Everyone Theatre is a series of interviews with leading theatre practitioners in London. It’s their chance to make the case for getting into theatre, on either side of the curtain.
Blanche McIntyre became the next big name in theatre when she bagged the award for Most Promising Newcomer at the 2011 Critics Circle Awards for her direction of Accolade and Foxfinder at the Finborough Theatre. For those that were unfortunate enough to miss those shows, then we suggest you click on the two links above to see what all the fuss was about – a string of excellent four and five star reviews put Blanche firmly on the theatrical map.
Since then, Blanche has been busy and is about to direct her first Chekhov (The Seagull) and her first Pinter (The Birthday Party). Amongst all of this, she very kindly found time to sit down with us to have a bit of a natter about why she loves theatre, and why everybody should be pouring in through the doors of theatres all over the country.
Listen to the podcast using the player below, or read through the transcript. Please feel free to leave comments at the bottom of the page!
Everything Theatre: Here we are with Blanche McIntyre – thank you very much for joining us, it’s very exciting to be able to speak to you. For those reading or listening, this is the first episode of the everyone theatre interview series with influential people from the London theatre scene.
Blanche McIntyre: I like being described as influential, but I am not sure that’s true.
ET: Well, despite her modesty, we’re very excited to be able to speak with Blanche, who is officially theatre’s next big thing having won the Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Newcomer back in 2011. To kick things off, Blanche, can you tell us your story? Share with us how you got to where you are today.
BM: Absolutely. I saw a production of a play when I was 15 which I thought was extremely exciting. It was a historical drama. I went away and tried to recreate this by getting into history, but realised quickly that it was not quite as interesting as I’d hoped, and decided to direct a show instead. I found at 15 that I was an absolutely terrible actor, but discovered that it was much more exciting for me to be offstage than onstage and that the experience of making theatre was a very exciting and very addictive one. So I never stopped. I carried on directing as much as I could at school, directed as much as I could at university, then got on to the Fringe and worked there for no money for about 6 or 7 years. I was lucky enough to win an award when I was 29 which took me to the National Theatre Studio for 6 months. This gave me a platform, and off that Max Stafford-Clark employed me as his associate director for a year. Then, a couple of years ago, I did a couple of shows at the Finborough which were very well received. They were the ones which won the Critic’s Circle award, and as a result of that people now think I can direct! I am still waiting for the day I get found out, which I am sure is not far away…
ET: So that show you saw when you were 15, was that a turning point of some form for you?
BM: I had been a theatrical kid, one of those daydreamer kids who had always been running around trying to make up games, trying to put on plays. I thought it was exciting – and I wouldn’t have said it like this when I was nine – the idea both of making a world which was very intense and very engaging. So I think I was probably ready to get excited about it (theatre)… The show in question was in a small theatre, it was an electric, highly energised, very beautifully observed show, and as a naive 15 year old, I felt very personally involved in it. I suppose I’ve been wanting to try and give people that experience ever since.
ET: And apart from that one, what would you say was your most memorable moment in theatre? Now this can be as a practitioner, as a director over the last few years, or indeed as an audience member.
BM: So this is something that happened at the Globe a few years ago. It was Mark Rylance’s Richard II, which went opposite his Twelfth Night. They were both brilliant. I understand the atmosphere at this year’s revival of the production was very much the same, but especially at that time, there was a sense, when standing as a groundling, that you were very intimately connected to what was going on on stage. It felt very unusual, very raw, and very new at the time, so it was very exciting. So there is that scene where the Duke of Aumerle challenges everybody to a duel, person after person, again and again. It’s all completely absurd, and he eventually runs out of gloves because he keeps throwing them down as gauntlets. He says ‘is there anyone who will lend me a glove to throw down?’. In this case, because it was the Globe, he turned around and addressed this to the audience. There was a short silence then a man in the front row took off his baseball cap… and put it on the stage. And I thought to myself: “This is what it’s all about!”. He had joined in because he felt he was welcome to add his own contribution. He felt that the actor would like him to do that. They were all in that one big theatrical bowl together – he had been directly talked to, and felt so excited about the play that he added to it. That’s just great.
