Here’s the first of several spotlights on British stage directors. Have a great remainder of the week!
Meet Darren A. Furniss
Current Town: East Midlands, UK
Theatre Affiliation: Artistic Director of 4FRONT Performance Company
1. What does a director eat for breakfast?
I usually don’t eat breakfast so I function on a strong coffee with sugar in the morning.
2. What attracted you to directing?
The challenge and responsibility to create other worlds with actors. I love working with actors. I started out as an actor, so I understand their process, their worries and fears. I have a deep and profound respect for the actor and the power that they can manifest to an audience on stage. It is working with actors and creating a living story with them that attracts me.
3. Did you receive academic and/or practical training in directing? And how has (not) having this formal education/training shaped your directing career?
I received a BA (Hons) in Drama, but I had no direct training as a director. I was given the opportunity to direct whilst studying at University and I was given the freedom to do so and for that I am extremely grateful. University opened doors to the many practices in theatre, but I realized that intellectual theory in theatre means nothing if you can’t put it into practice. It is in the practice of theatre making where I am most comfortable.
4. Which director (or other theatre artist) (dead or alive) has had the greatest impact on you as a director?
It would have to be Peter Brook. His search for the universal in theatre is something that I look for in each of my projects. He has simple, beautiful and minimalist approach to his productions which cleverly highlights the complexity of the human characters in his plays, a universal complexity that we all share.
5. In your personal library, what is the most indispensable text on the craft of directing? Or, alternately, have books/practical guides proven unhelpful?
Wow, I have a lot of books that I dip into from time to time. It often depends on the particular project that I’m working on. I like to take most of my inspiration and guidance on directing from life itself.
If I had to name one book it would be Brook’s, ‘The Empty Space’. Every time I read it I take away something new that I can apply to a production or a workshop. ‘The Empty Space’ gets you to think anew and to look at things from a different perspective, which is always important.
6. Defend/Describe the importance of ‘the director’ in contemporary British theatre. (Has the director’s place/status changed in the time you have been directing?)
The director is the actor’s window to the outside world. She/he is the actor’s audience during the process of preparation. I believe that the actors make the director, just as much as the director makes the actors. I think that the place of the director depends on the project and the actors you are working with.
The role of the director has changed and is constantly changing. We have always worked under systems in theatre which demand profits. These systems force theatre producers and venue managers to minimize risk. As the economy worsens, so too does the support for risk taking theatre. Theatre projects have to fall into tighter and tighter categories if they are to get funded. Therefore it is becoming harder and harder for a director to maintain artistic integrity. He/she constantly has to battle conformity and artistic restraint from those that would impose it. I don’t think that it’s going to get better anytime soon.
7. How would you characterize/describe your own directing style?
I’m an experimentalist. I love to explore. I like to think that I don’t have any one particular style or approach. I try to be as open as possible to each particular project and explore as many approaches and styles as possible to find what works best and will ultimately serve the particular story we are telling.
8. To block or not to block, that is the question. Do you block before rehearsals begin, in the midst of rehearsals, or not at all, and why?
I think that the word block or blocking has problems of its own. There is a danger for the actors and directors when using this terminology to do just that, block.
Again, each production is different and depends on the kind of story you are working on. I like to ‘work through’ or ‘explore’ the play. I try to maintain a certain amount of freedom in a production but that is ultimately dependent on the skill of the actors you are working with and the time that you have to rehearse.
9. What quirks, habits, rituals, etc. (if any) inform your directing process?
I always workshop actors before we start work on the play. The workshops focus on heightened awareness, body language and body signs. Heightened awareness of physical communication from performer to audience is paramount in my work. It is only after this that we will begin looking at the story.
I initially work with the actors in rehearsal by being up there with them, in the midst of the action (I guess that’s the actor in me). As the process goes on I gradually move away from the action and become more and more, the outside eye until I become just a voice from the seats of the theatre.
10. What style/type of work do you find most compelling to direct? If you have an area of specialization, what are the unique challenges/needs of directing this kind of work?
I love to work on anything that will be a challenge to me as a director, but more importantly to an audience. The most compelling work is the kind of work which strikes a chord in the hearts of us all as human beings, regardless of class, religion, gender and status.
I don’t think that I specialize in any particular method or practice, but I do look at body language and signs. What I like to do is explore established methods and practices and look for possible new approaches to acting from them. The main challenge I always face isn’t necessarily an artistic one, but one of time, space and money. We can all empathize with that.
11. What is your fondest directing experience/memory?
My fondest memory was J, D and Coke, a play that I had written and directed. It also launched the beginning of 4FRONT Performance Company. The buzz around that play before, during and after was incredible. I look forward to doing that play again in the future.
12. What is the most challenging work you have directed to date? Why?
It was last year when we did a showcase performance of our devised play, ‘Fragments’. It was complete physical theatre, which I had never done before. It opened many new doors to me in terms of possibility for new ways of storytelling. It was a great experience and perhaps the most universal play I have done so far.
13. What advice would you give to a young or aspiring director?
Take your main inspiration for theatre from life. The more you go out and experience it the better you will be in the rehearsal space. Look for truth in life and you will find it better in your work.
14. What is your current directing project?
I’m currently preparing for ‘Strindberg’s Ghosts’, which is a play that I am writing. It explores the private life of Strindberg and focuses on the three failed marriages in his life. The play explores his conflicts with love and in doing so exposes our own.
We’re preparing a tour for next year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death.
Thanks, Darren! I second your advice for young/aspriring directors!