Tag Archives: joe harmston

Interview With The Director: Paul Miller – part one

Paul Miller Photo Mark Douet

Paul Miller was appointed Artistic Director of London’s Orange Tree Theatre in June 2014, as successor to founder Sam Walters. His first season has been tremendously varied and successful, with plays such as ‘The Distance’ by Deborah Bruce, George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Widowers’ Houses’ and ‘The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd’ by D H Lawrence garnering four-star-reviews and sold-out performances. The extraordinary ‘Pomona’ by Alastair McDowell recently won five Offies at the Off West End Awards, including Best New Play and Best Director (Ned Bennett), and will transfer to the National Theatre’s Temporary Theatre in September, followed by a run at the Royal Exchange Theatre in October. Paul Miller won Best Artistic Director at the Off West End Awards.

Paul was an Associate Director at Sheffield Crucible from 2009 to 2014, where his productions included ‘The Winter’s Tale’, ‘Democracy’ by Michael Frayn (which transferred to the Old Vic), and ‘Hamlet’ with John Simm.
For the National Theatre he has directed, amongst others, ‘The History Boys’ by Alan Bennett (a revival for the West End and UK tour), ‘Baby Girl’ by Roy Williams, ‘DNA’ by Dennis Kelly. He was Associate Artist at the Bush Theatre from 2005 – 2008.

When we met, Paul’s production of ‘Each His Own Wilderness’ by Doris Lessing was playing at the Orange Tree. Lessing’s powerful play is set in 1958, and sees Tony (Joel MacCormack), back from National Service disillusioned and dissatisfied, and clashing with his political activist mother Myra (Clare Holman).

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CN Coming to see your show was very interesting, seeing somebody at the very beginning of their career and a number of actors who are quite established– from a director’s point of view, what difference do you notice between a young actor and a very established one – in terms of the way they approach rehearsals, for example?

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PM Well it’s interesting, because there is a well-observed comedic thing that can happen, where the young actors arrive half an hour before rehearsals and do their warm-up and vocal exercise and they’re studiously attacking their parts, and the older, more senior actors appear to roll up without a warm-up, appear to be giving it less application. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking in a banal way that, ‘Oh, people get lazy as they get older’. In fact what I think happens is something much more interesting: the more you apply yourself when young, something happens, almost at a physical level, which means that, a bit like a dancer, you begin to do certain things, not exactly automatically but without having to consciously press that button –

CN – Like a runner might have a very developed muscle that is specific to the task –

PM Exactly. So the older actors who roll in going, ‘Oh, I don’t know why you’re bothering with all that’, making a joke of it all, are often concealing the fact – or indeed are unaware themselves – of what they can deploy, and it’s only in them because they were like that once.

Helen Baxendale The Distance rehearsal c Helen Warner

CN So in a show like this one, where there’s a tension between young and old anyway – that’s the point of the play, in many ways – you must find that in rehearsal too?

PM All the time. It’s very relatively unusual to find oneself in a rehearsal room with a group of people who all of similar age. That’s one of the attractive things about our business, that we routinely work with a lot of people of different backgrounds and ages – that’s not always true in the more ordinary world of work. But that is part of the job of directing: to create a room that will contain, without over-controlling, a lot of people with different approaches. I’ve noticed that some young actors come out of three years where they’ve spent all the time with people of their own age and at their own stage of development, and it can be disconcerting to find yourself in a rehearsal room where you’re doing your thing and other people appear to not be doing your thing. There can be some heavy duty grinding of gears as people have to try and work out how to work with an actor who’s a bit older than them, and who isn’t so actively engaged with the process.

Pomona

CN And similarly in the opposite direction, I’ve been in rehearsals where older actors have become quite frustrated with younger ones applying a method very deliberately, and which sometimes gets in the way of the work. But then that’s the director’s job isn’t it?

PM Yes, that is part of the director’s job, to hold that all together – hopefully in a creative tension, rather than simply a sort of deadlock.

CN So you have to find a different language to speak to each actor?

PM Yes, I think so, or help people to understand each other.

