Taboo – Interview with Director Sarah Baxter – by Emily Elphhinstone
As we count down to the world premiere of ‘Taboo’, which runs in the New Theatre from February 15th – 27th, I caught up with director Sarah Baxter to discuss the play, the merits of being a director, and joining White Noise theatre collective.
Taboo – New Theatre – Feb 15th to 27th. Opening Feb 17th.
So first things first, how would you describe Taboo?
I would say it’s a romantic comedy with a dark creepy twist. It’s two people who are maybe a little bit odd, but lovely; who are on a first date. It takes place in her home, over the course of a three course meal, which will be presented on stage (which is a joy as a director, dealing with that!) It’s very funny, and a bit of a Pat McCabe vibe, or if Hitchcock did a romantic comedy: something like that!
So how was Taboo created?
Lisa [Fox] had this idea for the character of Lily, and she approached John [Morton] in 2014 about it, and they did a short piece for Collaborations: They got a good response to it, they enjoyed working together, and enjoyed the world they were creating, so John just continued writing and developing; as he is wont to do!
He developed it into a full play, and then last January I got incubation space from Dublin City Council. One of the things I did, was invite different people I was interested in working with, to come in and ‘play’ basically. John was one of those people, so he came in and we worked on two scripts of his, one of which was this.
As John wrote it and is also performing in it, was the script finalised when rehearsal started, or are elements always changing?
So since last January, myself, himself and Lisa have worked on it: There were bits which could be slightly tweaked and tightened, but it was a really strong script from when I first got it. You almost could have put it on stage then; but because he was going to perform in it as well, he wanted everyone to be really confident and happy with it, so in rehearsal he would just be engaging his ‘actor brain’. It occasionally comes up, but it’s simple changing this word or that word; and if it needs to be a bigger conversation I’m just: ‘Ok can you put on the writer hat?’
So you have experience in a few different areas of theatre. What has made you focus particularly on directing?
I didn’t realise I wanted to be a director, but everyone else did, it’s funny. In LISPA [London International School of Performing Arts], which I did from 2008 – 2010, you devise new work every day and present new work every week. Because of that, your role is always shifting and changing: sometimes you could be performing, or sometimes you’d be directing. Its amazing training, but you come out thinking you want to do everything!
So I did that for a while: I did everything! I worked in any capacity and one of the first things was work with Fabulous Beast on a show called Rian. I really enjoyed that, and Michael [Keegan-Dolan] was encouraging; but I still wasn’t sure, and still wanted to perform. But in 2013 I decided I really wanted to work on text, because I’d been doing a lot of devising and physical stuff, and thought Assistant Directing would be a really good way in. I wrote to a few different companies I was interested in working with, and one of them was Landmark: I ended up getting a gig ADing Mark O’Rowe with ‘Howie the Rookie’, and that was a really extraordinary experience. It was just Mark, Tom [Vaughan-Lawlor], and Clive [Walsh] who was stage managing; so there was only four of us in the room. They were really fantastic; so encouraging and supportive, and really gave me a lot of space to be involved.
Then I ended up doing this kind of self-curated year of directing – I went from that, to the Threepenny Opera in The Gate assisting Wayne Jordan, and then I went to work in Derry on the Field Day show [A Particle of Dread], where I assisted Nancy Meckler. So I think of it as my MA: my year of Assisting! And I wasn’t that conscious, all I knew was that I enjoyed it: I went from a one man play, to working on a Brecht musical, to working on a brand new play based on a Greek Tragedy; so I loved the diversity of it.
What do you enjoy most about the role?
As a director I get to use everything: I get to use my movement background, I get to use my acting background; I get to work with every part of the company. I really think of myself as an editor: I’m surrounding myself with really good people, and trying to encourage and create an atmosphere where they can do their best work; then I just get to put the whole jigsaw together. So it’s the collaborating and the editing that I really enjoy in Directing. It took me a longer time to come to it, but I’m glad because I wouldn’t have had the personal confidence to lead a company or to structure a room. I’m glad I’ve come to it a bit later because I think all the other things I’ve done make me a better director.
You’re part of White Label how did the collective come about?
It came about with a group of Artists; mainly writers, directors and producers, who wanted to create a support system for one another but didn’t want to set up a company. A lot of the time it’s just having a sounding board of creative peers whose opinion you trust, who are as rigorous as you are, and who will push you too make better work and make you ask interesting questions. It also means you have a network of support, so if you want to do something, you can call on them to help. I think we’re all quite strongly freelance, and we want to have that fluidity: Not everyone has to be involved in everything, and we don’t all have to be prescribed to one ideology or one manifesto that is set up for the group. It’s nice as well, because it’s hard being freelance and being unfunded, and it’s nice to have a little pocket of people you can go to every once in a while, even if it’s just to moan to!
What was your reaction to the recent #Wakingthefeminists debate? Do you feel any change in Irish Theatre?
I think the conversation is great: it needed to happen, and it is happening, but we’re still in that period that needs action. I read that the National Theatre in London has committed, in the next five years, to have 50:50 female/male with their writers and their directors. There haven’t been any concrete promises like that here that I’m aware of, so I hope it leads to action. But I do think that the conversation is great and it made a lot of people reflect on their own things, and things that maybe they’d accepted as being permissible that really isn’t, or people questioning an unconscious bias. There’s a lot of women working in theatre, but it is a question of visibility: There’s a lot of brilliant producers and general managers and executive directors; but The Gate, The Abbey, DTF, Fringe, are all male directors. I think also having lived in London for a couple of years, I still feel very engaged with that, so I think Vicky Featherstone in the Royal Court is amazing, and the work she’s been doing there is incredible. Basically I think Waking the Feminists is a great thing, I’m glad the conversation has started, and I’m really interested to see what action comes out of it.
Are there any shows coming up you’re looking forward to watching?
I feel like I’ve been in a bit of a bubble, because this is my third show in seven months. So this opens on the 17th, and I go to Australia on the 19th with ‘To Space’ which I had in Edinburgh last year. I’m missing all of Scene & Heard which I would have normally have been looking at, but it’s over by the time I get back.
I’m really looking forward to seeing, God this is such a non-leftie answer, but I’m really looking forward to seeing Juno and the Paycock in The Gate. Mark O’Rowe is directing it, and he’s a brilliant director. I don’t think he’s often got credit because people have generally just seen him direct his own work; but I’m really looking forward to seeing what he’ll do with that.
I tend to look a lot toward London so there’s a few things there I want to see, and also this year I’ve decided I want to try to see more work outside England and Ireland; so I really want to go to Berlin to Theatertreffen, and maybe to Avignon. I want to see work further afield, because as much as there is some good work here, I find that a lot of the work that really drives me and inspires me tends to be international. So yeah hopefully Juno, then I hope to see companies I don’t know.
And what’s next?
So I have this; then I have ‘To Space’ in Australia; then ‘Jellyfish’ which was in the Fringe last year is going to be touring in September hopefully; it’s already been on in Belfast and London since we did it first in Fringe. But my main plan is to take a break, because 3 shows in 7 months has kind of taken it out of me.
But I did development work on a dance-theatre project last year with Jessie Keenan which I really want to return to, so I’d love to go back to that; and there’s another play that I’ve worked on with John, but that probably won’t happen until 2017. After this I’m not sure … there’s the dance show in development with Jessie, there’s a kids show in development with Aine Ni Laoghaire, then the other play with John, oh and then something else with Alice who I did ‘Jellyfish’ with. So it’s just figuring that out – let me go to Australia and then get back and figure out everything. I need to get much better at long term planning!