Jessica Swale, theatre director

Jessica Swale, theatre director


Director Jessica Swale's latest project is Bedlam, the Globe's first ever production from a female playwright. She tells us about how to work your way up and the importance of getting a little life experience...

I studied at a very academic school where drama wasn’t seen as hugely important. I wanted to do a production – the headteacher said fine, but organise it yourself. I spent the next five years directing school plays. I thought I wanted to be an actor right through university, but I assistant directed a play at the Northcott Theatre in my final year and it suddenly struck me that I was more interested in the piece as a whole than any one character’s journey. You’ve got to be there for the conception of the play, the model box, all the chats with the designer. That was my moment.

I did a drama degree at Exeter and then I took a year out, did some travelling, directed, taught and worked as a dancer. I went to Central School of Speech and Drama and did a Masters in Advanced Theatre Practice. It was a great way of meeting people and it was where I realised that what I enjoy about theatre is working with a writer and creating a story.

I had quite a text-based upbringing – my mum’s an English teacher and we’ve got writers in the family, so I was obsessed with stories and words. Because I did a lot of dance as a teenager, I’m interested in the language of choreography and telling a story in a fluid way. It’s been very useful – I tend not to work with a movement director, which saves money, as I do it myself a lot of the time.

When choosing a new project, the very first thing is to find something you’re genuinely interested in. I always read the script and take notes so that I know what’s going on in the story. Once I know what’s going on, I start thinking musically about how it fits together and how you can link the scenes together. It’s like your brain starts simmering and you can’t stop thinking.

A lot of assistant directing depends on who you work with and how experienced you are. I have an assistant director who I really trust to go and practice in another room with the actors. Another important part is research, while sometimes you get asked to direct portions of the play. Sometimes it can be just sitting and listening. I would say it’s worth only working with people and on projects you genuinely think are interesting.

I would never have got into directing if I hadn’t set up a theatre company and done it myself. It’s extremely difficult to get someone to give you a job unless they’ve seen your work. The last thing I did with my theatre company Red Handed was The Rivals, which [Globe artistic director] Dominic Dromgoole came to see. Keep on top of inviting people.

Be bold – do work because you want to, not because you think you ought to. See as much theatre as possible, because you’ll learn a hell of a lot – and if someone says: “What of mine have you seen?” and you say “oh, nothing”, you won’t get a job from them. Over the last few years I’ve worked for a NGO in Bosnia and done Shakespeare in the Marshall Islands. That’s had such a big influence on my work emotionally. So get a life, go see the world and get some life experience.

Jessica was talking to Miriam Zendle

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