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Daniel Evans: Is there an art to giving notes to fellow directors?

Orange Tree artistic director Paul Miller is adept at passing on helpful notes. Photo: Richard Davenport
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In this column I try to offer an insight into the challenges of being an artistic director of a UK theatre building. But there has been one topic I’ve longed to write about, but felt far too nervous to and, as I’m finally about to attempt it, I hope you’ll understand why. It concerns a vulnerable point in the rehearsal process and the sensitive nature of the artistic director to freelance director relationship.

One of the most challenging aspects of the job is noting other directors’ work. Typically, after rehearsal room run-throughs, dress rehearsals and previews, a moment arises where it feels appropriate to offer a view on the work. Naturally, one wants to thank everyone for their effort thus far and to keep spirits buoyant in these final stages of rehearsals. These kinds of notes are nearly always easy to share, since it truly is a privilege to be allowed to see the plays in such a raw, developmental stage of the process – and my gratitude is always given wholeheartedly.

After the dust has settled on the run-throughs, then come the opportunities for more private conversations with the directors, sometimes over a drink in the bar. Some directors actively seek out notes and use the opportunity to test the clarity of their intention at a certain crucial moment, or confirmation of a secret doubt they harbour about a certain costume or scene change. Other directors are more cautious and can appear so anxious about the amount of work ahead of them, and their own mountain of notes, that it seems there’s little head space for any other advice. And some (very few in my experience) show no interest in receiving or discussing their work whatsoever.

It’s a tricky dynamic – and it arises at a sensitive time. I could understand any director who felt aggrieved at having to listen to notes from another, less-experienced director and I would feel aggrieved myself at receiving any kind of note that was unactionable. For example, wishing the entire set was painted gold or that a certain actor’s natural charm was heightened. Much more useful are notes that can be carried out. Better still are notes that, by learning what the director and their production intend to explore, cast personal taste aside and encourage the director to carry out their intentions – to encourage the production to be more like itself.

Making my directorial debut with the Young Vic, I remember being so grateful to David Lan for his insight into the physical and thematic life of the play.

David Lan’s final interview as Young Vic boss: ‘I’ve never been on a career path – I made it up as I went along’

As an artistic director, I rely heavily on the notes of colleagues. Paul Miller is a particular and inspirational master at the incisive, well-timed, actionable note.

Now, whenever the opportunity arises to offer a visiting director notes, I hold dear the central tenet that I am a representative of our audiences. After all, we make the work for them.