The Donmar Warehouse is one of London’s most celebrated theatres, and under Artistic Director Michael Grandage it has become a champion of new directing talent.
So it must be every young director’s dream to gain a year-long apprenticeship on the Donmar’s Resident Assistant Director (RAD) scheme, a programme that can count acclaimed directors Rupert Goold and Josie Rourke among its alumni. Now, to showcase the talents of its RADs, the Donmar is giving three graduates of the scheme the chance to direct a play in a new season at Trafalgar Studio 2. Caroline Bishop talks to Charlotte Westenra, Róisin McBrinn and Chris Rolls about what Donmar Trafalgar means to them.
How do you feel about working in this season?
Charlotte Westenra: It’s a thrill. I had a great time working at the Donmar as a RAD and I think what they are very good at is forming relationships with people, and so the fact we are coming back into the Donmar again and that we feel a little bit a part of their history has been really exciting.
Chris Rolls: It feels like a huge privilege really, it feels great.
Róisin McBrinn: It’s been fun as well from the perspective of having three plays on and being involved in a real season in the sense that there’s a single unit. It [directing] can be quite solo but in this regard, just for the sake of fun and enjoyment, I’ve quite liked it that we are all together.
CW: We have known each other since our time at the Donmar, that’s what’s so fantastic. It’s always nice to have other directors who are your peers who you feel you can turn to and ask those questions, there’s that support network.
CR: I’ve certainly got on the phone to Charlie and Róisin and gone, I need advice and stuff. And that’s brilliant that not only have we got the support of the Donmar which has got the most amazing toolkit in the world for producing theatre, but that also we’ve got each other’s phone numbers.
RM: This is the first of three years and there’s something of a launch to this which I’ve found exciting, but also the prospect of it continuing, that the RAD programme will also give future graduates productions, which I think is quite brilliant.
CR: I can’t really speak for the Donmar, why they are doing it, but what it does do I think is fulfil a need which is in the industry. There are a lot of very good training schemes out there and it’s a very good thing to assist someone, that’s how we all learn, but there is a phenomenon of being slightly in a hinterland. There is still this area whereby you do need a springboard to propel you on to the next level. It’s like going through a bottle neck, it’s harder and harder and harder, and then just when you think you’ve done the hardest bit you actually get to the bit of, ‘give me a job’. I think part of this is going to be hugely helpful for that, for me anyway.
RM: Also you can’t call yourself a director unless you are producing work.
How did you choose your plays for the Donmar Trafalgar season?
CR: They said go away and tell us which plays you want to do in this space, you can only have about two or three people in them. So we were all sent into a whirlwind of thinking ‘what are our favourite small plays that we can do in a small studio space?’ And then we pitched that distilled list to them.
CW: [Executive Producer] James Bierman and Michael Grandage both recommended Lower Ninth to me and they felt that it was very much my voice in terms of they knew what themes interest me and the style of play. They had a bit of a link with [playwright] Beau Willimon. The Donmar put the two of us in touch because they thought we would work well together and it’s been such a joyous collaboration.
RM: The play that I am producing, Novecento, was something that they gave to me to have a read and I really liked it and thought that it would be appropriate.
CR: Mine [Les Parents Terribles] was one of the ones that I pitched to them thinking they wouldn’t accept it because it’s got a cast of five. We average a cast of three each, so…
Trafalgar Studio 2 is a tiny space. Does that present challenges?
CW: Huge challenges!
CR: I think that’s what’s been really exciting in a way, because as a director, 50 per cent of what we do is an imaginative thing and 50 per cent is like laying pipe. You don’t do a play in an abstract sense, you do it in a very real concrete sense. How is this piece going to work in a small space?
CW: It’s very small, but it’s intimate. I think what I find quite exciting is that you are allowed to go right down into close-up, and normally as directors you don’t have that filmic privilege to really bring something right down to a whisper or to be able to be intimate and that close.
Is there any competition between you?
CR: I think that would just be so ridiculous on so many levels, because the idea that as directors, when you are doing individual plays, that one production can compete against another, it’s like comparing a chair with a table, they are just so different.
CW: But also I think our voices are very different as well. In terms of our styles and our interests as directors. So I actually think the three of us really complement each other very well, because we’ve got different approaches to theatre. I think theatre is really healthy when you want other people to do well.
What did you learn from assisting directors at the Donmar under the RAD scheme?
RM: Certainly when I was there, there was a commendable lack of structure to what our roles had to be. So in between rehearsals we could work with any department that we wanted to. At the time there was a literary aspect to the Donmar so I had the opportunity to research and read new plays and then I spent a period working with [Casting and Creative Associate] Anne McNulty in the casting department. To be informed at that level was huge for me.
CW: If I had to narrow it down I would say working with Michael Grandage, the clarity of storytelling. I would say I learnt from Roger Michell: he was great at giving me an insight into being delicate with the text. And working with Anne McNulty certainly was one of the most important things. Knowing that you have to put the actor first and know who those actors are out there, that’s advice that every director needs.
CR: That was like a baptism of fire for me because when I started at the Donmar my knowledge of actors was really not very good at all, and actually it’s something that I still now continue to feel ashamed about, how little I [know] compared to people like Anne. I know that’s her job but…
CW: Anne’s got an encyclopaedia in her brain!
RM: Whenever you make that a priority, the focus of the work shifts, which was something massive for me.
