A Chat with Blanche McIntyre

Blanche McIntyre in rehearsals,

I met Blanche McIntyre at The Leon Café a quirky little place in Carnaby Street. I’d definitely recommend it for coffee and cake.  For Blanche’s CV and Bio please click here

I first met Blanche McIntyre through a peer to peer networking meeting organised by the Young Vic Genesis network scheme a couple of years ago. We took part in the American version of PechaKucha called Lightning Talk where each presenter is allowed 10 images, each shown for 15 seconds with accompanying commentary all about us as Directors.  Each director gave a 3 minute presentation and then it was on to the next… terrifying but also exhilarating and a real eye opener into the heart of each person’s theatrical beliefs.  I remember Blanche having this amazing energy as she spoke and her images, like mine, seem to focus around actors.  She was humble and encouraging and a great laugh when we first met, and equally so during interview.

THE ACTOR AS AN INDIVIDUAL

Straight off the bat I asked Blanche what excites her about working with actors. Dismissive at first of being able to answer the question fully, she began to talk about her fascination with how every actor brings their personality and life experience into the room.  Actors come into the room with everything they are about and, to Blanche, they often bring better ideas then her own. The excitement in the rehearsal room then comes from people locking into a project and discovering the different elements that they can bring to it individually. Blanche described herself as the “least prescriptive director going around”, quickly and bluntly asserting though “that that might be entirely bollocks as well.” This sums Blanche up, she is quick to give her ideas and opinions but she is also swift to ascertain that they may change or could be wrong. It’s utterly charming when you talk to her and I imagine catnip to any actor in a rehearsal room.  By ‘least prescriptive’ she means that she doesn’t follow a particular method of work or school of thought, but she does have a vague structure that she uses depending on the project.

 IN THE REHEARSAL ROOM

Blanche will spend the first chunk of time working out what the play seems to need and the ways  to talk about it that are most helpful for the actors and for herself.  “It’s about finding a common language.”  When working on a John Gay farce, a ‘ “stunning” comedy about people delivered to the house of a woman “they are trying to shag”,involving one of the only chase scenes where the chaser has both their feet tied together, she had the actors simply “throw stuff at it” in the first week.  Getting the text up on its feet with incredibly loose blocking, Blanche encouraged the actor to go for whatever they wanted to try. Through this method, they saw what stuck and what didn’t whilst she shepherded it along. By the end of this first section of time the actors were thinking “I’ll generate stuff” and it created a very loose and creative environment which suited the loose, sparky and informal play.

In complete contrast was a show she did a few years ago about a couple  whose marriage is strongly tested.  In the first week they ended up sitting around, a bit like a therapy session, talking about the emotional lives of the cast.  She is unsure how this happened, and remembers at the time thinking “I’ll let this go and steer it a little bit.” Later she realised what in fact had been happening; the actors, who were going to be completely exposed onstage and reach very intense emotional places together, were forming a bond of trust with each other. They were discovering how to talk about difficult relationships with each other which was going to be needed when getting on with the play itself.

This first phase of her rehearsal then is; “what sort of beast are we dealing with here? What kind of people have we got here? How are we going to think about it?” It’s figuring out what this play needs in order to be told and discovered in the rehearsal room.

The second phase, which can be around half her rehearsal time, involves going through the play in incredible detail. “This is going to sound really boring but it’s just finding out what it is that’s happening and putting it on stage.”  She will go through the scene examining it for all the facts and details whilst putting it on its feet;

where she is different, or what she believes actors who have worked with her would say is different about her, is that she uses a different process for everyone.

