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Lyn Gardner: More training opportunities would create better directors and shows

Rebecca Frecknall, Rupert Goold and Vicky Featherstone, all of whom benefited from the Regional Young Director Scheme. Photos: Mark Douet/Helen Maybanks/Rosie Hallam Rebecca Frecknall, Rupert Goold and Vicky Featherstone, all of whom benefited from the Regional Young Director Scheme. Photos: Mark Douet/Helen Maybanks/Rosie Hallam
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There are many things to love about the production of Death of a Salesman currently running at the Young Vic. It is one of those moments when a play has been reinvented not through a series of grand gestures, but by subtle inflections to allow a familiar story to be seen in an entirely different way.

I was interested to see that Marianne Elliott  is co-directing this production with Miranda Cromwell, a young director who has been an associate on two of her previous successes: Company and Angels in America.

Elliott said in an interview that co-directing with Cromwell felt “pretty radical and quite important. What happens with assistants is that they reach a ceiling and have to go back to the fringe. This feels like a natural progression”.

It should be a natural progression, but Cromwell’s elevation to a co-directing credit is very much the exception rather than the rule. Kenneth Rea’s 1989 work A Better Direction: a National Enquiry into the Training of Directors begins with a quote from Peter Hall, who writes wistfully: “How much better we might have been had we been properly trained.” Working with Elliott has provided Cromwell with a training of a kind that is much more common in Europe and it has also given her an opportunity.

Almost 30 years on from the publication of A Better Direction, how much has really changed for the better when it comes to training directors? The vast majority still learn on the job by trial and error. Talking to Theatre503’s Lisa Spirling recently, she said that for many younger directors putting on a production at the theatre, it is the first time they have run a proper technical rehearsal, because often their only previous experience was at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Yes, there are increasing numbers of schemes for directors. The long-standing and influential Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme is no longer the only opportunity available and there have been strides in opening up access. Nonetheless, competition for such schemes is massive.

The vast majority still learn on the job by trial and error

Routes into directing have also become more professional with the rise of the directing master’s degree. Not, of course, that you need an MA to direct. In fact, you don’t need a single GCSE. But MAs can give an edge because most come with guaranteed placement opportunities. It helps directors to get inside a theatre and can lead to future employment.

But as David Loumgair, founder of Common – which was set up because of frustrations at the way class and socio-economic disadvantage has been sidelined by the diversity debate – told me last year: “Unless you can afford to do a master’s degree – which I can’t – or have the family support that allows you to work unpaid, it’s almost impossible to build the levels of experience needed to get those assistant director positions that theatres offer.”

He added:“It’s an unspoken thing in the industry that you do unpaid work that builds  networks and relationships with venues, and eventually you start to get low-paid opportunities. The unpaid work and those low-paid jobs might lead to better opportunities, but they might not. And if you come from a working-class background, the potential rewards don’t marry up with the potential risks because you have no financial safety nets.”

He’s right. For many trying to break into directing, often the only route is by assisting and hoping you can build up enough credits to get a theatre to glance at you. The quality of the assisting experience varies wildly. When Terry Hands assisted John Barton at the Royal Shakespeare Company, his role primarily consisted of “carrying pints of milk and 600 mentholated cigarettes”. Even today I have spoken to assistants who say they are not allowed to do more than observe and make the coffee.

More established directors need to open up their rehearsal rooms

We all know from reports conducted by Stage Directors UK how little directors earn – many less than £5,000 a year – and that means many at the start of their careers are earning almost nothing at all.

It’s great to see higher numbers of paid assisting jobs being advertised, but the vast majority of self-funded fringe productions won’t pay those who assist, and these opportunities are often doled out like favours to those with personal connections. Many of those directing these productions are themselves inexperienced and near the beginning of their careers. It’s why many more established directors need to open up their rehearsal rooms and provide longer-term paid support and opportunities to step up.

It is clear simply from the names of those who have completed the RTYDS – Vicky Featherstone, Elizabeth Newman, Matthew Xia, Rupert Goold, Rebecca Frecknall and many more – that good training produces good directors. How much better would many be if there was more training, better opportunities and more obvious routes for progression?

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

Death of a Salesman review at Young Vic, London – ‘revelatory reframing of Arthur Miller’s play’

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