Features Q&A and Interviews Published 2 March 2015

Under the Skin

A conversation between Tom Wicker and Blanche McIntyre about directing, Arcadia and being a spokesperson for the work.
Tom Wicker

Old university friends Tom Wicker and Blanche McIntyre met to discuss directing, criticism and working in the theatre industry. They began with Blanche’s reluctance to talk publicly or anecdotally about other people in the sector …

Blanche McIntyre: I tend to find that if I say anything critical about somebody it’ll come back. And they’ll find out about it, and there’s a relationship blown. But you, as part of your job, assessing how successful something is, you must have to name and shame?

Tom Wicker: When reviewing?

BM: Yes.

TW: I suppose maybe the difference, at least from my perspective, when it comes to writing a review, is that my comments are evaluative rather than anecdotal. So I guess when you’re naming and shaming you’re talking about …

BM: Episodes.

TW: … behind the scenes, or at least backstage.

BM: Informal, anecdotal. Yes, exactly. So you could make a terrible diplomatic crisis out of just saying the wrong funny story.

TW: But I know, from conversations we’ve had before, you sometimes feel that reviewers lose sight of the fact that they’re still talking about real people, when they’re being critical. As you’ve risen in profile – and therefore you’re attracting more reviews – I guess some people might be more interested in the point at which you “fail”?

BM: Oh, yes, I’m sure.

TW: Are you more conscious not just of the language used to describe your casts, but now of yourself as well, than you might have been six or seven years ago?

BM: I don’t know. The only time anyone’s ever actually been personal about me is below the line on interviews … there was one particular one that I remember where one of the commentators said, “I don’t know her work, but I do like her face. It’s a bit like a marmoset” – or something similar.

TW: So you should never not only read your own reviews, but the comments on your interviews?

BM: Well, most of the comments in that particular case were hostile on the grounds that I was middle class and posh, well spoken. And those are two things I completely put my hands up to. I am middle class, I am posh and actually a lot of the work that I do falls into the category of accessible. And those aren’t things that I think are necessarily bad, but I’m totally happy if people have a go at me about them.

TW: And that never frustrates you? There’s never a point when you go, “I’m not assuming privilege based on my background and my education, but at the same time, so many of these things weren’t in my control in the first place?”

BM: Oh, totally. But I suppose … I lived with my mum and dad the whole time I was being paid nothing, and doing tutoring to keep alive. And I had a much easier, easier time than most directors. So I feel like if the price is a certain amount of flack about my background … I was well supported. I was looked after.

TW: Is trying to put as much effort in to every production as possible what gets you through, then? That your success, if you’re having it, is still based on …

BM: Work? Absolutely. You can’t assume that people will like you because they liked something else you’ve done. In fact, it’s much better to assume that because they like something else you’ve done, they’ll go into this one with a much higher bar that they’ll expect you to clear.

TW: Is there a temptation to try and do “different” work for the sake of it once you’ve achieved a certain level of success?

BM: Well, I suppose you don’t really want people to switch off when they’re watching a show. And the moment that somebody thinks, “oh, I know what a Blanche McIntyre production is like”, you’re not going to be interesting them as much.

TW: Do you ever have sleepless nights where you worry that there is a “Blanche McIntyre play” already?

BM: Absolutely, yes! Yes.

TW: I mean, if you were to give voice to your fears – and I don’t necessarily think this is true because I’ve seen you do very different work – what do you worry that a Blanche McIntyre play would be like?

BM: I worry that a Blanche McIntyre play would be … Actually, this is a different criticism: I worry that a Blanche McIntyre play would be too soft at the centre. Or too diplomatic in its approach to get the force of its message across.

TW: Let’s cycle back to when I interviewed you before. You said at the time that you wanted your productions to be ones in which you were sort of everywhere but nowhere. You were a little bit dubious about being a director who forcefully put their fingerprint on a play. Is the obverse of that the idea that you can seem a bit nebulous?

BM: That one can be too invisible? It’s a tricky line to walk.

TW: Does that equal “soft centred”?

BM: No, it’s a cowardice thing rather than a softness of judgement or approach. I think it’s about worrying too much that people will feel pushed away. That you soften the impact of the play to make it more likeable for them.

