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An interview with Bea Udale-Smith

We chat to Bea-Udale Smith ahead of her upcoming production of 'Travesties' on how to get involved with directing at Oxford

How does it feel to be directing an adaptation of a play by such a renowned living playwright?

It feels very exciting, and surprisingly not as frightening as I thought it would be! We were lucky enough to be introduced to Stoppard the week after we got our slot at the Playhouse, after his second talk at St Catherine’s in Michaelmas Term, and the very first thing he said when I told him about our production was that the trick to doing Travesties was to have fun with it. So I’ve very much felt able to take liberties and make Travesties our own!

Why Travesties, and are there any themes you think are particularly resonant at the moment?

I was set on putting on a Stoppard from the moment I found out he was Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor at our college for this year. I re-read many of his works, but Travesties stood out to me, since it very much felt like it had the most scope to be played with, as the whole play is set in the mind of its slightly forgetful narrator, Henry Carr (performed, in our version, by the incredible Lee Simmonds). This gives way to many moments of overt-theatricality, which has allowed us to introduce a physical theatre ensemble (Laura Henderson Child, Martha Harlan, Tom Mackie), who control the action and physically represent Carr’s mind. Thematically, I also think Travesties is fascinating in terms of its discussions on the value of art, which is pretty much always relevant, but especially so right now as arts funding, and particularly arts education, is so under threat!

What is special about your interpretation of ‘Travesties’?

Travesties is very much a play where every production is wildly different, but our interpretation has a couple of very obvious changes. Stoppard often shifts the genre, style, and characterisation in his play – and, since one thing past productions of Travesties have often been criticised for is not making these shifts clear enough, we’ve added a couple of explicit (and fun!) motifs to highlight them.

As well as adding an ensemble, another key change is that we’ve cast Joyce and Tzara with female actors. The one problem I had with Travesties was how few female parts there were, but we felt able to cast these two with female actors, as the James Joyce and Tristan Tzara of the play are very much creations of Carr’s mind, rather than the actual historical figures! This also means our production has been able to be in keeping with the Playhouse’s 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage (‘A Vote of Her Own’) season, which is a really incredible thing to be a part of.

What has been the most challenging aspect of directing this play?

One of the most challenging parts has probably been trying to find the right tone for each scene or section. As this play has many absurd moments each written in an extremely different manner, and even the “normal” moments usually need to be delivered in a highly stylised way, we’ve had to settle on a very specific style for each of them – which needs to work perfectly for that moment, work with the moments before, and also be very funny! So just the initial aim of trying to crack each scene has been difficult.

Do you have any favourite scenes?

The play has some really fabulous scenes, such as the scene in which all the characters on stage start speaking in limericks. Scenes like this are so much fun as soon as you read them, so they actually need a lot less work.

My favourites are probably the ones which we’ve really had to work on, such as the first proper scene in Carr’s story, where Carr’s memory keeps going wrong and the scene re-sets each time it does. We spent a while working on this scene and giving Carr and his butler, Bennett (Jon Berry), different characters for each re-set, and its become one of my absolute favourites.

Out of Lenin, Joyce and Tzara, who would you most like to meet?

After directing this play, definitely Tristan Tzara. This is mostly because Stoppard seems to have taken the most liberty with his character, making him into a figure straight out of The Importance of Being Earnest – while still espousing Dadaist views… and it would be very interesting to see what the real Tzara was like!

You’ve done some acting yourself. How do you bring your acting experience into your directing?

I think acting under a variety of directors is really useful in knowing which directing styles work and which don’t. You can then use/nick when directing whatever techniques helped you when you were acting… and it means you don’t lose awareness of how hard the things you ask people to do sometimes are!

What’s been the best part of directing this play?

The best part has definitely been all the moments where we’ve finally cracked the difficult scenes. Julia Pilkington, who’s playing Tzara, pointed out yesterday that in this play quite a few scenes don’t make any sense, until we make them make no sense at all – at which point they make perfect sense! The moment scenes move from ‘almost there’ to ‘there’ is brilliant – and a scene we’ve been struggling with for days suddenly become hilarious!

What advice would you give to those looking to get into directing in Oxford drama? Did you find it difficult to get started? What do you think can be done to encourage more people to get involved?

If you’re keen and have a play and concept you’re set on, the biggest hurdle is probably finding a team, as I definitely struggled in my first year to know who to ask or where to go for recommendations. As well as putting out a call via the TAFF mailing list (which you can join via their website), I actually think messaging or emailing people, who you’ve heard or seen good things about, is a really good way to get people on your team – even and especially if you haven’t met them! Our marketing manager, Alice Bate, is absolutely incredible, and is involved because I had loved her marketing for another show. I messaged her out of the blue to ask whether she’d consider running marketing for Travesties – fortunately, given that this was the day the bid was due, she said yes!

I think there’s something really amazing about creating theatre as a student, as you can get on board so many talented people (and without having to pay them). I found it quite easy to start directing as I basically began as soon as possible, directing a show in Hilary of first year after directing our Cuppers in Michaelmas – but I think the other big hurdle is feeling that it’s too late to begin. The effort OUDS puts into encouraging people who haven’t directed before is brilliant, however – and I can’t recommend enough auditioning to direct at the New Writing Festival, or going to one of the regular OUDS socials to meet other students doing drama. The move towards even more equal opportunities, and upcoming productions like Medea at the Keble O’Reilly this term, are also so exciting in terms of getting more people involved.

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