Stef O’Driscoll has long championed works that connects with audiences who feel excluded from traditional theatre. She tells Natasha Tripney how unconventional forms allow audiences to see themselves on stage
Most directors would be daunted by the prospect of working on three productions at the same time but theatre company Nabokov’s artistic director Stef O’Driscoll seems energised by it. When we meet, she’s rehearsing three plays for Paines Plough’s pop-up Roundabout space to be performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – Sticks and Stones by Vinay Patel, Island Town by Simon Longman and How to Spot an Alien, a play for a family audience by Georgia Christou.
The plays are being staged with a company of three actors and each was written with an understanding that it would be performed in the intimate, in-the-round space. “It’s a beautiful and magical venue,” she says. “But it demands a particular approach. The relationship with the audience and how complicit they are is crucial.”
Speaking just before the fringe, she’s in the middle of a six-week rehearsal process with her actors – Katherine Pearce, Jack Wilkinson and Charlotte O’Leary. “It’s insane and scary but it’s also exciting,” she says, adding that it necessitates “an exposing but instinctive process”.
This was intensified by each play being in a different place before they entered rehearsals. The first thing that O’Driscoll did with her company was to establish a “physical toolkit” for the space. The actors worked with a movement director to find out how to use their bodies in the venue. She likens this to sculpture. “You have to think in 360 degrees in that space.”
The thing O’Driscoll loves most about the Roundabout is that the actors can acknowledge the audience. “It’s a beautiful way of saying we’re in this together. Theatre can be alienating sometimes. We sit in the dark and we don’t acknowledge each other. It’s important in an age of disconnection to say: ‘We see you, you’re part of this.’ ”
This is true of Patel’s play in particular. Sticks and Stones explores the sensitivities surrounding language and the words people deem offensive. O’Driscoll has developed an exaggerated gestural language to use instead of, and alongside, the words: the beauty of the nimble, astute piece of writing is that the word in question could be anything. It fundamentally doesn’t matter – it’s the way people respond to, apologise for and defend the word that counts. The use of gesture makes it feel like dance-theatre at times. The way the cast members contort and manipulate their bodies, the effort required, is part of the visual language of the piece. Island Town, while less intensely physical, nonetheless uses the intimacy of the space, and its claustrophobia, to its advantage.
O’Driscoll is a huge champion of gig theatre. Together with Paul Smith from Hull company Middle Child and Jimmy Fairhurst from Not Too Tame, she’s part of the Push Things Forward collective, making work that “creates an alternative experience for people who don’t think theatre is for them”.
Gig theatre, she’s quick to point out, is more than just a fusion of narrative and music. It draws from different forms, everything from stand-up to the role of the MC in a rave. That it’s live is central to the form. Traditional theatre, she says, so often doesn’t allow people to be vocal, to show their enthusiasm and be present in the space. “Gig theatre is an antidote to that.”
A lot of people still see theatre as an expensive hobby that doesn’t reflect a world they feel comfortable in. “If you have £20 to spend on your weekend, you’re probably not going to spend it at the theatre,” O’Driscoll says. She goes on to describe working with Smith and Fairhurst: “We’re trying to evolve theatre to bring it to new audiences and to combat the elitism that still exists.” There are plans to develop a gig-theatre touring network.
O’Driscoll grew up in south London and always wanted to be an actor. She used drama as a way of escape, as a way of “not being me for a couple of hours”. She found an outlet in Ovalhouse theatre. “Finding somewhere local I could go that cost £2 was amazing,” She says. There she was inspired by Nicholai La Barrie – “an incredible human” – who is now the Lyric Hammersmith’s director of young people. He was her youth arts teacher. “He knew my brain needed to be used or I’d get into trouble,” she says, so he gave her lots to do, from stage-managing to starring in shows. “I lived and breathed it. Ovalhouse was my playground. I worked in the kitchens and front of house and box office. I immersed myself in it.”
Yard Gal showed me a world I could relate to and that my role in theatre was to tell those people’s stories
O’Driscoll studied drama at St Mary’s University but sometimes found it a struggle, or at least she found some of the students there a struggle – people who laughed “because I didn’t know who Brecht was”. Once again a teacher inspired her. She started to study naturalism and plays she felt spoke to her and mirrored her experiences. She was particularly drawn to Rebecca Prichard’s Yard Gal about two Hackney teenagers. “It showed me a world I could relate to and it showed me that would be my role in theatre – to tell those stories and support people to tell those stories.”
