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Introducing… Blanche McIntyre

Published 15 January 2014

Ask any arts commentator or Theatreland regular which director is the latest to keep your eye on, the next Michael Grandage, Jamie Lloyd or Marianne Elliott, and you will invariably get one response. Blanche McIntyre.

The Oxford graduate who boasts a double first in Classics is unanimously being tipped as the next big thing in the directing world following productions of Accolade and Foxfinder, that saw her collect the Critics’ Circle Most Promising Newcomer Award in 2011, and The Seagull, which won her the 2013 UK Theatre Award for Best Director.

Her latest project, for which she reunites with Foxfinder playwright Dawn King, is spy drama Ciphers. Following a UK tour last autumn and a Christmas break, the tale of a woman’s death and the sister who sets out to discover the truth opens at the Bush Theatre tomorrow.

Before opening night we galloped through a half hour chat with McIntyre – the director talks with the speed and dexterity of a Grand National commentator – to discover more about an unusual addiction, a private nagging fear and why she was eager to work with King again.

CV in brief

2004: Directs her own adaptation of The Master And Margarita at Greenwich Playhouse
2011: Wins Critics’ Circle Most Promising Newcomer Award for productions of Accolade and Foxfinder at the Finborough Theatre
2011: Directs When Did You Last See My Mother? at Trafalgar Studio 2
2013: Directs Liar, Liar at the Unicorn Theatre
2013: Directs touring production of Ciphers
2014: Will direct The Comedy Of Errors at Shakespeare’s Globe

Where did you grow up?

I grew up just around the corner from the Bush in Hammersmith. I had the Bush Theatre on one side and the Lyric on the other. My mum and dad used to take me to the theatre and opera. I was very lucky.

How did you discover directing?

When I was about 15 I saw an amazing production of Henry VI Part III at the RSC. In the spirit of total ignorance I gathered together a bunch of kids and said “Right, we’re going to do a play.” They said “There’s got to be a director, it’s your idea so we think it better be you.”

I had no idea what directing involved, so I just made it up as I went along. We did the show and I realised directing was completely addictive, but also that I was a terrible actor.

Being a director is just as exciting in some ways. As an actor you plug into your own character, their arc, what they’re doing and what interests them. As a director you get to look at the whole thing. That’s your source of excitement.

What is it about directing you find so addictive?

Theatre creates this very intense company atmosphere. You sort of end up building a family. I was quite a shy kid and I found that was an easy way to make friends. Even in adulthood for some people it can become very fulfilling. Everyone gets to know each other in a very intense way. You feel very safe because you know at the end you go your own ways. If you liked each other you stay in touch, if you didn’t you never see each other again.

Also, there are very few ways of making anything artistic that involve everyone working together on the same level. If you’re a writer it’s just you and your laptop, but if you’re working in the theatre you’ve got 10 people asking “What about this?” There is something very beautiful about seeing something made by a team as opposed to an individual.

How do you feel about bringing Ciphers to the Bush?

The Bush is a very different space to the last couple we’ve been in. The last place we were in, Warwick Arts Centre, is a huge barn, and the Bush is a lovely intimate space. The actors can’t barnstorm, not that they were, but they’ve got to play it very differently. I think I’m going to need to do a little bit of work just to introduce the play to the space.

What’s lovely about shows when they tour or when they run for a long time is that you see them change. I love it when they change because it means the actors are developing and evolving.

Why did you want to direct Ciphers?

I love Dawn’s writing. She does a quite difficult and unusual thing. The way she writes is very delicate, very quiet, very naturalistic. Her characters don’t have access to the big rhetoric and the big emotional heft that often they do on stage but regularly don’t in real life. They talk and think the way ordinary people talk and think. And she always picks a massive subject.

In this case, she’s interested in how well you can know somebody else, how well you can know yourself, how you can read somebody, how you interpret people’s character from their behaviour. Huge subjects. But the way she’s achieved it is through two sisters. One of them has died and the other is realising that she never knew her that well and is trying to find out what she was like.

How much more can you say without giving the play away?

The audience are put in the position of detectives, so they are decoding who the people are, why they do what they’re doing, what the answer is to who killed the woman and why. But Dawn’s also completely fragmented the story. Two stories run parallel, each character plays two characters that are related but not the same. As an audience member you’re constantly jumping between present and past with these people who look very alike. She’s constantly throwing you into a situation where you don’t know what’s going on and you quickly have to analyse it and put it together.

How did it feel to win the Critics’ Circle Most Promising Newcomer Award for Foxfinder?

What’s very nice about the award was that it came on the back of six or seven years of working for nothing and without any kind of big buzz being made about anything I was doing, probably quite rightly because I think a lot of it was really bad. No director was ever born, it’s a craft. You make yourself a director by doing show after show. A lot of them were dreadful.

Do you feel more pressure now people have given you awards and acclaim?

You still have to do the best work you can and then hope that people like it. If you start second guessing for critics or for audiences they see that instantly and quite rightly think that’s cowardly and pan it.

I think there is going to be a moment in the next couple of years when people feel they have to take me down, because they’ve been so kind to me. What I hope is that I just start fitting into everyone else’s pattern, but what might easily happen is that everyone goes, “Oh she’s just ordinary” and the disappointment creates a backlash. This is just my private dark fear. I hope it won’t happen, but if it does I’ve just got to keep making work that’s as good as I can make it.

What’s the best thing about being a director?

I think it’s the people. The people are the medium that you work in.

If you’re directing and you’re interested in spectacle you’re getting it wrong. If you’re directing and you’re interested in people you’re getting it right. I think because of that the people that you work with and the people that the plays are about are the things that bring you most pleasure as a director.

Do you have any advice for aspiring directors?

Being a director is incredibly frightening, because you’re always the person who makes the call. You have to be the person who decides again and again and again. It is very easy as a young director to feel the pressure to do that even if you don’t know what you’re saying. You make a decision, any decision.

I would say always, to any young director starting out, don’t be afraid to not know the answer, actually it relaxes the cast if you can say “I don’t know what that is yet, we’ll find out.”

The other thing is that you try and take the pressure off yourself by giving negative direction to people – “Don’t do that” – and wait for them to come up with something that will be unambiguously the right thing.

It’s always a good idea to give positive direction. The one thing that’s more scary than being a director is being an actor, because you’re going out there risking making a tit of yourself all the time. It’s incredibly frightening. If you can say to them “This bit looks good, you don’t have to worry about it. This bit we’re going to work on and it will look good.” You get a much better response out of people and you get much better work out of them because they feel confident to take risks.

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