“My name is Roy Alexander Weise, and I am a professional bank robber… no, I’m joking. Every time I have to do stuff like this, I get really silly. I am a theatre director—I’m also trying to start working a bit for screen, but I’m predominantly a theatre director—and I’m a black man.”
It’s a week before the previews open for Roy Alexander Weise’s new play at the Park Theatre, The Ugly One, and we’re sitting in a side room at Talawa Theatre Company’s rehearsal space. Like lots of Londoners who flirted with youth theatre as a teenager I’ve known Roy a long time. The career he’s had since he graduated from Rose Bruford’s now defunct BA in Directing and the Royal Court’s Trainee Director programme has been not just impressive, but also very well-deserved.
Roy speaks about theatre with an enthusiasm I wish everyone had. Still, he’s aware that being a black director from a working class background is not the most common sight in London’s rehearsal rooms: “My three years incubating at Rose Bruford was great, but it was also hard, sometimes. Politically difficult. Being a black man at drama school—I mean everybody that you speak to that has gone to drama school who is of colour will almost certainly speak of their experiences. It was interesting because Ola Ince was in the year above me. So there was one of her, and one of me, and no [people of colour] in the year above her—although I don’t know what it looked like before that. It was hard at the start because for the first year I developed a bit of paranoia about why I had been accepted, and was questioning a lot why I was there, what the reason for me being chosen was.”
Pre-drama school, Weise had fostered his love for the stage at Ovalhouse. His origin story here is almost too perfect to be true; the stars aligned when “a weak bladder” caused him to step inside Ovalhouse in the first place. “I’d always walked past this building that was apparently a theatre, but I didn’t pay any attention to it until I needed to pee. But when I came out of the toilet I was told about the youth theatre activities, and I went along to one and kind of fell in love. It became everything. I was about 14. I would never have thought then that 15 years later I would be a theatre director. But back then it became everything to me. When college wasn’t going well, I’d bunk and just go to the theatre—it became a real refuge. I had experienced some really, really tough things, and the theatre meant I had a space I could be somebody else in for a while. I also grew up in a very, very Christian, slightly Orthodox, West African family—who I absolutely love, and who have taught me so, so much. But there were some ideas that were really challenged in a space like Oval House, and it was really exciting to be so young and to have the world cracked and opened up for you in that way.”
In the decade since he graduated, Weise has worked on some impressive productions—but often as an Assistant Director. “I’ve been assisting for a very long time,” he tells me. “It was amazing; I got to meet and work with and learn from some incredible people like Vicky Featherstone, Lucy Morrison, John Tiffany, Caryl Churchill, Martin McDonagh… To be honest though I felt like I became a bad assistant towards the end, because I felt like I so badly wanted to be somewhere else. After eight years I was like ‘well now I know really where I want to be’ and my mind was so filled with ideas. My body was just racked with the tension of not being able to do the thing that I wanted to do in full.” After years as assisting, “there were a couple of opportunities coming up, but there weren’t enough clear signs that I was going to be able to be a director for much longer. Which really frightened me, actually. It’s a horrible place to be. I think every director at some point has that experience of wondering ‘how long and I going to be able to make this last’ because it does feel like a bit of a dream to be able to do the thing that you love every day.”
Luckily for him (and for us), over the past year Weise’s career has really taken off. He directed his first full professional production Stone Face a year ago at the Finsborough Theatre, is about to premiere The Ugly One, and at the end of September begins a new adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde at the Ambassadors Theatre. Perhaps the biggest achievement of all his winning of the JMK Award in 2016, with Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop—two years after he was first runner up with The Ugly One. However his success “isn’t as simple as winning the award,” he says. “I think I’m good, firstly, which I had forgotten for a long time. I’d forgotten that I was a good director, that I had talent, that I was a good listener, that I sometimes had good ideas, that I was really good at taking other peoples’ ideas and making them work with a framework. I guess all the journeys that I’ve been on—training, assisting, etc—really fed into this.”
When The Mountaintop received rave reviews during its run at the Young Vic in 2016, Weise’s direction alongside the performances of Gbolahan Obisesan and rising star Ronke Adékoluejo were singled out for praise. The play’s focus on the great Martin Luther King Jr. as ‘just a man’ was a slow-burning exploration of what it mans to have a public and a personal perception of yourself, themes that Weise explores again in his new production. “The Ugly One is a really mental play, written by a German genius called Marius Von Mayenburg. It’s a political satire about beauty and identity and ambition, and about just how far people will go to get the things that they want. Because of the political climate that we’re in now, there are so many questions about identity: What it means to be a man or a woman, what are masculinity and femininity, what does it mean to be black or white, wealthy or poor or underprivileged. What does it mean to have power, and to not have power, and to be somebody who defines yourself as any of those things. What does that identity give you when it comes to how you interact with other people. Then also how does the identity that people impose on you then change the way in which you view the world.”