TW: OK, so you approach the word “accessibility” with great caution?

BM: I think you have not to underestimate your audience.

TW: From this point in your career at which you see yourself as having made real inroads into directing – I don’t know whether that’s the Finborough or further back – which production do you feel has pushed beyond your fear of what a Blanche McIntyre play would be?

BM: Oh, I would say, first, The Seagull and, second, The Comedy of Errors.

TW: Why The Seagull?

BM: Because it was more formally experimental and because the form of it was intended to match the content of it, in a way which I now do as a matter of course, but then was not quite so much linked together. And The Comedy of Errors because it was a Shakespeare and a farce and an epic space and the combination of all those things were new. So the combination of those three things made it frightening cubed.

TW: I suppose The Comedy of Errors is an interesting one because I would say that productions of yours that I have seen before that one – and really enjoyed – are almost miniaturist. There’s a sense of the miniature portrait. And farce cannot work that way.

BM: No, exactly. And I would very much count myself a miniaturist director. The Seagull, actually, is another example of not being able to be miniaturist in style – of having to be very bold in staging and trying to set that against the detail in the characterisation. That was a stretch.

TW: You said that was the point at which form became married to content in a way it hadn’t previously. Do you mean by that “form” as a legitimate character in its own right alongside the characters that might be in a play? Rather than just as the most appropriate backdrop for the action?

BM: That’s a really useful way of thinking about it, and actually you’re making me think that Foxfinder was a marriage of form and content, but The Seagull was much more form as a driving force in the play in the way you describe. Absolutely, yes.

TW: Was it interesting, then, having done The Seagull and The Comedy of Errors – given the ways you’d developed as a director, the ways you felt you’d pushed your approach to staging a play – to return to Accolade?

BM: Yes, it was. I think going back to Accolade was a conscious decision to concentrate on the detail of character in a way that I hadn’t been able to for the handful of plays that had gone before. And I very much had to leave it to the cast, who did a wonderful job, but it wasn’t that character was at the centre of it necessarily.

TW: So, with each of these strands that you absorb with each production, when it comes to the next production does it become an accumulation of everything you’ve learned before? Or are you good at shutting down certain ways of staging depending on the play?

BM: I think so. I hope so. There’s always a sense that you’re directing the play before. So Foxfinder was more political because Accolade had been, and then The Seven Year Itch was more extremely theatrical because Foxfinder had been. And then probably Lizzie Finn was more romantic because The Seven Year Itch had been.

So, yes, each play stretches your brain five or six different ways, and when you come to the next play you instinctively map it on to the bits you’re most familiar with. So then you have to find the bit that stretches you beyond that.

TW: The footprint is still there.

BM: Yes.

Arcadia. Photo: Mark Douet.

Arcadia. Photo: Mark Douet.

TW: Bringing it round now to Arcadia. I know that a lot of your preparation is based on extensive reading and trying to get under the skin of the period and the writer … where have some of the skills you’ve picked up in the past few years helped with some of the more tricksy bits of this play to get right, as far as you’re concerned?

BM: Well I think the thing about Accolade is that the relationships between the characters are complex, murky, difficult to understand for the audience some of the time and reveal themselves gradually. And I think that’s what all the relationships in Arcadia have ended up being as well. I don’t know … that was the bit that was easy. The maths was the bit that was hard.

TW: Yeah, that’s the other thing, isn’t it? Stoppard’s plays – as I know …

BM: You know! I was going to say, those wonderful speeches about love as the piece of ice in the hand in The Invention of Love – all of those come back. I think the correspondences between that play and Arcadia are incredibly strong.

TW: For anyone reading this, we’re talking about this because I played Young Housman in Blanche’s production of The Invention of Love at university.

BM: In 2000. He was brilliant.

TW: I’m not going to put that in!

BM: You should! And put “square bracket, Tom laughs, square bracket”.

TW: Yes …

BM: “And goes pink, square bracket”.

TW: … Stoppard makes no concessions to an audience’s knowledge of things that might be well beyond what you might consider the purview of theatre. Is that something you’ve been reminded of from The Invention of Love? Although I know that you have a Classics background, so perhaps that was a more straightforward process. But how do you deal, as a director, with subjects that are almost degree level?

