Having worked her way up through national and regional directors’ schemes, Rebecca Frecknall is about to open her second production of Tennessee Williams’ seldom-performed Summer and Smoke at the Almeida in London. She tells Fergus Morgan how other female directors have been a constant course of inspiration in her career
Despite first opening in London in 1951, Summer and Smoke – the play Tennessee Williams wrote a year after A Streetcar Named Desire – had to wait another five decades to return to the capital and has rarely been revived here since.
“It’s one of those great plays that’s sort of slipped us by,” says director Rebecca Frecknall, though she is certainly doing her bit to return it to prominence.
Her staging, which stars Patsy Ferran and opens next week at the Almeida Theatre, comes eight years after she directed a revival at Southwark Playhouse, her first professional production, which was described as “unforgettable” and “absorbing” by the Times.
“It feels like I’ve never left it,” she says of the play, which is set in early-20th-century Mississippi. “I think Tennessee Williams is a fascinating writer and there’s something about Summer and Smoke that is so human and delicate and harsh.”
She describes that first production as “a version” of the play, before revealing why she has returned to it so soon. “Now I’m older and more experienced, my relationship with its themes has changed. This feels to me like a very different production, a very different interpretation with very different reasons behind it.”
Frecknall knows the Almeida well, and welcomes the chance to work with familiar faces as she takes the reins of the biggest production of her career to date.
“I’ve been assistant director here, and then movement director,” she says. “To be coming back as director to work with people I have a relationship with is a complete gift.”
Growing up in Cambridgeshire, it was not the classic drama of weighty 20th-century American playwrights that hooked her on the stage, but musicals.
“I was obsessed with musical theatre,” she says. “I loved Sondheim, Les Mis and Miss Saigon. I was really into it. I used to collect LPs of the original cast recordings.”
That changed after Frecknall’s father gave her a copy of his favourite play, Equus by Peter Schaffer, when she was about 15. She says: “Life wasn’t the same again. It was out with the musicals and in with the hard-hitting psychological drama.”
From a young age, Frecknall knew she wanted to be involved with performance but wasn’t sure how. First she wanted to act, but when she didn’t get into drama school, she wanted to pursue dance. It was only while studying at Goldsmiths in south-east London that she got her first taste of directing.
“In my first term, some students set up a new-writing festival,” she says. “I wanted to be involved, and you couldn’t just act in it, so I decided to write and direct something. That was the first time I directed, and I realised, ‘Oh, I’m a director. That’s my thing.’ ”
While at Goldsmiths, Frecknall spent her student loan on attending the theatre, relying on cheap ticket schemes to experience “a mix of work across disciplines and spaces”. It made her a passionate advocate of discounted seats for younger audiences. “Those cheap ticket schemes are so valuable. I saw some amazing things for no money,” she says.
As with Robert Icke’s Hamlet, the Almeida will be making free tickets available to under-25s for three performances of Summer and Smoke as part of the Almeida for Free festival.
What was your first non-theatre job? I worked Saturdays in the village bakery slicing bread and skinning hams.
What was your first theatre job? Assistant director on Dream Story at the Gate.
What is your next job? I’m directing a new play in August, but I can’t talk about it yet as the season hasn’t been announced.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? You will often feel like an impostor. Everyone else feels that way too, so calm down.
Who or what is your biggest influence? Many people and experiences have affected my path. Pina Bausch’s work and philosophy has had a big influence on me as a person and an artist.
If you hadn’t been a director what would you have done? I wanted to be a dancer for a while and at school thought about being a lawyer or a graphic designer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I always try to find time to sit in the empty auditorium before a performance. I love the energy of an expectant theatre – it’s really special.
After graduating, Frecknall was accepted on to a directing course at LAMDA. Then came assistant directorships at the Young Vic, the Almeida, the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
In 2015, she was awarded a Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme bursary to work at Newcastle’s Northern Stage for 18 months, joining a prestigious list of former recipients that includes Vicky Featherstone, Rupert Goold and John Tiffany.
Supporting herself throughout her training and early career was always tricky, though. “I didn’t come from money, I wasn’t able to finance my own work and I couldn’t stay at my parents’ house because they didn’t live in London,” Frecknall says.
“There’s always a pressure. Trying to establish yourself, stay in London and work when you’re doing a lot for nothing, while trying to see work and maintain contacts – that’s very difficult.”
Making the move from assisting to directing in her own right was also tough, and Frecknall admits having to turn down well-paid work in favour of projects that would allow her to progress on her own.
Not all the difficulties were financial. Attempting to forge a career in a profession dominated by men was frequently a disconcerting experience.
“The historical infrastructure of our theatre is very white and middle-class and male,” Frecknall says. “Even though it’s changing and it’s being challenged, it’s still there. I have often been the only female on a creative team and that’s always odd.”
Despite this, Frecknall considers herself lucky to have “always had strong female directors as role models”, citing Natalie Abrahami, Carrie Cracknell, Melly Still and Phyllida Lloyd as inspirational figures.
To counter the inequality that still pervades theatre, she says: “There needs to be a bigger collective responsibility around how we assemble teams. It’s about how wide we cast our nets. It’s great to have artistic marriages and creative relationships that excite you, but you can’t just keep working with the same people again and again. There are some brilliant people out there who aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.”
Born: 1986, Cambridgeshire
Training: Goldsmiths, University of London; LAMDA
Awards: National Theatre Studio’s resident director bursary (2012/13), Regional Theatre’s Young Directors Scheme (2015/16)
Landmark productions: Julie, Northern Stage (2016)
Summer and Smoke runs at London’s Almeida Theatre from March 7 to April 7. Details: almeida.co.uk
Editor’s note: The piece has been updated to reflect that Summer and Smoke did not premiere in London in 2006, but had been staged in London in 1951 in a production that originated in the Lyric Hammersmith before transferring to the Duchess Theatre the following year. It was not put on in the capital during the intervening 54 years.