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Guest Blog: Director Robin Herford on STRAY DOGS and THE WOMAN IN BLACK

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Guest Blog: Director Robin Herford on STRAY DOGS and THE WOMAN IN BLACK
West End stalwart The Woman
in Black
originated at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre

I had forgotten what an extraordinary experience it is to be working on a brand new script - one that has never been performed. We're two weeks into a three-week rehearsal period, and every day is very different!

When I started work as a raw young actor at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough in 1976, most of the work we did was brand new. Not just Alan Ayckbourn's plays, although those came along with a thrilling and diverse regularity, but most of the other plays as well. Alan, I think, saw it as his responsibility to nurture new writers, many of whom were actually performers in the company - in much the same way as Stephen Joseph had nurtured and encouraged Alan's work.

I think also Alan felt that everyone should be able to fulfil more than one function in the theatre - the electrician was also a carpenter, the production manager was an extremely talented designer, the associate director was an actor who also wrote and played several instruments. All this in addition to the five actor/writers in the company, three of whose plays we performed in that first summer season.

it was Alan who encouraged me to start directing, though he never spent a minute in my rehearsal room, giving me the confidence to find out my own directing style for myself, safe in the knowledge that I could always consult him if I needed. Ten years later, when Alan was invited by Peter Hall to run his own company at the National Theatre for two years, he gave me the whole theatre in Scarborough to run in his absence.

During that time, among the various commissions for new work that I made was a request to my friend, Stephen Mallatratt, to write a ghost story for Christmas to entertain our loyal adult audiences who might not appreciate the Christmas jollities we were offering to our younger audiences. Thus The Woman in Black came into being.

But all this was 30 years ago, and we live under a very different dispensation now, when commissioning new work is altogether more difficult. Hence the excitement of being presented with a new play to direct!

Guest Blog: Director Robin Herford on STRAY DOGS and THE WOMAN IN BLACK
Stray Dogs at Park Theatre

Although it is exciting, putting a new play on for the first time also presents new challenges. The title page of Stray Dogs tells me this is Draft No.41. I hasten to add I didn't join the project till about draft 35, but it goes to show how much unseen work goes into getting a script from page to stage. This script apparently started as a one-woman show, then developed into a two-hander, and finally a three-hander.

There are no road signs with a new script. It may read very well and you think you know where it's going, and then when you put it on its feet, somehow it's changed and has become about something else! Rehearsals are a constant surprise. It's very difficult to predict how long it will take to work through a scene, as we might get held up by some phrase or other that needs elucidating, and suddenly half an hour has been spent rewriting a couple of sentences. After 40 or more years of directing, I am fairly confident of being able to rehearse most plays in three weeks. I am forcibly reminded that new work takes longer!

We are also working with a very particular circumstance. Olivia Olsen, who has written this play, is also playing the lead [Stalin-era Russian poet Anna Akhmatova]. This could be tricky, but isn't, due to her extraordinarily generous spirit! She made it clear from the first day of rehearsals that the first receiver of any queries from the cast should be the director, and not the writer. The director may subsequently apply to the writer for clarification, but that is the process, and I must say it works very well.

I have also cast enormously trusted actors for the two other parts. Ben Porter, I have acted alongside as well as directed in some five different productions, and Ian Redford and I trained as actors at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School together in the early Seventies.

It's a play of ideas, and at its heart is a moral dilemma. We have decided to stage it in traverse, with a minimum of distracting scenery. Thus, hopefully, the audience's focus will concentrate on the argument of the play, as well as being drawn very strongly into the communal nature of the theatrical experience.

Stray Dogs at Park Theatre 13 November-7 December

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