CR: I think that’s a Michael thing as well, with him being an actor before. It’s always about the acting experience. I think the people I worked with at the Donmar are perhaps frustratingly the people whose skills and tools I couldn’t put down in a kind of bullet point list because what they had was an ability to communicate on very many different and subtle and quite deep levels with actors. People like Peter Gill, who I just cannot begin to tell you how influential he was, but I can’t even tell you particularly how he achieves his results, it’s just something chemical in the rehearsal room. Phyllida Lloyd, who again has got something very similar, but also has quite a strong sense of craft and a very distinct style of directing. And Michael, who is very clear and very trusting of his actors. He trusts the actors’ craft and trusts that the actors know what they are doing within a very clear framework.
Have any of you ever wanted to act?
CW: Oh you missed my great performances!
RM: I worked briefly as an actor, yes. And I was terrible.
CR: Part of me is a frustrated actor.
RM: Personally I think the reason why I thought I wanted to be an actor and why I pursued that route was because at the age of nine and again at 16 and even at 20, it sometimes seems the only way to be involved in theatre. You can’t go on a Saturday to do classes in stage management etc.
CR: I don’t think I knew that such a thing as a theatre director existed until I was probably about 15 or 16. But when I did, I became really fascinated that there is some sort of controlling imagination behind the production.
RM: I actually think that having acted, pursuing that route, doing some actor training, was very healthy in terms of where I have ended up; massively informative actually. And giving it up was a good thing as well!
When you left the RAD scheme did you feel ready to direct in your own right?
RM: I felt ready and I was frustrated that it took me a few months longer than I wanted, to be honest. I think that it would be an unusual circumstance to spend one year, ultimately observing and watching other people work – although you’ve got duties – and not feel a slight or massive impulse to do it yourself. But maybe that’s just me!
CW: When I left I felt ready to go and direct my own work, and after that there are times when I haven’t felt as match-fit, so the Donmar really got me in shape to go and direct and sometimes I need a little refresher course.
CR: I did six plays in the same amount of time, I think one more than normal. It was knackering, and I came out kind of punchdrunk, with all this experience, but also… feeling like I wanted to get behind the driving wheel rather than hold the map all the time. So I deliberately threw myself into something rather stupid – I directed a play on the fringe with 12 people in it, in a tiny space, just because I wanted to embrace it all and just do it.
CW: I’m going to admit and say the first thing I wanted to do when I left the Donmar was reapply. I remember asking if I could reapply.
CR: You’ve said that quite a few times. I can understand on the one hand but on the other hand did you not come out of it going ‘I really want to be the one directing’?
CW: There was a little bit of fear: ‘ooh I feel really safe here’.
RM: I found what was daunting was just a question of how you… not direct alone but actually get work. That was daunting. Still is!
What’s the life of a director like?
CR: I think it’s challenging. I think we’d be lying if we said it wasn’t. We’ve all been lucky. It’s a hugely competitive field, there are lots of young directors out there. Anything you can do like the RAD scheme at the Donmar – I’m sure they get hundreds and hundreds of applications a year – just to have that stamp of approval is brilliant.
CW: The support and the fact they are taking time and money and all of that to invest in young directors is so…unusual. It’s unique.
RM: If it weren’t for certain people and certain bodies I wouldn’t be directing now. The Donmar is definitely one of them. But other opportunities have come by or I’ve forced them into life and without them, it’s a hard old slog.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
CW: I do ultimately want to run a theatre because I love the idea of programming, but it doesn’t seem to be my main focus at the moment. I’d like more freelance work. There are some bigger plays that I want to direct. Also I’ve really enjoyed working with music on this show and I think that’s somewhere where I’d like to go in the future, to look at working with composers and incorporating that much more into my palate.
CR: Same as Charlie, part of me would secretly love in the future to run a building. But my shorter term thing is just to keep on doing what I’m doing. It’s about the directing and about working with actors that really interests me. How do actors work, what is that relationship? I just find it endlessly fascinating.
RM: Novecento for me is the beginning of a nice run of work and really I’m not thinking anything beyond each of those projects and I’m trying my best to keep it in focus: what a gift each of the opportunities are but also to look at them as individual projects and to keep on going in that way. The fact is I’m slightly wary of a gameplan. I’m in the position where I’m quite fulfilled for the short term so I just want to keep an eye on it.
What attributes do you need for this job?
CR: You need to be bloody minded! Every single day will challenge you as to why you want to do this. Are you doing this for the money? No. Are you doing it for the huge amount of celebrity and fame it’s going to bring? No. Are you doing it because it’s got brilliant working hours and you can have a family and kids? No. So it tests you all the time. But then the moments that you have in a rehearsal room or with actors or [when] you deliver something that you are genuinely very proud of or you create a new relationship with someone that you know is going to turn into a friend or a long-term mentor, it’s just priceless and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
CW: I think you need passion. I know that’s what keeps me going. It’s interesting, when I’m sometimes a bit blue and I’m at home and I’m eating my jacket potato and I need more money, I go, ‘just remember what a buzz you get when you are in the rehearsal room’. I just feel elated, I feel like I’m flying because I enjoy it so much. Nothing is ever going to beat that feeling. There’s no other job I could do that I would be so happy, and that’s a good enough reason to keep going, I think.
Even if you have to eat baked potatoes every day?
CR: Nothing wrong with a baked potato! There’s a lot of nutrients in a baked potato.
The Donmar Trafalgar season begins with Lower Ninth, which opens tonight, followed by Novecento (28 October to 20 November) and Les Parents Terribles (25 November to 18 December).