“You have one actor who likes to talk everything through and then will get up on stage and do it perfectly, you’ve got another actor who likes to try and try and try and then will take the best thing and then you’ve got a third actor who can’t do it unless they feel emotionally committed to it and will hold back and hold back and then suddenly get it, and the trouble is no one of these three methods is intrinsically better than the other and if you choose one you are putting the other ones off.” Part of her rehearsal process is simply figuring out what each of her actors need and how they like to work (though she lives in terror of it not happening). It sounds like a fairly elaborate process then as she juggles so many different factors at the same time whilst constantly shaping and moving a scene forward, but, she is quick to add that it’s fun. “Every human being is really interesting and you don’t want people to be leaving chunks of themselves at the door, there would be no fun in that. The person who tries 8 different things, on thing 7, you’ll discover something which won’t at all work for that person, but illuminates the whole scene…

and so the more you respect people’s processes, I think, the more you get out of it at the end” 

There is cause for caution though about following how the actor wants to work.  She remembers a time at drama school, working on a play about Hitler’s Mistress and Mussolini’s Mistress; in the play a soldier is tortured mentally and emotionally. The man who was playing the soldier decided to do it using the method and so “he was going home and essentially destroying himself.” The director had to take him to one side and point out that it was not a good way of working on this script as “you have to put yourself permanently in a very low, confused and dark place.” Occasionally she has had to suggest different processes for actors but not often or very recently. It always comes down to finding a way of working that is right for the director, the play and the cast and sometimes that’s hard to fulfil. As a director you have to be “the diplomat between yourself, the actors and what the script needs.”  When first starting out she had moments of difficulty between herself and actors, as every young director does, and in hindsight she realises she should have spoken to the actors sooner.  She believes these conversations are better in private, in a relaxed environment outside of the rehearsal room, so an actor can share their worries as well and then: “good work can be done”.  However, she would never let on to the rest of the cast about any problem an actor was having with the play as it puts them in a horrible position with the rest of the company and destroys their confidence.  “How could you better crush someone then by going ‘I don’t like what you’re doing’, publicly. Its soul destroying and it means your director is not a good director”

Unfortunately, she recognises that such situations do occur to actors and how hard they are to deal with, especially when you don’t want to disrupt the process.  Actors tend to believe that directors know best and “regularly they don’t.” People seem to have less confidence in their own process and perhaps this is a knock on from the European school of theatre where the director’s vision is all important, (but this could be balls too she adds).  But there is definitely a time as an actor where after trusting your director, and going with what you are asked to do, you have to check if it’s dangerous and if it’s affecting your self-esteem and your happiness. Then it is important to go to your director and tell them you are uncomfortable. If that doesn’t work than you will need to fall back on your own resources and “to be perfectly honest if it’s got that far then you are probably in a sinking ship anyway, the director is probably going to bugger off after night one.” She sighs and says she doesn’t know the answer to that one. Having been listening to how she works perhaps it’s for actors to have the courage in the rehearsal room to know they are valid, especially for young actors.

“I would hold it as an absolute tenant that 9 times out of 10 the actor’s instinct is better than the director’s.”

THE THERAPY ROOM

We talked more about the play where the actors discussed their own emotional lives. Many directors believe the rehearsal room should not be used as a therapy session. She agrees. “I’m slightly twisting a quote by Dominic Dromgoole in Will and Me where he says that a therapy room is really dangerous, and I think it is, really dangerous.”  She talks of needing to send actors home at the end of the day able to exist normally rather than leaving them in an emotional hole. However, the rehearsal process should also free the actors up,  and it’s a different situation if someone offers something in the room in the spirit of illuminating the play, much like in her earlier project, which is an act of building trust for the cast.

“Acting scares the pants off of me – I don’t know how actors do it.”

We both agreed that it is a director’s responsibility to look after their actors following hard emotional exercises so that they can either put that work down or process it; (however that actor needs to do it). Blanche believes the best acting is completely fearless in terms of the demands the actors make on themselves and that it’s not the director’s job to make the actors life miserable in the cause of the play.  It should be about providing an environment that allows them to find those dark places safely. Unfortunately there are some directors who pride themselves on being tough with actors and she thinks that is a bad idea.  “Acting is such a difficult job and takes so much out of you that you want to respect the people who are doing it.” A positive rehearsal room will foster more creativity and allow actors to be fearless. “The way I like to work is by going ‘This bit works, keep that, this bit will work if you do this’ as there is so much worry for actors when they are trying to build something that if you can say, ‘this bit here you don’t have to worry about that’…then you take a lot of the panic away.”  Blanche believes in helping to remove the worry, wherever possible, for actors.

