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Sian Williams: ‘Theatres are waking up to the value of movement directors’

Sian Williams Sian Williams

With a CV spanning Olivier and Tony award-winning productions, Sian Williams has forged a career in an often misunderstood role. She tells Fergus Morgan why companies are increasingly turning to movement specialists to bring a greater degree of physicality to their shows – and how the job is different from that of a choreographer

What exactly does a movement director do? It’s an increasingly common question as the job title has started appearing more frequently in programmes. But it doesn’t have a simple answer, according to Sian Williams.

“The term itself is interesting,” Williams says. “When I first started, I was called a choreographer. In the past few years, ‘movement director’ has become the title for people like me. It’s good. It recognises that there’s actually a variety of things you might be asked to do, only one of which is choreography.”

She defines choreography as “a chain of steps set to music that needs to be made, then learned and practised” and says it is a role she is often brought on to a production for, “but I get asked to do all kinds of other things as well,” she adds.

“A director might want a little more stylisation, a little more detail in a show’s physicality, for example. Some actors want a bit of stimulation towards physical aspects of their role, so I do one-to-one sessions with them. Every job is different.”

Williams has an impressive CV. The list of shows she’s worked on includes Common at the National Theatre, Nice Fish in the West End, Wolf Hall with the Royal Shakespeare Company – and then its BBC adaptation – and dozens of shows at Shakespeare’s Globe. She’s currently in rehearsals with Gregory Doran’s production of Troilus and Cressida at the RSC, which opens in Stratford later this month.

Ben Miles and Lydia Leonard in Wolf Hall at the Swan Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Ben Miles and Lydia Leonard in Wolf Hall at the Swan Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

That she has built a career in movement, she says, is down to her pioneering work with the Kosh, the innovative physical theatre company she founded with her partner Michael Merwitzer in 1983. “We did a lot of touring with our devised shows. We were interested in combining speech and movement, in having a very strong physical focus but using language where it was appropriate.”

She continues: “As is often the case with art forms, we tend to separate things out. In our culture in particular, we don’t always think that you can combine song and movement and text, but we were interested in experimenting. We still are, when we can get funding.”

Williams grew up in Greater Manchester in the 1960s. Her love of dance was fostered at a convent school, then blossomed at the London College of Dance and Drama, where she trained as a dancer in a wide range of styles. “Contemporary, jazz, tap, ballroom, revived Greek dance – all kinds of wonderful approaches to movement,” she remembers. “It was a rather wonderful preparation for working in theatre, because it gave me such a cross-section of approaches to physical work.”

Once she had made a name with the Kosh, the freelance offers started to flood in. Her first big job was the RSC’s 1999 staging of The Winter’s Tale. She was hired by Doran, the director she is now working with again 19 years later.

In between, Williams built a freelance career that has taken her around the world. She helped research early theatrical dance at the Globe. She worked on Tim Carroll’s award-winning, all-male productions of Richard III and Twelfth Night. She even collaborated with Kate Bush, choreographing her Before the Dawn concerts at Hammersmith Apollo in 2014.

Despite this wealth of experience, every job is different. Different directors with different budgets wanting different things to different timescales.

When Williams worked on James Graham’s Labour of Love in the West End last year, director Jeremy Herrin had a relatively straightforward request. “The stage direction was ‘they dance’, so I came in to do that dance,” she explains. “It can be something very specific like that.”

Read our interview with Jeremy Herrin


Q&A: Sian Williams

What was your first  non-theatre job?
Waitress at the George Hotel in the Mumbles near Swansea.

What was your first professional theatre job?
Working with Ludus Dance  in Lancashire.

What’s your next job?
The UK tour of Patrick Barlow’s The Messiah.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Always carry a roll of gaffer tape with you on tour – it will mend almost anything.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
My partner Michael Merwitzer, because he had the vision to start our company the Kosh in the first place. That’s my reference point for everything: without somebody who has that drive, all my fantastical ideas would get nowhere.

If you hadn’t been a movement director, what would you have been?
I was going to go to university and do English literature.  I don’t know what I’d have done then, because I didn’t know what I could do other than dance.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Always be prepared – that’s better than having any superstitions.

Other projects, though, have more scope. With Troilus and Cressida, Doran has involved Williams to help shape the movement of the play’s characters. “You’re there for a while and you understand everything that’s going on,” she says. “There’s a lovely group called the Myrmidons, for example, who are a mythical army of ants, and you sense they need a particularly menacing quality. We’ve done a session where we’ve looked at maintaining that ant-like menace in their movement throughout.”

Williams has also been acting as a sounding board for the actors, helping them with their ideas about physicality. “Amanda Harris, who’s playing the general Aeneas in this production, wanted to work on being direct and assertive, so we explored front-footedness and gesture.”

When it comes to working with actors, the key is being sensitive to their attitude and their capabilities. “Actors are all so different in the way that they approach something, and the way that they are, physically,” Williams says. “You’ve got to find methods that get everybody on board. You’ve got to help everybody feel confident. There’s a lot of negotiation.”

The geography of the set is also something for a movement director to consider. “Sometimes you want to use objects, but sometimes you have to navigate around them,” she says. “And then there’s the perspective of the audience, which is also really important, particularly on a thrust stage like at the RSC or the Globe. A movement director needs to be aware of things like that.”

Despite her professional renown, life as a freelance movement director is always a financial struggle, says Williams.

“It’s always a precarious existence, even when you’re in regular work. You never know whether it will suddenly come to an end. Some years you’ll end up working exactly the same number of months as the year before, but earning half the money. Some standardising would be brilliant.”

Colleagues tend to subsidise their creative work with “more stable jobs”, such as teaching, she says, adding: “I’ve been very fortunate in that projects have come around on a regular basis, but there aren’t fortunes to be made in this world, at all.”

The difficulties aren’t only financial. Williams sometimes feels that movement directors, along with other backstage roles, aren’t given the recognition they deserve, either in programmes or in the press. “You often feel like the status quo is in place, and it’s attached to a tradition from long ago,” she says. “The order of credits, for example, is never questioned. Why are certain jobs included and certain jobs aren’t? Why is there that hierarchy? Movement directors are very rarely referred to by critics.”

That lack of recognition poses a problem: where will the next generation of movement directors come from, if people outside theatre don’t know these jobs exist?

“Young people, who might be very interested in working in theatre, probably don’t even know that there are all these technical jobs involved,” Williams says. “But it’s encouraging that theatres are willing to open up in that respect. Open rehearsals are great, for example. When students can come and observe what’s going on, it allows them to see all the different elements, all the different backstage people beavering away.”

Despite these frustrations, Williams feels positive about the future of movement direction. Theatres and companies are waking up, she says, to how valuable a movement director’s contribution to a production can be.

“People recognise now that movement direction involves a lot more than they might expect,” she says. “It’s one of those things that happens quite slowly, but the case for having more funding in place to involve movement directors will gradually insist itself on the industry.”

CV: Sian Williams

Born: 1958, Hartlebury, Worcestershire
Training: London College  of Dance and Drama
Landmark productions:
• A Matter of Chance, the Kosh, 1988
• The Winter’s Tale, Royal Shakespeare Company (1999)
• Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Globe (2002)
• Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies, RSC; West End (2014); Broadway (2015)
• Singin’ in the Rain,  Bolton Octagon (2017)
• Wolf Hall, BBC2 (2015)

• Kate Bush, Before the Dawn concerts (2014)

Troilus and Cressida runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from October 12 to November 17

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