JMK Assistant Director bursary recipient Kolbrún Björt Sigfúsdóttir gives us an insight into working on Ulster American at the Traverse Theatre and what she’s up to next…
Why did you apply for the JMK Trust Assistant Director bursary?
I’d been wanting to work for the Traverse as an assistant director for a while and I’d applied for their assistant director positions a few times before. When I saw that the JMK bursary this summer was to aid someone to assist on the new David Ireland play I knew I had to apply. As someone who fell for theatre very much due to my introduction to in-yer-face I felt sure that this was going to be the kind of show I’d want to work on, knowing David’s reputation and rising profile. Having seen a few of Gareth Nicholls’ shows and been very impressed with his style, sense of storytelling, choice of subject matter and skill of staging I knew there was a lot I could learn from him. As someone who is carving out a career in directing new writing, it was a unique opportunity to be part of something special. When we got to read the script ahead of our interviews I got super excited about the prospect of being part of it. It is such a visceral play, it skewers its characters and their world views fearlessly and it takes the piss out of itself all the time. It’s not often you come across a play like this and I felt very privileged to be reading it, let alone given to opportunity to be part of staging it.
What are 3 things you learnt from working on this production?
There was so much I learnt from being an assistant on Ulster American. I had never worked on a black comedy before. I hadn’t been part of a professional team working on a brand new text and I hadn’t been part of anything so politically dangerous to present.
I guess the first main lesson was how to pitch a black comedy like this, and that comes down to what you are wanting to say with the production. There are different ways to play this text but how it is played says a lot about the intent behind it. It took us a while to find where exactly to pitch this show and each new audience influenced this a little. It was a schooling for me, as someone who had predominantly worked on drama, to be working with material that felt volatile, responsive and fluid in the room in terms of how it hits you and what it says.
This fed into the second lesson, which was how you approach dangerous subject matters. It has been incredibly meaningful to me to be able to discuss this work with audiences, artists, fellow creatives and to see it discussed in criticism and online. I think the best thing about theatre is its liveness, the fact that it happens here and now. But there are degrees in which playtexts speak to their contemporary socio-political contexts. This was a play that needed to be performed in front of an audience here and now. Not in six months, it was pressing and urgent. And as such it felt dangerous, it felt like it was a huge statement. We needed to treat that with a delicate touch, to discuss the connotations of the play, its history, context, politics and ideas thoroughly within the rehearsal room but not on our social media and our press outputs. It was important that the audience saw it without too much knowledge of how it might be interpreted to maintain an honest dialogue with them. In short, we really had to do our homework but we needed not to lecture anyone on the findings unless specifically asked. It was quite a task, I have fifty pages of basic research on it, with links to loads more!
In terms of the third lesson, the one on how to work on new text, it is the one hardest to share. Each new text will have different needs. But my main take away from this experience is to really interrogate the text, to keep an eye on its dramaturgy at all times and keep an open communication between the writer and the director and the cast. It was a joy to work with a team of actors and a director who are used to this process and with a writer who embraces it. It was so obvious we all wanted this text to be the very best it could and I think new writing needs that kind of passion.
What surprised you about the production?
What didn’t? I guess my main surprise was the audience reaction. We anticipated strong reactions but I don’t think anyone could have imagined the almost football match levels of engagement and vocal reactions we had during some of the performances. Some reactions were completely different to what I expected. A laugh in a place I didn’t foresee mainly but a few shock and horror reactions in places I didn’t expect as well.
What other projects are you working on, and what ideas will you apply from this bursary?
I am working on quite a few small cast, intimate new writing pieces and this experience will influence a lot of the work we do on them. I’m in development for a few new plays and having had this experience I feel a lot more qualified to lead those processes. It has made me a better dramaturg and a bigger enthusiast for the magic of the in-rehearsal rewrites, for sure! I think I will be more likely to push for shows to really go for the guts in their approach to their subject matters, and I hope I can lead artistic teams to that end. Now is the time to be brave and say the wrong things so that we can interrogate them.
What advice would you give for directors starting out, and for those setting up a theatre company?
Having just directed a version of Hamlet (currently touring) with my own company I guess the words ‘To thy own self be true’ feel really important to me right now. There are gigs out there that are good money, but don’t do shows because of that. Do them because they say something you want to say, explore something you want to explore, scratch a creative itch in a way you need it to be scratched and you can be proud of. And if a production doesn’t do any of those things, find a way to make them. Challenge the content and the team. It has to be relevant, to you, to the audience, and to the journey you both are on.
What excites you most about theatre directing?
Everything. I think being in a rehearsal room is the best feeling any job could give me. It is a chance to create, a chance to aid, a chance to surprise, a chance to grow, a chance to challenge, a chance to learn, a chance to teach, a chance to listen and a chance to be heard. It is a collaborative process that cannot be replicated or quantified and it always happens for a reason. I just think it’s beautiful.
Kolbrún Björt Sigfúsdóttir is the Artistic Director of Brite Theater.
Brite Theater’s Hamlet (an experience), (Richard III (a one-woman show) and (Can This Be) Home are currently touring.