Direct from the Donmar

Published November 13, 2012

After three years and nine productions, the Donmar Trafalgar season is coming to an end. Alex Sims, Titas Halder and Simon Evans are the final trio of graduates from the Donmar Warehouse’s Resident Assistant Director scheme to be given the gilt-edged opportunity to shake off the tag of assistant and stage their own production in London’s West End.  

It is quite some chance for an emerging director, to have the power and resources of the Donmar Warehouse placed at your disposal. You might think the threesome would be quaking with nerves. But when they met Matthew Amer to talk about the season – which in the past has collected Olivier Award nominations – they were full of excitement, optimism and gratitude.

How are you feeling about being part of the Donmar Trafalgar season?

Alex: It’s the most amazing opportunity where you are able to just focus on rehearsals and not raising the money or worrying if the marketing is going okay. To work with the calibre of actors and creative team and staff at the Donmar, and to get an example of work that you can hopefully get Artistic Directors to come and see, is just a brilliant opportunity.

Simon: I’ve just started my casting process. To have come from casting my own things, producing my own things to a place where there’s this incredible team behind you… Suddenly you’re looking at a calibre of people you wouldn’t get a shot at if I was out in the world of trying to make it happen for myself.

Titas: I’m really excited about the prospect of going into rehearsals. But it’s actually been a long time in the making. We’ve been working on the play for maybe a year plus. It has been amazing.

Simon: In the past I’d not had the experience of someone saying “I’d like you to come and direct something for us, find a play.” It’s always been that I have read a lot, found something I want to do then tried my best to make it happen. To have completely free rein to bring things in and say “Here are some things I’d like to do” and for them to reply “These are exciting choices, let’s talk about it,” it’s been a wonderful opportunity.

Alex: I didn’t choose my play. Josie [Rourke, Donmar Warehouse Artistic Director] was very exacting about the creative team you want and why they fit the play, and Vicky [Richardson] the casting director, why these actors are right. It was similar with the plays, for me. I would suggest something and they would question it. It was a process of going back and forth.

They gave me The Promise and it was a good lesson for me in how to read a play. I read it and I think I still had in my mind that I really wanted to choose my own play, so I didn’t read it properly. They suggested I have another look at it and I did and it was brilliant, amazing. When you’re self-producing you don’t have a creative body above you who are making you reanalyse the choices that you’re making. That’s been a really good learning process. I now know the level of professionalism that the theatres you want to work at will be looking for.

Titas: The Dance Of Death was given to me by an actor to read. I read this play and went “Why didn’t I know this before?” It felt so modern. You can imagine the writer sat there inscribing the words into his desk. It was a very short conversation. I said “How about Dance Of Death?” They said “Yes.”

Simon: I’ve realised that you’re not allowed to say “It’s my instinct.”

Titas: That’s been the best thing, when we’ve been casting and Vicky asks “What do you mean?”

Simon: In my case I got given a chance to direct another small cast show [at The Print Room], so I started reading an awful lot of two, three, four handers. I went to Josie because I knew Josie from before she was at the Donmar. She said “There’s this novella called The Silence Of The Sea, which I’ve always had my eye on, but I’ll happily give it to you.”

It’s absolutely brilliant, but I couldn’t make it work then to do at The Print Room. Then when this came along Josie suggested it again. The problem was Vercors; he has his own stage version. The story is so wonderful yet, with the greatest respect, he can’t write dialogue. The stage adaptation that he wrote is archaic. She said “I think the Donmar has enough clout to discuss with Vercors’ estate whether we can do a new version.” She was right.

Alex: That’s been really exciting as well, to work with the writers. To learn from [playwright] Penelope Skinner is just the cherry on the cake. I feel like I’m constantly still learning. I look at directors like Josie and Marianne Elliott and how their work has developed over time. You can see that they’re still learning. I think that’s one of the keys, you never know everything. Be open to other people’s ways of working and learn from them. I have begun to learn that Penny Skinner is always right.

