Henry V: Interview with the Director

AOIFE KENNAN interviews professional West-End director, Lisa Blair, who is currently in Cambridge directing the production of Henry V.

Arts Theatre Henry V interview lisa blair Shakespeare Theatre

What do you look for when deciding upon a new project?

“A good friend said to me to many years ago ‘unless you’re running towards a job that terrifies you. Don’t take the job.’ This has always stuck with me – I really do think it is great advice. Life is about being challenged and so I try and apply this philosophy to the jobs I take.”

Blair is right to be terrified of the mad hatters that are Cambridge thesps.

Blair is right to be terrified of the mad hatters that are Cambridge thesps.

Do you tailor your rehearsal process to each individual piece, or do you have a set method?

“My rehearsal process has been pretty much the same so far. I believe there should be a strong focus on understanding the text in order to allow you to be freed when you get the piece up on its feet. The varying element is that each actor is different and responds to a different approach. The relationship you forge in the rehearsal rooms informs this outcome.”

What kind of environment do you try to create in the rehearsal room?

“Ha! I suggest you ask the company of actors in Henry V! I certainly hope they would say that it is a fun environment, one they can explore and feel safe in without being judged. I imagine the response might also be peppered with ‘she doesn’t really let anything pass her by’. At least, that’s what I’d like to think they’d say.”

The smiles are all faked. They hate it really.

The smiles are all faked. They hate it really.

What advice would you give to aspiring theatre makers, currently studying at university? Would you recommend further/specific training?

“Well, I studied Archaeology at university and so my background most certainly isn’t rooted in the traditional theatre sense – theatre directors and indeed, actors, come from many different disciplines. After university, I went on to do the MFA in Theatre Directing at Birkbeck College and this experience was invaluable. The second year of the two-year degree places you as a Resident Assistant Director at a major regional producing house (I was at West Yorkshire Playhouse).

This experience in assisting on large-scale productions beefed out my CV and really helped me to then continue on to assist in the West End and the RSC straight out of graduating. There are entirely different routes for everyone, but for me, assisting and associate work provides me with the opportunity to learn from the best directors of our time, work in wonderful theatres and hone my own skills.”

As a director, what do you look for in actors?

“Confidence, hard-work, and focus. I believe that the greatest acting is always informed by the personal experiences of the actor. This excites me. This is what I look for.”

The very picture of focus.

The very picture of focus.

Do you think a good director needs any particular qualities?

“You have to be obsessive about your piece; it’s got to consume you for every waking moment. It’s got to be the only thing you’re thinking about until you let it go, and pass it over to the actors to take care of.

You have to be trustworthy in the creative and stage management team around you; this often means relinquishing control even if you don’t want to. You have to be patient, you have to be empathetic, and you have to want to desperately bring the world that you see in your head alive, on the stage.”

What is the most important lesson you have taken from the professional world?

“It takes a hell of a long time to get where you want to be, and if you’re not in a hurry and keep pushing on and believing, you’ll get there.”

Do you feel that professional theatre in Britain is too London-centric? Or are you excited by any regional projects?

“I think there’s naturally a bigger market for theatre in London because it’s the capital and there’s tourism. However, I don’t think that it’s just London-centric. I’m very excited about Rufus Norris taking over the National Theatre and has plans to form partnerships with regional theatre and to start work out there and for it then to come in to London. I also think the current National Theatre under Nick Hytner has done a fantastic job screening live theatre to cinemas. What a genius idea. After all, it is our Royal National Theatre. The Nation should have access to the brilliant work, not just those in London.”

What do you want an audience to get from your production of Henry V?

“The biggest question around this play is: has Shakespeare written a pro- or anti- war play? I hope this production informs the audience to take their own stance on the answer to this question.”

A lighthearted romcom.

A lighthearted romcom.

Have you enjoyed this production, or have we been a complete nightmare?

“Never work with children, dogs or Cambridge students! Nope, you’ve been wonderful. You’ve all done a remarkable job. I was told that this was going to be a very difficult job in terms of even getting you guys to turn up to rehearsals… I’ve experienced nothing like this with you so that’s been a huge relief! I have thoroughly enjoyed my time on this production.”

When can we come and see Henry V?

“It runs from Wednesday 4th February until Saturday 7th February at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. There is a special offer of a post-show Q&A, in between the matinee and the evening show on Thursday 5th, if you have a ticket for either show that day. Come on down and see the wonderful talent of Cambridge University act their socks off. With guns.”