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.
TS: What's it like having the playwright in the rehearsal room?
ML: Nick's a great presence in rehearsal – able to share his insights and intentions behind his writing, but also open to ideas and character discoveries he hadn't necessarily envisaged. He's very understanding of the actor's process, which means that he's patient and has also got a very infectious giggle, which is very encouraging! I often suggest a writer take a break from rehearsals in the middle as this gives the actors a chance to explore without feeling the pressure of impressing the author or delivering their words 'right'. I'm drawn to subtextual tension and notice myself often foregrounding conflict. At one point in rehearsals for Constellations Nick said to me, "I think they just love each other here" – and it struck me how differently we were reading the scene. I think that our different outlooks really serve his writing, however, and help bring out its richness and complexity.
TS: How would you describe your process?
ML: I want to help the actors imaginatively embody the play's world and characters as deeply as possible. Research, thorough textual examination and play are the key steps for me. Even an exercise like noting down all the uncontestable facts in a script can be revelatory for flagging up little details. Anything that imaginatively sharpens a shared back-history for the characters (from collecting images of off-stage characters, to improvising events from before the start of the play) really helps locate them in the same world. I try to respond to what the room needs – day by day – and not be too rigid in my approach, using whatever might unlock actor creativity.
TS: What type of research did you have to do in order to direct this play?
ML: The key research areas for If There Is… are climate change and environmental activism, and teenage depression and eating disorders. We've had some amazing professionals into rehearsal to share their expertise with us, which has been invaluable. There's a wealth of literature out there – which can be quite daunting. I try to immerse myself in it and then filter it as best I can to find the most stimulating pieces for the actors, to help them build psychologically accurate characters. Deciding exactly when the play is set, for example, really affects the psychology of a climate change activist – it's such an important time for people working in the field.
TS: What did you look for in casting the actors? What specific traits do you need?
ML: Nick's writing is very funny in a very human way and requires a real knack to its delivery. The punctuation and rhythm of his work is very exact with characters trailing… or, orinteru- and then – then – suddenly changing thought. (Terrible impression of your writing – sorry, Nick!). But it sounds so real and all the thoughts are so in the moment. The script also requires the actors to really bare their souls emotionally. I'm blessed with a company that are really curious, invested, and open. They can breathe comedy into tragedy, and it's a joy.
TS: How will the play manifest itself visually?
ML: My belief is that theatre design needs to be as thematically evocative as possible – as well as providing an active 'playground' for the actors to inhabit that will really influence how they perform (purely decorative or naturalistically functional sets disappoint me). The play has 13 different locations, so it immediately sets a very specific staging challenge – and developing a language for those transitions that speaks to the play's themes has been vital. Ultimately you've got to work out why and how the piece would be better received on stage than on camera and celebrate that. In If There Is… the family – like the planet – is approaching a tipping point, after which it may not be able to recover. I've sought to express and augment this idea. Originally this play was produced on a tiny budget in an incredibly intimate venue. I'm really excited to have some resources and space to put behind my ideas.