BM: There’s a lovely quote by Stoppard that says he writes about things he doesn’t know about, because he wants to know about them. Yes, there’s very much an extent to which in the play the ideas are explained with beautiful simplicity – the jam that won’t stir back into the rice pudding or the cup of tea that gets cold. And so the audience are allowed into them. But obviously when you’re directing it, you have to know what he’s talking about!

TW: Do you? Or is that you? Because what you’re talking about, a lot of Arcadia deals with the impossibility of recovering things, but also …

BM: Well, that’s The Invention of Love.

TW: Yes, the apple … But also the idea of entropy. I wonder, knowing you, whether some directors would go, “I understand the metaphor and therefore that is all I need to know, to convince the audience.” So how much are you just saying, “I need to understand the thermodynamics behind it” because that’s you?

BM: Well, it might be me, and also I like to understand … So the second law of thermodynamics is … and I’m now going to get this wrong! … a law that states that the amount of usable energy in a closed system will decrease over time. So a cup of tea will go from warm to cold and the energy that was keeping the tea hot will go into the atmosphere. It can’t be got back. And that is a very powerful metaphor through the play for the way information is lost, the way that lives are lost, and the way that all human endeavours ultimately come to nothing.

TW: Yes, but the play also makes the point that you can’t recover it, but that energy goes on – it’s always there in a different form.

BM: Yes, and Valentine has a lovely line that “we’re all still doomed but maybe if this is how it started, maybe this is how it will come again.” I’ve misquoted that, but it’s something like that. But yes, given that the world comes to nothing, we may as well dance. And that is quite an encouraging thing to leave it with. So yes, I do. Partly because when the actor says to me, “what the hell is this?” I have an answer. And actually there have been many moments when I’ve gone, “I don’t know”.

And the way that we’ve staged it, we’ve used entropy as a visual metaphor for a gradual, increasing disorder.

TW: So how does that look?

BM: One of the things we’ve done is that it looks like a classical room, but there are gaps in it. So it’s as though you’ve drawn a beautiful, ordered, classical room on what is actually a chaotic background. You can see the back wall of the theatre, the radiators, the doors off to the green room, the floor isn’t real floorboards. And the way we’ve staged it – and this is so basic – is that you start with people walking through doors and you end with them walking through walls. And in a similar kind of way, the play itself starts to bleed time periods together, so I’ve just done a little bit more of that as well. Entrances and exits increasingly cut across each other. And then gradually Stoppard himself takes over and the two time periods co-exist in the same space.

TW: I wonder if you’d have been nearly adventurous with the staging of this play if you’d directed it at university. So I’m curious to know what it’s like to return to Stoppard. You were 19 when you directed The Invention of Love and coming back to Stoppard at 33 …

BM: 34 …

TW: I stand corrected.

BM: You’re not that much older than me [laughs]

TW: That “academic year” difference …

BM: For the benefit of anyone reading, this has been going since 1999.

TW: Um … Do you look at the play now and see all the things you wished you’d known when you directed The Invention of Love?

BM: Absolutely – and, also, I co-directed it. It wasn’t my idea. I didn’t really know how it worked and we had a budget of £50. I don’t think anyone will have seen it, so just to describe it, the set was: three chairs out of which people got when they wanted to pretend it was a rowing boat; my college desk, which we moved through the streets on the morning of the tech, and then its leg fell off because we were standing on it to put up the lighting; a mattress that we found in the backroom; and a coffin that we also found in the backroom of the theatre and appropriated for the run; and everyone wore their own clothes. So you couldn’t really be … I mean that was experimental, but not intentionally so!

The Seagull. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

The Seagull. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

TW: I remember when you made that first shift from essentially being the driving force behind every aspect of the productions you did, to working more as part of a committee. I wonder now, because you had always worked in such a unilateral way … collaboratively with the cast but unilaterally on the production side … how does that feel now? Do you ever miss the days when you were the one saying “I’ve got this book. Here’s my desk. I’ve got this stuff”?

BM: I still do that. But it’s, “I have this idea. I have this thought.”

TW: So it’s more conceptual, rather than, “Here’s my bookshelf”?

