At Tuesday’s press conference that announced the arrival of Rufus Norris as Nick Hytner’s replacement as director of the National, I asked him as part of the question and answer session that followed what it might mean for his approach to the job having been an actor first. He’s the first one-time actor since Olivier to run the National — as well as the first non-Oxbridge trained director since Olivier, too.
He replied, “I absolutely think, hand on heart, that an acting training is the only way to train for directing.”
That, of course, throws down the gauntlet to the many University trained directors who’ve not acted first. But it also suggests that acting is a valuable route in right to the top jobs in British theatre. And it’s far from unprecedented, of course – Michael Grandage and Jonathan Kent, who would go on to lead the Donmar Warehouse and Almeida Theatres, were once actors, but both gave up their acting after turning to directing (interestingly at the Almeida, Kent shared his artistic director duties with the still-acting Ian McDiarmid).
Others have continued to juggle both, like Daniel Evans at Sheffield and Sam West (who preceded him at the helm at Sheffield), or Fiona Shaw who is now directing extensively, too. Next week Jamie Glover makes his London directorial debut at the helm of a production of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter at The Print Room, a play whose last major London outing at the Trafalgar Studios in 2007 starring Lee Evans and Jason Isaacs was also directed by an actor-turned-director Harry Burton. (Burton is currently represented in the West End by directing Barking in Essex).
But Norris was also frank about skipping a university education.
There have been many times in my life where I regretted playing in bands and working as a painter and decorator for four years when I could have gone to university but I’m here, it worked out.
And he added,
The simple fact is, lots of people who go to Oxford and Cambridge are very, very clever. That doesn’t mean they’re the only clever people. Of course I’m proud of the fact we’re breaking down what might be perceived to be a barrier and perhaps long ago was, but I don’t think it is anymore.
It does mean that Norris admitted to one deficit: while Hytner’s knowledge of the canon was “absolutely complete,” he said his was not, so he’d have to surround himself with people to fill the gap. But he’s also planning on bridging other gaps.
My own personal interest has been a more total theatre, the kind of work that is accessible to potentially a very broad reach. It’s too early to talk about specifics but in terms of gender balance, cultural diversity and general diversity it will be really exciting to see where we can go.