Sally Cookson is a theatre director who has worked on productions for theatres including the Old Vic London, the Bristol Old Vic, the National Theatre, the Duke of York’s and the Rose Theatre Kingston. Most recently she has directed A Monster Calls at The Old Vic, The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe at The Bridge Theatre, and Peter Pan at the National Theatre. The Guardian hailed her production of Jane Eyre as a “bold, tumultuous reimagining” and a “feast for the senses” in its five-star review.

When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career as a director? 

I never thought about being a theatre director, I was always passionate about wanting to be an actor. That was my path. I absolutely loathed school and I ended up in a youth theatre which turned the lightbulb on and made me realise that there was another way of thinking about the world. Then my mum pulled me out of school and sent me to a sixth form college which has an amazing drama department. That’s where my passion really ignited. I went to LAMDA drama school and then was an actor for about 10 years. When I was about 30 I got a job at the Bristol Old Vic for 8 months with an ensemble company that the artistic director Andy Hay was setting up. I went to Bristol, a bit disillusioned with the acting profession by then because I’d been doing it for 10 years and had realised that I wasn’t getting the parts that I really wanted to play. It wasn’t to do with wanting to play massive, great big parts, it was about wanting to play interesting parts. The work was unsatisfying. When I got to Bristol I realised that I loved working as part of an ensemble and getting to know how the theatre worked and being part of the different departments. We did a lot of outreach work. At the end of the 8 months some of the funding for the education department was taken away and the theatre was in crisis. The whole education department was removed from the building. I was so upset by it, it had such a devastating impact on young people and the community in Bristol that a friend of mine who had been an actor in the ensemble with me, we decided to set up a small summer course of 25 people to continue the work that we thought was important. It was so incredibly enriching that I knew then it was something I wanted to pursue and that’s how I realised directing was something that I was interested in.

What were the female roles like during your career as an actor? 

It started off alright, I played Juliet very early on in my career and Hedvig in The Wild Duck at the Royal Exchange so I played a few nice roles in my early twenties and then it all started to get boring. I was always playing the young, boring, passive ingenue who has no agency and is only there as a love interest. I must have played about five of those. Every rehearsal experience was exactly the same. Run by all male directors, mostly all male writers and it just felt like I wasn’t being stimulated in any way or using my brain. I was just wheeled on in a pretty dress and I just thought “I don’t want to be stuck in this for the rest of my life”. In the plays that were being put on, there were three women to every ten male parts. It was much harder to get a job and it was frustrating. Sadly we just accepted it, but I wasn’t prepared to continue in that way. I didn’t want to remain in an industry that saw women like that. I wanted to have a more interesting career. 

Do you think a lot of your experiences as an actor has informed the way that you direct? 

It’s very important to the work I make. It has informed every aspect of how I am as a director, including the experience of having worked with a pretty sadistic male bully. I’ve worked with a lot of lovely male directors, but I did have one extremely difficult experience in my early career. It was so demoralising and humiliating that when I became a director I vowed that my rehearsal room would be the opposite of how he ran his rehearsal room. 

Do you think it’s difficult being a woman in the theatre industry? 

As an actor I found it extremely challenging and didn’t like how it made me feel. As a director my experience has been very different. Maybe because I didn’t go into directing until I was a bit older. I didn’t become a freelance director until I was in my late thirties and I knew what I wanted to do, so I had a bit more agency in myself at that age. I was very lucky because when I became a freelance director I worked for a fantastic company for 10 years called Travelling Light which was run by women. The artistic producer, the chief executive, the production manager were all female so that felt fantastic and the way they ran the company which was not ego-led. It was very much about the work and collaboration and connection with the audience, so I learnt a lot about how I like to work through that company. But I see the struggle for young emerging artists and when you look around at what’s happening in the profession now, the imbalance and the gender disparity is shocking. I still think that there are still more male playwrights and I think that without thinking they write plays for themselves.

Do you see the gender disparity in theatre has changed in recent years? 

I think there has been a shift. I think the National Theatre Artistic Director Rufus Norris is very aware of that and is working really hard to make sure that there is quality. It feels like right now people are letting it slip. People think there’s not a problem with gender anymore, that we’ll go back to how we did things before. Especially with covid, I’m wondering whether that’s affecting how people think and not wanting to take risks, and I think sometimes female playwrights and female directors are still considered risky. I do think there’s an underlying misogyny in the profession that we constantly need to challenge and not take our feet off the pedal.

What advice would you give to someone hoping to make a start in the theatre industry? 

I think talking to people, trying to get advice, help, and opportunities will help. You’ve just got to keep knocking on that door. You’ve got to be really bold, more so than you used to be, at phoning people up, emailing people, badgering people. I still have that self doubt of “are you good enough to be doing that?” And I notice so many female contemporaries and friends who are in the business who suffer from that. I think a lot of men struggle with that too, but I think it’s stronger with women because we’re used to not having a voice and for the room to be full of men.

Have there been any moments where you’ve felt that a particular creative venture hasn’t quite worked the way you’d planned? 

Always! I don’t think I’ve ever made a production and thought “job done”. I made a big decision with Romeo and Juliet about how much to cut, and I threw it on the stage in a bold way that failed. It was a big, brash, explosion of stuff and some of it wasn’t properly thought through, and that made me be a lot more rigorous about questioning certain decisions I make before I go into rehearsals. I try not to be afraid of failing because that will hold back any creativity. Everyone’s always afraid of making a fool of themselves and getting it wrong. Every single person who is involved in theatre goes into a rehearsal room wanting to make the best possible piece they can. Sometimes the stars are just not aligned and things just don’t quite work. If there was a recipe for how to make the perfect theatre, we’d all be making perfect theatre. It doesn’t happen easily. It’s hard work to get something working properly. I think we have to risk and have to be able to fail. The industry can be very unforgiving and I think we should accept and applaud people who make big mistakes. We’ve got to allow people to fail because it’s only through failing that we learn. So I will always have a very open rehearsal room where we make a lot of mistakes and get it wrong a lot of the time.

What do you think your productions have gained through the process of devising?

Everyone involved feels an enormous sense of ownership over the project and therefore the sense of connection with it is enormous which comes out in how they perform it. There’s nothing like feeling that we all made this together, that egalitarian approach allows everyone to have real agency in the room and when it works it’s brilliant.

How do you feel about the way Covid has impacted the theatre industry?

Although our profession has been hit mightily by Covid, we have had to have difficult conversations and reflect on our industry during this time. That has been a really positive thing, unpacking how the building blocks don’t make it a fair playing ground, not just for women but for BAME communities and people with disabilities. Some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had have been about why theatre is important. It has been a really useful thing to do, and in my own practice has made me question how I want to proceed. We’re in this liminal space on the threshold of this new reality, and if we hold onto the past that’s not going to help us either. We’re going into a new territory where anything can happen, but it has to involve a fairer space and a more equal space which really thinks about the community we’re making theatre with and for.

Image Credit: Manuel Harlan.

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