Coming from a showbiz family, for all its downsides, certainly has the odd advantage. While Tom Attenborough, son of Almeida Theatre artistic director Michael and grandson of Richard, backs away from assumptions that directing was a natural career path for him, he does admit, “I was very much exposed to theatre when I was younger”.
The young director, runner-up for the JMK Award in 2011, describes going to the theatre a “huge amount” when he was growing up and remembers theatre being spoken about frequently at home, an influence that has undoubtedly shaped him. But he is also keen to emphasise that “theatre was always very much something that I felt I was passionate about”. Musing about the beginnings of his career, he says, “I sort of fell into it and I don’t know how much was my upbringing and how much was just me and my personal preferences”.
As we discuss this passion for theatre, it emerges that Attenborough’s love affair with the art form was also ignited by the National Theatre’s production of Mourning Becomes Electra, directed by Howard Davies, who he describes as one of his heroes. “It completely changed my life,” he says, without a hint of exaggeration. “It just moved me and affected me so much, even at a young age. I was astonished by the power of theatre as a social event and how it could change hundreds of people in one event.”
Attenborough originally wanted to be an actor, but he reveals that university prompted the “gradual realisation” that he was not good enough to pursue acting as a career. Cambridge, however, was also where he discovered his love of directing when a friend wrote a short play and asked him to direct it. He explains that it was while working on this student production that he realised “there was nothing else that I enjoyed as much or felt as passionate about”.
Since leaving university, Attenborough’s early career has been peppered with assistant directing credits, several of them on large productions. What have these experiences taught him? “Assisting has been where I’ve learnt a lot of my craft,” he tells me, going on to talk about the learning experience of touring with Headlong’s Earthquakes in London and his introduction to the West End while working on Butley. “Just watching and working with different directors, different actors, different companies has taught me a huge amount.”
Another learning experience for Attenborough has been the discovery of how difficult it is to stand out as a new, young director. It was this difficulty, he explains, which indirectly led him to set up his theatre company Rhapsody of Words when he wanted to put on Neil LaBute’s play The Shape of Things. “The difficulty was that it had been done before,” he says, “and I didn’t just want to do another run of the mill production.” Attenborough’s solution was to stage the play in the unusual space of The Gallery Soho.
“I started to think about the role of space in theatre today and how we approach it,” he goes on to say. “It’s interesting that a lot of the most successful theatres in London at the moment are in buildings that weren’t initially built as theatres, the Donmar Warehouse being a prime example. Through thinking about that, I wanted to explore a type of theatre that isn’t necessarily site-specific and doesn’t have to integrate the space into the show, but where the space informs the play and makes the audience see it in a new light.”