Giving Direction to Young DirectorsDate: 12 November 2001
Opportunities to become a director are rare. Mark Shenton traces the journey of newcomer Laurie Sansom, now making his West End debut with Dangerous Corner, and speaks to veteran John Caird, whose new company is dedicated to nurturing fresh talent.
The theatre has always been a brutal profession to break into; but if the theatre is a small world, then the world of those who call themselves directors within it is even smaller. Entry into this charmed circle requires a degree of self-belief that physically compels you.
As a result, though it might be an overgeneralisation to say so, stage directors seem to be born, not made. That said, it isn't enough to believe in yourself. You have to make others believe in you, too, if you're to have any hope of bridging that vital gap between your aspirations and actually fulfilling them.
Creating a Network
Veteran stage director John Caird (Les Miserables, Humble Boy), is keenly aware of this problem and has newly formed his own Caird Company whose aim is to provide a seedbed "to give people a start". He comments: "Rather than young directors competing for the same productions of classical revivals or studio Shakespeares, one of the principals on which I'm basing the new venture is that, by putting young directors in touch with young writers, we'll be killing two birds with one stone." It is, in other words, partly about creating a network - "otherwise they wouldn't ever meet".
The theatre, he goes on, "is a difficult profession anyway to get started in, but the great bane of it is that it is an intensely social profession, and you can only do it well by mixing with other people who are also doing it. If you never have the opportunity for social or professional interaction with your peers or elders, it's quite impossible to make headway."
The Caird Company's first event, which launches this week, will certainly provide some social lubricant. Held at Highgate's Upstairs at the Gatehouse, the fortnight's New Writing & Directing season will, in addition to two full productions and 16 rehearsed readings, include myriad debates, seminars and other opportunities for interaction amongst those in the biz.
Born to Direct
Twenty-nine-year-old Laurie Sansom (pictured in rehearsals) concurs with much of his elder's thinking. The West End's newest addition to its director's circle, Sansom's debut production of JB Priestley's Dangerous Corner, first seen at Leeds' West Yorkshire Playhouse, opens at the Garrick Theatre this week. On the one hand, Sansom does indeed seem to have been born to his craft. It's telling that he remarks that even at school, "I was already directing, because I wanted to be in charge."
But how, after reading English at Cambridge University and directing nine or ten shows during his time there, did he make the leap to the professional theatre? That took a combination of hard graft, determination and eventually, good luck. After graduating, there followed, what he calls, "18 months of penury" and writing letters to around 50 theatres, seeking assistantships. "I'm astonished by how few of them even bothered to reply."
Sansom also applied for various trainee director schemes, and finally secured one at Watford's Palace Theatre, which included an Arts Council bursary of £10,000. He credits the then artistic director Giles Croft there with "putting a lot of faith in me". At the end of the year, Croft invited Sansom back to direct a production of Absurd Person Singular in the next season. A born director was now being made into a practicing one. "Giles is quite canny, and gave me an Alan Acykbourn play to direct, knowing that it would get bums on seats anyway and was quite hard to do really badly."
Meeting the Criteria
Other jobs soon followed for Sansom, including at Nottingham Playhouse, Stoke-on-Trent's New Vic for Gwenda Hughes and Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA) where he directed student shows. It was two years ago, while working at LIPA, that talent merged with luck in the form of another call from Watford's Croft that inadvertently led to his West End debut.
"A show had just been pulled from his next season and the brochure was going out the next day," Sansom recalls. "He said that if in two hours I could come up with a show that isn't a comedy, isn't a musical and isn't American but will guarantee bums on seats in Watford, he'd programme it." By chance, on the floor of the student room he was staying in, there was a copy of Priestley's Dangerous Corner. It met all the criteria. "I picked it up, read it once and immediately thought, yes, this is the one. I phoned Giles, told him that I wanted to do it but modernised. He said, right, give me five minutes, and then called back and said yes."
The production was a success - and was noticed by a West End management, because of one review. "It was the Evening Standard's Nick Curtis, which was the only national review we got but he gave it a rave, in terms of its concept and production. Nica Burns from Really Useful Theatres read it, had been looking for a Priestley project already, and came to see it." She liked it; but even so, it took another two years to re-mount it - this time in collaboration with West Yorkshire Playhouse - and move it finally to the West End. That, too, proved fraught: "We've had quite a frightening time of it. After 11 September, we lost a co-producer and it wasn't until the 11th hour that Bill Kenwright stepped in to save it. So it almost didn't happen at all."
For Sansom and his blossoming career, the latest turn could not have been anticipated, but he doesn't regret the time it's otherwise taken him to get here. "I'm quite glad I've had a struggle," he says. "I've had the opportunity to do all kinds of different work, and work that I wouldn't have necessarily chosen to do if I was running my own theatre and doing what I wanted. That's been quite a good skill to acquire. I've also been quite lucky. A lot of people have put faith in me and given me opportunities that they needn't have done. Those people are rare: generous people in the theatre who aren't threatened by youth - people like Giles Croft, Gwenda Hughes and Nica Burns. It's amazing when someone says that I have complete faith in you, even though you have no track record - that they trust you."
Such apparent benevolence is indeed rare, as John Caird recognises. Still, the veteran insists, it should be encouraged and not for wholly altruistic reasons. "There are a series of interrelated difficulties for directors who are just starting up," he explains. "One of them is that directors don't tend to retire. Ones who are successful - even the elderly ones, let alone ones like me in middle age - are happy to support aspiring young directors, but not at the expense of being forced into retirement themselves. But there's also a risk when you become established as a theatre director that you only get to work with other established people, and you lose touch with the grass roots. So I get an enormous amount of energy from working with younger, aspiring talent coming up. "