Interview with Hetty Hodgson on Beats and directing

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Last summer I recommended Yen at the Edinburgh Fringe. As director Hetty Hodgson has previously twice hired the City Theatre which I’m a trustee of, I couldn’t include this in the reviews, but I nevertheless raved about this as much as I could short of the review. All four of her productions I’ve seen (three at Durham and one at Edinburgh) have impressed me, so with her fifth and final production within Durham Student Theatre coming up, I caught up with Hetty to talk about this latest play, here experiences of Edinburgh, and more.

If we start with what’s coming up next week, tell us all about the play.

It’s a play called Beats, it was written by Kieran Hurley, and performed first in 2012 at the Edinburgh Fringe then it went on to London for a bit. So it’s a play about a boy, fifteen years old, when rave culture was banned in 1994, and it’s all about youth solidarity and the power of the youth and quite interesting and really cool because it’s a one-man show.

We’re performing it in Wiff Waff, in one of Durham’s nightclubs, so that’s a bit different, it’s a bit more immersive, it’s site-specific in some ways, and it’s got live video and visuals throughout, and also a live DJ, so I guess it’s more of a multimedia show than anything else I’ve ever done. And it’s been really interesting, both in creating work with an actor, but also a huge focus of it is the music and the video because that’s something that’s consuming throughout – that’s been really fun to work with.

I’m glad you mentioned Wiff Waff because I noticed this as one of the details. At this time of year, a lot of groups use whatever space they can get their hands on. It sounds like you’ve gone further here and planned specifically to use Wiff Waff. You mentioned it being site-specific and immersive – so can you tell us anything more about that?

Obviously it’s not entirely site-specific – it’s about raves, and a rave’s not in a club, but I wanted something a bit more grotty, a bit more rough, bit more there essentially, and I guess Wiff Waff really helped create that immersive environment. I wanted people to come to something slightly different that they were involved in, since it’s a so much about the power of the group. I wanted to feel like the audience are coming into this group as well, and I felt that Wiff Waff could do that.

I noticed with your plays, especially Five Kinds of Silence, which I will come on to in a moment, you don’t always settle for what’s in the script; you often bring your own angle to it. So with Beats, is it going to be like the original, or are you going to bring new things to it?

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From what I understand of the original – I never saw it – it was very much Kieran Hurley himself who wrote the play and performed it, and it was very much him sat down with a microphone at a desk, and with a projector, so they did use visuals and did use a DJ, but we’re going to be performing in traverse. We’ve got videos throughout, it’s going to be projected directly on to the walls because I wanted it to feel like part of the space which we’re creating, because I wanted it to be part of the consuming immersion. Also, from what I understand, Danny, who’s playing the narrator – it’s narrated but has load of characters – becomes more of the characters, so he play them all rather than it being a more continuous narrative, if that makes sense.

Is Danny anyone we’ve seen in any of your plays before?

Yes, Danny played Hench when we did Yen, both in Durham and in Edinburgh. He’s an amazing actor, and brilliant to work with.

How do you choose what plays to do, both in term of what you like, both in terms of what you like, and how much is your choice and how much is the choice of the theatre companies you’ve produced for?

All my choice. Especially because I’m very lucky; for the last year I’ve run Fourth Wall and put on whatever I want, but when Fourth Wall are producing other plays, I think it’s important the director have their choice, because it’s their idea from the start. Obviously you can think of a vision for any show, but if you have the vision of what makes you want to do it, you will be more passionate and that will drive you more as a director.

How I find plays: I think it’s reading, looking at what’s on. So I actually found beats when I saw that he had a play called Mouthpiece which I went to see on a Soho Theatre, and it was honestly the most incredible piece of writing. It was a sponsored Facebook ad and I thought “this looks really cool”. I’ve wanted to do something that combined the multimedia form, which I’ve really wanted to do with my last show in Durham. So I saw that I was looking though his other plays and I ordered a few and read Beats and fell in love with that. I thought it’s an amazing story. It’s quite important – even though it’s set in 1994, its story and themes are prevalent throughout time.

I said I’d go back to Five Kinds of Silence. I’m going in order of the plays I saw. I didn’t see the very first one; Five Kinds of Silence was the first one I saw.What impressed me with this was the amount of moves you put in which wasn’t part of productions I’d seen before. It was originally a radio play – how did you go about taking it to the stage?