He continues: “There’s something really fascinating about the story of a man who is completely oblivious to the fact that he’s ugly, finding out he is ugly, and then having to find a way to deal with it although he lived so much of his life blissfully unaware. We’re trying to do a bit of balancing and equalizing; we’re trying to find the truth of it but also the humour of it. I defy anybody to come and watch this play and not be completely surprised an entertained.” At its heart, The Ugly One is an on-the-nose investigation of identity, but I also found it very, very funny. A show in the round, the piece swaps genders of characters and delights in its lack of naturalism. The diverse cast (“the London that I know doesn’t look all-white. That’s not the world I live in, so it’s insulting to not represent the London around your audience”) has great comic timing, and Weise’s direction shines. Particularly at points like the main character’s facial surgery, shown entirely using a lunchbox of sliced fruit.
In August, Weise starts rehearsals for Jekyll and Hyde, another play where a character (in this case, the main one) has been gender swapped, and another play about identity. “I’m really excited by the idea of taking something that’s written for a Victorian audience and see what we can do with it today. I’m always really excited by how does history teach us now, and how can we look at history in order to understand what has changed, or what hasn’t.” New versions of old scripts wasn’t always on the menu for the director, however, telling me “when I left drama school I was pretty certain I would just do new writing. And I still absolutely want to do new writing, there’s something about that process that’s almost like being a midwife, helping the kind of birth of this new creation, which is always really thrilling and really exciting. I’m also such a huge believer in finding who is going to be that new Shakespeare. Not to wipe Shakespeare out, but to add to the canon. Who is going to be the person who is going to redefine how stories are told. But I’m really looking forward to this play.”
Over the coming months and years, it’s clear Weise wants to challenge himself. We discuss his hopes to eventually work on a feature film and a musical, as well as the Classics, and the importance of making them accessible when “one of the only times that people from communities who don’t go to the theatre, will be, is to see a Shakespeare play for school”. Throughout out chat, who watches the plays he directs is something that comes up frequently. “I feel like my first responsibility is to an audience. I think it’s to those people who pay their money (or even, not pay their money, depending on the project) to come and see a piece of work. It’s about how we communicate the story to them, how we communicate a set of ideas and provocations.”
Alongside this however is the nagging problem of audience demographics. Despite the lofty aims of many a youth programme, British theatre is often a white, middle class, middle aged pastime. It’s something Weise is keenly aware of, as he admits, “the thing about audiences really does stress me out. There’s been so much research of late and it’s all teaching us that theatre is really, really behind. Now we have the internet, and so many other platforms that inform the world [we live in]. It feels like there a massive catch up that needs to be done by theatre because people know more than they did before, and we can’t patronize audiences any longer by not allowing them to see stories about the real world. If every story that you see is about a white man, and you don’t identify with that white man, you’re forever questioning what your story is and that’s not really fair. We need to engage audiences and to change the culture of theatregoing in this country, because it’s dire. It makes me so sad sometimes, like, what’s the point of doing this if I’m only going to be making work for people who don’t look like me? That’s the truth of it.”
Weise is right. ‘People who don’t look like us’ are getting older, and to be as blunt as possible, they’re literally dying out. I worry all the time about who will be going to the theatre in 30 or 40 years, and seeing people like Roy Alexander Weise directing full-length productions always feels bittersweet. I know from personal experience how seeing one face like your own can provide a life-long love for theatre, and I know that for someone, Weise is that face. On the other hand, I wish there were more people of colour directing plays, and getting the kudos for doing so. Theatre is for everyone, or rather, it should be. There’s a magic that happens on stage, and storytelling perhaps one of the most interesting things of all during our chat was Weise’s reflection on what it means to be a director: “you know, what we do is not civilian. It’s bizarre to encourage people, to manipulate people to cry and laugh and to make you laugh. But at the same time it is so civilian and so human, this idea of telling stories. It’s normal and it isn’t normal. It’s the oldest pastime ever.”
The Ugly One is on at the Park Theatre from 9 to 24 June. Jekyll and Hyde is at the Ambassadors Theatre from 26 September to 8 December.