‘Maybe you set the theatre on fire?’: directors on staging the unstageable

Michael Longhurst isn’t short on experience when tackling wildly imaginative stage directions – after all, he staged a play perched predominantly atop a mountain (Force Majeure). But perhaps the most challenging, he says, was this humdinger at the beginning of Nick Payne’s Constellations: “An indented rule indicates a change in universe.”

Did it prompt endless profound conversations? Sure. But Longhurst also found himself having intense discussions about furniture: “One of the biggest decisions in the rehearsal room was: would there be a chair? Can a chair jump a universe?” For Longhurst, it was the chairs – or subsequent lack of chairs – that determined the overall aesthetic of one of his most successful productions. “That was the main reason we stripped away everything on stage. It led to all the creative decisions.”

Longhurst considers the trickiest stage directions to be a valuable source of inspiration (“They really sharpen what you’re trying to say with your production.”) However, they can also create tension in the rehearsal room. With Tim Price’s Force Majeure, which sees an avalanche decimate a man’s sense of self, the creative team decided to stage the entire show on an incline. Metaphorically, it worked brilliantly: the perfect visualisation of mankind’s hopeless attempt to control the uncontrollable. Practically, it was a bind. Says Longhurst: “The actors went crazy. You go to put a wine glass down and it immediately falls over. The laws of gravity are no longer working!”

Early on in his career, he gleaned a lot from honouring the original stage directions. When Longhurst worked on Peter Shaffer’s Equus, he found them to be “an amazing bible of theatre-making”. But Longhurst’s approach has changed. After securing the gig of directing Shaffer’s Amadeus at the National Theatre, he snuck into the theatre bookshop and read Sir Peter Hall’s account of staging it. “He basically says: don’t let too much of the music into the play. You’ll upstage it.” At this point, Longhurst had already booked in an orchestra and six opera singers for a production that would make Mozart’s music the star of the show: “But by that stage in my career I was ready to challenge. I’d moved from Equus, when I wanted to learn how to make total theatre, to realising I wanted to say a different thing with Amadeus.”

Longhurst has also become increasingly experimental, partly inspired by a mind-blowing production of Simon Stephens’s Three Kingdoms at the Lyric in 2012. “The staging language,” he remembers, a bit breathless in admiration. “Why would you walk out of a door when you could leap out of a window? They invented their own rules of the universe on stage so entirely. Once you say the normal things aren’t necessary – maybe you leave a room by closing your eyes – then you can be as expressive and metaphorical and poetic as you like.”

Ned Bennett is another director who thrives on staging the seemingly un-stageable (horses! demons! fire!). One of the most challenging and enjoyable experiences of his career so far has been working on Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon, which relishes ripping up the theatrical rule book: “The way that Jenkins writes the stage directions, I see them as a provocation. He’s literally throwing down the gauntlet to the creative team.” It was glorious, reflects Bennett. “He was literally saying: maybe you set the theatre on fire?”

For Bennett, the very best stage directions come from a place of emotional honesty or structural integrity. When working on Josh Azouz’s Buggy Baby, he had to find a way to make a tree grow out of the living room floor. Later on in the play, the tree is cut down: “I definitely didn’t know how to do that – but I got incredibly excited with the prospect of trying.”

It took a lot of playful and practical conversations to figure out how to cut down that tree. A scissor lift was discussed, but there wasn’t the budget: “Eventually we got around to the idea of using giant helium balloons with confetti hidden in them.” For Bennett, this tussle is one of the best parts of the job: “You’re throwing lots of ideas at the wall and seeing how they stick. It’s all about holding your nerve.”

Bennett will soon be directing a new play, Grim Brenda, written by Ross Willis – a playwright who isn’t afraid to chuck in a challenging stage direction or two. Willis’s first play, Wolfie, opens with this unusual steer: “Just a typical day for the twins floating and chilling in the womb.” In Wonder Boy, directed this year at Bristol Old Vic by Sally Cookson, a child with a stammer struggles to speak in public. (“A hundred eyeballs come out from the floorboards, reads one direction.)

But when I ask the writer about these stagings, he’s not convinced he fits the bill: “To me, none of my stage directions feel that wild … It’s about trying to capture how the character is feeling or really cut to the core of what this play is about.” In Wonder Boy, when the main character cuts out his vocal cords, it’s not about writing experimental stage directions just for the sake of it: “It’s about capturing very clear feelings of rage or hurt.”

Willis is still figuring out how much he needs to say with his stage directions: “You don’t have to describe everything. You only have to give just enough to allow your collaborator to bring their whole soul to your theatrical idea. Mostly you’re collaborating with a director because you want them to bring their taste and amazing stage craft to your work.”

For director Milli Bhatia, collaboration is the most important part of the job. “For me, it always begins with the intention of the playwright,” she says. “There’s a school of thinking, and I hear it a lot with new plays, that you can ignore the stage direction as long as you understand the intention. But I’m interested in interrogating those stage directions from all angles. I love that relationship with the writer. I think that’s where the answers come from.”

When Bhatia was mounting Jasmine Lee-Jones’ seven methods of killing kylie jenner – which at one point sees the Twittersphere explode – she found the way into staging the play through a few words inside the preface. “There’s an introductory stage direction, which is only used once and never again: ‘Cleo and Kara are glitching. Make of that what you will.’” For Bhatia, “glitching” suggested an infection or meeting of worlds. “We started interrogating the idea of the internet as sentient and infection spreading. Just this one word completely influenced the mood of the production: the lighting, sound, movement, design,” she says.

Bhatia talks about hunting for clues and sometimes sounds more like a detective than a director: “I don’t think it’s our job just to honour the stage directions that are there. They’re the first building block of the theatrical language that we have to find for the entire production. But there are many stage directions that aren’t there that we’ll have to create – that simply live in the language of the production and not on the page.”

Director Nadia Latif also stresses the significance of absent stage directions, rather than those already in the text. Latif has worked on some plays with scene-stealing stage directions – particularly the moment in Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, when the fourth wall is broken and sections of the audience are encouraged to walk up on stage. For Latif, this was actually one of the easiest parts of working on Fairview. What was really tricky was the granular logistical stuff, which often isn’t explicitly referenced in the text. “When you’re doing these plays, you don’t spend a lot of time talking about the issues. I don’t have time to talk about race! I’m worrying about how to get the props on and off,” she says.

It wasn’t the fourth wall or the fearsomely complicated lip-synching that kept Latif up at night during rehearsals. It was where to hide the root vegetables. She says: “There’s this whole gag about [a character] not buying root vegetables. It’s not even a stage direction. All it says is ‘ta-da!’ No matter what the actors tried, the root vegetables flat out refused to be funny.

“We put them in a cupboard, a drawer, a shelf. One day, Rhashan [Stone] put it down the back of the sofa and it was hilarious. It got a huge round of applause.” Latif laughs and lets out a huge sigh of relief: “Finally!”

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