Sometimes safely seeing actors through a process could be with a quick joke or a cup of tea or being allowed to finish the story they were telling, perhaps just to her in the pub.  She is quick to point out that she isn’t a specialist in taking actors to dark places, as unless it’s a Sarah Kane play it’s often unnecessary to go there, but she does advise that if you are working on such a play and left in an unhappy place to talk to your director. “I’d be appalled if an actor who felt like that didn’t come to me and say ‘sorry Blanche I feel like shit right now ‘so I can fix it or just listen to what they were saying because sometimes that’s all you need to do.”

 

 RESEARCH & REHEARSALS

The Only True History of Lizzie Finn at Southwark Playhouse
Photo from The Telegraph review

Blanche’s most recent production The Only True History of Lizzie Finn by Sebastian Barry at The Southwark playhouse in July was another popular hit with critics and audiences alike.  Set in 1892, Ireland, it is about a dancer who becomes entangled in a passionate and intense affair with a soldier returning from war.  I wanted to know about how she researched the play and what she expected of actors in terms of the work on a text.  Blanche explained that with Lizzie, the play was actually written in 1995 and so, in her opinion, had a “modern air” to it.  So whilst it was important to look at and understand the political and social climate of the time, for the actors to understand the disputes over land, the Boar War and the attitudes towards the character of Lizzie; they couldn’t go too naturalistically with it as that would betray the way it was written.  Most of the time they discussed the moments between the characters and their understanding of each other specific to their context; “If Robert doesn’t give a shit about Lizzie’s background then it doesn’t come into their scene.” As opposed to most of her productions where she is very loose with the blocking and lets the demands of the play dictate movement, as so much is unspoken with Lizzie, the picture had to tell a lot more.  Blanche had to be more rigorous with where her actors stood, the lines of tension and shapes they created, where the silence occurred etc… The actors became more like painters on a scene and often they had to communicate the emotion of a scene to the audience physically. This required a very different way of understanding how they worked together as a company as well as how they tackled the text. It came down to doing intense research and then deciding what wasn’t necessary to share. “There was an intentional fuzziness about the background.” Though she then laughs at herself and admits “Basically I didn’t do as much research as I would have liked!”

She absolutely hates the word homework though when applied to actors researching a text. “It turns actors into kids…”  She doesn’t necessarily demand a lot in terms of research though, recognising it is very useful for some actors and less so for others. However she does expect actors to know what they are saying, which hasn’t always been the case in some Elizabethan or Jacobean plays and “with some of the more obscure verse texts there’s no way an actor can possibly know what they’re saying, then you have to sit down in the rehearsal room and figure it out and then how to make it clear to the audience after that.” If there are basic things in a play like the Boer War then she expects her cast to know who was fighting it and why for example.  But she doesn’t like sending people away to “become experts on a particular angle. If it’s that important it can found in the room or told to everyone.  If you’re asking people to make presentations then you’re calling on a different set of skills and you’re stressing them out because they may not have access to that kind of thing, and if it’s that important it should be me doing it….”

Similarly Blanche also doesn’t spend time eventing plays around a table but instead leads her actors to the important moments whilst on their feet in rehearsal: “as soon as you put a big capital E on it and sit the actors down and go this is very important and intellectual they go ‘alright’ and they write it in their book but it’s all in their head.  Of course the end is it looks great on the stage but if you can get it there without having to lecture people, of course that’s what you should be doing.” If you let actors find it for themselves, organically, then they will own it, it will sit within the body and be there every performance.

