Having just closed a successful season of Twelfth Night and All’s Well That Ends Well at the Seymour Centre, Damien Ryan joins us in the Director’s Chair. Damien Ryan is one of Sydney’s most exciting and innovative directors. He is the artistic director of Sport for Jove Theatre Company and directs frequently for Bell Shakespeare. Here is what he had to say…
What inspires you to do what you do?
A combination of the great writing the theatre industry has produced over a very long time and the wonderful process of working with actors to tell stories I suppose. It is just endlessly rewarding despite the challenges it poses, mainly in terms of making a living obviously. But I’m sure it’s partly just the same irrational need that drives most people into the arts, it is just very hard to put the work down, it can be quite obsessive at times, and certainly Shakespeare’s work has been something that I have not stopped reading every day for over 20 years. It is not necessarily a voluntary drive. Theatre and the people in it can be quite addictive!
Why did you choose theatre as your medium of expression?
I played in bands for a long time as a young man and loved the job of performing live and I think it is part of fulfilling that same desire. I started in theatre and had little experience of film and TV so it quickly became the medium I enjoyed and found a lot of inspiration from. Specifically, I suppose it is the obvious answer, theatre is one of the worlds most complete art forms. It asks for visual arts, audio visual design, performance, the written and spoken word,and a live audience all coming together to share an experience.
“Theatre is one of the worlds most complete art forms”
It doesn’t spoon feed audiences to anywhere near the extent of TV and film, relying instead on imagination and suggestion and abstract thought which makes people work harder, in performance and in an audience. I don’t think people go to the theatre simply to escape, I’d say that is largely impossible. We will often go to the cinema for that reason, and most of the world’s high grossing cinema is essentially mindless material that we can absorb in a state of fairly numb contentment. But theatre is just a more challenging night out, you have to work a bit as an audience, you’re forced to confront real live people and less easily soluble modes of storytelling and that exchange is infinitely more passionate and challenging I think. I can’t think of the last time I went to theatre just to escape and relax. But maybe we should stage more X-Men plays.
What qualities do you seek in an actor you work with?
Generosity, a huge work ethic, humility, great technique, a certain fearlessness I suppose and I respond to people who have a strong ensemble ethic. And anyone stupid enough to work with me.
What do you think makes for a great audition?
Oh tough one, so many things, as auditions can take so many forms and specific needs. But I suppose I always hope an actor can walk out feeling that they have overcome their nerves or distractions and given their very best, most open and brave work, that they have left nothing in the bag. It’s pointless walking out thinking “now I’m calm, now I could do that properly” – just blow that tension away and let rip, try to enjoy it and respond to what is happening in the room.
But all of that is pretty impossible without some obvious things like real hard work and preparation, and a disciplined approach to your own technical work as an actor. Otherwise just a good no bullshit approach, not trying to swamp the room with personality, just digging deep into the work and making a director feel like you are ready to rehearse this part, like that working relationship is a natural and effective one already, which means being open and versatile and clear.
In your experience working with a wide range of actors, do you think acting training is important?
Training in any field is important, not only because there are some truly wonderful teachers out there and their work has forged an extraordinary level of excellence across this industry (too much to be employed at any one time unfortunately), but also because it is a place and time in which people can have a disciplined and immersive experience of working on their craft for an extended period, which this industry rarely provides, and it is a craft above all else. Training is a playground for all of those moments of discovery, good and bad, that teach you about your work and yourself, so ideally I think it is certainly preferable, not least for the sheer technical acumen it should foster. But having said that, training cannot teach desire, imagination or natural intuitive gifts that define great artists in any field, and those are possibly the most important things that can sustain a career. Training on the job is one of the most exceptional ways to learn in any trade on earth and that can be equally effective if supported by a dedication to those essential technical areas that drama schools focus so strongly on. I would certainly never have a problem with an ‘untrained’ actor, the proof is in their work, not their documentation. But for young people entering the game, it is a great way to start.
What advice would you give to any new graduate or actor beginning their career?
Work hard at what you want to learn and do every day, be disciplined, don’t be easily disheartened or thin-skinned, create your own work and respect the people you work with. It’s too easy to be unhealthily competitive in an over-supplied industry, put your energy instead into positive things that drive your personal work to get stronger and be a great team player. Overall though, just be brave and take risks and, to say it again, create your own work along with the work that comes your way. Listen and learn from others but trust in yourself too, in the end I don’t think reading countless books on good acting, as many tend to do, necessarily creates a good actor, working on the floor and gaining experience and developing your skills in practice does that. Reading the great gurus is a bonus on top of that personal foundation I think. In a nut shell: Hard hard work and passion above all else.
Difficult as it is, what is your favourite play?
Othello I think. But also love Howard Barker’s plays and Michael Gow’s. Otherwise, Angels in America, Waiting for Godot, The Crucible, Antigone, Cloudstreet are almost perfect plays I think, but so many wonderful works too numerous to name.