Updated: Jun 5, 2020
I started off thinking about 5 plays that have influenced me the most. But then I thought it would actually be more interesting to look at 5 things outside of theatre that have had an influence on the work I make and how I make them. As creatives, we are as much influenced by our other interests, hobbies, creative pursuits as we are by the theatre we see or the rehearsal rooms we are in. In many ways, it is these other influences that really make us the creatives we are – it is in the balance and intersections of these diverse interests that our creative voice becomes truly unique.
I’ve written before about the relationship between sport and theatre. In particular, of my interest in cricket and how my history of playing cricket has influenced my approach to both directing and coaching.
All sports are unique, but I would argue that cricket has more peculiarities than most. Unlike most sports, cricket is often more about the ebb and flow of the event than it is about the actual individual acts on the field. Because the game takes place over several hours at a minimum and 5 days at a maximum, the rhythm and gradual build of tension is very particular. The climax of a test match is so much more intense because it has taken 5 days to reach that point, all the individual efforts, moments of brilliancy or idiocy, have all built to this final hour, these final few deliveries. This builds a sense of drama that I, personally, think is unrivalled in sport.
Cricket has also undoubtedly had an influence on the way that I direct in the room. It is a team sport that is made up of lots of individual efforts. In this way, it is very like a piece of theatre. Each actor has their own role, their own lines and their own skills to perform but it is part of a bigger whole. All through my school years I was captain of my age group sides, and this sense of leadership and putting the team first is something that has stayed with me strongly. As a director, I am always looking out for the welfare of my cast – making them part of the creative process so that they have ownership over the piece. In other words, I’m always looking to build a team. A group unified by a single purpose but where each individual has the opportunity to contribute and to shine.
2. Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures
I first saw Matthew Bourne’s work in 2010 when I went with my family to see Cinderella at Sadler’s Wells. This quickly became an annual trip, as visits to The Nutcraker, Sleeping Beauty and (of course) Swan Lake all followed in the years to come.
As a choreographer and director, Bourne has a fantastic ability to tell stories. His work is all about using movement to further the narrative. Nothing is there just because it looks pretty. As a result, his ballets feel so vibrant and alive. You feel like you are watching real characters that are expressing action and emotion. These pieces are real theatre – just the characters communicate through movement instead of words.
His work opened my eyes to two things. First, the power of movement as a storytelling devise. Second, that classics can be ‘re-invented’ with real vibrancy, modernity and life, without losing the essence of the original.
I studied History at university, despite probably having a stronger aptitude for English (and, of course, Drama). I chose History over English because I was interested in, to use the words I chose at the time, ‘stories that had actually happened.’ Although this is part of the fascination with History – the idea of exploring real events that were experience by real people – the thing that has really stayed with me after three years of study is more the interest around ‘why’. Why do people do what they do? What motivates people? At what point are people prepared to risk or sacrifice their lives for someone or something?
The other thing that has stayed with me is the idea of perspective. Every event is different from a different standpoint. No-one views themselves as the villain – they are all trying to do what they think is right. This is the case in good drama as well. People’s actions must always be put into some kind of context, and people very rarely do bad things for the sake of it – they are normally doing bad for what they deem to be a greater purpose. Whether we agree with their actions or not is a different matter and that is for the audience to decide.
When I was in my final years of school and at university, my mum took the decision to go back into education herself and undertook a degree in History of Art. This opened up a whole world to me that I had never really thought about before. As a result, I ended up going around exhibitions, galleries and museums, and gaining a knowledge of art and artists via osmosis. I even wrote one of my own university essays on art and the Counter-Reformation.
Art is a fantastic window into another time and culture. It is also a great lesson in the balance of space, the use of colour and the creation of atmosphere. Art also becomes an incredibly useful frame of reference when building the aesthetic of a production. Whether that’s generating material to send to designers or getting the cast to bring to rehearsals images that in some way relate to their experience of the play/story. For me, art is all about accessing the feel of a world and it can be really useful in constructing a world on stage.
When I was in my first few years at secondary school, the career I was most interested in exploring (aside from professional cricket) was architecture. This was probably influenced by two factors: a love of Grand Designs, and a minor obsession with The Sims.
I soon dropped the idea of pursuing architecture in any meaningful way, when I realised that a good grasp of Physics was pretty essential. But I was reminded of how much I still look to architecture for inspiration when I was setting up my Instagram account recently and found myself following numerous architecture firms and feeds.
The construction of space and how a building relates both to its environment and its users is something that is really fundamental to our lives. I think this has influenced both my interest in working in non-theatre spaces and also my desire to often break down the divide between actors and audience. I’m always keen to encourage actors to make use of any unique qualities a particular venue has – whether that be columns, aisles or stairways. It means that the building becomes part of the show and means that the space and the piece are working together.
There are many influences beyond these five things, but it has been really interesting to explore and identify some specific things that have had an impact, usually subconsciously, on the work I make and how I make it. Literature is obviously a massive influence too – considering how much of my directing CV is dominated by adaptations. And I think this links to the above influences too. By working with non-theatrical texts or with writers before their ideas are fully scripted, it gives me the ability to bring in the wider influences more fully. Architecture and art bring a sense of structure and order, Matthew Bourne’s ballets a reminder that movement can often speak louder than words, History a questioning of motivations and contextualisation of action, and Cricket to keep a sense of teamwork at the heart of it all.