JMK Assistant Director Blog – Gemma Aked-Priestley

We asked Gemma Aked-Priestley (JMK Assistant Director bursary recipient for 'The Shadow Factory', Nuffield Southampton Theatres) for an insight into the bursary experience, some tips for directors starting out and a few ultimate ambitions...


photo credit: Liv Fowler

Why did you apply for the JMK Trust bursary? 

Nuffield Southampton Theatres has always been special to me. I grew up in Southampton and subsequently it was at the Nuffield where I saw my first piece of professional theatre (it was 2008 and I was on an A level Drama trip, the production was the hauntingly beautiful Frantic Assembly’s Othello. I will never forget it). From the moment I decided that I wanted to pursue a career as a theatre director one of my goals was to direct something back in my home city. The summer I graduated from Mountview, where I had been studying for an MA in Theatre Directing, I emailed Hannah Bevan (NST Studio Producer) and we arranged a chat. After this initial meeting I started developing a relationship with NST. I directed a short piece for their Laboratory new writing night, attended a week long producing course, saw shows at the venue, applied for assistant directing jobs (both applications were unsuccessful) and carried out an R&D supported by NST, the Arts Council and the Bunker Theatre. Approximately a year and a half after this initial chat I saw that the JMK were advertising a bursary for an assistant director for The Shadow Factory. By this stage I was was steadily building confidence in my understanding of the theatre and my own practice so I put in an application – fortunately I was offered the position. This project felt particularly relevant to me as my long-term goal is to spearhead a regional theatre as an artistic director and assisting on The Shadow Factory meant that I got to work closely with NST’s artistic director, Sam Hodges. It was an incredibly valuable opportunity.


What are three things you learnt from working on the production?

  1. Listening is the most important skill you can develop as a director.
  2. As an assistant director, you should always have your headline thoughts ready to relay to your director. I learnt this from The Shadow Factory’s associate director, Anthony Lau, who was a fantastic mentor to me. Headlines are essentially your top three thoughts about the piece as a whole. The director will be receiving notes from a wide range of creatives so as an assistant director whittling down an ocean of notes to three concise and digestible thoughts will be incredibly helpful to your director. The likelihood is that you will not get asked for you headline thoughts on a daily basis but it’s good practice to have them prepared just in case.
  3. Relationships trump everything. As well as working hard to do an excellent job as an assistant director it’s just as important to be a charming and fun person to be around.


What's your next project?

I’m currently directing the European premiere of Gracie by Joan MacLeod at the Finborough Theatre starring Carla Langley (The Ferryman, Orca, Cuddles). Carla is utterly compelling to watch and a dream to work with. Gracie is a gripping and life-affirming one-woman show about a young girl growing up in a polygamous cult. It is inspired by the notorious Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints communities in Canada and the USA. The production is partnered with Refuge Charity, the UK’s largest provider of support and services to women and children suffering from domestic abuse.

I am also supporting Indigo Griffiths dramaturgically and as a director on her latest project, Passing, a new play that exposes the controversial practice of “racial passing” - the use of skin colour as a form of social currency. Set in Chicago, 1941, Joey, John and Eliza are siblings but their lives are about to take different paths. Joey is embracing the New Negro Movement, John is breaking barriers at college and Eliza is preparing to pass as white. In a world where everything is determined by race, what can you gain by concealing who you are, and more importantly what can you lose? In August 2017 we undertook Arts Council funded R&D and recently we shared a rehearsed reading of the piece at RADA supported by the Women@RADA network. We’re currently in talks trying to finalise our creative partners in order to mount a fully realised production for 2019. I am very excited about the future of this project.


What have you always wanted to direct? 

My passion is new writing so whenever I’m considering what my next project might be, I naturally focus on what writers I’d like to collaborate with and what new stories we might tell together. I would love to direct plays based on the lives and music of Amy Winehouse and Eminem. At the moment I am obsessed with the notion of trans-identity and I'm considering directing an epic adaptation of The Passion Of New Eve by Angela Carter as well as collaborating closely with a writer to create new work inspired by the lives of Rachel Dolezal and Gayle Newland.


If you could direct a cast of anyone from history, who would it be?

Sheridan Smith

Uzo Aduba

James McAvoy

Viola Davis

D.J Pierce

Daniel Kaluuya

Marlene Dietrich

Robin Williams

Yoshi Oida

Kate Winslet


What advice would you give to directors starting out?

Where to start? Take a deep breath, dig your heels in and get ready for the ride!

I think the two key pieces of advice I would give to directors who are just starting out are, to be brave and develop a strong point of view. Get to know yourself and strive to be the most you you can be. Only tell stories that excite and resonate with you. Seek out stories that are untold and stories that will bring something new to the conversation. Never be afraid of making mistakes creatively. In my experience the most daring work is born from taking creative risks which inevitably means there will be creative highs and lows. Embrace that.

Another thing people may not realise when they’re just starting out is that this industry is made up of some of the most generous and genuinely supportive people you will ever meet. Never be afraid to ask for help. Being a little bit cheeky has got me a long way! Email one of your favourite creatives (you may have to do some internet stalking to find their or their agent’s email addresses) and politely explain how much you admire them and ask if it’s possible to shadow rehearsals or to meet for coffee. Do your homework and only contact people who you genuinely admire and would love to glean a deeper insight into their process. One of my initial assistant directing gigs was born out of an exchange just like that, and I’ve now developed a wonderful relationship both professionally and personally with a director who I’ve admired for years. It’s important to find your tribe of theatre makers whose work you want to champion and who want to champion your work too. Organisations like The Mono Box are fantastic networks where you can participate in workshops, gain top tips at industry Q&A sessions and thrive in an environment that’s set up to help like-minded artists connect. I cannot sing their praises enough.

What else... When you’re first starting out engage with a wide range of art forms created by a diversity of artists. See and read as much as possible (without breaking the bank of course. Finances will be tight for most directors who are just starting out so make sure you have a budgeting system and various side jobs in place to support yourself). Be kind to yourself. Celebrate your mini victories. In fact be kind to everyone you encounter (from artistic directors to the bar staff at the venue).

And finally… remember that theatre directing is a long game. It’s crucial to be hungry but you also have to cultivate patience and perspective over (what we all hope will be) long and fruitful careers. Focus on your own journey and try not to compare yourself to others around you. Create work out of love not out of fear.


What career advice would you like to receive right now?

I would love to find out more about how directors find work as resident or associate directors on large scale West End shows. I adore directing theatre with small casts in intimate spaces but equally I appreciate the thrill of a theatrical spectacle and would relish the opportunity to gain experience in a West End environment.


What excites you most about directing?

What most excites me about directing is the inherent liveness of theatre. There is an energy, an electricity that comes from live performance which I can’t get enough of. There’s nothing more satisfying to me then leading a team in the creation of a play that’s fizzing with liveness. I also adore watching audiences, particularly audiences made up of people who don’t necessarily work in the arts. I find it so joyful to witness how a story can move people, whether they’re tearing up, gasping in disbelief or shaking with laughter.


Gemma is a member of our JMK Directors' Group at Nuffield Southampton Theatres and was recently awarded our Assistant Director bursary to work on the inaugural production at their new venue, NST City - 'The Shadow Factory' by Howard Brenton, directed by Sam Hodges.  This JMK Assistant Director bursary was supported by The Leverhulme Trust.

Find out how to join your nearest JMK Directors' Group here.