Ellie Piercy The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd photo Mark Douet

CN Do you try and get them to speak your language?

PM Well, I think some directors tackle this aspect of things by forcefully introducing a whole new dimension, which is them, their method, so the rehearsal room becomes about their artistic personality. That can solve the problem because both the young actor with his industrious process and the older actor with apparently no process at all are subsumed into this whole new thing. That’s not my thing, or at least I don’t feel that’s what I do. I think I tend to find myself doing plays where actually one wants to find the difference in people and somehow hold them together.

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CN There’s the great John Dexter tradition that we all fear as actors – walking into the room and finding the despot, with the suggestion that often the director will isolate the weakest… There are many bad stories about directors that actors share. And I wonder where that comes from?

PM I wonder. Of course one of the weirdnesses about being a director is that, after a certain point in your working life, you have no idea what goes on really in anybody else’s rehearsal room, except by hearsay. So one can easily have a distorted impression of what’s going on out there, but I feel as if that John Dexter stuff has largely gone away – I think the culture doesn’t permit that stuff any more. I think that out-and-out, ‘Why are you f***ing doing that? You’re a hopeless actor!’ – I feel like that’s gone, and perhaps been replaced by more subtle problems.
I feel that, by and large, it’s a much more democratic process. If there are problems with a younger generation individually, it might not come from being tyrants in the old model, but maybe people going, ‘You’re not obeying the rules! My method’s not being followed and therefore it’s all wrong.’

CN It’s quite a different experience to an actor going from one rehearsal room to another, one director to another. You’re in isolation in your career – you don’t have the influences that actors have on your working method, so you have to develop your own. I suppose a lot of your method comes from people you assisted at the start of your career?

PM Yes, I think inevitably you see how a rehearsal room works from those people – or doesn’t work. I think a great danger is if you assist people you find very compelling when you’re at a formative stage, you try to work out who you are by imitating them, and that can be a rather an unhappy period to go though.

Patrick Drury as Sartorius with Simon Gregor as Lickcheese in Widowers' Houses

CN You didn’t act at all?

PM At school, but not in any way professionally.

CN But you didn’t feel the bite – you weren’t torn in two directions?

PM No. Somehow or other, I decided I wanted to direct at 17, which is probably unhealthily early…

CN A lot of actors give up and become directors, and a lot of them keep the two strands going at the same time; do you feel it’s useful?

PM Actors who direct?

CN Or for directors to have some experience at acting – or do you think it’s a very different discipline?

PM Well, one of the benefits to being an actor who then turns to directing after a certain amount of time is that, unlike my experience, they will have had years in a lot of different directors’ rehearsal rooms, and so have perspective on what directing can be. I’m often amused at how relatively unsentimental actors-turned-directors are about actors. They can often be the hardest taskmasters, in my experience.

CN When I spoke to Joe Harmston about this – he has never acted – he thinks it hinders actor-directors because they don’t have sympathy; if they can see how to do it, they can’t understand why another actor can’t.

PM I’m sure that’s possible, though someone like Daniel Evans has taken to directing brilliantly and is still acting – I don’t feel he has fallen into that trap. If you’re really good at it you don’t.

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CN Do you remember performances that made you think, ‘Oh wow, I want to make that happen’ – specific actors?

PM I tell you a performance that really did always stick with me – I was lucky enough to be at the University of Ulster at Coleraine when Yvonne Bryceland came – the great South African actress who, with her husband Brian Astbury, had run a theatre in South Africa.

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She was a long-term collaborator with Athol Fugard, and she recreated a production of a play called ‘People Are Living There’ by Fugard. She played a woman running a shabby boarding house on the night of her 50th birthday, and – typical Fugard – the play had a very simple action to it, and revolved around one moment: she had this speech about turning 50, just as the clock was striking midnight, and her unhappiness and disappointment in life, this terrible boyfriend that we never see; remembering herself as a little girl and saying, ‘There were promises, there were promises’. It was highly realistic acting, yet also with a kind of magnetism and a sense of emotional size to it. I can still see and hear her, and I thought she was a remarkable creature.

