Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director

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So you want to be the next Sam Mendes. Here's how...

Some of the most famous names in theatre started out as assistant directors. But what does the job involve?

By Geraint Lewis, Independent on Sunday, 13 January 2002

If there's one subject the theatre loves to tackle, it's the theatre. But where current West End hits like Star Quality, Noises Off and Kiss Me Kate deliriously play up theatrical glitz, bitching and incompetence, a new play at the Royal Court evokes the passionate commitment that first made the Court's work famous. And it puts onstage, for perhaps the first time, a largely invisible theatre job, first invented at the Court: the assistant director.

Peter Gill's The York Realist, which opened last week, is set at the time of the Court's early Sixties heyday. It charts the intense, unlikely relationship that John, a budding director in the Royal Court mould, strikes up with an amateur actor. John has travelled from London to be the assistant director on a production of the Mystery Plays in York; when George, a farmhand and one of the cast, drops out, John determines to bring him back. He has realised that George has boundless natural talent he is, as Gill puts it, "not a fake." And John wants his director to have the best.

But when a boy in the play asks, "what's the assistant director do, like?" the only clear answer he gets is "Chase our George up". Which says a lot about the contradictions of this strange, slightly artificial job, which has become an almost compulsory step on the path to directorial glory. It can involve everything from researching historical background to rehearsing the understudies or sitting quietly in the corner getting bored.

It was created in the late Fifties by the Court's pedagogical godfather George Devine, as an apprenticeship for young directorial talent. Gill's long, successful career as a director and writer began, in 1964, when he became an assistant at the Court and he remains rooted in the rigorous, pared-down approach he absorbed there. "We were given a lot of responsibility," he says. "We were expected to have views."

Gill has worked with assistants on most of his own productions since, and relishes having someone to share problems with. His assistant director on The York Realist, Josie Rourke, says he has involved her in everything from casting to finding his pen. However, Gill and Rourke clearly click. If the relationship doesn't work, sitting watching someone else do the job you covet can be unbearable. John Caird, currently transferring his National Theatre production of Humble Boy into the West End, says it's vital that assistants are actively involved in discussions. "Otherwise," he warns, "they just sit there nursing a sort of parallel production in their mind."

Not all directors start as assistants some act first, like the outgoing co -director of the Almeida, Jonathan Kent, and Michael Grandage, Sam Mendes' heir apparent at the Donmar Warehouse. Mendes' own rise is legendary. Having assisted at Chichester Festival Theatre in 1988, he was made Artistic Director of its studio theatre the following year. But when a director dropped out of a main house show, Mendes took over in style, and his production of the aptly named London Assurance transferred to the West End.

Few rise at this speed, and no theatre provides the support the Court gave its early assistants, retaining them through the years it took to make their names. The nearest equivalent today is the one-year bursaries that the Arts Council and various television companies give a few people annually. These kick-started the careers of the heads of both the RSC and the National, Adrian Noble and Trevor Nunn, and other big hitters like Stephen Daldry, Richard Eyre and Jude Kelly. But as Josie Rourke, who spent a year assisting at the Donmar points out, there are never enough bursaries to go round. And when the successful trainees emerge, there is often still a dearth of work. John Caird says that part of the problem is that a lot of senior directors just keep going: "Young directors are screaming 'For God's sake retire, you bastards!'" Many find themselves doing loss-making "profit-share" shows in pub theatres. Ian Rickson, current Artistic Director of the Royal Court, who spent years "scrabbling around on the fringe", says the financial toll on struggling directors means "those that come through are not necessarily those with talent."

As more and more people enter the job market set on being "creative", the overcrowding gets worse. Gill points out that "we're drowning in mediocrity. There are lots of people saying, 'Oh, I think I'll be a director' not 'I'll work in theatre, I'll be a wardrobe manager,' but a director, because that's where the action is." So maybe the simplest solution is for some graduates to be more creative about their desire to do something creative. For the genuinely committed young director, John's fate in The York Realist suggests that, even if success comes quickly, it demands sacrifice. If Noises Off shows how committedly ludicrous the theatre can be, The York Realist shows how ludicrously committed you need to be to succeed.

'The York Realist', Royal Court, London SW3 (020 7565 5000). See also Independent on Sunday review.

Copyright 2002 Newspaper Publishing PLC

 

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