Cressida Brown: ‘My big break was actually someone else’s idea’
Not many directors start their career with an ambitious site-specific project that generates headlines. Cressida Brown made an immediate impression 10 years ago with Home, a show set in one of the tower blocks of Leyton’s Beaumont Estate and based on the stories shared by its residents. It was, she suggests, an extraordinary fluke. “I didn’t even realise that I was a director until someone told me,” she remembers.
At the time, Brown was training as an actor at Central School of Speech and Drama. Wanting to do a site-specific version of an Edward Bond play during her Christmas holidays, she spoke to someone at the local council about available spaces and was pointed towards the Beaumont Estate – then in the process of being emptied ready for demolition.
“He said, ‘We have these three tower blocks and they’re being emptied’, and I said, ‘Great, can I go in there with a Bond play?’. He said, ‘We have enough violence on that estate, why don’t you interview the people who are leaving and create a play with their words?’. So actually it was somebody else’s idea that set me on the path for my whole life.”
The process itself was a case of trial and error. “I was making it up as I was going along,” admits Brown, who had no experience of verbatim theatre before embarking on the project. She spent time with the community, made friends and gained people’s trust. Working from many hours of recordings with playwright Gbolahan Obisesan, the eventual show was pulled together thanks to “many late nights and an old-school computer”.
The project, which overwhelmed the creative team with its success, made Brown rethink her career aspirations. “I started to wonder about how much control you have over an acting lifestyle,” she says. “I evaluated what I was doing and decided that actually I just wanted to continue interviewing people, being a bit of an architect looking at space and how you could use it imaginatively.”
Q&A: Cressida Brown
What was your first job? A waitress, when I was 15. I can remember my first day because it was New Year’s Day. I started at 7am.
What was your first theatrical job? Directing Home.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Don’t go out with someone else in the theatre industry. But in terms of directing, I wish I’d been told that you are part of British theatre if you just get up and do it. There’s not an us and them, and you shouldn’t be worried about trying to break into some clique, because just by putting on a play you are becoming part of the fabric of British theatre.
Who/what is your biggest influence? All my biggest influences are the people that I’ve interviewed. I often interview people for projects, whether it’s former Olympic swimmers or people in these tower blocks. All of those interviews are the things that become important and rich to me in terms of creating.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have done? The reason I became a director is because you can do everything. You have conversations with people you wouldn’t normally meet, you get to talk about colours with a designer, you get to be involved in sound by talking to a composer. So I don’t really know – the honest answer is everything. It doesn’t seem like I can stick to one thing.
Early in her career, Brown worked regularly as an assistant director, an experience that was both valuable and frustrating. “It was a brilliant thing at the beginning,” she says. “Other than finding out what you would or wouldn’t do by watching other people work, quite frankly it was also the money. People don’t tell you that you get paid better as an assistant than you do as a director, on the whole.” After a while, though, Brown decided that she had to step back and focus on her own projects, a transition that she struggled with initially.
“I think the advice is just to keep going, because at some point it all starts working,” she says. She adds, though, that there is a lack of work and support for mid-career directors, an issue she believes needs to be addressed by the industry. “There seems to be a lot of focus on emerging directors,” she suggests, “and they’re given a show and then are kind of spat out of the system.”
In pursuing her own work, Brown has continued to be fascinated by different spaces. “I think it’s something about an audience seeing their environment differently,” she says by way of explanation. She offers the example of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which she directed as a companion piece to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2009 production of Hamlet. In Brown’s version, the audience was led through the hidden nooks and crannies of the theatre building, surprised to see it in new ways. The director has also set Racine’s Phaedre in Craigmillar Castle in Edinburgh and created a show about competitive swimming in the defunct pool at London’s Bridewell Theatre.
Now revisiting Home 10 years later, this time from inside an auditorium at the Yard Theatre, Brown has different concerns. “One of the things that excites me is how you make a sequel to a site-specific play when you don’t have a site anymore,” she says. She was inspired, among other things, by Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production of Alecky Blythe’s Little Revolution at London’s Almeida Theatre. “It certainly made me interrogate more about how I’m using the actors to tell the story and about how design might implicitly make you question the idea of viewing or watching.”
Returning to the piece, which feels even more resonant in the middle of London’s current housing crisis, Brown is also conscious of her own position as director. She asks what right she has as a white, middle-class theatremaker to go into a community like the Beaumont Estate and create theatre for largely white, middle-class audiences, adding that there will be an undercurrent in this new show “about who owns the story and whose voices are being heard”. It’s a process of coming full circle – both for Brown and for those whose stories she is once again setting out to tell.
CV: Cressida Brown
Born: 1980, London
Training: Central School of Speech and Drama
Landmark productions: Home, Beaumont Estate (2006), Phaedre, Craigmillar Castle (2007), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Royal Shakespeare Company/Novello Theatre (2009), Amphibians, Bridewell Theatre (2011), Walking the Tightrope, Underbelly (2015), Re:Home, Yard Theatre (2016)
Awards: Kevin Spacey Foundation’s UK Artist of Choice (2015)