20 Questions With…Andrew Steggall
Date: 30 January 2006
Director Andrew Steggall - whose British-Iraqi staging of The Soldier’s Tale opens at the Old Vic this week – explains why he traded acting for directing, what theatre-making is like in Baghdad & how great drama transcends language barriers.
Andrew Steggall trained as an actor at the Central School of Speech and Drama and has been working as an actor and director for the past three years.
As an actor, he has worked with Stephen Daldry, who directed him in JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls at London’s Playhouse Theatre, and Peter Hall in the tour of Where There’s a Will. He has also appeared in Amadeus, directed by Tim Luscombe at York Theatre Royal.
Steggall worked as a literary assistant to Nicholas Wright on the National Theatre’s production of His Dark Materials. As a director, he worked as an assistant director at the Young Vic on production of The Skin of Our Teeth. During his time with the Young Vic, he ran workshops with local schoolchildren. He has also worked with the Philharmonia, directing The Soldier's Tale in Bristol and at the Old Vic, and directed Peter Gill’s Over Gardens Out at Southwark Playhouse.
Steggall is now working on a new British-Iraqi version of Stravinsky’s The Soldier's Tale, which has a strictly limited season at the Old Vic. Julian Glover stars alongside both British and Iraqi actors in the play with music, which has been translated by Abdul Karim Kasid and Critics’ Circle Award winner Rebecca Lenkiewicz.
Date & place of birth
Born on 13 March 1979 in Wiltshire.
Lives now in
I live in Notting Hill. I’ve been there for about two-and-a-half years.
Central School of Speech and Drama. I trained as an actor and then I became a director two or three years later.
What made you want to become involved with theatre?
Probably a play at school because I had the most brilliant drama teacher, Sue Curtis, who’s now on the board of my theatre company, the Motion Group. She’s deeply ambitious. The productions we did were at a very high level, and it really gave me a taste for it. I’ve always enjoyed drama.
Having trained as an actor, what made you decide to direct?
I think I was always a director pretending to be an actor. When you go to drama school, acting is often the best course, and what I thought I wanted to do was train to act. You leave school very focussed on getting an agent and getting work and being a great actor. But perhaps what you’re really interested in is the storytelling and theatre in general. So it took me a few years to find my real direction.
Career highlights to date
I haven’t really had a career yet! I was very pleased with the work I did on An Inspector Calls playing Eric in the West End, and I was also very proud of my contribution to the adaptation of His Dark Materials at the National, which I assisted Nicholas Wright on. I met Nicholas at a party and he told me he was doing it and a few weeks later, having read the book and met up with him a couple of times, I suggested he might need some help looking at how big the task was - it just so happened that he was looking for a literary assistant at the time. It was very rewarding. He was very generous because he allowed me to contribute so much. I did love the book, but it’s not my favourite any more having spent six weeks going through every word!
I guess I had a lot of fun doing An Inspector Calls. Niall Buggy who played the inspector was a great source of wit and anecdotes; he was really fun to be with. And my other favourite production has been The Soldier's Tale.
Niall was great fun. I don’t know other than that, there have been some great people but I can’t name names.
I really admire Stephen Daldry. I think he’s an artist and he combines huge verve and vision with a very strong ability to nurture and enable good performances. He wasn’t around very much on An Inspector Calls, but I’ve seen his other work. I also think Trevor Nunn and Richard Eyre are brilliant craftsmen.
Shakespeare’s quite good! I love Beckett. I love a play called Girish Karlad which I’m really interest in. I think I found it on a bookshelf at Nicholas Wright’s house when I was working on His Dark Materials. I also love Tom Stoppard. I directed and produced and played Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead when I was 17. There are so many. All of them I would like to direct in future, as well as the great tragedies by Sophocles, such as Oedipus Rex. I’m also very in love with Jacobean playwrights, Webster, and Middleton, who wrote Women Beware Women. Nobody’s ever been able to direct that. I’d love to do that production.
What’s the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the last thing?
