Where to start with this interview? Simon has worked in and around Amateur Theatre for over 30 years, with much of that time spent working in and around the amateur dramatics community. He has worked as an actor, director, and producer, amongst many other roles, while also running his own amateur theatre company and being heavily involved in the Oxford Theatre Guild. It’s fair to say his wealth of knowledge and experiences with amateur theatre is unparalleled.
As with my first episode in this series (have a listen here), the chat wandered to all manner of places. I’ve attempted to coalesce the major themes into a semi-succinic listening experience, but it still came in over an hour long. We discussed so much that editing it down anymore felt unfair to Simon and you.
You’ll notice that we focus more on Simon’s directorial process, centred on his time working within the Guild. It felt sensible to get an understanding of his most favoured working environment and then dive into his methods. It was clear that his experiences across the amateur theatre space have all helped to create a vast pool of knowledge that now shapes his directorial process.
What follows is only a “highlights reel” from our conversation, so it’s well worth taking a listen to the full interview here.
We kicked off by discussing some of my views around how amateur theatre is sometimes unappreciated and might fall into the trap of self reverential thinking. Simon makes the very valid point that although there might be some level of “forgiveness” for amateur theatre, it isn’t needed. And although the bubble of the rehearsal space can affect amateur shows it can and does impact on professional productions as well. He’s highlights that the process of creating the work is as valid a reason to be involved as the final/finished piece.
Simon does however offer two key elements that will have a lasting impact on the quality of a production;
Choosing the wrong play - This decision is one we will cover in a future blog, but can be easily summed up with two unchangeable facts.
You will be living with the script you choose for upwards of 6 months and if you don’t love it it’s going to be a slog to get it over the line.
A poor script is going to be very difficult to turn into a good play.
Casting poorly - Picking the wrong people or the right people placed in the wrong roles will limit your ability to bring your vision to life no matter how simple your production choices seem. A badly casted show will impact every decision you look to make through the rehearsal process. We can’t escape the fact that amateur directors rarely get to pick who will walk through the door on the night of their audition, so making the right choices with who has plucked up the courage to attend is vitally important.
Simon talks about how he has come to terms with the realities of Amateur Theatre when bringing an image to life. He says you shouldn’t limit your ambition but you may have to tailor it.
Within this process he talks about creating something from nothing and starting with an original image. Something potentially very difficult given t
he amount of theatre we’ve all seen, and the amount of tv, film and online imagery we subject ourselves to each day. However, there is a difference between being influenced and stealing concepts. He is also very clear that
our ideas should be driven by the text, which feeds us nicely back to his original point of choosing the right play!
His actual process is very organic and he relies on his instinct to shape a lot of his decision making. His audition process is certainly worth taking a listen to as it may be different from how a number of you do it (it certainly was for me).
Auditions - Two stage process:
Stage one Group Auditions - 10-20 selected scenes that are worked on together. No pre-prepared monologues or one on one auditions. Simon doesn’t want prepared monologues for/of specific characters or a specific role.
He wants to see:
Whether you can surprise him
Whether you can listen
Can you take direction
Do you have some control over some basics like projection & line learning
All really good things for an actor to take onboard when heading into their next audition.
As for selecting his actors, he works with a method he calls Contingent Casting. He looks to build a cast around an individual character or specific couplings (and sometimes even whole families) and will select his actors working from the top down. He also takes into consideration who might be able to understudy if needed.
Once cast, he looks to schedule in a total of 80-100 hrs of rehearsals, based on availability. That works out at around 3-4 rehearsals a week, for around 2 hours a time, for roughly 4-5 months.
He employs a 3 phase process which I’ve noted below.
Phase 1 - Building the characters, establishing the physical space and putting an initial shape to everything. This includes a read through, time to understand the structure of the play, which includes working on relationships, understanding the outside world, society and historical context.
Phase 2 - Putting the scenes together in order. Seeing the flow and full shape
Phase 3 - Polishing and correcting
On average he’ll spent 40% of his rehearsal time on phase 1, 20% on phase 2 and 40% on phase 3.
Books down will usually be planned for the end of phase 2.
We also spent some time chatting about Simons preferred production setup. Having never directed for any other company but my own, I was very interested in his thoughts on Community Theatre groups and more specifically the Oxford Theatre Guild, which has a very strong presence in the city I work in.
The Guild’s is setup with a voted in committee:
Room Bookings Secretary
The committee meets on a monthly basis to discuss current and future productions, along with any other business needs. They look to put on 4 shows a year and have regularly presented one of these at the Oxford Playhouse.
Simon presented them as acting much more like a production company by supporting the creation of a play. They utilise their resources (monetary, access-based and those encapsulated in the skills and knowledge of the team) to help winning bid applicants bring their visions to an audience. It felt to me like a very nice approach to theatre making. A community of people all pulling in the same direction but led by a different person's ambition each show.