digital media. I think while I agree that theatre probably shouldn’t be more than (slightly unsure?) about 3 hours, hemmm… I think if you have a really exciting idea, the best performances and engage people, if you can get people's attention, then you’re fine. It shouldn’t be a problem. There’s a lot made about people having shorter and shorter attention spans and perhaps its true, but if you can create something people want to see, they will sit there for as long as it takes. I hope.
How has the economic climate affected you, as a young start up director?
Pause. I suppose for me, in some respects, it’s restricted my geography. There are loads of opportunities, but they tend to be unpaid. I did work in London for about a month and it was fantastic. But I think the economic necessities of living, has perhaps delayed me or certainly changed what would take me to London. It’s a fantastic place to be inspired, to see such a diverse amount of theatre, but I feel I’d need to have a job before I can go there. But that could just be an excuse! I suppose the other thing is, knowing that its that much harder to find funds to put on theatre. The flipside of that is, if I can’t find an opportunity, it has made me more gung ho about creating my own work. I think because I’m still sort of quite young, I've got the luxury of not having dependents. I've got a lot of independence. It means that if I was offered this amazing paid opportunity somewhere, I would find a way to do it.
Do you feel in the UK, Bristol in particular, that regional theatre lives in the shadow of London?
Inevitably. Theatre is very London centric. But what’s fantastic is you’ve got a lot of new opportunities and new blood going into the regions. People have been talking about this so much as Bristol becoming this artistic city and if you look at, Plymouth for example, that has a huge sense of a regional theatre. I think its not necessarily in the quality of work that’s being produced in the regions, I think its more fundamental now. It’s an entrenched attitude that people think of the West End and that’s the place where theatre comes from. I suppose you do have to have a center and at the moment that is London. I don’t think it will change.
The dynamics of a rehearsal process are individual to each production. Have you ever been in a situation where there was a tension amongst the cast or crew?
Touch wood. Not actually as a director. I’ve had some interesting experiences as an assistant director. I was working on a production and there was quite a severe gap in communication between our level and the over arching producers. We were part of this bigger event and were not given our time allotted for technical rehearsal. With the kind of show we were doing, you really needed about two days just to tech and we didn’t even get one, we got half a day. So in that respect, as the assistant you’re in a really privileged position, because you are supporting the director, who has to go through that. Because its not completely my artistic neck on the line, you have the freedom to spend the time and go around to people individually and check that their okay and to take over and do the warm up, so that the director can go and freak out in the corner. You have a more personal, I think, relationship with the cast and the director. You’re the bridge in many ways and the buffer for the director so in that respect… you’d find yourself the bearer of many secrets. What’s useful about that is that you then know how to bring people together. So far I’ve been quite lucky that generally it’s mostly been happy.
The big ambition, which is probably completely fool hardy, is to try and find a way to stage The Iliad. I started off as a classicist, and it’s the most ridiculously epic and current story. A challenge to create something that is still relevant to us now but that maintains the spectacle and story of that thousands of years old poem, I think is quite exciting. I might do it in a circus tent, I might do a monologue... its just the one I keep coming back to. I’d also quite like to do Macbeth, of the Shakespeare’s that’s the one that really appeals to me. I had this really inspirational English teacher when I was about 14 and as part of studying the play, we had to write the first sequence of the film script for it. The idea we had at the time, is what if the witches were children and that stuck with me. The witches and the idea of the supernatural. What society decides to be the other, what we find dangerous and there’s certainly a culture and attitude of the youth, you know…
And hoodies. There is this danger in packs of kids. I think that could be quite interesting to explore. I’d love to work at the National [Theatre] and Regents [Park] open air theatre, I think that would be a very magical place to work. I’d like to tour. I’d like to run my own theatre one day, I have a vague idea that perhaps downstairs it will sell tea and cakes and things and upstairs there’ll be a theatre. Yeah. Loads of things. One step at a time to get there I suppose.
Final question. Is the director dead?
I do agree with Simon Godwin about the two definitions. From my own experience if we make the question, the ambition and the desire to be a director dead, then very much not. I’m a member of the Genesis Network at the Young Vic and on that website you've got listed directors in the early stages of their careers, anything from first weeks to ten years, to whatever. There’s over 700 people. I know people who I trained with, who aren’t yet on that network, if they were ever to choose to be. So there’s definitely still a hunger. People have this drive to tell stories, to create. In the 20th century, you had I think, the cult of the director. The director became a role in and of itself and you would go and see theatre purely based on who the director was. In the same way people would go and see a Steven Spielberg film. I wonder now if that is declining? If the interest in the director as an individual is lessening? But then its hard for me to say that because as a director, I have to be aware of the work of people that I admire and people I want to meet, and so perhaps, I have a slightly skewed view on how many directors are actually out there. I’d hope the director’s not dead otherwise (innocently smiles) I’m sort of just wasting my time.
Thanks Hannah for sharing your thoughts!
On this beautiful sunny day Hannah and I ordered some more cappuccinos and the conversation kept going. Our conversation went into talks about formalizing companies, directors we admire and maybe why the director should be dead. I will post excerpts of our follow up discussion midweek as many more laughs and interesting things came up.
Next Sunday, we are in London talking to a performance artist/director who doesn’t really think he is a director at all…?
Hannah Drake’s production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, runs from the 29th of September to the 8th of October at the Redgrave Theatre, Bristol. Tickets avail through the Colston Hall £13-16.
“Apart from the known and the unknown, what else is there?” Harold Pinter