O’Driscoll went on to direct Yard Girl in 2008 at Ovalhouse. It received a glowing review in the London Evening Standard. “I thought everyone would start calling me up and saying here’s a job for you,” she says with laugh. “It took me three months working the box office to see that wouldn’t be the case and I would need to make my own work.”
This is precisely what she did. O’Driscoll flogged possessions in car boot sales to fund work at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Her shows, including When Women Wee, set in a nightclub toilet, were well received and she was made an associate director at Paines Plough. In 2011, she assisted Sean Holmes on his production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, and she went on to co-direct Filter’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I’m always looking for opportunities to learn and develop and grow,” she says.
In 2016, O’Driscoll was appointed artistic director of touring theatre company Nabokov, replacing Joe Murphy. “It was an amazing gift,” she says. From the beginning, her intention was to redirect the company towards alternative forms of storytelling. “Gig theatre and alternative experiences are at the heart of what we do,” she says. “We’re looking at form and finding ways of celebrating the array of multicultural voices in the UK.”
Part of this was the Storytelling Army initiative. For this Brighton Festival commission, Nabokov worked with people from all over Brighton, including those who were homeless and in recovery, to tell their stories. Kate Tempest, whose work O’Driscoll had previously directed, was guest director of the festival that year and she approached O’Driscoll to create the community engagement project she’d been hoping to make for a while.
Both Tempest and O’Driscoll believe that everyone has a story worth telling and that giving people the means to tell it is essential. “When we share our narratives we learn from one another and cultivate empathy”. You might walk past a homeless person and ignore or dismiss them, but projects like Storytelling Army can “shift someone’s perspectives”.
The Storytelling Army is something O’Driscoll feels passionately about and something she intends to develop, both in Brighton and elsewhere in the UK, saying: “We’re continuing to develop those relationships.” They’re not just going to congratulate themselves on unlocking this creativity and then “bugger off”, though: continuity is vital. They plan to keep working with these people, while looking at other communities they can develop similar schemes with.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked in the family music shop selling CDs. I loved listening to different types of music all day.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I directed Yard Gal by Rebecca Pritchard at Ovalhouse in 2008.
What’s your next job?
I am working with the incredible musician Dizraeli on his new gig-theatre production The Unmaster.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t be afraid to ask. If you can’t take the assistant director job as it is unpaid and you can’t afford to get to rehearsals, tell the company you are working for. It is their duty to support you to the best of their ability. There is nothing wrong in admitting you don’t have the means that others may have. To work in the arts does not make me automatically middle-class. I can have a job in theatre, I can go to the theatre and still be working-class.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Humans. People’s stories. Everyone has a story – we just need to listen.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
To attract a wider audience, O’Driscoll believes in reducing the perceived risk of going to the theatre and building trust. There are so many factors that add up to making a theatre feel alienating, she says: “Place, price, the building itself, the feeling that you have to dress up and the etiquette.”
Again and again in conversation she returns to telling stories and the validation that comes from being seen and heard and getting to see your life – or a reflection of it – on stage. It matters, she says: “Theatre has a duty to reflect a wide range of human experiences.”
It’s not hard and only takes small shifts in attitude and approach, she continues – in the welcome a building offers, to make spaces more inclusive, for example.
She recalls a recent trip to Hamilton where she was so enthused by it that “my way of dealing with that was to whoop and make finger guns and I was told by an usher not to respond in that way”. The message this sends is damaging, she says, while acknowledging that “some people would prefer to sit in the darkness in silence”.
Ultimately, O’Driscoll hopes she can make work that appeals as broadly as possible. She hopes these plays will answer an important question: “How can we all be in the same space with one another?”
Born: 1987, London
Training: BA (hons) in drama, St Mary’s University, London
• Yard Gal, Ovalhouse Theatre, London (2008)
• Hopelessly Devoted, Birmingham Repertory Theatre (2013)
• With a Little Bit of Luck, Paines Plough (2016)
• Box Clever, Paines Plough (2017)
• Storytelling Army, Brighton Festival (2017)
Island Town, Sticks and Stones and How to Spot an Alien are running at Roundabout, Summerhall, Edinburgh, until August 26