AUDITIONS

One of the scariest elements for me as an actor was auditioning and heading into the horrible unknown.  Blanche’s Drama School taught her  that you should always send an actor out of an audition feeling that they have done as well as they could, something she admires and continues to follow. “Not feeling necessarily like they’ve got the part as that’s a fake promise, but you want people coming out feeling like they’ve done a good job.” She likes to work an actor on a piece from the play, working with their ideas as well as her own, and will always send out sides in advance.  A great audition for her is when someone comes in, not necessarily over prepared to death but interested, sparky and “wanting to chat.” She believes the reality is that most of the time actors are going to be good in an audition so the next important piece of the puzzle is whether they are right for the part which comes down to their chemistry with the script. Then it’s about if you can work with them which comes down to the all-important chat. Blanche places a lot of emphasis on the chat in an audition, wanting to hear the thoughts and opinions of the actor on the piece.  She then leans in conspiratorially; “it’s just as much about the actor auditioning the director just as much as the other way around. So if the director just goes, Yup, fine, next, then the actor has no idea what that director is like to work with and if it’s going to be a valuable experience for them.” Do you want to work with them?

DIRECTOR’S NERVES

In a really lovely interview with Tom Wickers for Exeunt Magazine (do read it) Blanche mentions that she improved her social skills in the rehearsal room from Robert Forknall in 2006 when working as an assistant director for The Changeling Theatre Company.  To me, she describes herself as being “pathologically shy, back then. So I would know what it was that needed to be done but have no real way of communicating to the actor.  I couldn’t talk to actors, let alone make eye contact with them. It was also about me having the confidence with my own ideas and if necessary to say, ‘I don’t know, we’ll find out’…” She has learnt over the years that it is not about having a downloadable bible of the show in her head giving an answer to every question but instead about working with people and running with your instinct. She came out of her own head more and into the room, continuing with her earlier theory of putting yourself to one side.

“I secretly have a theory that everyone who comes in to the theatre does it because the theatre is a really easy way of quickly making connections with people. And so, for whatever reason, there is an impulse at the back that goes ‘I really desire to be working with a bunch of people standing on stage getting involved with this very high adrenalin thing and probably having more sex than I naturally would and partying hard.” Whilst obviously this won’t be the case for everyone, she believes there are a lot of shy or anxious people out there who went into theatre as it’s a natural adrenalin hit and there is less worry about bonding with people.

She still has moments of being shy and nervous and doesn’t sleep at all the night before a read through (but then most actors don’t either) “and I know read-throughs are particularly stressful for casts and I know I’m going to have to sit up at the end of it and say some trite line about my vision for the piece which will probably be overturned within 48 hours anyway once everyone else starts getting working on it and that everyone is going to be looking at everyone else thinking can I do it? Can they do it? Is this worth doing and socially it’s a very stressful moment.”

For me it’s always comforting to hear that other director’s get nervous and I think it’s important that actors remember this too. Blanche agrees and then adds “I secretly think that every director’s greatest fear is when they come in on the first day of rehearsal and the actors do it perfectly and there is nothing you would change.  It’s instinctive, it’s insightful, it’s brilliant and you sit there and go, ‘I have four weeks to fill. I’m redundant here.  What do I do?’ Because you can get by without a director, you can’t get by without actors…and I secretly believe a lot of the more codified methods that are out there are actually ways of using up time and managing the director’s fear…”

LOW PAY NO PAY ACTING GIGS

This is a massive issue across the industry and so I asked for Blanche’s thoughts and advice. “It’s an absolute nightmare. “ She pauses to reflect and then says, “I think there are two different things.  There are companies who exploit, I’m not going to name them but there are a handful of companies where profit is being made and not shared with the actors…Essentially there is someone at the top who is paying himself a very decent wage, normally he will be a producer of a company and he will be hiring the actors on expenses or nothing.” She is adamant that in that situation “don’t touch it with a barge pole”. The art is not important there and so as an actor you won’t have a good showcase.

