Invincible director Ellie Jones: 'I always trust the playwright to tell the story'

The former artistic director of the Southwark Playhouse is currently directing Torben Betts’ class war drama, which has moved from the Orange Tree to the St James Theatre

Ellie Jones
Ellie Jones

Tell us about Invincible
Invincible is a play about new neighbours. Neighbours who want to be nice to one another. Neighbours who’d like to be friends. Neighbours whose belief systems and life experiences make that practically impossible. Neighbours who change each other’s lives. In a wonderfully funny and deeply upsetting way.

It was previously at the Orange Tree – how have you adapted it for the St James?
We’ve had to adapt quite a lot for the St James as the Orange Tree Theatre is in the round. There’s now a set with walls and doors and stairs that we never had before and so most of the changes have been in the staging. At the Orange Tree the audience expects to see the backs of actors about 50% of the time but that’s not so appropriate in a proscenium arch venue. We’ve also made a few tweaks to the script, cutting some lines that were repetitious and adding others to help the action flow more smoothly.

The play centres on an ongoing British obsession, class. Why is this such fertile ground for drama?
I’m not sure I feel qualified to answer this question with great authority. I do think that holding up people’s belief systems is always going to be interesting though – especially when those beliefs differ so drastically between the characters.

Is your rehearsal process different with a new work to a revival?
Not drastically. I trust the playwright (in either case) to write a good story and I like to focus on telling that story in the most appropriate and engaging way, I like the actors to feel safe enough to be open and generous and to take chances, I like to discover as much as possible about the place, time and situation the characters are in and I like to find out how the piece can have an impact on an audience today and that process works the same way for either. I do love having the playwright in rehearsals though, it’s great to know when we’ve got it exactly as they imagined and even better when we surprise them with something they weren’t expecting.

The cast of Invincible

What are your career highlights to date?
Goodness, there have been so many brilliant times it’s hard to choose. I loved working on the world premier of Fin Kennedy’s How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found at Sheffield Theatres. It was a privilege (albeit a cold and damp one) to be artistic director at Southwark Playhouse for its incarnation under the arches at London Bridge and I felt a particular thrill at being able to take 12 amazing RSC actors into primary school halls to play out Macbeth in and amongst the children.

My absolute favourites though have to be my work with Hydrocracker and Brighton Festival for both The New World Order (a site-specific montage of Pinter’s political plays played out in the heights and depths of Brighton Town Hall) and The Erpingham Camp by Joe Orton that took place all over Brighton Pier, cast the audience as trainee redcoats or holiday campers and let the mayhem ensue. I love to be an audience member so to be able to create a world where the audience not only feel what the characters do but get to experience it first hand has been the most rewarding so far.

What drew you to directing in the first place?
I was a stage manager originally and had no idea I had any aspirations to direct at all. I’d sat in a lot of other people’s rehearsal rooms and always had something to say though so maybe I should have known. It was on Art by Yasmina Reza that I started to even consider it as a career. I was company manager and responsible for the understudy rehearsals and keeping an eye on the show for Matthew Warchus. I loved working out with the actors how playing a line a certain way might change the thrust of the story and therefore how the audience would feel. In short, the more I was allowed to be creative, the less I wanted to pay the wages.

What advice would you give to aspiring directors?
Buy Frank Hauser’s Notes on Directing. It’s the best, most practical guide ever and so, so right.
Find someone whose work you love and find out how they do it. I owe a great debt of thanks to some wonderfully generous directors who helped me along the way – Matthew Warchus, Rachel Kavanaugh, Sam Walters, Nancy Meckler, Greg Doran, Sean Holmes to name but a few. I stole at least one thing from all of these brilliant people that I still use and pass off as my own today.

Future ambitions?
I’ve always wanted to work at The Globe, the space gives a unique audience/actor relationship and has a wonderful blend of intimacy and scale. I also have a site-specific project very dear to my heart that I’m desperate to get off the ground. It’s about the state of the NHS and is written by the hugely talented Fin Kennedy so if there are any brave producers reading this out there please get in touch.

Invincible continues at the St James Theatre until 9 August

Come on our hosted WhatsOnStage Outing to Invincible on 23 July 2014 and get your top-price ticket, a FREE programme and access to our EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A – all for £27.50