Directors James Farrell and Jamie Rocha Allan talk about working with a cast of amateur actors for Pericles.
Tell us about yourselves?
James: This is my first season at the RSC having been directing for about four years now. Before then I taught drama. I always knew I wanted to direct, but leaving university at 21 I had no idea where to start, so I went into teacher training as a kind of safety net.
I loved it but realised I would always regret not trying out my hand at directing so I made the leap and so far it's working out! I mainly work in Fringe in London but have also assisted in the West End.
Jamie: I went to Central School of Speech and Drama for three years, then worked as an actor and ran a theatre company with a friend for three years. I then did a two year MFA in Theatre Directing at Birkbeck, and a year's placement at the Lyric in Hammersmith with David Farr as Artistic Director. I've done bits and pieces of Fringe theatre and worked and taught at drama schools as well.
How did you both come to be involved in Pericles?
James: We were taken for coffee and told about this project, and asked if we were interested. We've been working towards doing this for a year as directors whilst working as assistants on The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest. It's been great to have this opportunity at our level of experience - usually you wouldn't have the chance to work with a cast this big on a stage this size. It's a big step up for us.
Jamie: Directing this is a bit like us putting our money where our mouth is, because you spend all your time as an assistant director talking and thinking about how you can apply what you're learning to your own work, and all of a sudden someone says, 'OK, here's your chance'. Although it was a little daunting at first, we've had fantastic support.
How are you finding the process of directing together?
Jamie: We're still figuring it out!
James: We live together in Stratford, so at any given moment we can talk about the production, and we've got to know each other really well. We've been working together since October, so we know how each other works, but of course we're still finding our feet with the whole process.
We decided very early on in rehearsals that, like good parents, we wouldn't argue in front of everyone, so if there was anything we were massively disagreeing on we'd have a code word we could throw out there and then discuss it outside the room later on. We haven't had to use the code word yet!
Jamie: What we realised very quickly was that for better and for worse, this wouldn't be the Pericles we would make by ourselves. There's my Pericles, James' Pericles and then out of that comes our Pericles. So there's almost three different potential productions here.
James and I approach things very differently, which is good because we end up learning from each other – I've already learned a lot from James because he approaches the text in a completely different way to me. It means we have all the bases covered, because there might be a bit of the play that I haven't got my eye on because that's not how my mind works, but then I know James will pick it up because his mind will be on it.
James: I'm learning a great deal from working with Jamie. It's all working very well at the moment, but ask us again in a couple of weeks!
How has working as assistant directors on the other productions shaped Pericles?
James: Pericles is very much part of the same world as the other three productions, for example the Ephesus that is talked about in The Comedy of Errors is the same Ephesus that's talked about in Pericles. It's a shared world, but then you'd never get two directors as different as Amir Nizar Zuabi (The Comedy of Errors) and David Farr (Twelfth Night and The Tempest). All directors have their own vision and take on the plays. We've taken aspects from both of them, but then Jamie and I are very different again, so each production moves on and develops.
Jamie: There's the rehearsal room techniques and practice that we've picked up from working with Nizar and David, adapting that for our cast and production. Then it's also about atmosphere and the feeling of these places, and trying to bring that through to Pericles so the tone is very similar.
There isn't really a specific time setting, but there's an atmosphere setting – a feeling of heat, and the history of the place. Pericles is a bit like a cross between Sinbad and Indiana Jones, it's an adventure story with a fairy-tale quality, so you can take some liberties and be slightly abstract with your setting as I think it helps with the other-worldliness of it, a bit like with The Tempest – that island could be from any time.
What is it like working with a cast of amateur actors. How is it different from working with professional actors?
James: I've approached it in absolutely the same way. All of our cast have been through the Open Stages workshops, so they've already had a lot of training with the RSC voice and movement departments.
Some of these guys have done every Shakespeare play going, so their understanding of the play and Shakespeare generally is very good. They've just been producing their work slightly differently to how the RSC does, so it's about getting them used to how we work and our rehearsal techniques. But we're working with them as we would a professional cast, and they're responding to that really well.
Jamie: I think someone's acting ability isn't the only deciding factor in them working as a professional actor. So once you realise that, I don't know why I was surprised that working with them didn't feel any different. They've had careers for 10, 15 years whilst also acting in amateur companies and some of the cast I have no doubt will go on to become successful actors and go into further training.
Someone told me once that amateur means 'for the love of', so for me that really shaped how I saw them. We saw 350 people in auditions, so we had two full-on, long weekends of auditions from which we had to choose 30 people. But we got everyone we wanted and we're really happy with the cast.
James: The whole point of this project is them getting an experience that's as close to a professional production as possible, so we decided early on we were going to be their directors, not their trainers because they are already getting those skills from the intensive workshops. It's also about getting closer to what the amateur and professional actors were 50 years ago, where you might have a day job but then work as paid actor as well.
Jamie: Working on this project really changed my opinion of amateur groups and actors, because the word 'amateur' has certain negative associations, and from what I've seen none of them are true.
James: People often think an amateur production will be bad, but then so can many professional ones! There really isn't that big distinction anymore and there is so much talent in amateur theatre.
What have your cast been doing in their voice and movement workshops?
James: Anyone who is involved in Open Stages can attend weekend workshops, and Jamie and I have been involved in running a couple of those as directors as well. So our cast have done those, as well learning about rhetoric and antithesis in the text, stage-fighting and working on physically inhabiting the space.
They've been working on choral movement and speaking, as that's a big part of our production. The Courtyard is a big space to perform in, so they've all been training their voices to prepare for that.
Jamie: What some of them lack in professional experience, they more than make up for with tenacity and enthusiasm and willingness to jump in, so there's none of that slightly jaded cynicism you might get with professional actors. There's a real openness to get stuck in and experiment.
They will be leaving with more skills than what they arrived with, which is really important to the Open Stages project, and they can go back to their groups and impart these skills and share what they've learned and so it just keeps growing.
We're learning from them too and hearing about their practices as well, so it's not just us at the RSC dictating 'this is how it should be done', it's more open than that.