CN Are there actors you would like to work with that you see on the stage today?

Penelope Wilton

PM I think Penelope Wilton has a lot of what I described about Yvonne Bryceland actually – everything always truthful and drawn from life, and yet with this sense of an enormous emotional landscape behind it. It would be wonderful to work with someone like that.

Coming in Part Two, Paul talks casting, London and Artistic Director’s Guilt…

Interview With The Director… Joe Harmston – part 2

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Chris Naylor: You were part of the evening of three Pinter plays at the Donmar in 1998. I wrote about Penelope Wilton’s performance in ‘A Kind Of Alaska’, but that whole evening was wonderful. I can remember seeing Pinter himself in your production of ‘The Collection’, and being amazed by him.

Joe Harmston: He was stunning.

CN: You worked with him a lot, didn’t you?

JH: I did, yeah. I directed him in his own play twice, and I was his associate director four times. I loved working with him. Interestingly, he was utterly anti-prescriptive. I remember when we were doing ‘The Collection’, we were in the last week of rehearsals, and I gave my notes and then said, ‘But we’ve got to a point now really where it’s just louder, faster, funnier.’ And most of the other actors looked with absolute horror, as if I’d rubbed shit all over their faces, and Harold just went, ‘Too f***ing right’. And he was so much of that kind of world, just sort of, ‘Get on with it’.

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CN: And from a rep background.

JH: Yeah. I saw him not long before he died and he said, ‘What are you doing,’ and I said, ‘Well, you know, I’ve been doing a lot of Agatha Christie recently,’ and he said ‘God, I love Agatha Christie! Which one are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I’ve just done ‘The Unexpected Guest.’ ‘Oh, fantastic, I played the part of…’ and I suddenly realised how much of the sort of Agatha Christie-style thing actually appears in Harold’s plays, you know – strange characters step through doors and just start talking…

I think it’s very, very unfashionable unfortunately, but so much of my interest as a director has always been about the basic practicalities of ‘get out there and get on with it’. I remember Greg Doran once rang me when I knew him a bit years ago. I’d just directed a show at the Old Red Lion in 3 weeks, and Greg rang me and said, ‘This is a slightly embarrassing question, but I’m in week seven of rehearsals, can you think of anything I can do?’ And I thought, that just says everything.

When we did ‘Hay Fever’, I think we had three weeks, didn’t we? There’s always a great deal about the white heat of rehearsals that makes you get up, try something, decide whether or not it works, try something else – and I think particularly the really, really long rehearsal periods can become a bit of a navel-gazing exercise, where the danger is you forget about the fact that we are there to put it in front of an audience.

CN: I don’t think I’ve ever had anything longer than about five weeks.

JH: I can remember as an assistant director working with people who would say, ‘Well, in the first week I can’t possibly get it on its feet, we have to sit round a table,’ and by the end of the first week, it was magnificent, just fantastic, the performances were brilliant – and then the Monday of the second week, everybody stood up and it all fell to pieces. What was the point of doing that? So I have always felt, rehearse on your feet – you know, read that scene and then get up and do it, but don’t spend two days pontificating about it.

NPG P490(63); J.B. Priestley by Yousuf Karsh

CN: Priestley was the same, wasn’t he? On the original production of ‘Dangerous Corner’, he rehearsed for three weeks, and had another two to go, so he gave them a week and a half off, then came back and tech-ed it, because he thought, ‘well, we’ve done it, what more is there to do?’

JH: Well, interestingly, it’s something I’ve done a lot recently, because I’ve always rehearsed a show over Christmas, so it has tended to be the case that we’ve done, say, two weeks before Christmas, had a week off, and then come back and done the final week and then gone into tech. I’ve found that very, very useful because it gives people the time to go away and learn the lines, but also it all sort of percolates down, and when they come back it’s almost as if they’ve already been running it for a week.

CN: It’s like an extension of that thing that all actors understand, when you’re trying to learn your lines and you think, ‘Oh God, it’s awful’, then the next morning, you know it somehow. Did you start as an actor?

