Theatre directing in Australia – some notes from the wings

For a theatre director, plays are like bulls: it doesn’t matter how fancy your cape work is, any one of them could kill you. When people ask: “What plays do you like to see?”, I say: “Ones I don’t have to direct”.

I’ve been directing since I was 16, so nearly 35 years. I’ve worked consistently, but haven’t clocked up many shows. That’s because I’ve done other things as well: been a historian, a dramaturge, a policy analyst, even a critic (for a few years, until I got sarky and gave it up).

Theatre directors come in two kinds: ‘star’ and ‘of use’. I’m in the latter category, which means that for any given play there are at least three or four other directors who could do it equally well. I’m not supposed to admit this.

I’m supposed to think of myself as a unique artist. But in the hyper-competitive world of Australian theatre I think it’s salutary to acknowledge the truth of similarity as well as the truth of difference. It doesn’t diminish a director to own to shared skills and values.

I’ve read that directors are at their best in their fifties, but that was before the cult of youth turned theatre into a sandpit for ingénues and enfant terribles. Now I’m in my fifties, however, I’m not so sure.

I can feel the energy leave my body in steady quanta, like a battery running down cell by cell. The amount of effort required to direct a show is staggering. The ones that go well cost you. The ones that don’t cost you more, because you have to keep investigating, try to discover where you went wrong.

I’ve worked for major theatres and small ones, on big productions and fringe shows. Hand on heart, there is absolutely no difference in terms of artistic significance, quality of outcome, or standard of personnel. They are all equally demanding, equally worthwhile. The pressure comes from the outside, from public expectations. But mainly it comes from the inside, from the artists you work with. Everyone gives 100%. As the director you have to give the same.

History is important to me, particularly the example of older artists. I have interviewed dozens for the books and articles I have written. I interviewed the designer Tony Tripp the month before he died. I have interviewed John Bell, Robin Nevin, Richard Wherrett, Julie Forsythe, George Ogilvie, Monica Maughan, Aarne Neeme, Jean-Pierre Mignon, Lyndal Jones, Peter King and many others.

Respecting the past doesn’t diminish the present. It doesn’t undermine ‘the new’; that’s just the spillover from a thousand marketing campaigns flogging useless crap where “newness” is the only saleable feature. In art, innovation is nothing without tradition, and vice-versa.

Talking with older artists is very humbling. You realise you are part of the ongoing story of the artform. You aren’t going to dominate it and, in fact, that’s a flawed aspiration. What matters is participation, making the best contribution you can make. God knows, that’s difficult enough.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said, “I’m a theatre director”, only to hear, “So you wrote the play, then?” or, “Do you act in it as well?”. In practice, not many people know what artists do unless their role is high-profile, like being a star in a TV drama.

When directors are feted, it’s for their mysterious ‘genius’ rather than their hard-won craft. That shows ignorance, and a lack of understanding of what the job entails. The main part of a director’s work is staging: arranging a play’s mise en scene, helping the actors interpret their roles, agreeing to the set design, the sound design and any related technologies.

Generally, it is taking charge of all aspects of its performance realisation. Louis Jouvet called directing “a tragedy of execution”, meaning you spend your life terrified things won’t work or something will stuff up.

I dipped into theatre director Braham Murray’s How to Direct a Play (2011) recently. I was fascinated by the idea that the job could be given a predictable shape. He writes about fear and the need to manage it. Directing theatre is more than a risk: it’s indeterminate, meaning you don’t know what you’ve got until a show opens. Then you know. Then you think: “Why didn’t I understand this before?”

It’s like trying to see round a corner. My friend Peter Evans, who now runs Bell Shakespeare, once said to me that the only show you can rely on is one that’s over. If I never hear the word ‘auteur’ again, it’ll be too soon. I’ve devised and adapted work, as well as directing straight plays. Mostly I collaborate on Australian drama. That means I work with living playwrights, which is rewarding, but also exhausting.

Dead Centre, the play I recently opened, took eight months to develop and involved countless drafts. My watchwords are “simplicity, clarity, veracity”. At the end I often get, “Well, it directed itself didn’t it?”, which can be a little exasperating.

I’m good with my ears. I can read a script and accurately judge the quality of the narrative and the dialogue, sometimes the impact of individual moments. This is called dramaturgy now. Back in the day it was just part of directing. It’s about understanding how time works, how something that happens in the third minute affects something that happens in the 53rd minute. That doesn’t take the fear of not knowing away. But it does soften it.

Theatre is about relationships. What makes directing worthwhile are the people you do it with. I am amazed at the resilience, talent and good humour of my colleagues. Artists sometimes get a bad wrap, but in all my years in the theatre I’ve never had an unrewarding working relationship, not once.

I grew up in London where there might be 70-plus shows running a night. No Australian city is comparable in that way, but the quality is comparable. Australia is full of intelligent, creative people. What stands in their way is the low official standing of Australian culture, the so-called ‘cultural cringe’.

I heard last year that a major theatre company was thinking of appointing a ‘star’ artistic director from overseas. After everything Australia’s been through! After the long struggle for artistic autonomy! It’s like the country is asleep, or hasn’t quite grown up yet. One day that will change. I can’t predict what it will be like. But I can tell you this: it’ll be a damn sight easier to direct plays in.

Dead Centre/Sea Wall, directed by Julian Meyrick, is showing at Melbourne’s Red Stitch until 15 August; Darwin Festival 22 – 23 August; Brisbane Festival 15 – 19 September; and Sydney’s Old Fitz 20 October – 14 November.

Theatre directing in Australia – some notes from the wings
Julian Meyrick is Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Image: Nathaniel Dean, Ursula Yovich and Roy Gordon in the Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River – photo by Heidrun Löhr