So yes, Five Kinds of Silence was originally a radio play, and it’s a play about a quite horrible topic: a dad who as abused, sexually and physically, his wife and two kids. They kill him at the beginning of the play and then it’s memories of what he did and how it affected them, in a series of monologues, and a series of dialogues and action. It was how he was present throughout their lives, and how, when he’s dead, the memory will still affect them. And the reason we chose to physicalise it – even though that might seem strange for something what was a radio play and written for no physicality at all – was because I think it’s pertinent to what’s said and what’s not said; it’s really an essential theme of the play. So in order to convey the feelings and what they’re thinking – what the characters might not necessarily say – can be done really effectively through movement. Physicality can help to show both emotions and show actions as well, so that was important to me and Damson who I co-directed with, what we wanted to do with the play.

I noticed, when I did the research for this, that the original production had an extra two characters: the doctor and the lawyer. They weren’t in your play; was that reason related to your vision for the play?

Yes. We had one actor multi-roling for the doctor/lawyer/psychiatrist in the production. That was the part of the idea that this one person was representative of everyone as a whole. It’s the same thing: whilst they are the characters and individuals in their own regard, nonetheless they are culpable of the same thing, they’re turing a blind eye on what’s happening. So whilst they’re individual characters, what they’re doing to the situation is essentially the same, and that, at the crux, is what the play is about.

Now we move on to the next two plays. I’ve put these two together because the one thing they had in common by doing stuff on stage that an cautious director would have run a mile from. So both Boys and Posh had props, and in one case set, flying all over the place, but nothing ever flew into the audience.

Actually, that’s not entirely true; in the first day of Boys we definitely had a chair in some poor somebody’s face.

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How do I go about it? I think it’s very much – sorry – a boring answer. It’s very much a case of working out, before rehearsals, what I wanted, and obviously it didn’t necessarily work all the time, as in scenes don’t always represent exactly what I may have envisaged. Then trying that, blocking it very carefully, whilst making it very clear that you need to be safe, and also people need to keep working together and keep doing it.

It’s something that, whilst most of those scenes are very high-paced, and very fast, in terms of physicality and movement, they need to be done again and again and again and again to make sure it is as slick as possible; and to make sure that the purpose of the scenes – because they were both seriously naturalistic plays – that no movement seemed awkward enough to seem out of the ordinary. But in ordinary life, you have some people who are just sat there, and don’t do anything, it might be a very still scene, and you need to respect that rather than, as a a director, constantly using movement for something interesting to watch. I think the power of stillness is very important, and is very powerful in shows, but also the power of movement so many times in everyday life. So try and work out what is most representative of everyday life, watching things around you, thinking about scenes from everyday life that might reflect similar situations.

And the way the different characters move as well. I’ve been working with actors and then being like “actually, what feels natural, what feels like the natural impulse that you do on this line”, and then working off that, and incorporating that into the piece.

The next one was Yen. I’m not going to ask you much about directing Yen because, compared to the other three, that looked like a relatively straightforward one. However, anyone who’s done any fringe will know once you’re doing this, it brings in the second challenge, which is the logistics. So you’ve got to get everything on and off stage in a very short amount of time, you’ve got to work with venue staff who you may have barely corresponded with, and the big challenge that we both know about is getting an audience. So what’s your experience of doing the Edinburgh Fringe?

The Edinburgh Fringe, best ever, I had the best month of my life than Yen up to Edinburgh.

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So, I guess it goes right from the very beginning, of decision to take a show. And it was quite unusual for us to have taken Yen, which was a pre-written show. I do think it is very important that the Edinburgh Fringe is the place for new writing. I love taking Yen there, but I would, from now onwards, always choose to take a show that’s new.

I was very fortunate because I loved Yen and it hadn’t been seen in Edinburgh before. So we did in in Durham, then got in touch with Anna Jordan, the writer because obviously there’s time constraints in the Edinburgh Fringe. Most shows are an hour, but we were asked to get a spot for an hour and a half, and Anna very kindly helped us cut down the show, organised rights that were in a financial situation to take it to Edinburgh, and get it to the right length. And then finding a venue, C venues, it was very important to us that we were going to stage it in the traverse, there’s not many of those black box traverse spaces, and we ended up with an amazing venue which was C Cubed, except that it was above a cafe and it would be the noisiest thing in the middle of a silent show! But that’s fine, you build.

At the Edinburgh Fringe, there was a lot of talk about people being priced out of it. What was your view of this?

