The MA in Theatre directing at the University of East Anglia is one of the longest established in the country. Following the Gulbenkian Report on director training of 1989 it was founded by Tony Gash, a Shakespearean scholar who had studied at Oxford and taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Text-based directing, and performance based theory
The MA in Theatre directing at the University of East Anglia is one of the longest established in the country. Following the Gulbenkian Report on director training of 1989 it was founded by Tony Gash, a Shakespearean scholar who had studied at Oxford and taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. It was made possible by the building of a newly designed Studio Theatre at the University, which was opened by Harold Pinter in 1993. Its earliest advisers included the practitioners Cicely Berry( RSC) Max Stafford-Clark (Royal Court/Out of Joint) and Mike Alfreds (Shared Experience/ Method and Madness) who are all also published writers on directorial method. One of the founding principles of the MA ever since has been to establish a firm connection between the academic or critical study of dramatic texts and the director’s working with actors. We do this by, on the one hand, refusing to separate theatrical theory or literary reading from performance (the texts are scripts) and, on the other, by refusing to separate ‘performance art’ or ‘physical’ theatre from working in detail with texts, verse and language. We do not isolate theory from practice, but, often working in the Studio, search continually for the points of intersection between the verbal, emotional and the physical, both practically, and via the two concepts of speech acts and scenic structure.
To this end the MA directing students start by regularly rehearsing student actors on scenes of their own choosing which are then re-worked by their instructors in such a way as bring out an alternative aspect of the scene. In a supporting class they learn how to apply a variety of directing methods , many of which are commonly used in professional directing and actor training - e.g. Stanislavskian objectives, Laban’s effort anaylsis, Lecoq’s levels of tension., Keith Johnstone’s status, Meisner’s interactivity, but now, in the University context, also subjected to philosophical and historical scrutiny. This is where ‘speech acts’ the common theme of philosophy, literary criticism, linguistics and the great directors Stanislavski and Brecht come in; as does the recurrent rivalry between the claims of truth and those of form. By seeking out the foundational questions which underlie modern theories of the theatre, we are also able to see how great playwrights, like Shakespeare, are already implicit theorists and directors before those terms were used.
One of the strong appeals of the 'MA Theatre Directing: Text and Production' at the University Of East Anglia is its place within the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing. It has been usual for individual MA directing students to study alongside graduate scriptwriting students in some units available to both, such as Adaptation and Interpretation or Scriptwriting: Dramaturgy, and sometimes to direct their work in rehearsed readings or performances. But equally important is the possibility of working with critics who specialize in cultural history and dramatic criticism, such as Peter Womack, Professor of Literature and Drama, who offers a unit in The Actor in Space, which is of great value to any director working with a designer. Just as important for any modern director is a consideration of the influence of globalization, immigration, and ‘interculturalism’ on modern theatre throughout the world. This is the emphasis of an optional unit on Contemporary World Theatre, which also gives an opportunity to the Theatre Directing students to meet Theatre and Development graduates registered in the adjoining School of Development.Studies. In their search for new theatrical possibilities, Theatre Directing students are also able to draw on the British Centre for Literary Translation. All these explorations of so-called ‘interdisciplinarity’ are not so much journeys outward from one subject to another as inwards to the heart of the theatrical art-form where many modes which are academically separated, such as the sociological and the aesthetic, or literary and plastic arts are here experienced in their unity. For this reason too we like to consider applicants from a range of disciplines or professions.
Individual development and practical research
Each year a very small number of Theatre Directing students are selected. All are encouraged to recognize that, in spite of the misleading word, ‘directing’ is a collaborative process, where directors are facilitators who, on the one hand, must serve the skills of their collaborators, but, on the other, must discover and communicate their own creative strengths. Both semesters provide opportunities for the MA students to direct undergraduate students in formal, but not public, contexts where directors and actors will be assessed. In the first semester, there is a regular Scene Class where the directors are encouraged to range generically and historically while practising newly learned techniques. In the second, the study of the work of contemporary theory and performance groups in Postmodernism in Performance culminates in the application some of their methods and styles to the production of extracts from two or three modern plays performed by undergraduate drama students.
After Easter each student will pursue one of a number of personally chosen modes of practical research independently, culminating in either a written dissertation, a public production, or various combinations of the two. The evidence of practical research must be the equivalent of the 15000 word written dissertation demanded by the other MA courses. Applications for university studio productions are competitive and will be adjudicated by the course director and senior technician, but there are sometimes opportunities to direct outside the university. If a public production is undertaken, the student must provide a detailed design, financial and casting plan well in advance, but even more importantly the production must have some original idea or text behind it. Last year, for example, a successful studio production undertook a montage of a variety of plays on the theme of master and servant, thus creating a new but unified play. But there are also forms of research into particular methods or texts or themes which may be better suited to assessment by workshops or master classes: last year an individual’s research into Kantor’s aesthetics led to such a series of workshops, and was accompanied by pictures and model-boxes as well as writing. Another possibility is to combine a placement at a professional theatre, or Drama School, with written recording and analysis of the rehearsal process in which the student may participate as assistant director. And yet another is to base a dissertation on a combination of historical research and a review of contemporary productions. New translations of plays from another language into English, or adaptatations from a non-dramatic genre may also be submitted. All these, and many other possibilities depend on the individual’s interests, ingenuity, strengths and career plans, which may include teaching, writing or doctoral research as well as professional directing. Choices and development will be regularly discussed with each student in personal tutorials.
The course is still led and taught by its founder Tony Gash. In 2008-9 he was joined by Dr. Holly Maples, who was trained in acting at the Central School of speech and Drama, and has a Ph.D. from Trinity College, Dublin, for her research into the Abbey Theatre. She is now a full time lecturer at UEA and directs professionally. Other professional directors and designers visit regularly, including some who have themselves studied at UEA. In the Summer of 2009 two ex-UEA students directed at the Globe Theatre, and in May, the Drama programmes at UEA were listed in the Guardian league table as the best in the country. In the same year both Sam West and Richard Eyre lectured here on their personal conceptions of directing.