JH: No, I didn’t. Interestingly I’ve had the experience recently – we ran out of actors for ‘Murder On Air’, so I had to do it for a week in Manchester, so I found myself acting in my own show.

murder-on-air

CN: That’s a script-in-hand show, isn’t it?

JH: Yes, although because I’ve been doing the show for seven years I knew most of it anyway. But it’s very interesting experience. I kept finding myself on stage watching people thinking, ‘Yes, I must talk about that after because I think we could improve on that,’ or, ‘That’s a good idea!’ and then thinking, ‘Who’s dried? Shit! It’s me!’

CN: But do you think it’s a useful thing for a director to have been an actor?

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JH: I think it’s probably more useful for a director to do a bit of acting than it is for a director to have been an actor, because when I was an assistant director I watched some actors directing, and if they were good actors, they tended to be pretty awful directors. I remember watching Derek Jacobi directing, and the bizarre thing was, Derek’s a sublime actor and he therefore doesn’t really understand why people can’t do it. Which is a big problem with a director. I don’t think I did anything that was at all embarrassing on stage in Manchester, but there are plenty of other people I know would have done it even better, because I don’t find acting an instantly effortless thing. I think that’s possibly one of the things that makes me quite a good director, because I can see what an actor is having a difficulty with, whereas if you’re a brilliant actor, you just spend your time thinking, ‘Why can’t you do it?!’

Interview With The Director… Joe Harmston – part 1

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Joe Harmston is a British theatre director, whose career spans nearly twenty years.
Highlights of his career have been the world premiere of ‘King James’ Ear’, ‘The Lover’ and ‘The Collection’, which he directed at The Donmar Warehouse starring their writer, Harold Pinter.

With Bill Kenwright he created the hugely successful Agatha Christie Theatre Company, while at the other end of the spectrum he continues to champion new writing projects on the fringe.
In spring 2012 he commissioned and directed a landmark re-interpretation of Strindberg’s ‘The Father’ at the Belgrade in Coventry, where he is Associate Creative Director, and for which he was nominated for Best Director in the 2012 TMA Awards.


hay fever

I first worked with Joe on a tour of Noel Coward’s ‘Hay Fever’ for Bill Kenwright, starring Stephanie Beacham and Christopher Timothy.

Chris Naylor: The acting business has changed a lot since I started 16 years ago – in those days when I got an audition, my agent would tell me about who was directing it and what they’d done, but it wasn’t as easy to research people – I’m not sure Google existed in 1998. But when you meet an actor for an audition now, what do you expect of them?

Joe Harmston: Well, not a lot, actually. I think the most I expect of them is that they have read the play, understood it and have some sense of who I am – not in a terribly grand way, but occasionally you have a meeting and an actor will say to you, ‘sorry, who are you, what have you done?’ and that’s not really the best way to make friends and influence people. But personally I’m not interested in a great deal of preparation on the part of the actor, because what I want to do is see if I like them as a person.

CN: So you see it as a microcosm of the rehearsal room?

JH: Yeah, I’m trying to find a group of people who I think are going to get on well in rehearsal, and therefore be creative together. So I guess what I’m looking for is people who are going to ask themselves the right sort of questions about the play and are going to be engaged and interested. For example, I don’t want people to come into an audition having decided on a performance.

CN: So, off-book, for example – you’d never want that?

JH: I’m impressed by it but it doesn’t make any difference to me. Sometimes people come in off-book, but actually they’re not really off-book –

CN: – and then they throw themselves.

JH: I mean, I’m working on the basis that actors can learn lines – that’s not always right, of course – but essentially that’s not a skill I expect an actor to feel they need to prove to me. What I do want them to prove is that they can have ideas about the play and the part, and that they can also respond to my ideas. So even if somebody comes and does something beautifully, I will always say, ‘Well that’s lovely – let’s try that again, but perhaps we could do this’, even if the things I’m suggesting are not things I actually would suggest. Sometimes you ask them to do something slightly different, and they do exactly the same and you think, ‘Oh, I see, that’s all I’m ever going to get from them.’

CN: Are you surprised by that lack of flexibility?

