The award-winning director of The Mountaintop has helmed Nine Night at the National. He tells Tim Bano how a chance trip to the loo changed his life and why theatre needs to wake up to a new and diverse audience
After winning the JMK Award for directing – one of the most prestigious prizes in theatre, and one that has launched the careers of Polly Findlay, Natalie Abrahami, Thea Sharrock and Joe Hill-Gibbins – Roy Alexander Weise was unemployed for almost a year.
The award had allowed Weise to direct Katori Hall’s Olivier-winning play The Mountaintop, an imagined encounter between Martin Luther King Jr the night before he was assassinated and a hotel maid, at the Young Vic. It opened in October 2016 to glowing reviews from the Guardian, the Times, the Evening Standard and The Stage.
And yet it wasn’t until June the following year that Weise worked on another production, which “was going to be happening anyway before I even did The Mountaintop”.
Weise had a degree in directing from Rose Bruford, and for seven years he’d been assisting at Talawa Theatre Company, the Bush, the Lyric and the Royal Court theatres. But even after earning a major award, the work just wasn’t coming.
He admits that part of the scarcity was being in a position to be picky. “The only thing that made all of the plays that I had done until then successful was the kind of umbilical cord that I had to that text. It wouldn’t be a good idea for me to just take on anything.”
But it was also, more surprisingly, “because there wasn’t actually that much work coming my way”. Weise, modestly, offers a few reasons why: “Sometimes theatres feel as if they need names, they need to know that they have a sturdy pair of hands steering the ship…it can be quite difficult because of finances.”
But, as becomes clear across the course of our conversation, the most worrying, depressing reason is that theatre still has a race problem, which is both deeply entrenched and viciously cyclical. It starts when theatres don’t do enough to attract young audiences from a range of backgrounds and of different ethnicities. Weise barely went to the theatre when he was young, and his family still rarely sees anything unless he’s involved in it.
“My brother doesn’t go to the theatre,” he says, “but he is seeing Hamilton this Saturday and he booked his tickets a year ago. He saw The Scottsboro Boys of his own accord. He saw The Bodyguard and Memphis. If a piece of work shows your face as the protagonist then that solves so much from the off.”
Weise himself only discovered theatre by pure chance: desperate for the loo on his way home from school one day, he stopped into Ovalhouse, not knowing it was a theatre, and learned about its youth group. He joined it, and fell in love with performing, with making work, and being in that world.
But when there is almost no work by black writers, directors or actors on the stages then there is little appeal in ever entering those theatre buildings in the first place. And so Weise, but for a call of nature, would never have thought that being a theatre director was ever an option.
What was your first non-theatre job?
A shop assistant in M&S Simply Food in Clapham.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Front of house at Ovalhouse Theatre.
What’s your next job?
I’m currently not able to say…
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s a long, long road. Perseverance is key.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
What’s your best advice for auditions?
We need you (actors) as much as you need us (directors).
If you hadn’t been a director what would you have been?
Something in the music industry.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Nothing in particular.
“My family are West Indian and West African, and they have really strong ideas about what respectable jobs are, like teachers, doctors and lawyers. It would be a bit bizarre to tell my family that I want to be an astronaut but being a theatre director is probably even more weird than that.”
He knew it was important to get a degree, and found the now-defunct BA in directing at Rose Bruford. Stints followed assisting at the Red Room Theatre Company under Topher Campbell, at Talawa with Michael Buffong, and then two years under Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court. By the end he was “gagging to go” in order to direct his own work.
The shows he has staged since then have been strongly centred on identity, and particularly race. As well as The Mountaintop there was Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s play Br’er Cotton, about a black family struggling in present-day Virginia, and now Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night at the National Theatre, set across the traditional nine-day wake celebrated in Jamaican culture. Weise is putting black stories and creatives centre stage but, he explains, he still finds it frustrating to see almost exclusively white audience members. “If I see an audience throughout a run that doesn’t change and isn’t diverse that really pisses me off.”
“Critics don’t help,” he adds. “I just feel like there’s still so much prejudice that exists, particularly with regard to casting.”
He mentions the recent review by Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, which the RSC itself condemned as “blatantly racist”. “You want me to believe that I’m in another country seeming to be in another world, in another era, and you’re telling me that you can’t believe that somebody who is of a different colour can’t be a character of high status? It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
As frustrated as Weise is, he’s also hopeful for the future. “We’re starting to realise how robbed we are of the richness that diversity actually can bring. There’s so much that we can gain from making spaces accessible to different people. The experience of watching a play is different when your audience is diverse, you understand it differently.”
When he signed up to direct Nine Night, one of his first meetings was with the marketing department. Although the play, Weise explains, is “incredibly universal”, he was clear that the National needed to work hard in order to attract audiences that haven’t traditionally been part of its demographic. “It’s told through a very specific lens and therefore culturally, in order for it to land, it does need the right audience.”
Last year, when Inua Ellams’ play Barber Shop Chronicles played at the National it took a while for it to attract non-white audiences, despite rave reviews. As theatre producer Tobi Kyeremateng wrote on social media: “Even though the topic is relevant and far-reaching, especially in black communities, it took a while to get more audiences to trust this. I saw conversations on my timeline that spread over months with people umm-ing and ahh-ing about seeing it, waiting for people they trust to confirm it’s worth going to this place you NEVER go to. Over the first run it picked up momentum, and the second run even more so, but it took time and dedication for that to happen. It took people ambassadoring the show and getting people in, national outreaching, creative marketing, accessible tickets that weren’t in shit seats.”
There still seems to be this idea that the colour of somebody’s skin means their ordinary experiences are somehow different
Weise insists that theatre – of any kind – is at its best when the audiences are diverse: in age, ethnicity, economic background. That’s when the universal and the specific collide in the best way. “The other day my friend said: ‘You know I don’t wake up and think: ‘Oh my God, I’m black.’ I wake up and I think I’m heartbroken or tired or motivated or energised.’
“Of course there are very different things that can be experienced when you aren’t white. But there seems to still be this really strange idea that the colour of somebody’s skin means their experiences of very ordinary things are somehow different.”
Weise’s emergence as one of the most exciting directors of his generation has taken time and hard work. When it comes to representation on the stage, diversity in the auditorium, and establishing structures that mean the next generation of directors could be missed if they do not need to go to the loo at the right time, Weise has run out of patience. “I’m just not holding back anymore. There’s no time to wait and be polite about it.”
Born: London, 1988
Training: BA in directing, Rose Bruford
Landmark productions: The Mountaintop, Young Vic, London (2016)
Awards: JMK Award for directing (2016)
Agent: Davina Shah, Macnaughton Lord
Nine Night is at the Dorfman, National Theatre, London, until May 26