That’s probably my most memorable experience… All the other ones that I have had have been variations on that theme, where the something has happened on stage that was so exciting or engaging that it made a difference to the people watching it.
ET: Absolutely. Well that leads quite well into the next question we wanted to ask. If you were to give an ‘elevator pitch’ for why people should get into theatre, what would you say? Would it be something like the kind of experience you just described?
BM: The thing that makes theatre exciting is that it’s live – it has that in common with a stand-up session or a gig. This can be a disaster as much as it can be a brilliant thing; sometimes the speakers can explode or someone can forget their lines, or some other nightmare. I did a show once in a pub theatre where the door to the gents and the door on to the stage were adjacent. So some drunk bloke would routinely stumble on stage not realising where he was! That kind of thing can happen. There is a quote which says that you go into the theatre as a bunch of different people, and you come out as an audience, like a community. You have watched the same thing, and the actors on stage need you to give them something back: for instance if you laugh, the play is different. You become incredibly powerful, because it’s not a piece of theatre unless there are people watching it. This is completely different from a film, where it can run perfectly fine without anyone in the cinema. Or like a gallery, which is still there if nobody goes in. But for theatre, as for live music and stand-up, the audience is the important bit. It is about the shared experience, and the live nature of it. You have the power.
“You go into the theatre as a bunch of different people, and you come out as an audience”
ET: Exactly. Leading on from what you just said, the next question is about actually getting people into the audience. There are a couple of recurring obstacles stopping people from buying those tickets. We spent a very cold afternoon in November speaking to people around Covent Garden, asking them what stops them from going to the theatre. The biggest obstacle was the price. What would you say to people who claim that going to the theatre is simply too expensive?
BM: To those people, I would say, “check out the deals”. For instance, join the Audience Club. If they need audiences, they email you and say “Can you come tonight to this expensive West End show?”, and you say “Yes, of course”, and then you go for free. The idea is that you pack out the show, you create an atmosphere where there wasn’t one before, and you tell your friends. So, if you’re a skint theatre-interested-person, it’s worth joining because you’re doing them a favour, you’re doing yourself a favour, and you’re seeing some good shows… or possibly some terrible shows. Also, the National Theatre’s Travelex scheme is just brilliant. It’s £12 and the show that you get is a show at the National and… well, you can’t describe it better than that. There are standing tickets at the Globe for a fiver… On the fringe, you can get tickets for £12 or £14 – the price of a few drinks, and you get that slightly bespoke experience and it isn’t £45 or £60. It’s those big prices which put a lot of people off. So if you look in the right place, you can go and see theatre from £4 or £5 up to £18-£20, and if that’s your budget, actually there is a lot of good theatre out there.
“If you look in the right place, you can go and see theatre from £4 or £5 up to £18-£20”
ET: Couldn’t agree more. Certainly, there are elements of the fringe where you can pay something in that price range and see some exceptional stuff.
BM: That reminds me, there are also deals like “Pay What You Can” Tuesday as Theatre503 or the Arcola. The Finborough do cheap deals for the first week of their shows. So if there is a theatre or a show that you are interested in, often there is going to be a good deal somewhere because they want to get people in, so that word gets out to everyone else.
ET: You’ve just named a lot of really cool venues, which we know all about and love. But for someone who has just come down to London, it can be quite daunting: they might not know about all these amazing places. What would you say to someone who just needs to know where to start?
BM: I’ve already name-dropped the Finborough – it’s brilliant, and you know that if you go there, you will be seeing a show that you will have no chance of seeing anywhere else. It is a lovely, intimate venue, and you’ll be probably two or three rows back with the actors performing right in front of you – and you know that is going to be lovely. The Young Vic is another interesting place to go, which always has an expectational and exciting programming. The Globe to Globe season last year was amazing, and some of those companies are coming back this summer with longer runs.
