Directing In A Pandemic

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Considering a career in the arts is daunting. Even before the pandemic, childhood dreams of being an actor or director would be met with patronising smiles, coupled with the advice that, “you should probably get a ‘real’ degree first. Just in case.” Enter 2020. Governmental support took its time to materialise, and left a whole industry hanging in the balance. Nevertheless, the arts prevailed. To pursue a career in theatre requires a deep-rooted passion and resilience, something that former student Jennifer Lane Baker has in abundance. Now completing her Master’s degree in directing at Birkbeck, I turned to Jennifer to find out all about her experience working in the pandemic, and how DST has shaped her as a creative.

Jennifer attended Durham University between 2016 and 2019. She plunged wholeheartedly into the world of student theatre. Before arriving under the eaves of University College, she had already completed a foundation course in Musical Theatre. Durham’s appeal of “the range of student theatre” and three years of creative freedom meant that she could “meet great people and work on productions that [she] was really passionate about.” Durham provided Jennifer with enviable time to evolve as an artist, as she describes how “a university setting gave me the opportunity to freely experiment more than anywhere else. I learnt as much from the things I got wrong in DST, as the things I did right.” While here, Jennifer was president of Castle Theatre Company, and directed a number of successful plays including CTC’s ‘Harry,’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’

The most exciting part of Jennifer’s MFA is a placement year at the Curve theatre in Leicester. When I asked about the application process, Jennifer explained that, “it was gruelling. It was over a whole weekend where I had to do four interviews and a workshop after a written application. But it was rigorous because they care about getting to know you and your tastes. I left feeling like I had got something out of the process, and that they had taken time to listen to me. I knew that if I had got a place on the course, they had taken the time to understand who they were getting.” Of course, after her first year, the pandemic sized elephant stumbled into the room. Despite this, Jennifer has been lucky to work on two in person productions at Curve, ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and ‘The Color Purple.’ Jennifer describes rehearsals as “a mixture of the director staging the actors but also coordinating what shots and angles the cameras need to get.” Her responsibility in the shows was “keeping of track of what had happened and producing a technical camera script at the end of each day.”

My hope is that things will evolve  forwards rather than backwards

Research plays a key part in how she tackles texts. She describes how,

“every script is created in a culture, so you have to understand the rules before you break them.” Moving from university into the industry meant that Jennifer had to readjust some aspects of her thinking: “I spent time since I left university teaching myself to think more responsively and emotionally rather than academically, using images and mining information from the script or music.” Elements of the visual play a huge role in how she brings a production to life, using  “pinterest boards and playlists,” to aid the rehearsal process as well as collaboration with designers. Jennifer believes that, “actors are your biggest resource in that they are so incredibly perceptive and creative. It’s important to leave space for that.”

The conversation turned to what theatre might look like after the pandemic. Jennifer said, “My hope is that things will evolve forwards rather than backwards. I hope that this will have shifted people’s attitudes, especially since there’s been such a campaign from the people who have been excluded from government financial support to be included. I hope that stretches out to people who have been excluded, not just financially from theatre, but because of race, gender, disability.” She goes on to add, “I worry that financial constraint will mean that people will be pushing for less adventurous stuff, and what I think we can, and should be trying to do, is breaking down some of those boundaries. We’ve had such a mixture of freedom and constraint working with social distancing and online that we’ve had to throw the rules out the window, so I hope that attitude sticks.”

Finally, she offered some advice for students thinking of pursuing further education in the arts or going into the industry: “Watch as much theatre as you can, big stuff, small stuff, stuff you think you’ll love, stuff you think you’ll hate. Read as much as you can, plays, books about theatre, books that aren’t about theatre. In my opinion, theatre is all about telling stories so if you’re engaging with as many forms of media that are telling stories whether that’s podcasts, film, books, paintings, it will all make itself known when you’re working.” We wish Jennifer the best of luck as she moves forward with her degree and can’t wait to see what she does next.

Photography: Alex McNab & Mbili Munthali

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