Pioneering director Stephen Bailey chats with Ian C Douglas about his new interpretation of the Elephant Man...
What’s so different about this interpretation of the Elephant Man’s story? What does it offer audiences above and beyond previous versions, such as the famous Lynch movie?
Lynch was mostly led by the doctor's account – hence Joseph being misnamed John, as Treves the surgeon writes it incorrectly repeatedly in his memoir. This interpretation is much more about Merrick himself and what he represents as a disabled figure. Many don't know that Joseph Merrick was a working-class man born in Leicester in 1862. During childhood his body began to grow rapidly and abnormally, creating overgrowth of skin and bone throughout his body. The play uses the real facts of Merrick's life to imagine his experiences and re-centre his voice in a well-known story. Our production spends more time considering his interactions with his family, society and the nurses that cared for him. It explores his early life in the East Midlands and creates a comparison between the overgrowth of Joseph's body and the process of industrialisation. We are less of a period piece, and our Merrick is much more vocal and dynamic. Key is a consideration of how we treat, look at and accommodate those with different bodies.
And what about this play attracts you as a director?
I had come across it while looking for good plays which centre disabled stories. There aren't many. I applied with it to Nottingham as part of the Royal Theatrical Support Trust Sir Peter Hall Award, which I somehow won. I had thought Joseph's early life taking place in Leicester and Nottingham made it a suitable location. As a director, it's a very dramatic piece which is ambitious with its language and leaves a lot of space for striking visuals. I liked everything Tom put into it and it was one of those reads which sets your brain alive with possibilities.
So how do you go about directing a play?
I think you have to remember that the most important job is to bring the play to the audience in the best way. It should entice, it should engage, it should entertain in some form. I think with actors it's forming trust, then focusing on their understanding of the text, then making sure they're confident and supported in what they're doing and can commit to it. Then I take a step back to try and see if it's all working together. This award is a major shift in scale for me (six times larger than my biggest previous show) so I've been putting a lot of work into feeling more comfortable with creating images and moments with the increased space, set and technical elements I now have.
How did you go from school leaver to award-winning director?
I went to a school that didn't offer drama and I don't think I went to a professional theatre show until I was eighteen. However, I got a bursary place to study History at Cambridge which introduced me to a lot of theatre, but also a lot of people who thought it was a career choice. Struggling with the complete lack of mental health support, being in a rehearsal room was the only thing I enjoyed for most of my time there. So I worked for a year after graduation and then could afford the LAMDA directing course from which I graduated in 2016. I then spent some time in Hungary with the European Theatre Convention. When I came back, I directed some small plays and began assisting with Hampstead Theatre, later Graeae before being appointed the Resident Assistant Director at Chichester Festival Theatre. I spent all of that on furlough but then Artistic Director Daniel Evans invited me to assist him at the National. At the same time, I was doing a lot of development on disabled led work. Then I applied to this, hoping that a shortlist position would help my CV...
You passionate about questioning the structures and preconceptions of the world. Could you give us some examples of how you put that into practice?
To take this show, Joseph Merrick is one of the most famous people who ever lived. But most get his name wrong. Beyond that, the play offers a different interpretation of his experience to the Pomerance play or the Lynch film. We centre Joseph rather than his doctor and are more interested in his experiences with other people, than how people looked at him.
You mention that you’re a neurodivergent artist. How does that influence your work?
Pass. Sort of. You're effectively asking how my brain influences my work? I don't know what is 'neurodivergent' of me; I'd find it reductive to label a part of my practice as existing because I'm neurodivergent. I would say being neurodivergent, and thus working with other disabled companies led me to emphasise openness and support in my working methods and an interest in re-evaluating how we tell neurodivergent or disabled stories.
Have you ever faced any disablism you are comfortable to share with us?
Yes. Plenty. I don't want to go into specifics. Overall, the fact that from top to bottom this industry relies so much on informal communication and out-of-work mixing is a serious barrier for myself and other disabled creatives. I've just done three days at the Fringe with an amazing disabled-led show – the networking, drinks, etc was hell for me. I'd rather just have a frank conversation.
Are there still barriers put in the way of disabled actors, physical or otherwise?
Theatre is a very big category. I would say all organisations are making some form of progress, but this varies wildly. Fifteen per cent of the current working population is disabled. We're nowhere near that in the theatre workforce. Personally, I would love to be met more as a person rather than a condition. Some people think it's supportive to emphasise someone's difference, but I'd rather be seen as a whole person.
What’s your proudest theatrical achievement so far? And did anything ever go spectacularly wrong on stage? If so, how did you cope?
Proudest: This? I think getting here after years of self-producing, struggling with feeling unsupported, never feeling I could fully focus on the work probably counts. Otherwise I'd say I love two shows I'm making: Surfacing, about neurodivergency and mental health care, is the closest I've come to making work about myself. Who Plays Who is a satirical piece about disabled actors performing roles which won Oscars for the actors (e.g. Theory of Everything etc.). I haven't had the resources (see the theme) to finish them yet though.
Wrong: A caterer walked into a scene to reclaim a jug that had ended up onstage at climactic argument. That was over ten years ago. There have been other times, I'll keep them for myself. Coping is looking to support those around you first and foremost.
Stick to it when people tell you it’s wrong
What advice would you give anyone hoping to break into directing theatre?
Explore directing! I don't think there's a particular sort of person or necessary prior experience. Try and find a strong sense of what you do that's unique to you and you love. Stick to it when people tell you it’s wrong. Change it as you change. Ask for everything, be very proactive and make connections (I am less good at those). Then I have to say it's a very competitive industry with not enough pay. Most jobs posted will get over 100 applicants. I would need to direct three or four productions on this scale annually to make ends meet. That doesn't mean don't do it, but go in knowing the challenge you're taking on.
And what’s up for you after the Elephant Man?
As I said at my acceptance speech in May, I am completely unemployed post-Real and Imagined History. That is still the case.
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