Kevin Russell- Director

kevin-russell

Kevin you have been a director for many years. How did you come into the craft?
I had been working as an actor for some time and  was in the National Tour of The Mister Men Show (which was  a show based on the Mr. Men and Little Misses Books by Roger Hargreaves, which were turned into a very popular television series in the 1970s/1980s. It was a number 1  national theatre  tour)  I grabbed a book ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ off a bookshelf to read while on tour. I had always been fascinated by Anne Frank I had played the part of Peter Van Dan in the stage  play at The Croydon Youth Theatre. Having read  her Diary again I went back to  the stage script and found myself re-reading it, again and again and again and found  loads of things  I wanted to do with it!!  The  Anne Frank monologues taken directly from her diaries in the original stage  productions were recorded and used as fillers during scene changes.  I became very excited at the thought  of all the recorded sections were performed live to the audience by the actress playing Anne Frank. I kept coming back to the  line: ‘I want to go on living even after my death’ and I  found a piece of music composed by a young child in a concentration camp during World War two called ‘In The Sky’. Brilliantly performed by Maria Friedman on her album – ‘Maria Friedman’  which was all about looking down from heaven: I was very lucky to get the rights to use it to introduce and end the show.   It was a completely mad moment. I was socializing with the cast of The Mister Men show one evening and turned to my friend  Paul and said: “During our summer break from the show, I am going to produce and direct The Diary of Anne Frank stage  play” Paul said “Sounds great. Let me know if I can give you a hand.” (Paul has been helping me ever since) Which sparked the formation of  Company New Dreams Theatre (NDT) I had never directed in my life at that point let alone produce!!!  It was the  maddest  summer of mayhem and chaos   I have ever, had.   Funding a theatre,  designers stage manager, auditions rehearsal space  rehearsing directing etc. The show was performed at The Pavilion Theatre Brighton and was a great success. I was  blessed with the most talented  group of actors. Some  have gone on to really establish themselves in the profession. Joanna Neary; who played Anne Frank,  is now a very established comedian/actress and Catherine Huntley is a regular television presenter on QVC. I was offered after Anne Frank other directing  projects as a freelance director.  Not producing. Which has enabled me to juggle working for other companies work as a director and producing  and directing for my own company New Dreams Theatre  (NDT)
new-dreams-anne-frank
What attracts you to a particular project?
I find the projects attracts themselves to me. I have  been reading plays/scripts since I was 11 years old and have around 4000 plays approximately in my .. . . . what I jokingly call – my library. My school friends were off watching Crystal Palace play football, l  was at home reading plays. Me?  Eccentric child? Never! My parents foolishly took me to see Peter Pan with Lulu and Ron Moody at The London Palladium when I was 6 years old. I knew after that performance I would work in theatre. When considering something to direct  I will read a scrip once/twice. I then re-read it  making notes.  What I like about it.  What I do not
Then leave it for several days. If I find  I start thinking about the play wondering? Questioning aspects of the play. After another read through – and notes –    I normally want to direct it.
However, generally I  like plays  about real people.  Real life. Believable  characters that take you on a journey. However strange or naturalistic.  I do not think life or theatre is black and white. In the theatre world. No such thing as ‘comedy’ or ‘drama’ I  like plays – sounds a cliche – but genuinely make you laugh and cry.
What excites you about theatre ?
Everything!!! Good theatre takes you on a journey. You gradually begin to  feel you know the characters , their problems,  there issues and there not your problems which is even better!! I love being taken on a journey taken  out of my life and transported somewhere else. Sometimes on a very painful journey  sometimes on a painfully  funny journey.
Which is what I try to do for audiences as a director.
When getting a project off the ground, what are your biggest challenges?
I think the number one challenge is making sure you have the right people/team  around you and time. Theatre is only theatre when everyone’s expertise comes together.  The right designer, lighting designer, sound designer, stage manager,  lighting and sound operator  actors writers etc  When you get all these elements right – that is theatre!!
As a producer/director I like to use a combination of professionals I have worked with before and new colleagues that I have actively found. I find this creates a very creative team. If I am producing as well as directing, time is so important. I learned very early on,  the hard way, if producing and directing,   you need to give yourself time. When I produced and directed ‘A Doll’s House’  last year it took 8 months before the actors walked into the rehearsal room..
