A Conversation with Director: Michael Longhurst
Ted Sod: Tell us about yourself. When did you realize that you wanted to be a director?
Michael Longhurst: I was born in Bromley, Kent, which is in the suburbs south of London. I started directing at Nottingham University – I was studying Philosophy there and joined the student theatre group hoping to land some juicy acting roles as I had done in school (my resume already boasted Joseph, The Artful Dodger and Jesus!). After failing to get cast as anything above Spear Carrier, I deduced that I was actually a terrible actor so began to rethink how I could stay involved with the theatre. I had studied Peter Shaffer's Equus at school and loved it – its bold images and wild theatricality – so the following term I pitched to direct it and was given the grand budget of £500 to put it on. I designed and made the wire horse masks myself (I'd nearly packed in academia and gone to Art School), we hired a local scaffolder to build us a revolving stage, and my producer found a student in the Mechanical Engineering department willing to secretly weld us some hooves. The eureka moment came in the rehearsal room with the actors: I remember giving a suggestion to an actor and being amazed at the results – suddenly she was offering a heartrending interpretation of the scene. The idea landed: a good note given to a good actor can release incredible things. I was hooked. On that and the audience's reaction when we opened. Following that, we took plays to the Edinburgh Festival each year, and after university I went to Mountview to train properly as a director before starting to make work on the London Fringe.
TS: Why did you choose to direct If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet?
ML: I've directed almost exclusively new writing so far in my career. I'm passionate about plays that have something to say about how we live now; that have a real immediacy to them. I also love the collaborative process of staging a new work when the design and script are evolving simultaneously.
I met Nick when the artistic director of the Royal Court suggested to him that I might be good choice for his new play Constellations, a love story set in the Quantum Multiverse. Nick liked my response to his script (possibly some of my old Philosophy finally came in handy) and I got hired. We had a really great time working together, and the piece was very well received (it will transfer to the West End in November). Nick's writing is so humane and so heartfelt. In If There Is…, like Constellations, he poignantly captures the drama of the everyday and yet deftly asks life's big questions. He's also very funny, too.
TS: What do you think the play is about?
ML: For me, the implied question the title answers is, "Is there a right way to live?" I think the play explores how hard it is to find a balance both at the micro (familial) and macro (global) level. Essentially, it's about a good family trying hard but still really struggling. It also explores how much we're able to change as people.
TS: How have you collaborated with playwright Nick Payne on this project?
ML: We took the opportunity to really go over his script to hone any moments that could be exploited for any further dramatic potential (and have also had some great suggestions from the cast). We also decided to update some of the climate change references, as it's a field that is moving so quickly. Working on new plays, I've almost always had the writer in my rehearsals – often making revisions all the way through; when a play's never been done before, you're testing it as you go along. Directing a play's premiere production, I feel a great responsibility to give the writer's voice the best platform it can have. As this is a revival (albeit mine and Nick's American debut), I'm in the privileged position of knowing the text really works (I saw it originally in 2009) – this has enabled me to be as bold as I can be in my staging choices, as I'm not focusing on dramaturgy as much.