For the other element she cites the Finborough Theatre where she has put on many successful and artistically beautiful shows. “Given the size of the theatre…” ( it seats about 50) “It is not possible to pay actors properly and to cover your costs unless it a monologue or a two hander.” Instead she describes how you will have a company of actors and productions team all waiving their fees so that they give themselves the maximum possible showcase in order to attract people who may be able to employ them. “In that particular case, Neil who runs the Finborough isn’t employing anyone, that’s a company coming in, hiring the space off of him, so everyone who comes into that knows that that is the deal.  I think with that my advice would be, if you can afford it, and it’s really hard to afford it, if you can, do.”  When Blanche has worked at the Finborough and other fringe venues she has made it a point of practise not to be paid more than a cast member or a stage manager for example, and will work around people’s day jobs. “If you are working with the right team of people they will know how hard it is, will be going through it themselves.” The reason she says to consider these jobs is partly there will be no inconsistency in who is being paid what, no power of wealth, but also acknowledges that unless you are an actor coming out of a top drama school with a top agent it is incredibly hard to get the coverage you need to forward your career.  Blanche didn’t have a paying job for the first seven or eight years of her directing career (or not one that paid her to live).  She plugged away until she got the reviews that got the slightly better gigs and so on, which is a tiring process. “There is no magic super Mario rising platform, except for four or five people every year and if you’re not one of those then you’ve got to make it work somehow. It’s awful but at the moment until people fund little theatres to take a risk on emerging artists I can’t see any way to get around that.”

Essentially if you’re looking at a no /low pay job, check out the company to ensure you will be treated well and not lose anything by doing it, financially or creatively. It has to be a proper showcase. It’s got to be worth it for the actor. 

THE TRICK WITH ACTING is to put yourself aside.

 “This is why I’m a terrible actor; I could never put myself aside and forget that it was me.”

Blanche believes the best actors have one foot in their world as an actor listening to the other actors on stage and their other foot in the world of the play.  They have to maintain a tension between the craft their exercising and the story that they’re telling.  After a slight pause she says she doesn’t know how usefully to get an actor to that stage and when she does she’ll write a book and make a fortune. We both laugh. I suggest it could be her belief in keeping a rehearsal room as free as possible. If you’re allowed to play in rehearsal you’ll continue to play on stage? She agrees and adds that she is too self-conscious to be an actor.  If you are aware of yourself it makes it difficult to engage with or listen. The best way to stop this happening, that she has come across, is to do as much detailed work as possible so that you can always cling onto and lose yourself in the detail. However, and this then is the skill of a great actor, you mustn’t lose sight of the fact that you are telling a story to an audience. “You are telling something to somebody else who is watching you and you can never quite forget that. If you try and make it real life then you lose some of the elements that make it interesting as theatre” The actors craft, we then decide, is to get caught up in something and still share it with a stranger. The number of actors keen to work with her and the success of her productions suggests that whilst she may not be able to put into words how she does it, she does lead her actors to this delicate balance of putting themselves aside, getting caught up in the play and, most importantly sharing it with their audience .

BLANCHE’S ADVICE TO ACTORS ABOUT HOW TO WORK WITH DIRECTORS

Speak up and Trust Your Instincts. “Be prepared to like your Director, because most of the time if they are being a right bastard it’s because they are scared and sometimes you may need to reach out to them and say I like what you said I can use that and then the director will relax.” Be prepared to say when it does work and when it doesn’t as it puts a director at ease.  Value your contribution. Be prepared to talk through what you are feeling, specifically. Be prepared for directors to not know what they are doing, they will have bad ideas and if they are good people they will recognise they have steered you wrong.

 “The thing is it’s such a fucking hard life, you should be paid in pleasure, especially at the level we’re at; if it’s not rewarding you in the value you get out of the gig itself, ‘cos it’s almost certainly not going to be rewarding you in terms of money, then you shouldn’t be doing it and if it’s not then you can take steps towards making it that way.”

Blanche’s next project is Liar Liar at The Unicorn Theatre 2013

Copyright @ Jemma Gross 2012

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