Following its forthcoming run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Simon Stephen’s Country Music will tour to prisons across Yorkshire, the first of the theatre’s productions to do so. Its directors, Lisa Blair and Eleanor While, who are currently on secondment to the Playhouse as part of their MFA in Theatre Directing at Birkbeck, University of London, took time out to discuss the play and their experiences at the Leeds-based theatre.

Since arriving in August 2009, Lisa Blair and Eleanor While have independently assisted on a number of Playhouse productions and have so far had “an absolutely amazing time” at what they both reveal was the “first choice” theatre for their MFA secondment. Says Eleanor: “Basically it’s an amazing experience. The West Yorkshire Playhouse is the biggest theatre outside London, other than the RSC, so it’s incredible to work in a building with such scope in terms of the size of the productions and the size of the budgets, as well as the variety.” Lisa agrees, and also highlights the number of co-productions that the Playhouse is involved in, which have enhanced their experience there even further: “This has meant the shows have been really big…and we have learnt so much being here”. She goes on to cite The Secret Garden and The History Boys as examples of the shows she has been involved in. Eleanor, who has assisted on, among others, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Death of a Salesman adds: “Working with a co-production means that you get the Playhouse, but you also the get the experience of how other companies work. And it means we’ve assisted different directors each time.”

So successful has their time at the Playhouse been that they have been able to pitch and subsequently co-direct their own play. Says Eleanor: “We asked what we can do while we’re here as well as all of our assists and they said ‘well you come up with ideas and we’ll tell you which ones you can do’”. Their “main project idea” turned out to be Simon Stephen’s Country Music, which tells the story of violent offender, Jamie Carris, and the decisions that shaped his life. So do the directors worry how Playhouse audiences might respond to the protagonist of the piece? Says Lisa: “What’s interesting about this play is, yes, it’s about a man who has committed bad acts, but Simon Stephens is more about the humanity of the characters. You learn about Jamie through the people who he loves. That’s something very special. That’s how we actually learn about Jamie as a character rather than what he’s done.” Eleanor adds: “We hope that audiences…will actually not resist the main character because he is so appealing in so many ways.” She also believes that the production has particular appeal to younger audience members. “These characters are so real and it’s such an honest depiction of people that I think an audience will really be able to connect with it and find something from it.”

Eleanor continues: “I think it’s really interesting that the Playhouse is supporting this play because it’s the first time Simon Stephens has been produced here.” Lisa adds: “Simon Stephens has such a massive following as well. There is a whole cult that follows his work and the reason for that is that the characters he chooses to write about, people can connect with…they exist in the world we know.”

Not satisfied with co-directing Country Music at the Playhouse, Lisa and Eleanor are also touring the show to prisons across Yorkshire, something that led to a whole new set of challenges. Says Eleanor: “We were also told ‘OK, you can do it in the Courtyard (one of the Playhouse’s two stages), but you have to raise the funds if you want to take it on tour’. So we had the whole experience of applying for funding through trusts and charities…and we managed to get that together.” She also highlights the lengthy administration process they had to go through in order to get the play into the institutions. “The administration of actually getting prisons on side…was a massive job that’s been going on seven months.” Lisa adds that while there have been logistical and practical issues that had to be resolved “in terms of timings, CRB checking and clearance”, she believes all this work has been worthwhile: “This is the first prison tour the Playhouse has done as a professional production rather than just a reading…which is brilliant.”

In preparation for the tour the women carried out “a lot of research about the play and also how it might work and how we would work with it”. Says Lisa: “We’ve been to prisons recently, which was really good for us as we could talk to them about what it was like.” But were the women apprehensive about entering such an environment? Says Eleanor: “When I was at university I trained as a drama workshop facilitator…and when I graduated I worked at a young offenders’ institution, so I kind of knew a little bit about how it worked.” Adds Lisa: “I think the first second through the gate is (daunting) and then you kind of normalise into it. It’s still a theatre audience coming to see a play. Whenever you step into a theatre it’s more about identifying with the characters that are on stage and leaving who you are behind. You maybe find a piece of yourself in those characters, but it’s still an audience.”

So what’s next for Lisa and Eleanor? After a few weeks back at Birkbeck “for a debriefing” about their time at the Playhouse, both women have jobs lined up as assistant directors in the West End. But they are clearly appreciative of the opportunity the Playhouse has afforded them to direct their own show. Says Eleanor: “It’s very rare at this stage of your career that you get to work in a regional theatre of this size with this level of support…we’ve got full stage management support, a workshop building our sets, a production manager…”. Lisa adds: “Although you go through that process as an assistant director of a show, the opportunity to lead that process with the whole of the production side is brilliant.”

- Hannah Giles

Country Music is showing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on 24-26 June 2010. Further details can be found at www.wyp.org.uk, or contact the box office on 0113 213 7700.

For further details on the MFA in Theatre Directing at Birkbeck, University of London, visit www.bbk.ac.uk.