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Interview: Award-winning Theatre Director Kate Hewitt

7 November 2014 | Jessica Johnston

“As soon as I read it, it was one of those things that just stayed with me, it grabbed hold of me and kept asking me to go back and look again.”

Earlier this year, Theatre Director Kate Hewitt landed the prestigious JMK Award. Worth £25,000, the award gives talented young directors a chance to take to the helm of their own production and make their directorial debut on the London stage. Following a rigorous application process, Kate managed to beat off stiff competition with her exciting interpretation of Caryl Churchill’s dystopian drama, Far Away.  Since then the chaos of rehearsals have ensued and now Ms Hewitt is about to take her very first production from page to stage at the Young Vic Theatre. With opening night fast approaching we managed to have a chat with the award-winning director to find out about her interpretation of this modern classic.

LC: Congratulations on winning the JMK Award, you must be thrilled!

Kate Hewitt: It feels incredible! It was amazing to win the award. The process was rigorous and quite longwinded but I think in a way that’s brilliant because as a young director, by the time you have finished the JMK process you feel confident about what it is that you want to make. As a director, winning the award feels like a real right of passage; it gives you an incredible platform to work with amazing people and it gives you an opportunity to do everything thoroughly and professionally.

LC: For those who have not seen or read the play can you tell us about Far Away?

KH: It’s a play about a woman called Joan, who we see grow from childhood to adulthood, in an increasingly corrupt world. The play is about all the different characters and their desires to be on the side of what is right no matter what, even at a violent or deathly cost.

LC: Without giving too much away, can you give us a little insight into your interpretation of the play?

KH: My production is in a studio theatre so it’s very intimate and it was an intimate setting in The Royal Court where it was originally staged in 2000. It’s a timeless play so I’m not trying to make it topical because it already speaks to us now and it feels as though it could have been written yesterday. It’s a short, sharp, intense piece of theatre.

The staging is different from the original, in that we are doing the play in traverse with the audience on two sides, which is quite a bold choice with regards to what we have to do with scene changes and set design. I wanted to create a confronting space with an intimate and intense feeling. I love going to the theatre and seeing productions in the round or traverse, I think there is something really exciting about using the space in that way. We have chosen to raise the stage and both sides of the audience so they are sort of transported to a sightly schemed alternate universe.

LC: What attracted you to Churchill’s play?

KH: I have been a fan of her work ever since I became interested in theatre, so from quite a young age, but I actually didn’t read Far Away until a about a year or so ago. It’s incredible to read but it’s quite a challenging play to stage. As soon as I read it, it was one of those things that just stayed with me, it grabbed hold of me and kept asking me to go back and look again.

The play has huge metaphorical meaning, but on a very human level I was drawn in by the character of Joan and the incredible journey she goes on as a result of a life-changing event in Act One. Even though Churchill wrote the play fourteen years ago, it feels like it has just been written and when it is performed again, whether that be in two years or twenty years, I think it will continue to reflect the context within which it is shown. The play is timeless.

LC: How have rehearsals been?

KH: They have been great! The whole process has been very exciting, of course the first day nerves were enormous but the award gave me confidence and knowing that I had a very experienced design team working with me and then once I had cast the actors I felt a lot calmer.  It has been such an incredible experience, it’s sort of like being an archaeologist uncovering this text and if I ever have any questions or doubts about what we are doing I can just go back to the text and search for clues. Of course Churchill doesn’t give you all the answers, so sometimes we have to make bold decisions.

LC: What have been the some of the biggest challenges during this process?

KH: The speed of the play and the jumping forward of time between each act is challenging because it requires an acrobatic, emotional engagement from the actors, so that they can make quick leaps forward in time that are 10 or 15 years within the space of a few minutes. We are doing quite a technically ambitious show especially for a studio performance so those things are challenging but exciting and the team are cracking on as we speak.

LC: Who do you think the show will most appeal to?

KH: I know that there are Caryl Churchill fans, who I’m sure will be really interested to see this piece again in London after 14 years and I hope that they come and engage in a conversation about it. But what I really hope is that some people buy tickets for it and don’t necessary know what they are coming to watch. The play is full of surprises and it pulls the rug out from underneath your feet on many occasions, so I’m quite interested for the ordinary punters of all ages to come and experience it for the first time.

LC: You are also currently Associate Director on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, what's it like to be part of such a big West End production?

KH: When I first got asked to interview for Charlie I wasn’t sure if I would be the right person for that job because I didn’t have a background in musical theatre, but actually Sam Mendes had put such an eclectic team together to realise that vision, once he saw my place in the show I could also see where I might fit into that world. It was incredible, the five months of rehearsals were relentless and enormous and there was so much money and resources available that you would never experience in any other theatrical environment. The real brilliance of it was the wonderful, creative people who I worked with in the conception of the show and who I continue to work with.

LC: With the ever-increasing financial necessities of life, it must be hard and somewhat risky for directors to leave resident positions and pursue their own work...

KH: Yes it is hard. Some people are lucky enough to be able to make their own art and earn money from it. Unfortunately I don’t fall into that bracket but the associate and resident positions have been a great way to support myself financially. Of course you have moments where you want to pursue more of your own creative work and that’s why the JMK award is so brilliant. It has given me such a great staring point and I am extremely privileged to be in this position, however, I’m under no illusions that when this has ended it will be a struggle to get more of my own work on stage but that’s just something that many directors have to endure.

LC: What advice would you give to aspiring directors who want to pursue a career in theatre?

KH: If you are going to assist or be an associate or a resident, work on something you creatively believe in. If you believe in the vision, you will give yourself completely to it and be the best assist/associate/resident director you can be. In terms of going alone, I know people who have just gone out there and started to make their work and they have found a way to get it on stage. The brilliant thing about theatre is that people who work in theatre want to get involved and we want to make good work and be a part of something that has got integrity behind it. For me, it’s all about relationships, everything I have done and every job I have got is about developing relationships with the people I have worked with and then that has led on to something else.

LC: What future projects to you have in the pipeline following this production?

KH: I have something potentially in the pipeline in connection with The Albany involving an old adaptation of a Russian classic, which is exciting. Also I just want to make some more of my own work and create something that I believe in.  It will probably have to be a relatively small company so that we can afford to do it and I’m going to start thinking about that as soon as Far Away has had its press night.

LC: Opening night is fast approaching, are the nerves kicking in?

KH: I have still got loads of work to do so I’m trying not to let nerves get the better of me! We have got five previews before opening night and I don’t want to play it safe and just get the show ready for the first preview, I really want to engage with how it sits with an audience and make the changes that are needed.

LC: Finally, what should audiences expect when they come and see Far Away?

KH: They should expect something surprising, physical and confronting. I hope the audience will go away with lots of questions and in an ideal world, perhaps they will reflect on their own self-righteousness, which is what I think the play is about. People may find it a bit uncomfortable but I think that’s okay and actually very exciting.

Far Away is on at the Young Vic from 7th – 29th November. Tickets cost £10 - £15, available here.

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