Theatrical productions typically give priority either to the playwright’s text or the director's interpretation. Eve Leigh challenges theatre to move on from these hierarchical models and open up new space for more trusting and collaborative work.
“How much can I ignore?” It’s an early script meeting, or even a getting-to-know-you, sussing-out-if-we-want-to-work-together coffee. The director in front of me is asking how much of my play that isn’t actual dialogue can be chucked in favour of stage images found in the room.
The most successful creative relationships I’ve had with directors feel like you’re daring each other to be your best, most inventive self
My inclination is usually to say they should absolutely chuck any of it that feels like it isn’t working in the room. Please turn your creative brain all the way on, and invite the actors and creative team to do the same. Unless one person writes, directs, produces, performs, and does all the design themselves, theatre is always collaborative. I want the people who are actually doing the work of getting the play on its feet in front of audiences to know it’s theirs, and to bring the best of themselves to the work.
That’s all true, and I completely stand by it. But it’s not the whole truth. The whole truth would probably read something like this: “Yes, chuck anything, but only if you replace it with something more interesting. Yes, chuck anything, assuming that it doesn’t create a weird panic vacuum with three weeks to go till we open. Yes, chuck anything, but only if you’re sure that you’re not asking that because you’re in some way afraid of what the play is asking you to do, you’re afraid of failing, and you’re trying to invent a new challenge which you feel more secure about. Yes, chuck anything, because if I say no, I’m scared you’ll spread rumours that I’m difficult and make it harder for me to get work.”
Most conversations about playwrights’ relationships with directors in this country are stuck in a kind of binary: either we do it the English-language way, in which the cast and creative team are engaged in realising the ‘perfect production’ that exists in the playwright’s head, or we’re doing ‘director’s theatre’, in which everyone else’s creativity and vision are subsumed to the will of a director.
Both of these, in the end, are stereotypes. I’ve never seen working environments like that in the real world. But both turn on an assumed hierarchy - that we’re either fulfilling the playwright’s vision or that of the director. Implicit in this construction is the idea that their visions are opposed. Which feels like a difficult and saddening way to work.
A creative relationship
The most successful creative relationships I’ve had with directors feel like you’re daring each other to be your best, most inventive self. My frequent collaborator Roy Alexander Weise questions every single decision in the rehearsal room, but he always questions them as if he’s a traveller who has landed on another planet. He wants to find the physics of this new place, to figure out how to survive in an unfamiliar atmosphere. Which, in turn, makes me want to create exciting new spaces for him. We do different jobs, but we work in a flat hierarchy where neither of us is more or less important than the other.
Some writers put complete worlds on the page, and some writers just give you a map. Rachel Bagshaw, whose collaboration with Chris Thorpe in The Shape of the Pain won a Fringe First award and is touring internationally, put it this way: “So much new work now is developed with other artists, whether that's a director, performers or designers. I love what this brings – more playfulness, more ideas, more exploration. And in my experience, many writers also thrive in this environment. The possibilities for everyone bloom, and this can only be a good thing for our stages and ultimately for our audiences.”
Here, Bagshaw is fighting that assumption that the creative liberation of other artists somehow comes at a cost to writers. The truth is that in a functional and compassionate working environment it never, never does.