March 3, 2003
an interview with
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At the end of February in New York City, we met Marianne Elliott in a 43rd Street rehearsal room, just after rehearsal ended for the day. Marianne is directing the Broadway revival of The Miracle Worker, starring Hilary Swank and Skye McCole Bartusiak, which will first run for two weeks at Charlotte Rep. Marianne grew up in the theatre, and has become one of today's most in-demand British directors. We talked to her about this project and her career in theatre.|
In December, it was announced that you were going from the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester to the Royal Court Theatre in London. The Royal Court is known for its development of new plays. In the mid 90's, you were one of the founders of a company called Small Talk Theatre, which also did new work. Was that experience with new plays at Small Talk what made this offer from the Royal Court appeal to you?
Yes, I suppose I've always been interested in doing new work. When I started out, it was in a fringe company called Small Talk, with two friends of mine. We'd been at university together in London. They were both writers. Then, as my career took off, I went to the Royal Exchange Theatre and became Artistic Director there. It's a place that's known for its classic work, but we also did new work. We did world premiers quite a lot, for a big classical theatre. The Royal Court is probably the best company in the country, in England. It has always interested me because it's always been quite radical, and on the edge, and challenging. It's at the forefront of theatre that's changing the world of theatre.
Do they do exclusively new work?
Yes, they do.
What attracted you to this project, The Miracle Worker?
Well, when I was first told about it, I hadn't heard of it at all. I had no baggage. I didn't know it was a very well-known play. I had really not much knowledge of Helen Keller, either. But I was told by my agent that it was written in 1959, and was well-known in America, and that it was a well-made play. I immediately thought, "No." But when I read it, it felt like a new play to me. It felt so fresh, so about now, so about things that we need to continue to talk about. It did not feel like an old piece or melodramatic at all. I'd just directed The Little Foxes, the Lillian Hellman piece, at the Donmar. My impression of that was quite similar, in that I hadn't seen it loads of times, didn't know it really well, so I just fell in love with it for what it was.
How long ago were you approached about this project? How long have you been planning to do this?
About eight months.
The Little Foxes is set in the deep south, and this play is also set in Alabama...
And it was written at about the same time.
The question is not so much about how you deal with a play set in the south per se, but is there a difference if you prepare for a play that's about a specific region?
Absolutely, and I'm overly conscientious and do a lot of research about that. When I was doing Little Foxes, I went to Mobile, Alabama, which was an extraordinary experience. I felt it was important because it influenced so many things in that play. If it were set anywhere else, it wouldn't have happened in the same way. In this play, if Helen Keller were anywhere else, they wouldn't have had the attitude that they had towards her. Annie Sullivan might have gotten away, but she was living so far away from her friends and anyone else she knew. For me, it's a very atmospheric piece. It's quite hellish. Part of that is the heat, the excessiveness of certain parts of the south, and the attitudes which feel very similar to upper English class attitudes. Actually, they are, because people migrated from rural areas of England, upper class people with money, to rural areas of the south. When I went to Alabama, I was more culture shocked than I've been anywhere in the world. It was a weird mix of understanding the culture, with its English upper class base, and finding the heat, and the insects, and the humidity... the way people lived their lives, and the music and the excessiveness of everything... just gob smacking.
You must've been there in the summer, then, and Mobile is a town where people live large.
Do you think a southern audience will receive this play differently?
It's very difficult to know. I don't think there's anything particularly sophisticated; you don't have to be a theatre literate to understand the play. Some plays go down really well in London, but don't go down particularly well in Manchester, where I was at the Royal Exchange. I imagine it would be received in the same way in most places. I don't know. It's a very emotional piece.
So that's not a consideration as you prepare?
No, it isn't. I suppose I'm much more subjective about it. Although I know that some people may think it's a creaky old piece, I don't want to know why they think that. Similarly, I know that some people had a take on The Little Foxes, and yet I had a very particular take on it, which was that I wanted to understand why Regina was so vile. She was in a situation where she had to fight in order to survive. That's not how she's normally portrayed. My approach has more to do with what I want to get out of it, what I think is interesting.
The Royal Exchange is regional theatre. Charlotte Rep is regional theatre. Of course, you're not associated with Charlotte Rep in the same way that you were with the Royal Exchange, but do you think that there are unique advantages to being in a regional setting?
Yes. I used to find that to be true in Manchester. I found that the audiences were much more of a real set of people. In London, it's media people, theatre people, who go to the theatre, or people with a lot of money. In Manchester, it's much more of a cross-section of the public. Lots and lots of different types of people went, and there were lots of different types of tickets. They responded to it in a way that wasn't necessarily filtered through their own attitudes towards work. They weren't working in the media. And they were generally much more emotionally responsive.
How long have you been in New York on this trip?
About four and a half weeks.
Is that how long rehearsals have been going on?
Your career has encompassed modern classics and new work. Would you name a couple of your favorite playwrights?
Tennessee Williams, definitely. Arthur Miller, definitely. I would say Shakespeare, sometimes.
Tell us about Simon Stephen's Port.
It was a new play that we commissioned at the Royal Exchange. He wrote it while he was a writer in residence with us. He's a young playwright. I wanted to do it very much, and we did it in the main house. It was fantastic. That was my last show there.
Let's go back to The Miracle Worker. Annie Sullivan (Hilary Swank) is a very complicated character. What's your view of her outlook?
First of all, I think that William Gibson, who wrote it, fell in love with her. He said that to me, actually - that Annie was his love. So that's what he's really interested in. It's the miracle work-er, not the miracle work-ee. The whole play is about her, so she's definitely the most complex character in it. I think, in the writing, that he took a lot of it from what he knew to be the truth from what he'd read. Most of the play is based on letters, sent to a friend of hers at Perkins Institution for the Blind, from when she was first in Alabama. It's all referenced to that.
