Jeremy Herrin, Artistic Director of Headlong, explains who has inspired him most.
I went to a traditional public school and was miserable until I met a teacher called John Harrison. His humanity was rare in such a conservative environment, and he had established a busy theatre that connected the closed all-male school with the local community. I spent as much time there as I could. When I was disappointed not to have a bigger part in some play or other, John observed that what I really wanted to be was a Director. He said I could direct anything I wanted: I think I tested his patience when I chose my own adaptation of ‘Woyzeck’. I immediately knew what I wanted to do with my life and have only regretted it two or three times a year. I am aware that well-resourced educational privilege is something that not everyone is afforded. As a firm believer in comprehensive education, I despair at how the arts are undervalued and increasingly unsupported. All children should have access to the arts and the chance to be inspired by a teacher as good as John Harrison.
After studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) I went to the Royal Court as Assistant Director. I was Stephen Daldry’s assistant in his first year and I assumed that writers like Anthony Neilson, Sarah Kane and Jez Butterworth turned up all the time. In acknowledging George Devine as a guru, I’m actually acknowledging the Royal Court philosophy – to pursue the writer’s intention with clarity, wit and boldness, to have a theatre that’s serious and for it to actively relate to the world we live in. I also acknowledge the influence of Stephen, James Macdonald and particularly Dominic Cooke – an inspirationally decent Artistic Director who encouraged me and patiently improved my directing. I’m also loving working with Vicky Featherstone as I direct ‘The Nether’ – a play for the perfect partnership that is a Headlong and Royal Court co-production opening in July.
I first met Jane when I was a staff director at the National Theatre (NT) and she was the best Deputy Stage Manager on the planet. She could play a show like a great musician: bang in a cue to up the intensity, lay back to encourage a laugh from a tentative audience. She is brilliant at dealing with tricky situations and always does the right thing with humour and humanity. Now a great Stage Manager, she was my first appointment when I directed ‘This House’. Jane was vital to its success as she has been to so many other NT hits over the years. She’s a guru because she embodies the phrase ‘life blood of the theatre’ – people who rarely get the credit and nor do they want it: it’s all about the show. I’m thinking of all the brilliant casting directors, production managers, creative teams, administrators, assistants and associates and in particular my passionate and committed team at Headlong.
When James and I did ‘This House’, I was delighted to find a young writer of enormous intellectual capacity but with a generous popular touch. He will always move towards a creative solution and manages to be flexible without ever neglecting the integrity of his writing. He’s ambitious and has great stamina. I can’t wait for our next project. He represents the posse of brilliant, open writers whose vision I’ve tried to serve over the years, and those writers that we are working with at Headlong. The writer/director axis can be such a rewarding one and I’ve been very lucky.
I can’t do a list of gurus without talking about actors. And there are so many who I get inspiration from, not least my ensemble for the Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies at the RSC, led by the titanic Ben Miles. But I chose Penelope as a guru because she’s utterly brilliant and made a near impossible part work in Eliot’s ‘The Family Reunion’. She had to say “May the weasel and the otter/ Be about their proper business” with a straight face. She achieved it. She is an actress of genius and one of those that make you a better Director.
Jeremy Herrin is Artistic Director of Headlong and will be directing Jennifer Haley's 'The Nether' in a co production with the Royal Court in July.