Director Louise Hill trained at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School before achieving success at the Finborough Theatre with sell-out revivals of two neglected J.M. Barrie plays, What Every Woman Knows and Quality Street, for which she was nominated for an Off West End Award. She tells Catherine Love about her career and why she is returning to the Finborough to direct Sutton Vane’s Outward Bound.
I suppose I started in the usual way, at university. I did some directing there and at the Edinburgh Fringe in the summers. Then I came down to London and I was a lawyer for a few years, directing fringe shows in between. I reached the point where I had to make a decision one way or the other and I knew what I really wanted to do, so I applied to Bristol Old Vic Theatre School to do their directing course.
How important was your training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School to your development as a director?
It was particularly important for me because I came from quite a text based background, so it was helpful in terms of having access to lots of actors and being able to try different things out with them. I also assisted a couple of directors there who worked in very different styles to those I was familiar with. After doing another job at the same time as directing, it was good to have a year of just being immersed in it. Being able to explore without having the pressure of coming up with a production at the end of four weeks was really useful.
What did you learn from the experience of assisting other directors?
I assisted Philip Wilson at the Salisbury Playhouse a few times and he’s a very interesting director to work with. He’s incredibly precise and he’s very good at drawing performances out of actors without telling them exactly what he wants them to do. I also got to learn a bit about how a building works, which you obviously don’t get at drama school. It was a really inspiring experience and made me think that this was definitely what I wanted to do.
Who else inspired you at the beginning of your directing career?
Lots of people in lots of different ways! I grew up in Manchester so I spent a lot of time going to shows at the Royal Exchange and that was probably my first inspiration. I also find companies like Punchdrunk really inspiring; the way they can create a world that the audience feels as though they’re immersed in. I’m particularly interested in how you create a world that an audience can access and feel engaged with, so in some ways, although my inspirations are quite different, they all have something to do with that.
You have worked with a lot of classic or older texts as a director. Are you particularly drawn to those older plays rather than to new writing?
In some ways, when I’m working on the kind of rediscoveries that the Finborough specialises in, it can feel like new writing because neither the actors nor the audience have seen the play before, so no one comes to it with preconceived ideas. Again it’s to do with that idea of creating a very specific world, because older plays have a period setting that is sometimes quite challenging for a modern audience to engage with. The challenge is to let them into that world so that they want to go on the journey with you.
How do you go about reviving these sorts of plays for modern audiences?
With each of the rediscoveries at the Finborough, it wasn’t just a question of putting on a play that hadn’t been done for a long time. Both Neil [McPherson, the artistic director] and I read lots of plays, and the reason I was drawn to each of the plays was because there was something in them that I could relate to. Once you’ve got that personal link, it makes it easier to find that link for other people. Although the dialogue in the plays is very much from another period, the heart of the story and the nature of the characters carry over the years. So with each of those plays it’s been about honouring that period but not playing it as a museum piece. We find a way of making these characters speak and behave that a contemporary audience can relate to.
Neil had wanted to do it for a long time, and so after I’d done the two J.M. Barrie plays he suggested it to me and I thought it was a good challenge. I was most excited initially about doing a play in the intimate space of the Finborough that was set on a cruise ship! We’ve tried to make the audience feel as though they’re in the room on the cruise ship. We’re playing almost in the round, so hopefully the audience feel part of the world in which the action takes place.
And what was it about this play that you felt was relevant to modern audiences?
I think it contains a real array of characters, so it was the human interest which first attracted me. Every character has a story that’s given equal weight and it has quite a few twists and turns. Also it’s a play with lots of shifts in tone; the play that you think you’ve come to see at the beginning isn’t necessarily the way the action plays out.
Do you hope to continue rediscovering these neglected texts for new audiences?
Yes I’d love to. I think that the exciting thing about working on rediscoveries is that you inevitably end up going back and reading what the initial audiences made of the play. Then when you sit down and the house lights go down, you know that a new audience is going to hopefully feel the same way and have the same responses. In that way it’s just as exciting as working on a completely new play. Having worked on these plays that haven’t been performed for a long time, I’m even more excited about uncovering plays that might otherwise be lost.