BM: Well, astonishingly regularly a prop of mine finds its way into a show. I’m just trying to think now of an example …

TW: I’d also say, for the benefit of readers, that Blanche is one of the few people who, in her life, can just turn up with an antique sword because she has one. I’m not sure every director can pull on such a rich range.

BM: It was an 18th birthday present. I don’t just naturally have one!

TW: But that should still tell you something …

BM: Yes, that’s true. It tells you about how many friends I had when I was 18.

TW: Do you miss the controlled, creative chaos of being the one who has to dance around the stage with different hats on?

BM: Yes and no. I miss the playfulness of it. Lighting a scene is wonderful and putting sound into a scene is wonderful. There’s a sense in which I want to be the kid playing with all the toys.

But I’m also totally aware that it’s much more relaxing to be working with people who are a) geniuses and b) more experienced than I will be if I lit it or sound designed for my whole lifetime. They have devoted their lives to a completely different slant on what a play is – which is every bit as important as mine and will often have more of an impact on an audience than mine. So I feel as though I can hand over the important bits to people I trust, knowing that they will do something fantastically interesting with them. Ultimately, the play is better.

TW: Which in the end means having to leave yourself at the door occasionally.

BM: Yes, exactly. You leave yourself behind for the sake of the play.

TW: In the past six or seven years, you have directed new writing but also plays that are conceived as modern classics but written by living writers. With Foxfinder it was Dawn King, and even with The Seagull, it was John Donnelley’s translation. Given what you’ve just said about everyone being a collaborative part of a production, what is it like when you’re dealing with the writer? Does it make you nervous?

BM: It does. I don’t do a very good job for writers. And the reason is that I have so much respect for writers. So they will turn up with a first draft and I’ll go “brilliant!” Whereas my job is to work out the problems and go, “There’s a plot hole – the whole thing doesn’t tie up. What are you trying to do here, work harder on this.” So I have no dramaturgical skill at all. I’m very aware that I can let writers have too easy a ride at an early stage, and then I don’t serve them later on.

That said, when Dawn turned up with Foxfinder, part of the Papatango Prize was that she would workshop it and re-write it and it didn’t need a single word changed. And John Donnelly, we talked a lot before he started about how it would work. We shared ideas, then he went away and came back with something which basically was what we took on tour. So in many ways, I’ve been lucky.

TW: A lot of your work recently has been touring, which is a relatively new thing – really only in the last three years. So what is touring like for you now? What frustrates you and what has been an unexpected advantage?

BM: The disadvantage of touring is that it’s overwhelmingly proscenium arch. Which for some plays is completely brilliant and for some plays completely doesn’t work. And also that audiences get used to a certain way of approaching a play, which is they sit in a block and judge the play that comes at them adversarially. Whereas I remember going to see … back in the day … Katie Mitchell’s Henry VI – and I think Paines Plough are now doing this – and they took their own venue, which was three-sided, and toured that. So sometimes it means you can have a piece which has by necessity to fit itself into a space which doesn’t suit its character. And then obviously the audiences don’t get served in the way they deserve.

The upside is that it’s completely brilliant to take a piece to eight or twelve different towns, cities, spaces and it will change because the audience will be different. There was a wonderful moment when we took The Seagull to Glasgow and the audiences there are so engaged. And I got the sense that if they’d hated it, it would have been a complete disaster. But in fact they were so alive, and so clever, and so passionate about theatre, that the play woke up and transformed itself. So by the time it hit Newcastle, it was a different shape. And after Newcastle, it was in another new shape.

TW: And did that experience wake you up, too?

BM: Yes, absolutely. You suddenly see it through the eyes of a set of people who have – because of where they live – a completely different way of thinking from you.

TW: Yeah, how do you do that? How do you trick yourself out of – after umpteen numbers of performances – watching the first scene and thinking, “right, I know how this ends”?

BM: You have to be very careful how many times you watch it.

TW: Interesting. So do you try to limit that?

BM: I do. I try to go once a week, maximum. And I like to go once a week because I like to be plugged into the play, I like to keep talking to the actors – I like to keep that kind of relationship open. But I’m very aware, for example … Natasha Jenkins, my assistant on Tonight at 8:30, came to see the production about four or five weeks into the run – there was a gap where she couldn’t see it. And she came back and went, “All these things have changed! I think these are positive, I think these are profoundly negative, shall I note them?” And I hadn’t noticed, because I’d been there once a week and the change had been so gradual I hadn’t spotted it.