Simon: To sit down with a man of [playwright] Anthony Weigh’s calibre, to hear his words, let alone for him to ask you what you think… To be included in those conversations and to have conversations with people like that and for them to take on board things that you’re saying. To be delivered a new draft where they’ve put in lines throughout and made them work and suddenly it’s something shared…

Does the Trafalgar Studio 2 present any particular challenges?

Titas: For me, The Dance Of Death is about three people who are locked in a room on an island in the middle of nowhere. They close the shutters, they lock the door and they turn in on each other. I just think there’s something magic when you’re in the audience and you’re sat there and the actor is literally centimetres away and you can see the look in their eye.

Alex: You don’t have to act. You’re not having to fill a 1,000 seater. This is so intimate; it’s really tough actually because you have to make sure that everything is real and believable.

Titas: I think every look’s going to count and every beat…

Alex: I looked at it and I knew it was small, but when you get in the rehearsal room and you put it on the floor..! And we’ve got a bed in ours

Titas: Have you thought about a futon?

Simon: I’ve directed there before, a Spanish Golden age comedy with a cast of 13 [2010’s Madness In Valencia]. I’ve never had as much fun, but it was an exercise in people movement. To do a three-person play is a treat.

Titas: Have you got any bulky furniture?

Simon: No, no bulky furniture. There’s something which that space offers; just the power of being still in there is so much more powerful than in a huge proscenium arch space. It requires us and the actors to work hard. Everything has to be meticulous. At any one point a member of the audience will be a foot away from one of your actors.

Titas: I think it gets to the core of something the Donmar does. It’s about three actors on an intimate stage doing a great play. That’s the opportunity that I see.

What did you learn from your time at the Donmar?

Alex: Because the RAD scheme was set up and the directors know it, I think they’re very good about allowing you time to talk to them to try and understand their process. I was watching directors and learning, trying to take from them the bits that worked and learning lots from the bits that didn’t work so well. To be part of the building, to learn what it takes to get a production of that sort of excellence. The meticulous preparation. The meetings. Analysing the first idea and improving it to the second idea or the third idea.

Titas: I had a wonderful time learning from, being taught by and being mentored by [casting director] Anne McNulty. It’s the detail and the diligence and the passion about the actors and the plays. There’s something very simple and joyful about having a play in front of you and asking “Who would do that?” not in a dream way, but in a ‘how can we make the play come to life, how can we make this play really sing’ way.

Simon: I learned how to talk as a director. I always knew about researching a play in advance. I thought I had an idea about staging. But then you get into a room with these guys – I had Rob Ashford, Michael Grandage, Jamie Lloyd, Bijan Sheibani – to see how these guys talk to actors and how they run a room is an absolute master class. To hear how these guys can come in, having had a discussion with their entire creative team and decided to completely change the way a scene goes, the way that they can give that news, compared to the way I would have stumbled in there and annoyed a room full of people. They have such a delicate way of giving actors space to work and to bring all their gifts to a rehearsal and then to direct it rather than to impose their own vision.

I came from a background of thinking I had to come from Day One having the whole thing mapped out, knowing therefore that the best a production could be at the end was as good as it was in my head on the first day. The way they allow actors to work, the way that they feed off them, the way that they get them to give so much and then just pick the bits that are wonderful and give everybody the sense of ownership and collaboration. That was the big learning curve.

What do you hope for in the future?

Simon: Self-producing requires so much work and effort. That’s the lovely thing about this; you can just concentrate on directing without all the rigmarole of budgets. To be in a position where some of these beautiful theatres around the country, or maybe the world, will take your call, will even, touch wood, call us at some point and say “We’ve got a slot here, is there anything you would like to bring to this space?”

Alex: I’d just like to get better at it. You have to keep being able to do it in order to get better at it. To be able to broaden my horizons, to be able to bring more to the table, to be able to understand more about the storytelling. To keep it simple at times, but also to challenge myself to do work that I don’t feel comfortable with, so that you just keep learning. I wouldn’t ever want to be in a rehearsal where I think “This is how it goes.” You want that process of being challenged and to work on challenging stuff. I’d love to keep doing it and get better at it and to keep working with the calibre of people that we’re working with.