JMK Assistant Director Blog – Holly Gallagher


My name is Holly Gallagher - I'm a director, theatre maker, and facilitator based in Teesside in the North East of England, and I am the most recent recipient of the JMK Assistant Director Bursary in the region!

I was eager to take on the role of JMK Assistant Director for Mark Calvert's Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune at Northern Stage for a few reasons. Firstly because I've been a member of the JMK group in Newcastle for a few years now, however activity with the group has always been fairly quiet. So I was well up for the challenge of organising some activity for the group around the show! Directing is a lonely occupation, and I really think having a support system around who understand the work is important (I'm also very excited to see what happens with the group now that the excellent Maria Crocker is around!)

Secondly because I'm frustrated with the lack of paid assisting and directing work in the North East in general. Our opportunities to train beyond directing 10 minute shorts are few and far between - instead we must find writers, and produce shows off our own backs if we want to make work happen. There is a void in training in our region where directors have to move further afoot, most often not to another region but to London, to get the experience they need to push their practice to the next level (and to be paid whilst doing it). The JMK Trust is a godsend to directors like myself who are desperate for more paid work, and more opportunity to observe, develop, and grow as practitioners by seeing how other directors approach work.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly as an assistant, because I love Mark Calvert's work. His work at Northern Stage with The Letter Room, Theatre Hoodang, and of course his Christmas Show Extravaganzas are always engrossing, visually stunning, and a great watch! Mark is also a pillar within the North East for developing new companies and emerging artists. He is at the helm of NORTH, Northern Stage's emerging actor/company training programme, and he programmes some of the most exciting work to come to the region in the building's Stage 3. He believes in helping artists to grow and develop within the region, and I knew that he would bring this same mindset and ethos to directing with an assistant in the room.

Taking on this mammoth text with Mark gave me insight into how he approached work far more text-heavy than the work he would typically select (and if I'm honest I'd still love to see how he takes on a Christmas show - full of imagery and on an epic scale!). As a director and theatre maker I love text: digging into it, understanding its logic, considering how an audience will read a scene and what this means in a wider context of 2018. So I brought this skill-set into the room to assist Mark as best I could with the challenge ahead of us.

We focused on the debate at the heart of the play: Can you fall in love with someone in just one night, without knowing them? Knowing full well that our audience would be on the side of Frankie, and Johnny had to achieve the virtually impossible.

We looked at how to stage a piece of intimate work, a two-hander, in the largest space at Northern Stage. We worked in traverse and had a constant eye on sight lines for our audiences. We worked as a small company, and took care to ensure our actors remained refreshed and working to their best standard on longer days - knowing full well the amount of energy a text like Frankie & Johnny requires.

We looked into the text and some of its trickier and more problematic content: going in we knew that the text didn't strictly translate well into 2018, and we had to really consider the nuance needed for Johnny's performance to navigate this.

We worked collaboratively: Mark is a generous director, and ensured that my voice was valid and listened to within the room. He gave excellent, hands-on experience to me as an assistant which I know I am lucky to receive, and helped to build my confidence within a rehearsal room to new heights! It's really refreshing to me as an artist to see a director work non-traditionally and truly collaboratively: our entire creative team had a voice and it made the atmosphere in rehearsals all the better for it.

I was given the kind of insight into a rehearsal process that you miss when making small scale touring work. I had access to a full creative team, to production meetings with dozens of people in the room, to costume fittings, to set familiarisation, to a tech run, and previews, and press. I got to see Mark work on a text which he hadn't personally selected, and how this challenged him to use a process outside of his comfort zone as a result: all the while instilling confidence in his company. I could ask questions about all of this, and see how a director approaches and problem solves along every step of this process!

I'm truly grateful that the JMK opened a door for me into this experience. I now feel more confident in my practice and my approach to work, and am beyond eager to assist more directors at similar scales and larger! This experience was a vital stepping stone for me, and I hope will prove the first of many paid assistant roles as I continue to train myself as a director. Paid assisting work truly is the most essential kind of training for regional directors and long may the JMK continue to provide it!

Image result for frankie and johnny northern stage

Holly Gallagher was our JMK Assistant Director bursary recipient on Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune at Northern Stage. This bursary was generously supported by the Leverhulme Trust.

Click here to find out more about the JMK National Programme, including our Assistant Director bursaries and Directors' Groups.