Working as an Associate Director

This rather muddy title of Associate Director – or in German, ‘Regiemitarbeit’ - gives little away in terms of the actual expectations of the role.  Presumably more kudos and responsibility than the role of an assistant or staff director, but less of course than the director themselves.  The projected pros as I saw it:

1) it meant I had moved on a step (or at least I liked to tell myself) from when I first originally assisted on the production back in 2010 (2010!).

2) of being one step higher up in the programme listing (there was one house I knew of where the staff director role was written in the programme in a smaller font - in case we ever got too big for our boots? I never did find out).

3) of allowing me to enjoy the experience of another German opera house at work, and to work on my recently-acquired new language with a completely new cast and company. At the same time I had the security of knowing I had a job at Oper Frankfurt to run back to (in the case of completely embarrassing myself).

But what was I actually going to do as an associate director? 

I had already had the luxury of having a fantastic associate director of my own (Monica Nicolaides) for my last production for the Ryedale Festival.  Monica supported me as a creative collaborator every single step of the way, and revived the production with great skill and tenacity many months later for the Chiltern Arts Festival. Thinking back, however, we had never sat down together and talked through the responsibilities of the role, it somehow just evolved naturally as we went along.  Having assisted me the year before, she understood instinctively what the needs of the role were, and balanced where to step in when I needed support and when to keep a safe distance.  However, I had never been an associate director myself, or even been part of a team with one, so I too had to work out what was required with my particular director and team, and, to a certain extent, make it up as I went along. 

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I stepped in fairly late in 2018 as soon as I had finally been given official my leave of absence from Oper Frankfurt , and started off with plenty of heavy-duty German admin with the theatre’s artistic administration department and company office. I had to make sure that the director and I were comfortable with the logistics of the rehearsal schedule - the number of stage rehearsals, the availability of the chorus, and various adjustments that we had to agree to to make the production fit their house and their company – e.g. halving the number of singing chorus members into two different chorus groups, and then bulking up the number of actors to be able to cover the necessary chorus action on the stage. That required a lot of playing the translator/middle woman between the opera house and the director, fielding various calls and emails, and getting on top of the planning and the schedule well in advance of the rehearsal period - no bad thing as we know. So far, so manageable, if a bit of a stretch for my still-developing German language skills.

A month or so before the rehearsals began, we had a day of casting and a series of production meetings with various departments, the organisation of which had been a marathon task on its own. The director and I traveled to the opera house where I led the auditions with the excellent support of the in house Staff Director, and we cast the 14 actors that we needed plus some covers.  In Germany instead of actors they cast Statisterie, more comparable to extras than the trained actors we would be more used to working with in the UK, and often people who have a more standard working day and are only available to rehearse in the evenings. The production meetings tied up most of the loose ends, and more importantly allowed us to have a good nose around the opera house (built in the 1960s, its post-war modernism a stark contrast to ENO’s plush red velvet and gold interiors). The production would certainly be framed in a very different way.

Having been the Staff Director on the production at English National Opera, I theoretically had the advantage of remembering the production in its earlier form.  Although ‘remembering’ was perhaps too generous a word for a production I had worked on so long ago that felt alarmingly distant in my mind.  First off there was the desperate search for my score (finally deemed MIA, probably as a result of moving to Germany three years ago, certainly not to be found in any corner of my apartment, the ENO library or the depths of the Stage Management office).  Secondly it meant that I needed to prepare a completely new director’s score from scratch, writing in every single piece of blocking and character motivation from beginning to end. Luckily I had the crucial guidance of the original DSM’s book and the video recording - thank goodness it was only a short opera.

For parts of the process, my responsibilities were clear.  The director was away in New York directing another production for the first week of rehearsals, which meant I was to deliver the model-box showing or Konzeptionsgespräch to the entire company and any interested parties from the opera house (gulp), and to rehearse my way through the first act - which should have been viable, the first act being a short one.  I had prepared the first act impeccably, right down to the finest details when we discovered at the last moment that one of the main roles of the first act had to do a jump in to perform another role in the same house which was opening within a week, which took him out of the bulk of our first week of rehearsals. So we patched together a new schedule with sections from the second act that I could cover with singers that were fully available in order to make best use of the time. 

At the start it felt very much like directing a revival, but with slightly less freedom, knowing the director would arrive in a week and might disagree with (/hate?) any changes or developments I had made.  I stayed as faithful as I could to the original, but with some tweaks to make the production work for the new cast members, but nevertheless I was nervous when the director arrived in case he wasn’t happy with it. However, he was completely supportive of the work I had put in, and once he got stuck in we had the freedom to develop the characters in new directions to suit our new cast members.  It took a while to adjust to my role once the director arrived, of noticing when was the right moment to step forward and when to retreat - stepping in to block a scene, lead a chorus rehearsal, or to suggest an idea to the director, but then stepping back to allow him the space to work on the character and the details with individual cast members, but at the same time being ready to jump in when needed. As the director is an incredibly spontaneous person, it was never a defined line or a predictable pattern, and often parameters shifted from day to day and moment to moment, which required genuine flexibility, extremely swift reactions and occasionally, a thick skin.

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It was hugely satisfying for me to step into the new role of associate director, to stretch the limits of my German language in a new opera house and to learn new ways of contributing to the production process that were not taken from my more familiar roles of director or staff /assistant director.  It enabled me to give my energy and support to a director and a production that I believe in deeply, but without my name being right on the front line (or in a smaller font).  I hope the audience enjoy our efforts when the performance opens tomorrow night.

Die Sache Makropulos opens on 7th April 2019 at Theater Bonn. More information and tickets here