JH: Yes, endlessly. I’m also endlessly surprised – especially with young actors – with how voluble they can be about the play and the performance, and then be unspeakably awful. So sometimes you spend five minutes having a chat beforehand and you think, ‘Wow! You’re going to be stunning!’ and then they do it and you think, ‘Did you just get up and leave the room and somebody else came and took your place?’

CN: So they can talk the talk?

JH: Yeah.

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CN: I can remember meeting Guy Retallack for my first ever theatre job. It was ‘Dangerous Corner’ at the Watermill, and I had a brilliant time – and I was talking to the actor who had sat in at the audition who told me that one of the reasons I got it was that Guy had asked me to make a particular choice about the character, and I said, ‘No, I think that’s the sort of thing I would leave for the rehearsal room’! For some reason that made him think, ‘This person is interesting’! Would you have cast me?

JH: I would have done as well, yeah, I would be interested in somebody who’s showing that they had ideas. I don’t want an actor who’s just going to do what I tell them to do. I think good directing is knowing what are the right questions to ask, and you‘re stupid if you think you’ve got all the answers.

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CN: I imagine one of the key things about directing is that you need to be able to adjust your method to each particular actor?

JH: I always think that at the beginning in the rehearsal room, you’ve got 12 people who all speak different languages, and your job is to speak to them in their own language. The process of rehearsal is about creating a shared language so that at the end you’ve got everybody speaking the same language. The first part is always very difficult because you’re speaking Russian and German and Flemish, and sometimes you forget which language you need to speak to someone in.
I remember doing a play where one of the actors I’d worked with a lot – we’d known each other for a decade – and I gave him a really brutal note, it was something like, ‘Don’t do it like that, Simon – your character’s supposed to be dull and ineffectual, not dead, you stupid c***’. And Simon just went, ‘Oh yeah, sorry, sorry’, but everybody else looked at me in absolute horror. That was absolutely the language that I needed to speak to Simon in at that moment because of all of our shared history, but it was sort of inappropriate that I allowed other people to hear it. Actually by the end of it, I could speak to everybody like that, but at that stage there were many other people where I needed to be saying, ‘Darling, I love what you’re doing, that’s a terrific idea – I tell you what, let’s just try something completely different,’ which actually means, ‘Please don’t ever do that again.’

 

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CN: I can remember when we worked together there was an actress who was cleaving very closely to a method at the time…

 

JH: Yes, it was that book by Declan Donellan. It was so fascinating because when she began, instinctively she was just perfect for the part, but then it started getting odder and odder and odder and more disjointed, and we all realised she had this notebook. The method that she was slavishly adhering to was more and more of a block, because it became not about instinctively responding to the actors in the room with her, but about doing this thing – I mean, it was very odd…

CN: Particularly for a very light text like ‘Hay Fever’.

JH: Yes. I seem to recall we actually got her to burn her notebook – we had a sacrificial burning of it. It wasn’t that actually the work wasn’t useful, but it was all just about that, rather than what else was happening. She couldn’t be in the moment.

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CN: I can remember when I was at LAMDA, David Mamet’s ‘True and False’ came out and we all just loved it and devoured it; it became the new Bible for us, for a while anyway.

JH: I think the good thing about ‘True and False’ though was that it was less prescriptive.

CN: It was anti-prescriptive.

JH: Yes, and it was very much an overview and an approach, where as so many of the books like Declan’s are about, you know, on page 26 there is the exercise you do, and you know, any text you can treat like this – and you think, ‘Ooh, no no no.’ But you’re right, the Mamet – suddenly there was a real vogue for it. I remember Bill Nighy giving it to me and saying, ‘Have you read this? You’ve got to read it’. Everybody was on about it.

CN: Do you find that sort of things crops up mostly with young actors?

JH: Yes, but sometimes it’s older actors who have that panic of the mid-career, suddenly thinking ‘I’ve found this book which is the great thing I must do – this is why things haven’t been happening, because I haven’t been doing this!’

Coming in part two: Joe talks Pinter, Doran and Jacobi