What do you do all day? Artistic Director
Name: GEORGE PERRIN
Job Title: ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
Hello! Did you always want to be an Artistic Director?
Not consciously – I only discovered directing when I got to Sheffield University and spent most of the time I was supposed to be doing my English Literature degree trying to figure out how to direct plays. So when James and I set up nabokov after we’d both graduated we became Artistic Directors by necessity. I think I only knew the job of Artistic Director as I now understand it even existed when I moved to London and was fortunate enough to spend some time watching David Lan run the Young Vic, Brigid Larmour run Watford Palace Theatre and Roxana Silbert run Paines Plough. Now that I’m lucky enough to be doing the job, I can’t imagine doing anything else.
What role does the Artistic Director play in the development of new work?
I imagine that must depend on the organisation and the Artistic Director themselves. At PP, James and I take it in turns directing most of the plays here and we tend to have been in conversation with the writers whose plays we’re directing for a while before we commission them. So in our case, we have quite a close and supportive role in helping the writers we commission write the best version of the play they want to write, from the earliest moment of conception through to opening night. Sometimes that means hours spent discussing ideas in the pub, brokering meetings with more experienced playwrights for advice, getting actors in for the writer to hear drafts read aloud, workshops, script notes, rewrites and draft after draft through rehearsals and previews. And sometimes it means nothing more than saying ‘keep going’.
What things do you consider when programming work and commissioning new plays?
I think I tend to go on instinct in the first instance. I used to spend a long time making notes on writers, plays, productions – I think I had to make up for my lack of experience, understanding and (frankly) skill with hard and volumous work. But as I’ve seen, read and directed more, I have found that if I engage the critical part of my brain too early, I revert to being the English Literature student and I cease to sense how an audience might encounter the work. So now I try and keep myself in the audience’s shoes for as long as possible and save all the analysis until I’m ready to prepare for rehearsals.
In terms of what that instinct is looking for, it’s what I imagine everyone is looking for in a brilliant play: a good story; characters I can empathise with but that are nevertheless as complicated and contradictory as real people; dramatically active, credible dialogue; a clear sense of world or genre; an inherently theatrical form that somehow helps express the meaning of the play; a writer with something to say or a question to ask about the contemporary world; surprise; laughter; tears… I think perhaps more than anything I want to be moved. If that happens I stop seeing all the individual elements that as a director I’ve tried to teach myself to understand I’ve just talked about and I experience the play instinctively, as an audience hopefully will. When that happens you know you’re reading or watching something good.
Beyond that instinctive response, I’m then thinking about whether PP is the right home for a play, who the audience might be and whether we can reach them, if we have the resource to produce the play in the way it demands, what kind of space it might want to play in. If we’re commissioning the writer, those are some of the things we might ask them to think about when they’re conceiving the play for us.
Can you tell us a little bit about your ambitions for the future of PP?
James and I have been incredibly lucky to run PP for the past six years now and we only just now feel like we’re beginning to achieve some of the ambitions we had when we took over. The company is now entering its 42nd year so it’s something of a national theatrical treasure, certainly in our eyes at least. We’re the eight Artistic Directorship in that time and the regeneration the company has experienced each time a new team has taken over has been key to the company remaining so energetic, important and relevant to writers and audiences. I suppose our main ambition is for it to retain those qualities in the future.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
I’ve learned a lot from some brilliant people over the past fifteen or so years – Lisa Maguire, David Lan, Roxana Silbert, Brigid Larmour, Caro Newling, Sebastian Warrack to name a few. But I think the most useful piece of advice that I’ve had – and certainly something I most frequently pass on when asked – came from the Russian theatre director Lev Dodin, who I had the fortune to meet on a trip the Young Vic arranged for a group of (then) young directors. I think one of us might have said something to him about sometimes wondering whether it was worth sticking at it and he told us that if you can live with no theatre in your life, you’re better off without it. That’s kept me going more than once.
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