directors

directors
   Contemporary directors reflect the multiplicity of approaches to making theatre that have informed the development of postwar theatre. Although they are accorded the status of the most powerful people in theatre, they are increasingly vulnerable to market forces as theatres, companies and productions are expected to make ends meet. The idea of pursuing a personal ‘vision’ is often sacrificed in order to be commercially viable. Joan Littlewood left Britain in disgust at the lack of state funding; Peter Brook also left after being unable to secure funding for his work in Britain. Littlewood’s legacy of ensemble practice and theatre as ‘total experience’, from her work with Theatre Workshop in the 1950s and early 1960s, survives, particularly in non-establishment forms such as community theatre and physical theatre. Her belief in maintaining a strong relationship between a theatre and its local community has also been practised, notably by Philip Hedley at Theatre Royal, Stratford East, and by Peter Cheeseman at Stoke-on-Trent.
   George Devine at the Royal Court organized and taught improvisation classes for a shoal of new playwrights (including Keith Johnstone, Ann Jellicoe and Edward Bond) in addition to taking on a number of rebellious Oxbridge graduates (Lindsay Anderson and Bill Gaskill) who developed the legendary ‘house style’, a simple approach to design, acting and direction dedicated to serving the text. Rather more humanist than intellectual, and ‘liberal’ than ‘left’, this team encouraged actors to use their natural working-class accents—a revelation at the time—and nurtured a whole generation of dramatists.
   Oxbridge’s hold on the profession has continued with one or two exceptions, despite the fact that neither university offers specific courses or opportunities for would-be directors to study and work alongside actors. Consequently, British theatre is said to abound with directors who approach texts from an intellectual standpoint. Peter Brook is an exceptional case for, despite being a Cambridge graduate, he has increasingly focused attention on the somatic power of the actor. For Brook, theatre is a quest, a search for a simplicity of form and a richness of meaning which communicates on a universal level. His search has led him and his multiethnic company to Iran, Africa and India from his post-1970 base in Paris. He has been accused of cultural tourism; others view his attempts to create work which speaks on a universal level as a positive example of the benefits of artistic cross-fertilization in a global climate of increasing nationalism. Brook is immensely influential in British theatre, and is regarded as a guru by some.
   Peter Hall is a director in a more traditional mould. Following his successes at the Royal Shakespeare Company, he became responsible for ‘breaking in’ the three stages at the National Theatre when it opened in 1973. His style is essentially ‘director’s theatre’, in which the interpretative vision of the director is foregrounded. His all-male, masked production of The Oresteia Trilogy epitomized this approach, with an emphasis on spectacle. This production, together with Bill Bryden’s The Mysteries (also translated by Tony Harrison in earthy northern dialect), which used the Cottesloe Theatre in promenade and placed God on top of scaffolding, also demonstrated a new boldness in reinterpreting the classics. Hall set up his own company at the Old Vic in 1995. Alternative theatre in the 1970s produced a new breed of directors dedicated to creating accessible forms through which political meanings could be conveyed in the tradition of Littlewood, such as John McGrath. McGrath argues the case for viewing popular theatre forms as the most enduring and efficacious (A Good Night Out). At the Royal Court, Max Stafford-Clark took the reins after five years with Joint Stock, where he developed a distinctive workshop process, working with playwrights and actors together through improvisation on ideas and characters before the actual text was written. His significant work in this respect was with Caryl Churchill (Cloud Nine, Serious Money), and during his Court years he premiered many women writers (Dunbar, Daniels, Page and Wertenbaker among others). He continues the tradition of working with new writing into the late 1990s with his touring company Out of Joint. Women began to make inroads into the profession. Some, like their male counterparts, created their own companies; examples are Yvonne Brewster (Talawa Theatre), who staged The Importance of Being Ernest with an all-black cast, and Deborah Warner (Kick Theatre), who graduated to the RSC and then the National (King Lear, 1990). An average of three to four women run regional theatres, including Jules Wright at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds; freelance women directors are more evident. Black directors also tend to work freelance or set up companies, as did Jatinder Verma who directed an all-Asian version of Tartuffe (1990) at the National Theatre. The 1980s was a decade when directors (often teamed with designers) rather than playwrights took the accolades in mainstream theatre. The Donnellan/Ormerod partnership (Cheek by Jowl) concentrates on revivals that carry the conviction of relevance through detailed and imaginative ensemble playing. Their all-male As You Like It, with a black Rosalind, was a commercial and artistic success. Other notables are Stephen Daldry (whose revisionary production of An Inspector Calls played the West End for three years), Katie Mitchell, Nicholas Hytner and Annie Castledine. Some of this generation of directors are being lured into the more financially rewarding fields of film. Meanwhile, fringe and alternative theatre continues to produce exciting and inspiring work arrived at through collaborative methods where the director is a member of a creative team (Tim Etchells with Forced Entertainment, Simon McBurney with Theatre de Complicité). In such companies, actors are involved in the whole process from research to creative exploration, sometimes using their own experiences and histories as source material; there is no autonomous playwright, and the director’s role becomes that of a ‘theatre-wright’ who oversees the making process. It is worth noting that in community theatre the term— and traditional job—‘director’ is being replaced by that of ‘enabler’ or ‘facilitator’.
   See also: theatre
   Further reading
    Edwardes, J. (1994) ‘Directors: The New Generation’, in T.Shank (ed.), Contemporary British Theatre, London: Macmillan.
   DYMPHNA CALLERY

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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