Tamara Harvey: ‘I want Theatr Clwyd to become a home for writers’

Tamara Harvey. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

Tamara Harvey offers this advice to aspiring young directors: “Know that it isn’t a race. I meet a lot of young directors who tell me they need to take the next step up. I ask them how old they are and they tell me they’re 24. I reply that I was temping till I was 30 and assisting a lot till then.”

She’s now a year shy of 40 and has also just become artistic director of her first theatre building, succeeding Terry Hands at Theatr Clwyd in Mold, North Wales. Hands had run it for 17 years. Before this, she earned her dues as one of the hardest-working and most diverse freelance directors on the circuit, with credits stretching from Shakespeare’s Globe to the Bush, Finborough, Hampstead and the West End.

She’s also one of the most genuinely nice people I know in the theatre. I’ve not always loved the shows she’s worked on, but she has always greeted me with a ready smile regardless, and has an infectious, inquisitive laugh. We were due to meet at the Young Vic last November when she was going to tell me about her first season at Theatr Clwyd. As I got out of the car, though, I managed to dislocate my newly replaced hip, and had to go to hospital. Later that day she emailed a link to a song from Benjamin Scheuer, since she knew what a fan I was.

The big surprise, though, when we finally meet at the Young Vic in early February is that between the cancelled date and now she has also become a mother for the first time, as well as launching her first season in Wales.

“Some people said to me that they think I’ve done it so I can move out of London and do the family thing. Apart from the fact that I found out [about the pregnancy] after I got the job, anyone who thinks that becoming an artistic director is a good time to have a child has clearly done neither. In London we were a minute away from my parents, so it has been difficult to move hundreds of miles away and do everything ourselves.”

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Theatr Clwyd, Mold
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Theatr Clwyd, Mold Photo: Johan Persson

As a result of her new baby, she has kept herself free of directorial responsibilities for her first three productions, which are being directed by Donmar associate Robert Hastie (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, running to March 5), Lisa Spirling (Jumpy, receiving its regional premiere March 10-April 2) and Philip Breen (Cyrano de Bergerac, April 14-May 7).

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof started rehearsals on January 4, when my daughter was five days old. So although it’s unusual for an artistic director not to direct the first show in their first season, it’s also meant I’ve been able to invite more directors to be part of it, and to spend a bit of time being just the artistic director.”

She’s very happy with her choices. “I couldn’t have asked for a more exciting director than Rob – it’s rare to find someone who has the skill to direct comedy well; and Philip was an associate to Terry [Hands], so its nice to have that link with the past.”

But it is also, she feels, a theatre ripe with opportunities. The playwright Tim Price told her admiringly of her predecessor Hands that he had created a unique company of actors there, “which was great for Clwyd but also for smaller companies in Wales, as it made it possible for people to be an actor in Wales and make it work”. Some of those actors, “who are fantastically talented and have shown a loyalty to a theatre that is rare”, are now in the opening shows, including Steffan Rhodri in the title role of Cyrano, in a version by Anthony Burgess that will also incorporate additional poetry by Twm Morys, a lauded Welsh poet – “we’re looking at the interplay of language and what gets lost in translation”.

She adds: “I’ve inherited lots of great stuff, and there are so many opportunities to do more. I hope we’ll become a home for writers, both of plays and musicals, which we can develop here. We’re already piloting a scheme whereby each company will have a writer join them. I’ve had conversations with playwrights to ask them what they need. The common theme that emerged is that they want the time and space to write something without someone dictating what that might be. We will give them a room to write in, accommodation and a bit of money, and the opportunity to be at rehearsals if they want to be.”

Michael Feast, Celia Imrie and John Warnaby in Plague Over England at the Duchess Theatre, 2009. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Michael Feast, Celia Imrie and John Warnaby in Plague Over England at the Duchess Theatre, 2009. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Of course it is also about the audience. “This theatre has a very loyal audience that Terry built up, but it’s also ready for a change and has the potential to be at the heart of its community. On Halloween, we held a free open day of events, storytelling and guided tours. By the end of it, we’d had some 5,500 people in, which speaks of the potential of the theatre to be at the heart of people’s lives.”

The theatre also has its own theatremaking departments – “we still have set and props workshops and wardrobe” – which she intends to use for co-productions with other theatres. “It was wonderful how many artistic directors reached out to suggest working together, and we’ll have a slew of co-productions in the next season. Partly those of us in regional theatre are doing it because we have to, thanks to funding challenges, but it’s also about inspiring and challenging each other artistically.”

She’s also not shy about partnerships with commercial producers. “I’ve worked across subsidised and commercial theatre – one of my first jobs was directing the UK tour of The Graduate, which I inherited from Terry Johnson. There are as many strengths to commercial theatre as to subsidised and the two can offer each other so much. And lots of commercial successes are born in the subsidised sector, because we can be braver.”

Harvey was originally determined to become a ballet dancer – “I was properly serious about it, and trained six days a week, but I realised that I would never be that good and that I didn’t want to be in the second row of the corps de ballet for the rest of my life. At the same time, I was cast as Kate in Kiss Me, Kate at school, and discovered that I wanted to be in this strange world of theatre.” When she was 17, a lightbulb moment occurred: “At the Brighton International Arts Festival they had an arts education scheme where you’d shadow someone on a show, and I got to shadow the co-directors of an opera company. It was love at first sight – I knew what I wanted to do was direct.”

