John is currently the Associate Director of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre. He was a writer and director of Company of Angels (2001-2011), which produces new and experimental work for young audiences. He was also formerly the director of Oldham Coliseum Theatre (1985–88), the Oxford Stage Company (1989–99) and founding director of ATC Theatre (1977–85).
Friday Dec 16th 2011
4:30pm Bristol Old Vic
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just done something at National Theatre of Scotland called Truant and I’ve just directed Good Clown Bad Clown here (Bristol Old Vic). National Theatre of Scotland, it was the first time I’d worked for them and it was quite an opportunity. A year before I went up and did three weeks of interviewing people about the relationship between teenagers and parents and the need of each to ‘play truant’ on one other. We got some 150 thousand words of transcript typed out from the interviews and from there I did two more workshop weeks with a group of actors and then finally started rehearsals at the end of this September. We rehearsed for another 5 weeks and toured TRUANT (a series of short scenes and movement pieces) around community centres all over Glasgow. It was great to do something as unhurried and as considered - both personally and collectively. Very good creative team – Michael John McCarthy, Simon Wilkinson, Becky Minto, Catrin Evans. For me, it was quite an adventure, because it was partly writing, partly devising and, on tour, partly debating with the audience. Each show had a facilitated debate immediately after, something I’d picked up from FAR AWAY at BOV. I’d never done that particular combination before. Coming back to Bristol was like coming home. It was good to work again on a children’s show. I’d taken the precaution of working with the cast of Good Clown Bad Clown back in August and made that our first week of rehearsal, so, at that time, we had trialed ideas without the pressure of opening. The designer Liesel Corp, went off to design and when I got back from Scotland, (although normally you don’t want to do one show on top of another) at least we were prepared.
What is your earliest theatrical memory?
I didn’t really like theatre when I was a child and didn’t really like it when I went to college. I started to work as a teacher of English in a school where many of the teenagers were from broken families and could not settle down and concentrate to write a whole essay, although they were really bright. The only way I could get them to focus on what we were studying was to do a performance of it. I was 22 and in one year I directed about 5 productions in this school. It worked so well for them and they started to write essays as a result. I discovered I really enjoyed making plays and I remember half term during school I went over to Paris because I had read in the paper a 5 star review (or whatever they had in those days) by Michael Billington of a Peter Brook show which I had thought was Titus Andronicus but was actually Timon of Athens. So I read the wrong play on the boat. It was the debut show of the Bouffes du Nord and it was just ravishingly good. It was the first time Michael Billington had used the word ‘ensemble’ in a review and that really intrigued me. What was ‘ensemble’? Collectively devised by an international company around a great fable and it was so beautiful. As a result I then went off and started a theatre company.
Who or what inspires you?
Well, Peter Brook was certainly inspiring. Then I started seeing the work of Peter Stein in Germany, and Ariane Mnouchkine in France, all great ensemble directors. They were the three that absolutely blew me away. In England it was Mike Alfreds and he was directly helpful to me. He came to see my very first show, an adaptation of Byron’s epic poem Don Juan.
What is your directorial approach or style?
It’s changed in different periods. Because I originally come from teaching, I like to prepare thoroughly on my own and then open up conversation with the actors.
You are Associate Director of the Bristol Old Vic and head of its Outreach Program. What are some of the initiatives you will be taking on for 2012?
Last year we toured primary schools with Tim Crouch’s FairyMonsterGhost. I love performing text in daylight and that interaction with children. What I’d like to do this year is a play called the Wild Girl which I wrote a few years ago. I did it in England and then a company got a hold of it in Holland and reimagined it for two actors. A husband and a wife who adopt a feral girl from the woods, who is really wild, like a wild animal, they do everything they can, very lovingly, to try to get her to become an ordinary child who will grow up and go to school and so on. It’s about how they succeed and how they don’t. In light of the questions raised by the riots, the words ‘wild’ and ‘feral’ have been used a lot. Where does the child get a choice, what choices does the child have? And this story is interesting, because here the child really does decide for herself. A beautiful piece and I have asked Miranda Cromwell, who runs the young company and is a very good director, to direct it. We’ve also got some interesting European texts that we’d like to be getting out to teenagers, not necessarily in the educational sense. We could play in a library, a hospital ward, all sorts of places -- It’s what I call ‘suitcase theatre’ -- you can just show up with what you need in a suitcase. I am very interested in theatre happening in non-theatre spaces.
We’ve also got a wonderful ongoing project called Made in Bristol. A group of Young Company members who were no longer in college or who had just left school, went to Tom Morris and Emma Stenning and said, ‘we love it here at Bristol Old Vic – we helped keep it open when it was closed -- we want to continue doing work here’. They ended up making the show Riot, which is now going to Edinburgh and they will work for 2 weeks at the National Theatre Studio on a new show. It’s truly remarkable.
We’ve got a new group of 11 Made in Bristol members that Miranda has been working with every Friday. We are developing these people as both workshop leaders and as a young theatre group. That’s quite an important project that’s going on.
We’ve also got some major Young Company shows for next year to coincide with the opening of the theatre.
And we are completely re-thinking how we can work with schools when the Theatre Royal re-opens.
What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
I think probably just do it. I took some pretty big risks to leave teaching after 3 years and just start building ATC, back in the day. And Company of Angels was a risk and I must thank my wife for that, who was working full time, which let me off to start something up. For anyone, you, me, theatre is such a risk and so labour intensive. Just to put on Wild Girl and tour to schools, a decent two hander, it’s what? £15,000? It’s all got to be raised. People who do theatre have always been driven but even more so these days – we are all producers now.
Truant was a bit of a dream project. I think I am reassessing my dreams. I am starting to look again at the repertoire and I am very interested in things that Bristol can do and maybe that the Young Company can do with a professional and community mix of performers. CORAM BOY is an education. I’m feeling more responsive to other people at the moment, rather then feeling I’ve got something of my own to impose. I think as an older director, I should be responding to other people and taking interest in other people’s productions. The dream is really what this space (Bristol Old Vic) could be.
Final question. Is the director dead?
There are certain directors who kill plays. It would be fair to say there are directors who don’t know they’ve died. They die on the job and don’t know it. People find directing really addictive and compelling. But what you’re asking is, ‘is the role of the director over’? It’s a very difficult thing to do, very few people can do it well and anyone who can do it very well is going to get a lot of work. I’ll give you an example, going to watch Sally Cookson’s Cinderella at the Tobacco Factory the other day, just so reminded me that the director is NOT dead. There she is putting on the most wonderful work, with the designer, music, the cast; I found the evening scintillating. That’s the director, take her away and you don’t get nearly the same thing, even with all the same people involved. I think the director is very much alive.
Thanks John for sharing your thoughts!
''There are two categories of artists: the artists of absolute creation and those who create upon the creation of others. As interpreters we are instruments. Our job is to understand what these great absolute artists have created and to communicate that to a public. The greatest director of 'Don Giovanni' will never be the equal of Mozart. There is a diabolical danger in the craft of interpretation, to believe that we are as capable, or even better than Mozart or Shakespeare.'' Giorgio Strehler