Let's talk about directing: Q&A with Jeremy Herrin

On 18th March 2019, Equity YMC and The Mono Box joined in conversation at the Old Vic Rehearsal Rooms with Jeremy Herrin, Artistic Director of Headlong Theatre.

When you first meet Jeremy, you feel you are getting a glimpse into his work ethic just by the energy in the room. Currently in rehearsals for All My Sons, the Old Vic Rehearsal Studio walls are dressed with images, scribbles, portraits and politics. “I want this to be a collaborative session”, he begins. You sense a quietly assured leadership, a palpable wealth of experience, an inclusive warmth and as many questions about art as there are answers.

We are an eclectic bunch of attendees: Directors eager to learn more about the Director-Designer / Director-Writer partnership, people wishing to transition into Assistant Directing, Actors, Movement Directors, Cabaret Artists, Producers, Writers - all with a common intention - to be a part of work that speaks to an audience.

Jeremy has no need or desire to impose power and reel off his CV we jump right in:

Q: What do you consider your job to be? Jeremy: “I’m in the position of guiding a project from conception to realisation. It’s a bit like being a parent. You want it [the child/play] to take on its own agency and surprise you. Be its own being. It’s a dynamic process. It changes and shifts”

It is evident from that of Jeremy’s work I’ve seen this is so. There is immense care for the subject at hand, saturated in detail, yet there is space for it to live out a wild unpredictability and aliveness.

Jeremy: “Are you trying to create a piece of theatre that stays the same every night; he nature of it, the pace? Trying to trap something down? Or collectively learn how to be in the middle of this multidimensional thing?”

Have we all experienced our own creative organised chaos…? Creativity is not formulaic or linear, you have to learn through the process. It seems the same for directing: Jeremy: “Maybe you have a draft of a scene - you have an idea of what it is, even what’s underneath, the subtext, but then you learn about rest of the play, come back to that scene and find it’s actually very different from what you thought. You have torespond in the moment to new information. It’s quite capricious.”

Q: So how do a room of creatives work together and collectively move towards a common goal - that is to tell a story and connect to an audience - whilst honouring freedom and exploration?

Jeremy: “You have to stay in touch with your core values as your two entities [the play and yourself] shift and change. You are dealing with complicated elements, namely human beings. You have to agree on what the story is and then work in a harmonious way with the people in the room.”

Jeremy says the material you are working on is important but arguably the most important thing on any project is the people on the journey with you.Jeremy: “Casting is the main thing. You have to go with instinct. Will the people in the room work in a harmonious way? Do they fit your vision?”

Q: Does someone as accomplished as you find directing easy?

Jeremy: “It’s really hard. The process is one of having to acknowledge your limitations…yet that is part of the point. Whatever level you are at, you are always dealing with some level of deficit….this is possibly why we do it.” Is this what creatives find compelling, even addictive? I know I have a freakish fondness of being a fish out of water.

Jeremy: “Art is a journey into discovery. We are sharing that journey with other people and that’s cool. We like art that is a conversation, not art that is telling us the answers.”

Sharing that journey with others. That resonates. Maybe an even harder part of being a director/designer/actor/movement director than ‘being’ in the room and out of one’s depth is ‘not being’ in the room with anyone. (*******Off tangent cue: Get yourselves to The Mono Box……!!)

Q: When you do a project, and you gauge something as successful or not, do you always know why?

Jeremy: “Oh no. You never sit back and think *success*. There’s always more to go. We are never satisfied. It’s hard to watch something without a critical eye. We are always asking how can it talk to the world more? How can we connect with people more?”

Q: But you must have an inkling when something is ‘good’ or not? Jeremy: “For me, it’s about virtuosity. When the suspension of disbelief fails; a bad stage fight, a bad accent, then I’m out. My pet hate is when there’s an obvious shift from when the director leaves the room and the movement director takes over. We are looking for seamless engagement; in order for the audience to engage with the world on stage.”

Q: What about taking risks? Is it important we take risks? Jeremy: “I wouldn’t describe my own work as risky. It’s more important it connects with the audience and that there is political integrity in the work. I’m not interested in form for form’s sake. It’s really about intention. You can do all sorts of theatre but you need to declare what you are dealing with…If you do something differently you need to declare you are breaking the terms.”

Q: Do you have a specific ‘approach’ to directing?

Jeremy: “I’m philosophically opposed to pitching a ‘concept’. I’m more about getting a group of people together and creating something. There seem to be two schools of directing; concept-driven directing and people-driven directing”

Q: So in terms of working with people - actors - how does that work?

Jeremy: “You create tight boundaries with scheduling, then you create an environment of freedom and exploration. Closer to production time, you tighten these boundaries more. The best way of defining a culture is by asking questions. With a less experienced cast, you have to enforce a culture that there is hinterland to the character. Or sometimes an actor will bring in a very strong imagined reality. Sometimes it works, sometimes we need to play with it. Introspection and consideration are helpful. Everyone is ready for provocation and instruction at different times. Actors can also make the director better by the way they ask questions. By listening to the way actors ask questions, you gather information about how to release them.”

Given that Jeremy is so actor focused, it seemed criminal to not talk about Denise Gough, his award-winning lead actress in People, Places, and Things. So we did….

Jeremy: “..she [Denise] was totally committed to the integrity of each moment. Right from her very first audition. She had no resistance to any direction I gave her. She’s one of those actors who can simultaneously be completely immersed in the reality of the character whilst being utterly technically aware of accessibility for the audience. …she’s one of those weird actors….she can do it all”

Q: So for those in the room who want to pursue Assistant Directing? Jeremy: “Assist a director’s work you like. Be generous, manage your ego, do each task to the best of your ability. Never offer an opinion unless you’ve been asked.”

Q: And the Director-Writer, Director-Designer relationships?

Jeremy: “…You have to fulfil the writer’s vision to an extent. Sometimes as a director, you can see a realisation in a script that the writer hasn’t seen. You have to sensitively convey that. As for a good designer, they will protect the spirit of the production by rigorous attention to detail. You work with people who you know you can trust.”

To see Jeremy’s work in action, go seeAll My Sonsat the Old Vic Theatre, 13th April - 8th June 2019.

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