ET: We saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Korean – we had absolutely no idea what they were saying, but it didn’t matter at all. It was extraordinary. We also saw Othello in Hip-Hop. That was a great experience, one of the craziest shows we’ve ever seen.
BM: Exactly. Go to the Globe, see the international companies. If you don’t understand what’s going on, chances are no one else does either. But it doesn’t matter because it’s just so alive and exciting. Also, if that feels a little bit too full-on, the National has just shut the Cottesloe and opened The Shed. The whole remit of The Shed is to put on the stuff which is too exciting, too edgy or too weird to go to the National normally, but which is still of the high standard you would normally expect of shows at the NT. It’s cool and safe.
ET: And on that note, for those of you who are under 25 and not a member of the Entry Pass scheme, what are you doing?! It allows you to get tickets for £5 and £7.50 for your mates. And that is for the National Theatre and the Shed.
BM: It’s brilliant – and there are a lot of schemes out there just desperate to get people in, because they are interested in what they make of it. And that is lovely, and something I love about theatre. No one in a cinema gives a shit whether you’re reaching out to different audiences or not. The theatre really cares because it is for the people who are in front of it.
ET: And then there is a third obstacle. This is the category of people who had a bad experience. They may have gone to see a bad show when they were at school… and now they simply don’t want to go again.
BM: Yes, like those poor A-level students dragged to the theatre, thinking “Oh God, Romeo and Juliet again… this is not for me”.
ET: Yes – and these people, I suppose, have made up their minds. The question now becomes: how can we avoid that happening in future? Do the theatre companies which invite schools to see their productions have the responsibility of training up the next generation of theatre-goers?
BM: Yes, actually this something the Unicorn Theatre does very well. It has recently been taken over by Purni Morell, and her brief, her whole idea for the venue, is to make it not only more accessible, but also more challenging, more exciting for different audiences. The idea is not to take someone to see the same old King Lear with somebody in a big white beard: everyone has a brain and an imagination and deserves to be engaged with at an exciting level, as opposed to having the same old shit churned out to them. It is extraordinary, since she has taken it over, she has turned it around. E.V Crowe, who wrote the play that I directed there, has now had two shows on at the Royal Court, and Complicite are bringing their new show there. The idea that Purni has got is that you make the best possible thing, and then you direct it at the audience that it is meant for – if that is 13 to 16 year olds, as was the case for me, then you have to make sure the show is going to speak directly to them, as opposed to patronising them or being condescending, or soft pedalling them. As a result you’re getting teenagers shouting out and getting involved… just getting excited about the show.
And on another note, I don’t know what to say to the people who have already made up their minds about theatre based on a bad experience except… well, give it another go! You wouldn’t stop reading books because you read a bad one, and if you saw a bad film, that wouldn’t stop you from going to the cinema again… It’s not that the genre isn’t for you; it’s just that there are some good shows and bad shows. So go and see a cheap one, or go and see something different.
In the meantime, as practitioners, let’s make the best work that we can, and let’s not talk down to anyone. Let’s make it intentionally exciting and hope that audiences will respond to that, because they are being taken seriously.
“As practitioners, let’s make the best work that we can, and let’s not talk down to anyone”
ET: Well, that pretty much wraps up the topics we wanted to discuss. All that’s left is to ask what your current project is?
BM: I have two projects at the moment, other than Liar Liar, which has about three shows left and is just lovely. I’m starting rehearsals next week for The Seagull in a new version by Headlong which I am touring, and that is something I am incredibly excited about. The translation is just brilliant, and the production – I hope – is going to be very exciting. Immediately after that is up, I am going to Manchester to direct The Birthday Party. So a Chekhov and a Pinter. I have never done a Chekhov or a Pinter – so I am bricking it! But I think that’s the best place to be, because the day you walk into the theatre thinking “Yeah, I know how to do this” is the day that you produce something really poor.
ET: Well Blanche, it has been a pleasure speaking to you. Good luck with your future projects and we look forward to chatting with you again soon.