Heads Will Roll director Paul Hunter: 'I create an atmosphere for actors to take risks'

The Told by an Idiot artistic director on their latest production and how he approaches rehearsals to get the most out of his cast

The genesis for Heads will Roll came from a visit I made to an exhibition at the British Museum called "Beyond El Dorado". It was about the Spanish conquest of South America and had a whole section devoted to the legend of the Lost City of Gold. I then remembered the incredible Werner Herzog film Aguirre Wrath of God starring Klaus Kinski, and an idea began to form. As with all Told by an Idiot shows, it is about ideas clashing together, and much of our work is made from playing with such juxtapositions.

A turning point came when we stumbled across a documentary called The Rise and Fall of El Dorado, about the doomed BBC soap opera El Dorado. The notion of merging two desperate but foolish quests took shape, as the world of the Conquistadors in the 1560s and TV producers in the early 1990s began to coalesce.

During our research and development period a third strand began to emerge, that of a Spanish primary school classroom being presided over by a rather disturbed teacher from Colombia. Which brings me to the cast.

'With an all-female cast because we are able to push the parody further'

During periods of R&D, it became clear that there was an exciting liberation in working with an all-female company as we explored themes of vanity, hubris and pride in these stories. So we put together an all-female, international cast, made up of three Spaniards (Mercè Ribot, Patricia Rodriguez and Alicia Martel) and one Colombian (Andrea Pelaez). This dynamic had a direct influence on the writing of the piece, and shaped many of the choices we made.

The piece works with an all-female cast because we are able to push the parody further, and avoid clichés that this kind of material might have sucked us into with a male company.

Whilst writing collaboratively in the room as we have been doing, the processes of provocation and restriction are crucial. The performers have to feel free to improvise, and it is my job as the director to create an atmosphere for them to feel comfortable to play in and to take risks. The material is generated through a constant process of provocation and restriction within a narrative structure. It feels really important to respond to what skills are in the room, and at the earliest point of rehearsals bring the group together and find how they connect.

'It is my job as the director to create an atmosphere for the cast to take risks'

Towards the end of our rehearsal period, we held an open rehearsal for an invited audience including friends of the company and a group of young people from Barking and Dagenham, training for a career in theatre. Such moments are important for us – it gives us the opportunity to test out material with a real audience, and gives others the opportunity to see inside our creative process. Told by an Idiot is proud to be pioneering open rehearsals and allowing people in to see (and better understand) the process through which we make theatre. For many theatre companies this feels risky. For Told by an Idiot, our rehearsal room is already open to risk; the atmosphere has to be open and accessible and democratic if we are to devise and collaborate to make a show. And now, as we approach our first performance of Heads Will Roll, we are looking forward to showing audiences the piece we have made from all these disparate influences.

The most important thing to us as a company is that the show feels different. To quote one of our major inspirations, Miles Davis: 'If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change'.

Heads will Roll opens at Theatre Royal Plymouth on 13 October before touring to Birmingham (1 to 5 November), Liverpool (8 to 12 November) and rural venues in the South West.