So the venue, and everything about getting to Edinburgh, is super-expensive. Putting it down, it’s installations and a deposit, so we are asked to pay a certain amount up-front. We didn’t have to pay the rest because they can take it out of our ticket sales, and we were very lucky that we broke even, and I think it’s very much a grind thing, both on the street and on social media both on the street and social media. Social media are so, so important. Word of mouth, yes, but getting people to tweet about you, and then using that in a social media marketing campaign I think it what really helped us.

Things like cross-posting stuff, that’s not really getting to the crux of the question of whether people are getting priced out. And yes, they probably are, because there’s so many shows, and everyone’s going to be able to make money. That’s hugely hugely problematic, because it means it’s going to be a certain demographic dominating the Edinburgh scene, and what was once meant to be a place for people cutting their teeth into the industry will become more and more for well-known companies.

But, then again these venues have to be able to sustain themselves, so I guess it’s, for Edinburgh, getting a balance between ensuring the venues are able to sustain themselves and also ensuring companies are able to come. So it’s a bit of a vicious cycle really.

For you, what was the most expensive bit of all?

The accommodation. So it’s not necessarily the cost of putting on the show, which if you’re selling enough tickets, is going to be a reasonable to get back. But accommodation: we had twelve people staying in a two-bedroomed flat, and that kind of happens for everyone going to Edinburgh for the first time. Everything in Edinburgh, the prices increase, and I guess the Edinburgh population, it beneficial for them as an industry, but again, it’s a vicious cycle, because obviously they don’t want to take advantage of that, and get some benefits from it there,

A lot of people complain about the venues overcharging, but the venues in turn hire space from landlords. Are the landlords overcharging?

If it’s too expensive, then yes, the landlords are, but again, the landlords are a commercial business in themselves. But it makes it inaccessible for venues and companies to take their shows, so that is hugely problematic because it takes out the opportunity for any demographic.

Should the Edinburgh Fringe encourage people to consider the smaller fringes as affordable alternatives?

I think, because of the platform the Edinburgh Fringe has as the largest fringe festival in the world, they have a social responsibility to promote other fringes and help raise their status as well and help them become more of an alternative platform people know about, because there are so many different fringes around the country that people just don’t know about, and I think the Edinburgh Fringe probably has a responsibility to those fringe festivals.

After this, you were assistance director for Miss Julie with Theatre Elysium. What did that involve?

Elysium in an amazing amazing company is doing things for raising the status of theatre in the north-east, which is so important because it makes theatre so accessible to both audiences and actors in the north-east. I’m very lucky that Jake would take me on, given that it was the time of my dissertation so I wasn’t committing all I would have liked to. It was an amazing experience to learn from the actors and from Jake himself and see how a professional company works, and see how that differed, and learned things like ways to rehearse, and actors from Jake, and also working with the community ensembles – there were four different ensembles from the venues Miss Julie toured to. It was amazing to work with such a varity of actors and see what difference different people bought to the room. Every stage was slightly different, as that was such an exciting thing to be a part of. And it’s such an amazing way to engage different local communities in theatre and to encourage people who might not necessarily take part to come and see theatre in the north-east and get them involved in the productions of what Elysium’s doing.

You did student productions and then this professional production, so what difference did you notice the most?

It is very much a time thing, you can put in on a very intense scale, and the way the actors respond differently to that was really good.

We’re about to wind this up now. For someone in a position where you used to be and trying to start up as a director in a university like Durham, what tip would you give?

Well, I’d take any tips anyone wants to give me now, going into the real world!

But for someone who wants to get into directing at university, I would fill your read loads, try to find plays you want to put on. Don’t try to do a million plays; I think that works for some people, but I found it best to choose plays I feel passionately about, and make sure you’re committing the time to all of them. And make sure that people want to work with you, make sure you’re someone who’s welcoming to people coming to audition, make sure you’re someone who is always positive, and put in everything to what you’re doing because nobody’s going to do it for you.

And last one: why should people come and see Beats?

I think it’s different from anything you would have seen in Durham. it combines the forms of acting, video, live DJ. I think it’s an amazing and really powerful story, and Danny is one of the most incredible actors ever.

Hetty Hodgson, thank you very much.

Beats runs at Wiff Waff on the 18th – 20th June at 7.30 p.m. Tickets are available from Durham Student Theatre.

Fine print: This interview is written as a verbatim transcript as far as possible – however, as this was done at Costa Coffee on Durham station, we lost a few words to passing trains and had to fill in a few gaps later. As always, the scope of the interview is agreed in advance.

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