I think the first production that really had an impact on me was Jonathan Kent’s production of Medea with Diana Rigg. I was about 14 and that really affected me because of its awesome theatrical power. It was very rich and powerful. I was just overwhelmed by its staging and its emotiveness. Billy Elliot was the last thing I saw on stage, which was brilliant. I also saw Mercury Fur with Ben Whishaw in it and that was good.
What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
I guess the main thing is to nurture and properly facilitate fringe theatres in London and the regions because that’s really where the talent of tomorrow is bubbling away. They should do everything they can to give tax breaks for theatres and, more importantly, make sure drama is on the National Curriculum.
If you hadn’t become involved with theatre, what would you have done professionally?
I have no idea - I’m probably unemployable with anything else! I’m hopeless at taking instructions. I’ve wanted to be all sorts in the past. I’ve wanted to be a soldier, a journalist, a chef. All my family are in business, but I never had a head for that. My brother runs a recruitment consultancy and my father was a finance director at a big bank.
What plays would you most like to direct in future?
I would love to do Rosencrantz again, and a play called Recognition of Sakantula. I also want to do The Tempest. And I want to do an opera in promenade at a small venue.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I’m really not sure who would I change places with. It would be great to be Albert Einstein for a day… or Shakespeare… or Jesus. It would be nice to know if I could walk on water!
I have a few I really like. A Prayer for Owen Meaney, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book I’m reading at the moment is The Brothers Karamazov.
Favourite holiday destinations
I’m not really very big on holidays. My family went to France a lot. I like the south of France, but I tend to be working when I go there four or five times a year. I love New York. But I’m not really a holiday person. I don’t know what to do on holiday. I’m not very good at relaxing.
Favourite after-show haunts
Soho House, I go there quite a lot. and Café Italia. I like Covent Garden Hotel as well.
What’s different about this version The Soldier's Tale?
It's a piece of story-telling with music, which is how we’re doing it, but we're adding in some songs. It was originally a Russian folk story. It’s a brilliant and enigmatic piece which is a very robust vehicle for finding new ways of telling it. Our production is bi-lingual and it’s very much focussed on the drama and narrative. The company consists of Iraqis and Italians and Spaniards as well as British actors. The focus of the original is very much on the book offered to the soldier offering stocks and shares and money. We’ve broadened it to include ideology and religion and political ambition.
What makes the story relevant to modern audiences?
It’s a universal Faustian story about choices and the impact those choices have. It’s a story about an everyman who makes a mistake, and it questions what we value most in life.
How did the collaboration with the National Theatre of Iraq come about?
I guess I had the idea of doing an Iraqi-British collaboration and so, through various Iraqi contacts in London, I set up a meeting in Baghdad with the National Theatre and drama school there. They agreed to partner us and arranged for me to audition a number of actors while I was there. It’s an attempt to create a mutual dialogue to undermine cultural naivety. I hope we’ll take The Soldier's Tale to Iraq and I would be honoured and thrilled for that to happen.
What are the challenges of directing a play that has such strong musical roots? And with a cross-national company?
Well, the music and the story are written together so you move out of the music into the dialogue - it’s kind of mapped out by Stravinsky. It’s a constant delight, the story is really shared between music and words and one picks up where the other leaves off. It would be a much greater challenge if there wasn’t a conductor! I think it’s more difficult to direct a play with music than a straight play because there’s less you’re in control of as a director and a whole other layer of language going on and strict demands with the music. It’s hugely difficult with the language barrier, but part of the question we’re trying to answer is, “can we communicate?” It offers huge rewards when a scene works brilliantly and you know, even with the language differences, people understand the story.
What are your plans for the future?
We want to tour The Soldier's Tale to Iraq, New York, Europe and the Middle East. The Motion Group have ambitions to do another big project. And I’d very much like to run a theatre! I have one in mind, in south London, but I can’t say anything more about that at the moment.
- Andrew Steggall was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
The Soldier's Tale opens on 30 January 2006 (previews from 26 January) and continues for a limited season to 4 February 2006 at the Old Vic.