Foxfinder. Photo: Garry Lake.

Foxfinder. Photo: Garry Lake.

TW: Is that one of the reasons why that wider network of people you now work with is useful? Because you can’t not be there for five weeks on the trot, so you need someone who can afford to be, who can see the things you’re too close to see?

BM: I think I’m possibly one of the few people … I don’t know … I think that could just be me. Some directors vanish after press night. And they just don’t see the show again and they hand it over to their assistant. I find that very difficult. But it isn’t really the job of the assistant to come back at four or five weeks’ remove – it’s mine. So that isn’t necessarily a professional thing.

TW: You mention press night. How are you with the increase in press and non-stage-related “stuff” that has begun to grow around the productions you’re involved with? Do you like it? Do you like being a spokesperson for a play in a role other than being the person who’s arranged what people are seeing in front of them?

BM: I like being a spokesperson for the play. I can always talk about the play. I’m very anxious about being a spokesperson for the wider theatrical landscape or for a theatre as whole. Which is why I would be a terrible artistic director.

TW: Really?

BM: Yep. That, I think, is different to simply talking about one artistic thing you’re working on.

TW: And you think to be an artistic director you do have to make proclamations about the landscape?

BM: Well, you have to be aware of it. You have to know who your audience are, why they come to the theatre, how best you can serve them, how best you can test them – if that’s part of what needs to happen. You have to know what’s going to be important in four years’ time and commission it. You have to be aware of what other theatres are doing, and what theatre is – or what it should be, if it isn’t.

TW: And you don’t think that’s something you do as a matter of course, by being a director in the theatre industry? You don’t just absorb these things? I wonder if we end up knowing more than we think, but we’re rarely pressed to articulate it.

BM: Which goes back to the beginning thing you said, which is that if you can’t articulate it, then you make enemies.

TW: But you’re not explicitly saying you wouldn’t want to run a building?

BM: I would love to run a building in maybe ten years’ time.

TW: What happens in ten years? Or is “ten years” always that magical number that’s “not now”?

BM: What happens in ten years is that I give up any sense of being able to go out to the pub after half-past eight.

TW: So you’re quite happy to be at large at the moment, then?

BM: I like difference. That’s one of the reasons I like taking shows around the country. I like working on different things, I like working in different spaces, with different people. I think that there is great joy to be found in something which is specific and unique.

TW: After Arcadia, what’s next?

BM: As You Like It is next, and then the Oresteia. So I’ve been saying smugly to people that I’m going from Arcadia to Arden to Argos. And I’ve been thinking that I’m really clever. So yes …

TW: Do you feel less or more nervous, going back to The Globe for As You Like It?

BM: More nervous. Because they liked the last one, so this time it has to be at least as good – probably better.

TW: What have been some of the more unexpected developments in your career? Those moments where you’ve gone, “I never imagined my job would be this, but I don’t mind”?

BM: I don’t know. I’m not sure if that’s a question I can sensibly answer.

TW: What about being interviewed by a university friend over lunch?

BM: Yes, that was fun. Actually, one of the more unexpected and rather brilliant developments in my professional career was when my university friend decided that he was going to be a critic and a writer.

TW: Would you ever feel comfortable with me reviewing your shows?

BM: Yes, definitely.

TW: Ten years from now?

BM: What I think is … well, it goes back to … you were talking about Classical roots earlier, and I remember that one of the things I love about the word “critic” is that it comes from the Greek word for judgement, to judge. And of course, because the word critical has changed its meaning, it has become associated with “to judge negatively”. But actually to judge clearly is one of most important aspects of any landscape – let alone a theatrical one. So, yes, provided … you have no problem saying to my face what you like and don’t like about shows, so why should you not publish it? I don’t think you’re going to be unfair.

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Tom Wicker

Tom is a freelance writer and editor, based in London. He has acted in the past, but the stage is undoubtedly better off without him on it. As well as regularly contributing to Exeunt and OffWestEnd.com, he reviews for Time Out, has reviewed Broadway productions for The Telegraph. He has also written for The Guardian and the online world affairs magazine openDemocracy.

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