“Have confidence in yourself and your ideas, and if directing is something you want to do, stick to it. It took me three tries before I got the JMK bursary but when I finally got there it was the most incredible experience, and even during my unsuccessful applications I got to meet and talk to some really exciting directors.”
In our latest blog, JMK Assistant Director bursary recipient, Lucy Bird reflects on her experience of working on The Lovely Bones, a Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Royal & Derngate, Northampton and Northern Stage co-production in association with Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse.
Why did you apply for the JMK Trust Assistant Director bursary?
I had unsuccessfully applied for the bursary a few times before The Lovely Bones. It is a fantastic opportunity to develop professional experience as an assistant, as well as getting to learn from a working director on a large-scale production. What particularly drew me to The Lovely Bones was the chance to work on an adaptation of such a prescient story at the time – one which puts the voice of a 14-year-old girl front and centre. I also particularly wanted to work with the director, Melly Still, as she is well known for her strong visual approach to directing, making incredible use of sound, lighting, set design and movement to harness the power of the story she is telling. This is something I felt I lacked in my own experience and skill set as a director, and would particularly gain from working with her on this project.
What are the main things you learnt from the rehearsal process for this production?
Being an assistant on this process was the most incredible opportunity to sit right at the heart of the production and have an active role in pulling it together. This gave me the chance to learn the detailed nuts and bolts of how a production works, from stage management sourcing props to working with Equity guidelines.
For me, the most useful things I learnt were about collaboration – an integral part of Melly’s process. I came to understand how you can work with other creatives on the team and give them enough licence to produce their best work within the world of your production.
I also learnt a lot about fortitude as a director, about how to be secure in your artistic vision and stick to your guns so that your creative vision isn’t compromised, whilst also listening, understanding and working with the wider team to make that possible.
What did you learn from touring the show?
It was amazing to see how the show developed on the road, and I learnt a lot about how to note a continuing performance in a way that helps it to grow within the original ideas that were set up in the rehearsal room.
The Lovely Bones toured to incredibly different venues, from thrust stages (such as The Liverpool Everyman) to vast end-on stages (like Northern Stage). This presented the challenge of adjusting the staging, and sometimes performances to suit these new venues and audiences. It was amazing to see how skillfully this was done by the company and also the new discoveries in the show that came in each unique space and audience.
It cemented my belief in the importance of supporting regional theatre, that the audiences are there and have enormous generosity, intelligence and hunger for brilliant art.
What surprised you most about the production?
I was amazed by the power of this production and no matter how many times I watched it, it still had the capacity to catch me with something new and send me off kilter. It was exhilarating.
What are you working on next, and how will this experience help?
I’ve already assisted on a rehearsal and development week at the Warwick Arts Centre since the show ended, and can attest to how much my confidence and understanding of what the role of an assistant can be has developed. A direct product of what I learnt from, and the generosity of the team I worked with on, The Lovely Bones, is that I now have more belief in my right to be in the rehearsal room and the validity of my opinions (and when they are or are not useful).
Next, I’m directing two productions by my own company Paperback, Me and My Doll and We Need to Talk About Bobby (off EastEnders) which will be performed at The Old Joint Stock in Birmingham and The Space in London. As well as the confidence I have gained, I will also be taking with me a greater knowledge of how to communicate and execute my visual ideas and a more nuanced understanding of how to get the most from my performers.
Why is it important to have Assistant Director roles such as the JMK Leverhulme bursary?
As an aspiring director, assisting is one of the most useful ways to develop your skills, learn from other directors and get an in-depth understanding of the rehearsal room and production process. However, it can be really hard to get paid assisting work – making it totally inaccessible to so many of us. Bursaries such as these make it a possibility. Moreover, assisting can be a really intensive role where you are doing a huge amount of work and preparation in and out of the rehearsal room, a properly funded position gives the role the value it deserves, allowing it to be utilised properly.
Also the attachment of the JMK Leverhulme bursary to particular regional venues, and their stipulation that you should be committed to making work and living in that area, is incredibly important in supporting and valuing the development of regional arts, and helps to make up for the lack of regional opportunities in comparison to London.
Finally, getting a role as an Assistant Director can be a process shrouded in mystery, networking and contacts. The clarity and openness of the JMK bursary application again makes it feel more accessible to skilled emerging directors who don’t already have a footing the arts industry.
What advice would you pass on from this experience?
Have confidence in yourself and your ideas, and if directing is something you want to do, stick to it. It took me three tries before I got the JMK bursary but when I finally got there it was the most incredible experience, and even during my unsuccessful applications I got to meet and talk to some really exciting directors.
Know why you want to direct theatre, even if that is something that keeps changing; it’s important to cling to that when it feels difficult – either in a tricky process, a moment of artistic doubt or when you’re working towards getting your next gig.
Always be open to learning from others, and when you’re working on a production get to know the whole team, the people working on production, stage management, technical and design have incredible insight into the process and what goes into making a really brilliant show.
Know your value and importance in the process; even though you might have to take on tasks which seem like small fry in comparison to the other things going on, everything you do has a direct impact on the production. Making yourself helpful to others, keeping note of what is happening during rehearsals and knowing when to share your opinion is integral to helping the show be the best it can be.
Finally enjoy it; although it can be a tiring experience, it’s an incredible privilege to be doing a role like this as your job. If you’re not enjoying it, work out why.
What excites you most about directing?
I absolutely love telling stories and always have. I love that as a director you have the chance to share so many different stories with your audiences, and what I find most exciting is the challenge of making people care, changing their minds and /or provoking discussion.