BWW Interview: Rachel Kavanaugh Talks A CHRISTMAS CAROL
"What reason have you to be merry?" Quite a good one, because A Christmas Carol returns to the Royal Shakespeare Company this Winter.
Having recently worked on a number of musicals (including the acclaimed Half a Sixpence), Rachel Kavanaugh returns to the RSC for a play which has some ghosts of the past and present. Sharing some of her earliest experiences with theatre, Rachel reveals what it's like to work alongside a figure from then, and what audiences can expect from this show now.
What is your earliest memory of theatre?
Well my Mum was an actress, so the theatre was a big part of my world since I was tiny. The house was always full of actors! I was taken to the theatre from a very early age, lots of musicals and panto. I remember seeing Oliver! at the Albery Theatre (now the Noël Coward Theatre), and Oklahoma! at the Palace. Big, classic musicals are probably my earliest memories.
But the thing that inspired me to want to do theatre as part of my life was actually seeing the RSC's Nicholas Nickleby.
Wow! Talk about a cyclical journey!
Exactly! And so it's extraordinary saying this to you when I'm sitting in Stratford-Upon-Avon, working with David Edgar who penned that Nicholas Nickleby production, on another Dickens adaptation for the RSC. I feel very lucky to be here now doing this.
And can you take us through your journey from there to the here and now?
After leaving university, I wrote letters to every single theatre and Artistic Director in the country. Just asking if they would take me on in any capacity, as an Assistant Director, as an assistant to the director. Both Ian Talbot at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre and Sam Walters at the Orange Tree responded.
I did my first assistant directing work in those two theatres, both of which I then went on to direct in. So I'm very grateful to those two who gave me an early opportunity. At the Orange Tree, I sort of did a bit of everything: Box Office, Front of House, assistant directing. Then Sam asked me and a couple of other Assistant Directors there to make a season in the old theatre above the pub.
After that, Ian at the park had me as an Assistant Director for a couple of seasons. And I went on to direct the children's plays and then he asked me to do Shakespeare. That was the beginning of a long association with that theatre.
So you made the jump from Assistant Director to Director, and since then from Freelance Director to Artistic Director. What did you learn during your time helming Birmingham Rep?
The thing that you learn when you run a building, I think it makes you a better freelance director to go into other buildings. Because I now actually understand what the Marketing Department really does and what the Education Department really does, and how hard all those people work to support the productions on stage.
That was such an informative and exciting time, even more because I became a mother at that time too! I'm glad that the culture around supporting mothers in theatres is changing, it's slowly changing. When I started, people used to not talk about their children or their responsibilities, whatever they might be. Because it was deemed in some way "unprofessional" that you were at work and therefore you just did your work.
I think it's much more accepted now (not everywhere) but in some companies. To be able to acknowledge that this is a juggling act actually, for parents and for anyone with responsibilities
This Christmas, your production of A Christmas Carol is returning to the RSC. What drew you to the project last year, for the first run?
It was lovely to be asked to come back to the RSC. I hadn't directed here for 15 years, before I was asked last year to do it. And to work in the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre, I'd never done that. Also, the prospect of reuniting with David Edgar who I had worked with before, both at Birmingham Rep and at the Orange Tree.
But most excitingly to work on this story. I've always loved Dickens, since that wonderful Nicholas Nickleby. I think that the kind of redemptive nature of the story at Christmas is a peculiar cocktail of wonderfulness.
So those themes resonate particularly for you?
Absolutely. I think any story about someone who can turn their life around or is saved, and for that to happen to require a certain degree of theatrical magic feels like a wonderful thing to be doing on stage.
I think David's found a particularly good way to tell that story. Not all adaptations manage to do this, but David's found both the psychology in the story and the politics. And Dickens is on stage with us, writing the story as we go.
Kind of immersing him in his own world.
In fact, we went on a company outing to the Charles Dickens Museum last year. It's a recreation of his house in London as he would have lived in it. It was wonderful. To see some of the words that are spoken in our version of the play on the walls there, and that amazing picture of Dickens sitting with all of his characters around him and Little Nell on his knee.
I think that's very much been an inspiration for me and for David, the idea that the characters are so real to Dickens that he can talk to them or interact with them. It feels dramatically potent.
Dickens used to sometimes walk through London doing that, shouting and inventing his stories as he went (because he was a great walker). And of course, he was also a great performer and an amateur magician! So we're trying to incorporate all of this in our version.
What can audiences expect from that world then?
Certainly, we do use some tricks that the RST can do in terms of automation and scenery. But a lot of the magic and a lot of the storytelling comes from the ensemble of the company and the way in which we make the scenes and the worlds using actors. There's a real a sense of an ensemble of actors making a story with a writer.
As a director, what does returning to a show and reviving it allow you to do?
We're not coming from a standing start, which is nice. There's a certain amount of knowledge about how the show should be from our part.
But what is lovely is that sometimes you direct a show, and in late previews you have quite a good idea. But it's too late to put that in, because it might require new costumes or different actors or things that you just can't do practically at that moment.
So with nearly a year off between the last performance and going into rehearsals this time, David and I were able to meet and talk. So I would say, "Well, what if we doubled that character with that character? Then we could have a resonance there?" Or, "If that became a girl, would that work better?" Or, "This bit never worked last time, let's rethink that".
And that's what's great about revisiting a piece, especially if you've got a writer like David who is willing to jump on those new ideas and run with them. We knew it was being enjoyed by the audiences, but we also knew we could make it even better so it's wonderful to have that opportunity.
What reactions do you think it will have this year?
The show has lots of surprises (I don't want to give them all away!) But in the way it begins, it's not what you would expect from a Christmas show. It gets very dark before it gets very light again. The world of Christmas Future is particularly bleak I think, a world without heart.
And so it takes you on that same journey that something like The Winter's Tale would take you on: where you go somewhere pretty bleak before you are redeemed. But of course because it's Dickens, there is that extraordinary vividness of character. So even in those darkest moments of the show, there are some characters who come on who might seem larger than life (I like to call them vivid, because I don't think they need to be broad).
Earlier you mentioned growing up watching those big musicals. Since then, you've directed a number of classics yourself, including Oklahoma! Is there any show you would still like to take on?
It sounds a ridiculous thing to say, but often your favourite show is the one you've just been asked to do! It's a funny life being a Freelance Director, and I think I tend not to hanker after shows that I may one day do.
You know when you're offered something by how you feel whether it's a no-brainer or not. A lot of those big shows I've done recently like Oklahoma!, the prom I did and Half a Sixpence, you think, "Absolutely, I want to do that!" It just feels right.
I'd love to do more Shakespeare, I haven't done Shakespeare for a long time. I think that's partly because I have done so many musicals. And it looks like next year I might be doing some plays, including Tom Stoppard and another one...I can't talk about yet!
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan