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.
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?
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.
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.’
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.
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