Jeremy Herrin: ‘Directors are badly paid and have to take on more work than is comfortable’

Jeremy Herrin. Photo: Marc Brenner

Headlong artistic director Jeremy Herrin has been one of the hardest-working directors in recent years. He tells Mark Shenton about his love of the rehearsal room, his work to improve industry colleagues’ wages and why working on the critically mauled Common was actually ‘pretty amazing’

The last time The Stage sat down with Jeremy Herrin, our list of the most influential people in theatre – The Stage 100 – had just named him the busiest director in Britain.

Four years on, little has changed and Herrin reveals he still feels very busy “all the time”. As if to underline the point, when we meet, he is running two rehearsal rooms alongside each other.

“I feel very lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to do what I love,” he says. “I have quite a capacity for doing a lot of work and I’m probably addicted to rehearsal. I just love it, and if something comes up that I’d like to do, I’ll try to fit it in because I’m never happier than when I’m working with actors and a writer in a room.”

Shortly after that 2013 interview, Herrin was appointed artistic director of Headlong, the touring company based in London, and set about staging a string of commercial and critical successes around the country.

His projects stretch from co-productions with the National Theatre including This House and the award-winning People, Places and Things, to a partnership with the Michael Grandage Company for the upcoming world premiere of James Graham’s latest play Labour of Love in the West End.

This year he has also directed Jack Thorne’s Junkyard at the Bristol Old Vic and on tour and The House They Grew Up In, written by his playwright wife Deborah Bruce, at Chichester’s Minerva. If Headlong is restless, peripatetic and eclectic in its work and the relationships it forges, Herrin has long been that, too.

Over the past few years he has worked with the National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, London’s Royal Court, Hampstead Theatre, Broadway’s Roundabout Theatre Company and for Sonia Friedman Productions in the West End.

Among the standout productions was his work with the Royal Shakespeare Company on the two-part stage version of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which originated in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2014 before transferring to the West End and then Broadway.

Better pay for directors

Taking on so many jobs, especially between leaving his role as deputy artistic director at the Royal Court to Dominic Cooke in 2012 and his appointment at Headlong,

was not just the love of the rehearsal room. It was also practical.

“I was trying to make ends meet. One of my hobby horses is to talk about how surprisingly badly directors are paid,” he says. “I’ve got two kids, and if you want to make a living, you have to take on a bit more work than is entirely comfortable. It is really difficult for directors.”

Stage Directors UK revealed in 2015 that UK theatre directors were earning an average of £10,759 a year – well below the national average of £27,000 – with some directing jobs paying the equivalent of less than £1 an hour.

Of the 812 respondents to SDUK’s survey, it emerged half earned less than £5,000 a year from theatre work. Herrin is now co-chair of the directors’ industry body with Kate Saxon, and has called for change.

“We never got organised enough. We never created an organisation like the Writers’ Guild that would say no,” he says before adding that British theatre needs its “Bob Fosse” moment.

“The most powerful director said he wouldn’t work unless it changed,” Herrin says. “We need to pull together now and make sure that people stump up. When all the directors agree this together, it will be difficult for managements to take the piss. We need to look after the whole of the profession – across the country and in big and small theatres. There needs to be a basic amount that is acceptable. It is hard.”

Preparing, researching, casting and designing a show can take the same amount of time as actually rehearsing, Herrin says, but it is a struggle to make management pay.

That’s why directors chase the holy grail of a solid commercial hit, which keeps delivering royalties for years after they open. “Michael Frayn called it a gusher – he said that writing Noises Off was like finding an oil well in your garden. But not everyone is going to be lucky enough to find one.”

Juggling multiple projects

When we meet at Jerwood Space, the rehearsal studio complex near Waterloo in London, in one room he is working on Labour of Love, while in another, People, Places and Things is being readied for a new UK tour.

He explains how this works: “My associate Holly Race Roughan is doing a really good job [on the latter show]. But I cast it all and did a lot of work with Lisa Dwyer Hogg, who is playing Emma, on the script and the character. And I’m nipping up and downstairs, spinning plates, so I’m very
involved in it.”

Touring People, Places and Things nationally – as well as taking the original West End cast, led by the Olivier-winning Denise Gough to Brooklyn’s St Ann’s Warehouse next month – is an important part of Headlong’s mission.

