Tim McArthur: Directing ORTON
Directing a new piece of theatre is always an exciting challenge, whether it be a new play, a new comedy or even a new musical. In my experience as a director, supporting and nurturing the writers is always the most interesting and sometimes the most demanding part of the process.
Over the years I have directed a great range of new works ranging from Casanova to a musical about Obama - even though he was nowhere to be seen in the musical - to a play where nothing happened apart from the characters sitting in deck chairs eating custard on a desert island in a play called Oscar's World. There was no reference to Oscar Wilde, even though a large number of men of a certain persuasion came to see it, anticipating a gay love story and mention of "a handbag", but they were left to chew over the meaning of cold custard instead.
As I write this, I am in the final stages of directing a new musical about the colourful-to-bloody life of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell. The piece is called, simply, Orton. I have been liaising with the writers since October - discussing, altering, adapting scenes and looking at song structures, as well as the overall shape, style and feel of the show. It's an engrossing, intense process.
Over the past half-dozen years, London's growing fringe scene has really been flourishing, with quite a number of new venues opening and audiences seemingly responding favourably. Many people appear to be seeking something more rewarding and cheaper than the commercially dominated jukebox musicals and film adaptations that have sprouted around London's West End theatres like a prolific and persistent case of athlete's foot. On the fringe, new dynamic producers and artistic directors are prepared to take more of a risk in putting on and promoting new works and generally exciting new theatrical experiences for their regular theatre audiences.
Working on London's fringe scene is exciting but also comes with its complications. With a new piece of work, you don't have the luxury of a lengthy rehearsal period or even a workshop scenario. A lot of decisions have to be made before you reach the rehearsal process and these involve lengthy discussions and debates with the writers.
How the writers envisage their piece is rarely what comes to life at the end of the day. The members of the creative team - director, musical director and choreographer - will all have a vision of how the final piece should look, sound and feel from the point of view of their area of expertise. The various factors have to be balanced under the watchful eye of the director to make sure everyone is singing from the same sheet. I compare the directorial task to being a puppet-master, pulling all the right strings and hoping that the puppets will come convincingly to life.
The other elephants in the room are of course the actors. Once they get their long, grasping trunks on the script and the music, a whole new drama begins. They have to feel confident relating to the characters they are playing, understanding the text and subtext, saying the lines, performing the songs, telling the story clearly, convincingly, movingly.
Then there are the many budgetary considerations: how much money to spend on the set; the most effective way of portraying various scenes in a small space; how many characters need more or less extravagant costumes; how to tackle the lighting; how many musicians you can accommodate... oh, and did I mention the actors? The costs mount up and we haven't even talked about venue hire! Then there's PR and press coverage, the sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter cherry on the cake.
Throughout a new production, I do feel one of the critical responsibilities of the director is to make clear to the writers how the creative, collaborative theatrical process will bring their beloved children off the black and white page and turn them into colourful, rounded, many-dimensional characters who will connect with the audiences, stimulate them, excite them, infuriate them and leave a lasting impression on their imaginations.
Orton is playing Above The Stag now.