Peter Houghton discusses the cause and effect of jumping between actor, writer and director as he prepares to take the reins of The Architect.
What drew you to this new play from Aidan Fennessy?
Aidan sent me the script last year. I loved it immediately. I’ve done a lot of comedy over the past decade or so which I’ve loved, but this is something else. The comedy is still there, in fact, it’s hilarious at times, but Aidan uses the comedy like an emotional can opener. He sort of turns it like a key on one of those old Spam tins, and then there’s this sudden, overwhelming and hugely satisfying emotion. Like Aidan, the play has incredible heart, and a genuine sense of compassion. That’s rare to be honest. Lots of plays have grizzles and gripes or points to make and prove, very few are infected with an empathy for our fellow travellers on this often difficult journey. He can do real drama, Aidan, and make it matter by using comedy to cunningly help us fall in love with characters he’ll then place in peril. You care about these people. That’s good writing.
Fennessy describes his play as a work about living in extremis. It is a story about life and death. What do you find appealing about this kind of narrative?
Most good drama is about extremes I guess, we can do subtle at home. For the theatre we want catharsis – that’s one of its social purposes. We go in, we sit down and all our ‘stuff’ gets unpacked by ciphers ‘acting’ on our behalf. That’s the deal really. The better the act, the better the experience. These narratives have been central for centuries. People grappling with big questions have been centre stage since Agamemnon returned from Troy, or Hamlet held that skull and wondered where his old friend had gone. We laugh about it, skirt around it, avoid it and occasionally confront it. Making it entertaining takes away our fear, ennobles our suffering and reminds us we’re not alone.
As a writer, actor and director you must be familiar with going inside the minds of different characters. How do the three hats vary?
What’s funny is how quickly you take on the politics of each role. When you’re directing it’s all about directing, and you start thinking directors are the smart ones. When you’re acting it’s all about acting and actors are the only ones that ‘get it’, and when you’re writing you wonder if your work will be treated properly. You very quickly develop a kind of pathology that matches your job description. I think that’s because each involves such a different part of your brain and each role comes with its own set of quite particular vulnerabilities. However, they also come with a very particular perspective. I feel pretty lucky to do all three to be honest, because a sure footing in one role gives you insight into another. I’m a much better director because I write. And my acting is clearer because I direct. And I strongly believe that all theatre artists should act now and then. You’ll care a lot more about the plane if you actually have to fly it. And you shouldn’t really ask people to do something you wouldn’t do yourself.
What is your favourite part of the theatre-making process, and what can the cast look forward to about your rehearsal room?
As a director, I love the first clumsy steps and stumbles – the initial discoveries. It’s about expanding and opening up, reinforcing and re-inventing. I’m not sure I love opening night, but I do love the season. As an actor, I love the hard work of the season; going in every night with thoughts in mind, little fixes and adjustments. I hope the cast enjoy the process. It is important to me that they do. There are happy companies and troubled companies in the theatre. A collective pride in the work usually makes a happy company. And a sense of ownership over the production makes actors feel strong in their roles and their relationships. I think the actors will have a lot of laughs on this, and some tears as well – it’s a very moving piece. Aidan has a very big heart so I really want them to get a sense of that, of his warmth and generosity and how that infuses the play. He’s not an obvious lush in that respect, in fact he can come across as a cynic with his dry humour, but both he and the play have a great love of basic human feeling and sensitivity. I really want the cast to manifest that, and to share it with the audience.
The Architect will have its world premiere at Southbank Theatre in a few short months. What do you find most challenging, and most rewarding, about making a brand new play?
There is nothing better than a world premiere. All plays were new plays once. It’s interesting to see a ‘classic’ but imagine the excitement of seeing it before it was. The greatest challenges reap the greatest rewards – I think that’s how the cliché goes. I love the classics but sometimes it does feel like you’re renovating someone else’s house. It’s satisfying, but it’s not yours. New work is unknown to an audience; every word heard for the first time, no one is singing along. So the emphasis is far more placed on plot. It’s the story that steps forward, not the director’s vision or an actor doing a great turn. The audience are riveted to the characters travelling through the plot with them in real time. There are no easy academic distractions or references to soften or intellectualise the experience. It’s happening here and now. And our job as theatre makers is to make that tightrope walk as dangerous and thrilling as possible; the audience can sort out the ideas later on. In the moment I want them locked up in the hopes and fears of the characters. That visceral engagement that great storytelling encourages. I want them on the edge of their seats.
Who is The Architect for?
I would say that the play is therapeutic for people who have suffered bereavement, which is all of us really. It’s about finding out what endures, what continues, beyond the clichés; what makes us go on.
The Architect plays at Southbank Theatre from 27 September until 31 October 2018.