“I felt like I’d reached a point in my career where I needed to challenge my ways of working, get more experience in bigger spaces and go back to learning again.”
In our latest JMK Blog, our recent JMK South West bursary recipient Marcus Bazley discusses his experience working on Beauty and the Beast, the Christmas production at Wiltshire Creative.
Why did you apply for the JMK Trust Assistant Director bursary?
I had been looking for (and applying for) opportunities to assist at regional venues for a while. Wiltshire Creative is a venue that I know well and had wanted to build a stronger relationship with so it seemed like the ideal place to make that first step into working in main house regional spaces.
I had been making a lot of my own work as a director for the past few years and done very little assisting. I felt like I’d reached a point in my career where I needed to challenge my ways of working, get more experience in bigger spaces and go back to learning again.
The opportunity to assist on a pantomime too – with all the elements of music, dance and set – seemed like a really full and rich way of getting the most out of an assisting job. I knew Ryan McBryde had directed the pantomime at Salisbury with great success for a number of years, so I was excited to see how he would work with the actors and production team to bring all the different elements together.
What were your main tasks as the Assistant Director?
The Assistant Director is a strange role that seems to not only vary from production to production but often from day to day. I think the main thing I realised on this job was that the Assistant’s main role is to fill whatever gap there is in the room at any particular time.
In the early stages of rehearsals, that’s being a sounding board and keeping a record of the staging. Working closely with Stage Management to help preempt any tight costume changes or impossible set changes before we fix anything that comes back to haunt us in tech.
At the same time, you’re the route into the rehearsal room for the marketing team. So writing rehearsal room blogs and taking the odd cheeky photo becomes part of the job.
Different actors also use you in different ways. Some actors use you as a route to the director – raising any issues or concerns they have with you first. Some actors run ideas by you first to see what you think before they show it to the director. Similarly, stage management might be running notes through you, to pass onto the director when the time seems right.
With this production, we had understudies to rehearse. So one of my main tasks was to create an understudy plot and rehearse the understudies so that they would be ready to go on if needed. The biggest challenges with this were the constantly changing script and the lack of time. All the understudies were on stage either as swings or in other roles so much that we only had a handful of short rehearsals to get them all ready. But we got there and when they were needed, watching them perform in their cover roles was one of the most nerve-wracking and rewarding experiences of my career so far!
What are three things you learnt from working on this production?
Be available to people: your role as an assistant is almost to be everyone’s friend! You need to be the one that people can come and talk to. If they’re having a problem, they should be able to come and share that with you, but equally if they have a great creative idea you want them to feel they can go through that with you too.
Structure: three weeks, plus one week of tech, is not a long time to rehearse a show like Beauty and the Beast. Something I will definitely take away is the precision with which the time was scheduled. Making sure the cast know what scenes they’re going to be working on that day in advance. Simple things like having your lunch break at 1:30pm instead of 1pm so that the day is neatly divided into two sets of 3 hours, with a tea break half way through the morning and the afternoon. It sounds silly but it gives everyone a really clear routine and helps establish a rhythm in the room.
Don’t be afraid to share a problem: sometimes you simply cannot do everything yourself and that’s fine. There’s a whole team around to support (and crack the whip!) if needed. If you’ve built good relationships early in the production, these people will really help you later on!
How was the experience different to what you may have expected?
In many ways, it was exactly as I expected just bigger and better; occasionally more stressful and always more glittery!!
What other projects are you working on, and how will they be influenced by this bursary?
I’m currently working on a couple of projects with my company, Cyphers. We have an R&D week on our new adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando at Wiltshire Creative in February, followed by work-in-progress performances at the Nuffield Southampton in March. We then tour our production of Northanger Abbey again in April and May.
The main influence the bursary will have is stronger ties with Wiltshire Creative. It now feels like a local venue that I can have meaningful conversations with, both for the development of my own work and that of the company.
I also think I will take a lot away from the structure of the Beauty and the Beast rehearsals. There was a very clear sense of order to the day and where we were aiming to be when, which I’ll definitely bring into my work – especially when re-rehearsing Northanger over just five days in April.
What support would you now like to receive at this stage of your career?
More opportunities to work on and learn from main house productions. Working on productions where you have a full, continuous rehearsal period with a full production team is something that you get very rarely as a young director – yet this is the norm within the established profession.
Just the opportunity to be in the room with more experienced directors and see how they work. There’s always something to steal or make your own, or even something that just confirms why you work in the way that you do.
Why is it important for local theatre-directors and makers to be supported through the JMK bursaries and Regional Programme?
The JMK bursaries and Regional Programme really is vital. I don’t think people are aware of just how much of an impact the JMK has on theatre in this country.
On a personal level, the opportunity to assist on Beauty and the Beast has given me so much confidence and self-belief. It has given me the assurance that I can work on a bigger scale, it has already opened up doors for me and I’m sure it will continue to do so.
More broadly, the JMK bursaries allow regional venues to have assistant directors where they wouldn’t have the budget for them otherwise. This allows venues to make bolder work and work of higher quality. It introduces regional theatres to a new generation of directors and theatre makers that they can nurture and support.
Marcus Bazley is the Co-Artistic Director of Cyphers Theatre Company.
This bursary was kindly supported by the Leverhulme Trust.
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