TAKING STEPS BLOG – Interview with the director

22 Nov 2017

10 Questions with Mark Kilmurry, director of TAKING STEPS

 1. What do you love about the plays of Alan Ayckbourn?

I like the fact they are wonderfully constructed with great characters. The way Ayckbourn uses comedy to explore wider issues. For a long time his plays were regarded as west end middle class comedies, which of course is unfair as within the comic elements he explores many themes relevant to the human condition. For instance in TAKING STEPS we have loneliness, longing, isolation, alcoholism, betrayal, hurt, pain, thwarted ambition. Most  characters also believe certain characters have committed suicide… and that’s in a play Ayckbourn calls a farce. Of course these themes are lightly placed but the characters are driven by these real and darker themes. When I was at drama school Ayckbourn was sniffed upon as opposed to say a gritty drama about working class values which again is unfortunate and nonsense. I really don’t think it is a stretch to say his best work is Chekhov with laughs.

2.When programming this play, how much did you consider the challenges of staging this very complex play in the small and unique Ensemble Theatre?

I rarely do. Or rather if I like a play so much I want to do it I know with a good team we can make it work. We did MARY STUART on this stage with a cast of nine wearing Elizabethan costumes so things can be created despite the intimate setting. I believe if we believe where we are the audience will too.

3. Some people say that directing is 90 per cent casting, do you believe that?

Yes absolutely! Witness this cast in TAKING STEPS. It makes the director’s job so much easier and a lot of fun. I also believe it helps to have a supportive, ready, able and hard working cast. You can cast well but if an actor hasn’t done the ground work it can hold things up. This cast is fabulous and it is a joy to be in their company, but it is not just casting it is also the creatives. For instance this set design by Anna Gardner is clever and smart and already the costume choices are bang on. It is a joy to concentrate on the room and not worry about those design elements because they are in good hands.

4. I observe that you are an active director, you rarely just sit at the desk, always jumping into the rehearsal space to talk with actors, walking through the space to nut things out… do you think this comes from your background as an actor? How has being an actor influenced you as a director?

Ha! Yes I guess maybe. Trying to get into the limelight…I think someone accessed different director types and I am the ‘joining in with the action’ type or thereabouts… I find sitting still hard at the best of times. I like to enter the world of the characters and actors to get their perspective. I guess I also don’t like the idea of the director and actor wall with the director sitting in judgement behind a desk. If I join them then we are all doing this together though that isn’t a conscience thing… just thinking about it now. I wouldn’t be able to direct a sausage if I hadn’t been an actor first. I do think actor directors have an added insight into what being an actor is all about. It doesn’t mean they are better than directors who have just been directors, but in my experience it gives them some empathy for the actor’s journey. This may not always be the case of course. Everything I know about theatre comes from my training as an actor and it has been a very rewarding experience converting it to directing.

5.  What would you say are the main differences in how you approach a play in preparation for rehearsals from the differing job perspectives of actor and director?

As an actor you are really only looking from your character’s point. Of course you need to know what the play is about and all the other parts in it but after the first few days you worry about your job in the whole piece. As a director you live with the play for a long time before rehearsals begin and explore the various broader elements of text, meaning, characters, design, research where it is set, when it was written, what the original intentions were of the writer. You have a whole view of the world and should be prepared to answer any questions relating to the text. As a director you watch from the outside in and as an actor (mostly) from the inside out.

6. What are the main differences between your experiences in the room as an actor and a director?

As an actor you are at the mercy of the director, the creative team, the costume designer. You can have a say and in a good room collaboration can be very rewarding between all the creative parts in creating a role but you are always in the bubble of someone else’s vision for the play. As a director you are heading that vision and guiding the actors along your pathway. I like collaboration and feedback and a conversation but ultimately it is my vision that stands (or falls) once we are opening. Of course both jobs can be rewarding depending on who you have surrounded yourself with. I think my transition into directing came about because I wanted to explore my own ideas of plays without relying on someone else sitting in the directors seat. I did a lot of my own work in running a theatre company so that swap from one job to another wasn’t as clear cut as one day deciding to direct. I wrote plays and directed and also acted in the same production so the transition was slower and gradual. It was only very recently, perhaps the last five years, that I called myself a director. I always thought of myself as an actor. Also, once the play has opened you get to go home at night when you are directing.

7. What is your favourite part of the rehearsal process?

I love all of it. There can be frustrations when you are waiting for something to click into place but rehearsals are for ‘rehearsing’ and it is funny how many people forget that. You can change things. I love watching an actor explore. I have seen magic in a rehearsal room never repeated in performance and have been moved to tears by improvisations or choices actors have made. It is a rare privilege to see actors and designers and stage managers working towards a goal. It’s like climbing a mountain with everyone relying on each other to make it to the top. Exhausting and frustrating too sometimes but amazingly rewarding. The finished product is the icing on the cake. The joy of creating a work starts as soon as you decide on doing the play with your imagination seeing images of the play sometime in the future. The there is that buzz as the actors speak on day one of rehearsal.  It really is as much about the journey as getting there.

8. What have you been enjoying and what have you been challenged by in the TAKING STEPS rehearsal process so far?

I love the play. It is very funny. It is challenging in its setting, but only while putting it together. The joy is seeing the actors make the staging part of their muscle memory. It is going to be a blast.

9. How can younger audiences connect with this ‘older’ play?

I think the play is older but the themes are relevant. I think anyone can enjoy a good comedy with good acting. In theatre terms the play is very young when you think of Miller or Shakespeare.

10. What do you think audiences will love about TAKING STEPS?

The idea of people trying to get something they want and failing spectacularly is always very funny. The clever conceit in the inventive staging written into the play. It has a brilliant track record. It’s perfect for Christmas, has a great cast and it is an Ayckbourn. What’s not to love?