During her gap year, she travelled back to Botswana, where she was born and where her father was working again. Her dad spoke to the producer of the Gabarone Arts Festival and she got a job as an assistant there. “He asked me to direct a show, and I did The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in a new adaptation – because winter at Christmas doesn’t make sense in Africa, I made it about a land of drought that never had rain.”


Q&A: Tamara Harvey

What was your first non-theatre job? I was an assistant at a chemist in Hove, and a server in a cafe in the Lanes in Brighton – and was equally rubbish at both.
What was your first professional acting job? Directing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in Botswana.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That sometimes it is okay to turn down a job even if you don’t know how you are going to eat. People tell you there’s no money in theatre and the hours are really long – but they don’t say there’s never a moment when you can shut the office door and have done everything you’re supposed to have done.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Tim Carroll. Sitting in his rehearsal rooms was a training like no other. And The West Wing: I love that series. Whenever I’m in need of inspiration, I turn it on.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Be yourself, not what you think they want you to be; really know the material and even if you’ve not memorised it, read it over and over and have it in your bones. And always shake hands properly, not limply.If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? I’d like to have been a pilot, I always had this yearning to fly small planes across Africa.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? Something Mark Rylance always did at the Globe was to involve us in ceremony at the beginning of the season to bless the work, not necessarily in a religious sense but to draw the company together and ask the theatre to take care of us. Whenever I can, I do that, too – there’s something important about saying thank you to the theatre gods.

After Botswana she went to the US. “I had this idea that if I went to study acting I’d have a better idea of how to direct. I went to New York Performance Works, run by Richard Scanlon, who had studied under Stella Adler. As we were talking, he said, ‘You don’t want to be an actor, you want to be a director.’ He invited me to some acting classes, but only if I directed two shows. To this day, I don’t know why he took a punt on me.”

Scanlon also gave her a handful of plays from which to choose two to direct, and when she chose a Brian Friel play, Lovers, he gave her Sam Shepard’s Fourteen Hundred Thousand to do as well. “I said it was insane as I had no idea what the Shepard play was about, and he said, ‘That’s why you have to do it’.”

She continued directing at university, but there was no formal training for directors at that time. “Every assistant director now is more qualified than me as there are so many directing courses these days. But I knew the US system of internships existed, and I wrote letters to all the theatres that offered them there. The first one to get back to me was the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. I jumped at it, spent three months as an intern, then they asked me to stay as an assistant to the artistic director.

“After my visa expired, I had to go home, but they were going to sponsor me to return. In the interim, though, I’d heard Patrick Spottiswoode, director of Shakespeare’s Globe Education, at a symposium, and he spoke so inspiringly about the Globe that I knew I wanted to work there. I wrote to him and he passed my CV on to the theatre department. I’d also got a job assisting at RADA. Tim Carroll was directing there and he invited me to assist on Macbeth at the Globe.” It starred Jasper Britton in the title role. Harvey adds: “It was an incredible production that got torn apart by the critics.” She stayed at the Globe for the next three seasons, assisting on Twelfth Night, Richard II and The Golden Ass (all starring Mark Rylance).

She was also, meanwhile, starting to forge her own way on the fringe, where she directed Tennessee Williams’ Something Cloudy, Something Clear and Laura Wade’s Young Emma. “We were rehearsing Laura’s play in a freezing rehearsal room in west London, and my phone rang. It was Mark Rylance, and I must have gone white, because Laura asked me what was wrong. I scribbled a note to say that Mark was asking me to direct Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe. Eight months later, Laura gave me back that note, framed, as a first-night present.”

She would return to the Finborough a few years later to direct the debut play of theatre critic Nicholas de Jongh, Plague Over England, which subsequently transferred to the West End. Today, she tactfully refers to the experience as a “rollercoaster”, before adding: “Doing a piece of work by someone who has not written a play before is always a rollercoaster, but this was by someone who had never written a play but had seen thousands.”

She also went to the Bush Theatre as an associate to Josie Rourke, and was part of the move from its old premises above a pub to the current library space. “It was a great year to be there, and I did the first three productions in the new space.”

Some were surprised when she didn’t succeed Rourke as artistic director. She was not in a hurry, however. “I’d been approached before about being an artistic director, but I was determined not to do it just so I could say I had done it. When I was invited to apply for Clwyd, I asked my husband how he felt about North Wales. We went up for a weekend in the middle of February. It was freezing cold, but the moment we walked into the building, I realised I could do something there. It has three theatre spaces, a cinema, three art galleries, a bar and a cafe – there’s so much scope, and beyond the fact that you need to get people through the doors, there’s no set remit of what you have to do. So it felt like an incredible opportunity.”

Finally, she has a theatre home to call her own.

CV: Tamara Harvey

Born: 1977, Mochudi, Botswana
Training: University of Bristol; Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey
Landmark productions: Something Cloudy, Something Clear (2003); Young Emma (2003), both at the Finborough Theatre, The Dysfuncksonalz! (2007); The Contingency Plan (2009); The Kitchen Sink (2011); 66 Books (2011), all at the Bush Theatre, Much Ado About Nothing (2004, Shakespeare’s Globe), Elephants (2014); Hello/Goodbye (2015); In the Vale of Health (2014), all at Hampstead Theatre, From Here to Eternity  (2013, Shaftesbury)
Agent: Mel Kenyon at Casarotto Ramsay