“What I love is new plays and new work, but it is complicated getting that out on the road: it’s expensive and much harder to sell. But we feel so committed to it,” he says. “It’s great work and important to get it out and about, and that’s the point of Headlong.”

Q&A: Jeremy Herrin

What was your first non-theatre job?
A hospital porter in Kent.

What was your first professional theatre job?
Assistant director at the Royal Court in London.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To do Shakespeare earlier. The first time I directed one of his plays was at the Globe in 2011, and I’ve only done two so far, but I got so much pleasure from directing them.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
The late, great Howard Davies.

What’s your best advice for auditions?
We want you to do the job. We’ve been waiting for you  to claim this part.

If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
Probably a stoner in a bookshop. I like reading and if I have to earn a living, I’d like to be surrounded by books.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I always like to have a really nice dinner between the end of rehearsals and first preview with the assistant director, the writer and the creative team. To have a moment to enjoy that giddy nervousness – after you’ve met the audience for the first time, you’ve got a list of jobs as long as your arm, but before that there’s nothing more you can do once you’ve stopped rehearsals.

Herrin hails the flexibility of Headlong’s producing model, as “the most exciting thing from an artistic point of view”. He added that with People, Places and Things and James Graham’s This House, which will tour later in the year, “we can feed on its success in London and get work out there where it belongs – that feels really great”.

He is equally passionate about the joys of developing Labour of Love, a new play by Graham. Working with the playwright before has given them a useful shorthand: “Once you get a working relationship with a writer and realise your direction and their writing are in sympathy, it is too difficult to let go.”

Yet this time there is also a higher degree of risk as it is being staged as a purely commercial venture, unlike the National’s People, Places and Things. “It’s a commercial project from the get-go – we’re not using any of our subsidy on it and we’ve raised 50% of the investment,” he says, though points out the potential reward that goes with the risk: “If it does well, our company will get some of that upside.”

Philosophically, too, he thinks it is important for the play – a comedy about the history of the Labour Party and its current place in British politics – to reach a wider audience.

“It’s in the DNA of the play that it is intended to be a popular look at politics and that story,” he says. “To hide it away in a studio theatre would be to deny its sense of itself. It needs to be talking to a big group of people, and it needs to have the best actors in the country for it.”

The cast is headed by Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig, who has replaced an indisposed Sarah Lancashire. Herrin says, “We’re not hiding away in some subsidised theatre, but doing politics on a main stage. That feels quite daring – it’s an artistic gamble, but it’s the right place to do the show.”

Graham has been in the room during rehearsals, something Herrin actively encourages. “You either need the writer around to explain what their intention was with it – and to adapt it if that intention isn’t clear – or to take an opportunity to respond to what the actors are saying. Particularly with a comedy, there’s a rhythmic thing that sometimes needs a bit of fine-tuning.”

As it is a political play, the creative team wanted it to reflect current events, so had to make changes as it went along. Graham also adapted the play after visits from special guests including Peter Mandelson and a constituency agent in Walthamstow.

Jeremy Herrin’s top tips for aspiring directors

  • Make sure you only direct things that you are passionately engaged with. If it’s not important to you, the difference between one choice and another won’t matter.
  • You might feel that you’re making yourself look good by slagging others off, but everyone knows that your lack of generosity is the fear talking.
  • I find if I put two seemingly insoluble problems together, I can sometimes come up with a single idea that solves them both.

A similar thing happened with This House. “A lot of people involved were still alive, so we had a similar thing with lots of great visitors,” Herrin says. “Ann Taylor, who is a character in it, came and talked to us about the events in the play. She even gave us a great line.”

This line comes as the government faces a crucial vote and the whips need an ill MP to vote. “It would kill him,” the chief whip said, to which Taylor responded: “Well, he’ll die happy.” Herrin asked if they could put the line in the play and she agreed, adding: “It is what I said!”

Why does he think This House, a behind-the-scenes political play about the machinations of mid-1970s government, resonated so much that it had a West End run last year and will be touring again now? “It’s lovingly made, and audiences subliminally appreciate the effort,” Herrin says. “It’s an intricate thing and irresistible. Its also about understanding our political system with a bit more clarity in an entertaining way. So people feel like it is something that is good for them but also full of jokes, so it’s a winning formula.”