I think one of the most interesting things about Annie Sullivan is that she had been blind. She was born with all her faculties, like Helen Keller, went blind and then partially recovered her sight. She was abandoned by practically her whole family, either by death or by literally being dumped on people's steps. She was then taken to the poorhouse, and was at the poorhouse for many years until her brother Jimmy died there. She felt very guilty about that. When she was age fourteen, she basically insisted that she be allowed to go to school. She didn't even start her education until she was fourteen. That says a lot about her. She's got a huge inferiority complex, because she was always abandoned and nobody told her that they loved her. Also, she understood what it was to be blind. People look down on you, think that you are mentally disabled if you are physically disabled. She had a fervor and passion for literature, because she hadn't had any of that until she was fourteen. When she was at Perkins, from fourteen to twenty, she was the highest graded pupil that they'd ever had. She ended up being class valedictorian, and became incredibly well-read. But all her life, she had this big chip on her shoulder - that she wasn't good enough, that people were looking down on her.
A friend of ours, who teaches here at a French-American middle school, just studied The Miracle Worker with his classes. One of the things that they came up with about Annie was that she was damaged goods. All her life she was working out the damage that had been done.
I would think that most of us do that, to one degree or another. I think this play is a very good example of that. For me, that's what the play is about. It's not just about Hellen Keller (Skye McCole Bartusiak) getting over her physical disabilities - that we all know - but it's about Annie Sullivan getting over what I call her psychological disability, which is all that limits her in her head. She gets over it by giving everything to Helen. She couldn't do that for Jimmy, her brother. She exorcises a lot of demons by doing that, and that is inspiring to all of us.
She literally competes with the whole family for Helen, but she also competes in a very direct way with Helen's mother.
Yes, absolutely. That's something that happened in life, too. There was one point when Helen was asked, when she was about nineteen, if she had to choose between her teacher and her mother, who she would go for. She said, "Teacher." It was a very serious question, because at the time it was either one road or the other. Again, it fits into the kind of person that Annie Sullivan was. She'd been abandoned by everybody, so she was only going to attach herself to somebody who was utterly dependent on her. She was Helen's eyes, Helen's ears, and Helen's mouthpiece for the rest of her life. She got close to other people. She married, but never let anyone get between her and Helen. They really were co-dependent. It wasn't Annie sacrificing her life for Helen; she was doing it for somebody who would never abandon her.
We've heard that your view of the play is dark.
I think the play is dark. I think the people go to hell and back. I think they all do; they go on a journey. The most obvious manifestation of that is the violence between Annie and Helen. They go to really horrible places. Therefore, that's reflected in the atmosphere of the house, the design of the set.
Can you tell us a little about the design and layout of the set?
I suppose my basic approach is that it's quite film noir-y. So, there are lots of shadows and dark places, and there are no walls. I really like atmosphere, so wanted to push the realism so it was really a reflection of how they felt.
What are the particular challenges of directing actors to play physically disabled people?
It's really challenging. I've got a fantastic movement and fight director, David Leong, working on it with me, and that's making all the difference in the world. We both studied deaf and blind kids. Practically everything that Helen Keller does is choreographed to the last moment. This ten-year-old girl who's playing Helen will have to understand what it is to be violent, and blind and deaf and mute, and not able to communicate at all. It's very tough.
How are you preparing her? What do you do to make that make sense to her?
She's had a lot of blindfold work. She's had earplugs. She has voice work. She does a lot of violence work, a lot of fighting.
The play seems to have spectacular fights.
I hope so, yes.
In the 2001 awards given by Stage Newspaper, you were named one of the one hundred most influential people in British theatre. The only other two female directors were Jude Kelly and Deborah Warner (Medea). You're touted as a very hot talent. When could you tell that you were on the right track to getting this sort of recognition and getting the good jobs?
I don't think you ever really know. I'm still insecure, wondering if it will it carry on. I've been offered some fantastic jobs that I had to turn down because I wasn't available, and I've wondered if they'd ever come 'round again.
What would you say the first thing was that you realized was really super?
I was offered things at the National and the Royal Shakespeare Company that I had to turn down. Then I was offered the Donmar, which was great. Then I was offered the Royal Court job. I wasn't even interviewed; they came to me and offered me the job, which for my money must be the most sought-after job in the whole of British theatre. It's an associate job. At the time, I'd had enough of being an artistic director, because it was far too much politics. I wanted to get back to the creative side.
So, as an associate director you get to actually do more directing instead of sitting in board meetings.
There was an interview last July in The Guardian, which said you'd once tried acting. Did you ever consider a career other than one in theatre?
My father was a very well-known director, and my mother and grandparents were all in acting. Growing up, I was determined not to go into the theatre. That lasted until I was about twenty-eight.
Did something in particular beguile you?
I was really sick of the job that I was doing. So I set up the fringe theatre company, Small Talk, with these two playwrights I knew from university. We just started doing things in our own time, in our rooms, on weekends. It took off. Things went from better to better to better. When I started at the Royal Exchange, I went there for a year as an assistant director for a bursary, and then they offered a stay, then they promoted me. Within five years, I was an artistic director. It kind of took off, without me trying to stop it. I didn't have a moment to consider that I shouldn't be doing it.
Does Small Talk still exist?
Is going to the Royal Court the next thing that you're doing?
What's your first project there?
I don't know, really. They offered me a show but I didn't like it, so I'll probably start off with my feet under a desk and find out how it all works. I start about a week after this opens in New York. I'll have a project going within a couple of months.
Best of luck. Thanks so much for the interview.
~ Lydia Arnold