How a photo job taught me about directing a play

I first directed a play (Chekhov's one-act The Anniversary) in 1966 while at uni doing a Diploma in Education.

After that, I used every opportunity I had to learn the job, both by doing (school and youth theatre initially) and from the shows I photographed. All were grist to my mill, but working for Tynewear gave me an unrivalled and brilliant opportunity.

When the company started working on Julius Caesar, John Blackmore asked me to photograph the rehearsal process. What an opportunity! I learned so much! One occasion in particular sticks in my mind. They were doing one short and, to be honest, not terribly important scene, one without any of the major characters. Everyone realised that it wasn’t going very well so the director, Bill Alexander, simply said, “let’s talk about it.”

They all sat down on the rehearsal room floor and bounced ideas back and forth, listening intently to each other without any attempt by anyone to push his idea at the expense of someone else’s.

Then Bill said, “OK. I think we all know what was going wrong now. Let’s have another go!”

They did, and it was vastly better, so they ran it a few times to fix it in their minds and moved on.

That was just one example of so many things I learned from that job and the overall lesson was really quite simple: "trust the text and, most important of all, trust your actors."

I'd been brought up in the amateur theatre tradition of the director not only plotting every move before rehearsals even began but also telling the actor how to say the lines. I'd always found that so restricting that, when I started directing, I moved as far away from that approach as I dared but watching Bill at work enabled me—encouraged me!—to fling off the last vestiges of this conditioning and work much more collaboratively with my casts.

Even with schoolkids. Quite a few years later, I was working with three 15-year-old girls on that scene from Richard II (act 4), which begins with Queen Elizabeth saying to Queen Margaret, "O thou well skill'd in curses, stay awhile, And teach me how to curse mine enemies!" We read it through once and I said, "OK, you tell me what your character is feeling." The depth into which they were able to go was amazing and they gave the scene a reality which was—I would have thought until then—beyond their years.

Thanks to Bill for teaching me (the shadow who crept around the rehearsal room as unobtrusively as possible) so much.

Bill Alexander, of course, was at the RSC for 14 years and later, in 1992, he was to take over as Artistic Director and CEO at Birmingham Rep. He's one of those directors who I believe has never had the recognition he deserves.