Theatrical tips and tricks with Michael Grandage
Michael Grandage is Artistic Director at the Michael Grandage Company, and a multi-award winning director and producer. He spoke with students in a workshop organised by the Master.
There were no theatres in Cornwall when Michael Grandage, Director and Producer, was growing up in Cornwall. When the Royal Shakespeare Company – among them, Ian Mckellen, Roger Reese, and Bob Peck – visited with a production of Twelfth Night when Michael was 16, he realised he had found what he wanted to do. Since then, he has been Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, and of Sheffield Theatres.
Michael began the evening by addressing the question he is most often asked: whether one should seek training as an actor or not. He has worked with talented actors both trained and untrained, so it’s not an easy question to answer. Michael thinks that if you need training, you’ll know. For himself he left Cornwall unable to ‘talk’ or ‘walk’ (theatrically speaking), and so training was extremely useful.
The floor was then opened up to questions from the gathered students, all Pembroke Players, although not all from Pembroke as the Players put on productions from students across the university:
Question: How do you find an agent, and build a good relationship with them?
Agents have tried and tes ted ways of finding people. Showcases are the best way. If you go on to do further training at a drama school, their showcases are one of the few places where you can guarantee agents will be in attendance.
Question: What made you choose to be a Director?
Started out as an actor, but when you reach your 30s you begin to see a different set of parts becoming accessible, and the parts you get change. This inspired something of a crisis of confidence. There were also questions about finance, satisfaction with the role, and loneliness in the job. These factors came together in a form of stage fright that inspired a change of path toward directing.
Question: What inspired the series of plays at the Noel Coward theatre?
It was inspired by the season of plays at Donmar. The idea was to hire a theatre for a year and try to interest the audience in more than just the individual plays; to encourage an investment in the ethos of the season, the creative process, and the overall aesthetic. It was also about changing perceptions that the West End is about making money, not creativity. A quarter of the house was sold at £10, and not just the worst seats, but a selection across the theatre. This skewered the season in the direction of big names because a greater proportion of seats needed to be filled in order to break even. Affordability requires creative responsibility. There were also side projects such as a youth theatre, and the whole thing required rethinking what a West End budget looks like. In taking on projects you should always be aware of the risks.
Question: What is your advice to young people wanting to start a company?
You need a producer to work with, someone who is genuinely excited at the work of proper producing; the fundraising, selling the project to investors. That kind of work requires skill, and without it you can’t have a company. The role of the producer is an increasingly important one. A creative producer should have interest in dramaturgy, in notes, and in interacting with actors. It’s a new pathway into the world of theatre, and part of the support system directors need. As a producer you can contribute in more varied ways than you might as a director.
No problem with it. Some writers may feel too close to the script, but in many cases they’re the best person to be directing. Hopefully they know when to step back and let someone else direct. When you’re using the work of dead writers it presents a challenge because when you’re unpicking a text you want to call the writer to talk it through. A living writer will often be a co-director anyway, as they will likely be part of process of working with the text.
Question: Is it difficult to sell a show written 400 years ago?
When Donmar put on productions like the Shakespeare trilogy it comes from their general funds rather than for a specific performance. The issue comes if there’s less funding in future, at which point you lose productions like the trilogies with 16 people in, just because there’s too many people, and you have to do more with 2 or 3 person plays.
Question: How do you stretch yourself if you know you can get paid to do one thing you’re good at?
People do get type-cast, although you can fight it. People like Daniel Day Lewis don’t get type-cast, but he’s rare. Most actors do something well, directors see them do it well, and then ask them to do something similar. Fighting it might sometimes mean saying no to a director, and therefore periods of unemployment, but, Michael says, “there’s nothing more remarkable than watching an actor reinvent themselves”, and if you can do it you can set yourself up for life. Whatever age you are you can keep evolving and keep acting. Keep an eye on yourself, make sure you go outside your comfort zone and don’t just give yourself over to an agent.
Question: How do you approach agents without much on your CV?
Send a letter, and the best letter to send is an invitation to see a performance. Give lots of notice; a few days or even weeks isn’t enough but with three months of notice you might get someone to come. A personal letter asking someone to see you perform with lots of notice, and then following that up, is a good approach. You have nothing to lose and potentially a lot to gain.
Question: As a producer, do you ever find yourself wanting to take creative control?
You do occasionally get problems where a director you’ve brought on isn’t doing well, but you have to look after everyone and that includes the director. As a producer, knowing your place and having a strong relationship with the director is key. You need to gain the trust of the director and of the actors. Sometimes the best way to do this with actors is to let them see you give someone else useful notes, indicating that you have taste and have the best interests of the production at heart. All of the best director-producer teams are partnerships. You can start building these partnerships really early on and might create a lifetime partnership.
Right now you’re in a powerful position. This is the kind of place where relationships for life can start. Find the people you want to work with, whether that’s directors, actors, lighting, set…these relationships are key and you should carry them forward. It’s a creative incubator here.
Michael is now running a charity that reaches out to young people to create the practitioners of the future. This is hugely exciting, and he has often found that mentorship goes both ways as young people bring energy and new perspectives. This is the single most exciting thing he is currently working on, and having the charity gives it a focus.
They made a decision not to fund education bursaries because about 50% of every course doesn’t go on to work in the industry. Their bursaries instead go to people who are really committed. There are hundreds of professions in theatre. One bursary just went to a milliner who wants to break off into his own company do millinery for theatre. Things like theatre journalism, photography etc are very exciting. Theatre management, fundraising…all extraordinary careers connected to theatre in which people can really make a name for themselves because not many people are doing it.
Question: What audition advice do you have?
If you have time, learn as much as you can. People who just read from the text don’t get employed. You can make bold choices but not just for the sake of it. Be honest to yourself and the character, play to the room not a theatre, and try to get inside the words. Being open to direction is important, as sometimes people are so nervous that they’re blind to suggestion or direction.
Question: How to start out as a director?
Assisting is the answer! You can learn from good and bad directors, and learn about yourself through other people. Directors like having university graduates around and it’s the ideal experience. Writing letters is the best way to achieve this.