It took a while to get the rights to direct  the play which was translated by a very prolific playwright. Briony Lavery  finding  the right theatre also took  time. It is  different  if  taken on as a  freelance directing job (not producing) time  is taken out of your hands your given a schedule  which is great but my main  priority  is the same,  I will give my vision of the production as a director but it is very important to get to know your colleagues and there  creative visions too. My number one priority as a director in the rehearsal room from day one is to try and create an atmosphere of relaxed  fun. So the actors can mess about take risks there is no right or wrong. I like to meet the actors before day one of rehearsals socially. Get to know them. Talk about the play.  Get the designer to show the cast the  set design/ costume design. So when  we all walk into the rehearsal room on day one. A lot of the barriers  are broken down. Actors can have fun.
As a director what do you look for in actors when working?
I like actors that are spontaneous that think on their feet. They do not always do the same thing all the time the same way e.g. when I directed Ibsen ‘A Doll’s House’ last year. I gave the note to Paul, the actor who played Helmer, to in act one scene one,  to give Nora her money in a  slightly different way every single  performance. And he did! I remember one night he put a money note on the table opposite side of the stage to Nora. So she had to cross the stage to get the money and as she did Paul continued sprinkling money around the  room in various  locations making Nora run around like  his a  sky lark  collecting the money.  Little thing like that keep the performances fresh and spontaneous. At auditions I will often ask an actor to read a section of the script again but in a completely different way. It is a good way of seeing if they can think on there feet.I also like to get to know the actor a little at the audition,  have a chat with them about there work etc. Is there a bit of a connection between you?  Is he/she the sort of  person I  feel I can work with. Sometimes however, you just almost as they walk through the door you have found the right actor. When I directed The Doll’s House  last year we auditioned nearly 30 actresses just for the part of Nora over two days We saw some amazing talent. And then Alexa Mathews   walked in. There was just something about   her natural energy and presence that said- Nora to me. And as soon as she opened her mouth and read from the script. . . . .  well the words flew off the page Nora was standing right in front us. An extraordinary actress – Alexa Mathews.
What has been your best play/project to date?
That is actually a very difficult question to answer as I am very proud of everything  I have worked on  for very different reasons.I  am however particularly proud of  Henrik Ibsen A Doll’s House I directed  about this time last year. It took a while but I managed to get the rights to a version of the Ibsen Script which had been adapted by Bryony Lavery and until my production it had never been performed in London before. From negotiating and getting  rights to staging the play,  to the time we walked into the rehearsal room  took 8 months as previously mentioned. And it  was worth taking the time on this project. I had always wanted to direct it,  I think it is one of the greatest plays ever written. I spent a long time studying the script and working on a design with the brilliant stage  designer:  Katie Unsworth Murrey.
Also finding the right image for the publicity posters flyers. I wanted an image that would hopefully grab potential audiences  attention and then maybe  be quite surprised when they read the image was for  Ibsen play ‘A Dolls House’.  This was the  image we chose in the end
dolls-house
The eyes reminded me maybe of Nora looking out of her house through her post box  to the outside world, at  terrible possible  consequences to her life, that she had triggered.
I wanted to keep it set when it was written in the 1800s but for it to have a modern feel. I think its fair to say Ibsen and Checkov have a bit of a dreary dry reputation. Audiences almost expect to sit through a slow paced  evening of  not many laughs.  But Bryony Lavery script had such a modern feel to it. I avoided the slow pace a lot of Ibsen productions have and the dialogue was delivered at a cracking pace.  I wanted the audience in act 1 scene 1 to totally fall in love with Helmer and Nora. To see a  couple in love having fun,  Helmer teasing Nora about spending  to much money etc. We found some great  the fun  in  the script.
Then gradually from scene 2 we  saw the smallest of cracks in the marriage which got bigger and bigger  leading to its inevitable  powerful ending.
The first week we had small audiences. However, word of mouth got out very quickly and we had some great reviews and the  rest of the run completely  sold out. Alexa Mathews: as Nora and Paul Vates as Helmer gave performances of a life time.
What do you plan to do in the future, any upcoming projects?
I am  currently directing a short play for the: ‘In The Pound,’ event. An award-winning regular event that showcases new writing, actors, directors  at the Cockpit Theatre on the 12th Dec. which I am really enjoying working on. Other than that nothing confirmed. I am waiting to hear about possibly directing something in January  for a very exciting theatre in London that produce only new writing,  but cannot say much more than that as unconfirmed.
