The success of musical revivals of Hair and Pippin has seen the director’s star rise, but he is equally comfortable taking on drama. He tells Matthew Hemley which form is more difficult and why he is not ready for Shakespeare
Shortly before the end of Pippin’s successful run at the Southwark Playhouse, the musical’s composer Stephen Schwartz paid a visit to the south London venue to check in on the production.
For director Jonathan O’Boyle and the cast it was at once welcome and – to put it bluntly – terrifying. “It was horrendous,” he laughs, recalling the occasion when we meet in the Playhouse’s bar, on the penultimate night of the show.
“It’s so weird, knowing the person who wrote the music and lyrics is in the audience having their work sung back at them. You sort of think: ‘Well there’s no going back now’.”
As it happens, Schwartz was a satisfied customer. It had helped that he and O’Boyle had been talking ever since the director agreed to stage the revival at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, where it opened prior to its London transfer.
Pippin marked O’Boyle’s second show for Hope Mill, an emerging musical theatre powerhouse in Manchester, following Hair. That also found its way to London, playing at the Vaults.
His relationship with the Manchester venue came about through his association with producer Katy Lipson, who programmes the Hope Mill’s musicals and whom O’Boyle worked with at the Old Red Lion in Islington.
The success of Hair and Pippin have helped him become one of the most talked about emerging directors in the industry. Yet, directing wasn’t what O’Boyle, 34, originally set out to do.
Aged 18, after completing his A levels in Derby, he considered becoming a pilot or training to be an actor – his passion for theatre ignited by a trip to see Blood Brothers in the West End in 1995. The acting won out, when O’Boyle secured a place at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
Five years after graduating from Central, his career choice shifted again to pursue a passion he had developed during his training – directing,
“I acted for five years after drama school,” he explains. “But I wasn’t really getting the parts I imagined I would and I wasn’t being creatively stimulated. I thought: ‘This isn’t my life. I am not using my creativity to my maximum potential,’ so I started doing some directing on the side.”
Acting and directing simultaneously, however, meant he wasn’t doing “well at both”. So he signed up to Birkbeck University of London, retrained as a director, and landed an assistant role to Daniel Evans in Sheffield on the back of it.
Since then, he has worked on plays and musicals with Susan Stroman on the Scottsboro Boys, as resident director on last year’s An American in Paris and as director of the tour of James Graham’s This House, with Jeremy Herrin.
The jobs have kept coming, fuelled by O’Boyle’s determination to catch up on lost time. “I was in my late 20s [after Birkbeck] and felt I’d been treading water, so I wanted to keep going and never look back,” he says, adding that he made sure to line up “job after job” so when one was finishing he had something else to move on to straight away.
“It was a lot of hard work,” he admits. “And in these past two years I have made sure I have started to blend my own work with that of big associate roles on productions such as An American in Paris.”
The next production of his own work is Joel Drake Johnson’s play Rasheeda Speaking, which will receive its UK premiere at London’s Trafalgar Studios.
Working with Elizabeth Berrington and Tanya Moodie on Rasheeda Speaking has meant spending the first part of rehearsals getting to know how they approach their work.
His own training as an actor, he says, gives him the “toolkit and the vocabulary to work with actors” to understand their processes, what their needs are and how “to make them better”.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked in a bar in Soho.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Playing the role of Lady Macbeth in an all-male version of Macbeth.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s not easy. Things won’t come to you and fall into your lap. The industry is tough and you need to go out, work hard and persevere to create your own work. It’s also a huge privilege to work in theatre with the most generous people you could ever wish to work with.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My parents. Also being a member of the Derby Playhouse Youth Theatre for five years before I went to drama school. Pete Meakin, who ran the youth theatre, taught me everything I know about professional theatre. And my drama teacher Bernadette Kelly.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be yourself. Don’t try to be somebody you’re not, it’s so much more difficult. Also… prepare. If you can, read the play or the material and do a bit of research.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
Either a mathematician or an airline pilot.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I keep my script in the same spring-bound black folder. If the script isn’t in it, I can’t rehearse.
The first week of rehearsals for Rasheeda Speaking crossed with the last week of performances of Pippin, requiring O’Boyle to separate the two in his head.
“Rasheeda is about racism and it’s an office drama,” he says. “There is no comparison between Pippin and the play in terms of tone. I’ve had to switch off from Pippin during the day and bury my head in the world of the play.”
During Pippin’s run, he came in on many nights to keep in touch with the production. With Rasheeda Speaking, however, he will keep more of a distance.
“Plays are different,” he says. “I would always step away from a play a bit longer, once it’s opened and before I came back, because I am passionate that actors need time away from a director – particularly on a play like Rasheeda Speaking – to settle in and trust their instincts. Whereas on a musical such as Pippin there are a lot more elements to go wrong, so I like to be there.”
Play or musical, however, O’Boyle says his role is the same. “The primary job of a director is to shape material and tell it in the clearest way possible, to suit the format of the show,” he says.
“The ultimate goal is the same, but I put different hats on for different genres. I love working on plays, but I find musicals more challenging as you have a lot more components. There’s the choreography, the music and design, and the technical element is huge. With a play you can focus on the acting and the story.”
There are many plays he’d like to tackle, not least some Shakespeare. But he says he’s not ready for that challenge yet. However, he adds, directing students is one way he is able to learn more about his craft, including when taking on the great playwright.
“I consider myself emerging, with a lot to learn,” he says. “I direct Shakespeare tragedies at drama school, which I love, as it’s off the radar, no one sees it and I can make mistakes.” O’Boyle is not going to direct King Lear quite yet, he says, “but one day I want to”.
After Rasheeda Speaking, he returns to musical theatre, and the Hope Mill, with the fringe production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love.
He’s also hoping that Pippin will have a future life, given how well it was received by both Schwartz and the audiences. “Watch this space,” he teases.
“It feels as though – and we couldn’t predict this – there is a weird alchemy of the audience connecting with the show. There is a thirst for it, maybe in a bigger theatre. But I am keen for it to stay intimate and for the style of the show to remain.”
Even if it does move on to play in a bigger venue, O’Boyle is a staunch supporter of the fringe, despite accusations of exploitation and low pay.
“The amount of actors, designers and creatives who need a space to learn, develop and make mistakes is vast,” he says. “If you go straight to directing Frozen on Broadway or An American in Paris, the room for error is more acute and unforgiving.”
He adds: “The fringe is where people learn and build relationships, so it’s important. I don’t agree with people working for nothing, I have done it myself and it’s not sustainable. That’s easy to exploit and it’s really important the conversation has been opened up.”
Born: 1983, Derbyshire
Training: Central School of Speech and Drama; Birkbeck University of London
• Hair, Hope Mill, Manchester (2016)
• Pippin, Hope Mill, Manchester (2017)
• Sense of an Ending, Theatre503 (2015)
• Four Play, Theatre503 (2016)
Awards: Hair, WhatsOnStage award for best Off-West End production 2018
Agent: Dan Usztan, United Agents
Rasheeda Speaking is at London’s Trafalgar Studios until May 12