But of course that formula could never have been predicted or manufactured cynically. “I get nervous whenever I have to think about anything other than the artistic realisation of a show. If I have to think that it must fill the Olivier theatre and sell loads of tickets, my priorities aren’t just about what happens in the rehearsal room. So it’s good to create a controlled environment where the art is the priority.”

Learning from a rare flop

This raises the sticky subject of the recent failure – critically as well as at the box office – of DC Moore’s latest play Common, which opened to disastrous reviews this summer at the National’s Olivier theatre.

“Sometimes a show is badly received and has an air of failure around it,” he acknowledges, but then adds, “Though that seems a binary way of looking at things, that they’re either successes or failures.”

Some of his best nights have been at shows that don’t entirely work but have great ideas in them, rather than a play that is successful but unambitious, Herrin says.

“Common felt like a big gamble because it was a very risky and demanding play. We went on a journey with it, which was really interesting and uncommon in the rehearsal room and quite exciting. The language was new and the ideas were new. All the positives were plain to see.”

He hailed the acting company led by the “heroic” Anne-Marie Duff – “one of the best leading actors I’ve ever worked with” – and Cush Jumbo: “magnificent and totally brilliant throughout the process”.

DC Moore’s text was “really interesting, with complicated ideas”, Herrin continues. “But what happened when we got into the theatre was that suddenly the stuff that made it really interesting in rehearsal just wasn’t communicating.

“What’s brilliant about Common is the language, and characters hidden within the poetry of the prose. In a space like the Olivier that is secondary to the big gestures of the story – retrospectively, you might say they were a bit undernourished and a bit exposed in that space. So there was a negative reaction from audiences and critics who were infuriated by it. But it was parsimonious of the culture, I think, to punish ambition.”

After two previews, he attempted a quick repair, cancelling a third performance so they could work on the changes before it opened to the press.

“We did two previews and realised, ‘Oh shit, this is not coming across as we wanted it to.’ Do you meet that reality or do you stick to what your terms were? It made sense to work on it and make it more legible, stripping away some of the more extraneous stuff that obscured the story. It might not have been a great experience critically, but in terms of everyone working together, it was such an intense experience that it was pretty amazing.”

You lose some, you win some. Fortunately for Herrin, the winners have far exceeded the losers. His decision to become a director has certainly paid off. He trained as an actor at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), though he always knew he wanted to direct, not act.

“I thought the most strategic way of learning how to direct was to understand an actor’s process and be rehearsed and deal with other directors. So I was not coming to it from an academic point of view and when I’m asking actors to do things it is relatively informed by what they can do. It means, too, that I can sometimes push them into more vulnerable-making territory, or demand a bit of authenticity where some directors might think that is not their territory.”

Herrin remains devoted to the Royal Court, where he got his first break as a trainee director on the Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme under Stephen Daldry, of whom he says: “He was only there for three years, but it was one of the most amazingly high-octane, affecting and resonant artistic directorships in our lifetimes.”

Daldry set the bar high. So did Howard Davies, one of Britain’s greatest modern directors, who died in 2016. When he fell ill during his last production for the National – a revival of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars – Herrin stepped in to complete the work.

“It was an opportunity that is quite rare, where I was able to tip the hat and say thanks to him. Rufus [Norris] rang me and said Howard was not very well and asked if I was free. It was a seven-week period that I’d earmarked for some time off – the first time in years I’d done that. So I was able to step in and went on an amazing journey with it.”

It may have meant that Herrin’s planned-for break didn’t happen, but, once again, he found himself in his element in the rehearsal room. And that, ultimately, may be why he seems – and probably still is – the busiest director in Britain.

Labour of Love runs at London’s Noel Coward Theatre from October 3 to December 2

CV Jeremy Herrin

Born: 1970, New York
Training: Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama
Landmark productions: That Face, Royal Court and Duke of York’s Theatre, London (2007);  
This House, National Theatre (2013), Garrick Theatre, London (2016); Another Country, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, then Trafalgar Studios, London (2013); Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (2013), West End (2014), Broadway 2015); The Nether, Royal Court, London (2014), Duke of York’s (2015); Noises Off, Broadway, (2016); People, Places and Things, National Theatre and Garrick Theatre (2016)
Agents: Nick Marston at Curtis Brown, London; Mark Subias at UTA, New York