I am talking to a couple of brilliant up and coming writers –  Matthew Wilkie and Dick Curran –  about maybe collaborating on a project  with them. I would like to direct a new piece of writing on the look out for great new work  Also looking at directing a new musical. I directed a new musical few years ago for Goldsmith University musical theatre course.
Looking it maybe reviving this musical maybe. And I am also reading endless versions of Uncle Vanya by Anton Checkov. This is a long term project like –  A Doll’s House was I would love to produce and stage  Uncle Vanya.
You came back from doing Hang at Edinburgh with 4 and 5 star reviews, what was special about this play for you?
Hang by Debbie Tucker Green was the most amazing experience. Yellow Jacket Productions asked me to direct it, they had seen my work before  and sent me the script to look at. To be honest it did not take a lot of thinking about. Debbie Tucker Green is,  in my opinion, one of the best contemporary  writers working in the theatre industry today. ‘Hang’ was originally staged at The Royal Court Theatre and within minutes of reading some of the script  of’ Hang’, I was fascinated and desperate to know  – what on earth is going on?  The writing totally  holds your attention!!   All you know is you’re in a government room in the United Kingdom –  sometimes in the future – with two incompetent  government  officials and a lady, who, we eventually find out,  has been a victim of a violent crime. In the second section of the play you eventually learn they are there for the victims decision. She has to decide what form of death penalty  her attacker should receive  I.E  hanging, gas chamber lethal injection etc these methods are gone into in some detail, it is a very  haunting thought-provoking play.  It was one of hardest scripts I have ever worked on. Her writing reminds me of one of the greatest  20th century writers: Harold Pinter. I found myself looking at every comma,  full stop,  dash, semi colon, pause,. the script has a very unique style and rhythm and one character had some huge speeches.  It was a battle field breaking through the script,  an extraordinary piece of writing. The more you dig into it  the more you find. Before taking it to Edinburgh we performed it in London at The Lost Theatre. The theatre company, Yellow Jacket Productions, were brilliant at publicity it was a very big audience at quite a big theatre. I was blown away by the audience reaction. We had a few rehearsals before going to Edinburgh after the London performance  where we  tightened  a few things up and I made few changes to bits that I  thought needed more impact. The London show was very helpful for me to see what was working and what was not working in front of an audience. The show played for three weeks at Edinburgh festival this year got some great reviews.  And I am  very proud it won two awards: best individual performance for Tiannah Viechweg. And Best Drama. Once again I was blessed by three brilliant actresses. Tiannah Viechweg,  Jess Flood  and Kim Christie
hang
You collaborate on new writing nights most recently Spiral, what do you find exciting about new writing?
If there was no new writing there would be no theatre, television drama,  films radio plays etc –  at all. New writing is vital for the industry to continue. Every single play from. . .  Shakespeare  to  Checkov to  Arthur Millet to Alan Aykbourn to Lucy Kirkwood  to the next great hit by a new writer all plays begin as new writing l. I loved working for  Free Rayne Artists and there  Spiral evening of new 15 minute pieces of new plays.   I directed a play called: 6am Hospital Chapel by Dick Curran who is  currently developing this into a full length play. I am very excited about the future of this play.
What advise do you give to aspiring theatre directors? 
Make things happen for yourself!!! I am a great believer in making things happen. Create your own luck. If I had not taken the mad decision and staged Anne Frank  I would not be being interviewed  by you now. You can go to University/drama school maybe even get a top agent. But if you sit and wait for the phone to ring. That phone will probably never ring. In todays industry you have to make things happen. Exactly the same for actors and any one in the creative industry. And do not be snotty about it. We would all love the great rehearsal space and theatre but if you want to make things happen  you might have to put up with a garage, park, pavement as rehearsal space  – just get out there and direct. Also see as much theatre as you possibly.. Read as many plays as you can – something I consider part of your job as a director. And try/apply work as an assistant director. Or write to directors asking if you can observe a rehearsal. You can learn so much from just watching. In today’s climate what would you say to anyone looking to do something in the arts? Do it!!
Because if it is in your blood you will always want to do it. And the great thing about the industry is you can go into it at any age if you really want to. But you will another job to bring the money in, because if you do not have a bit of money coming in, however small, you cannot work creatively because you have nothing to invest to make things happen. Not talking about a lot of money. Just to make things happen and be aware of what skills the creative industry can lead to. I have friends who trained in the creative  arts that are now: counsellors, psychologists, teachers, car sales men/women bar managers, and the greatest comic actor I have ever worked with;  now directs politicians helping them with their political speeches.

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