Made at Curve: The Trainee Director's edition

Fri 27 Mar 2020

Hi! I’m Emily Oulton and I’m the Trainee Director at Curve. I’m here for ten months on secondment from the Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Directing at Birkbeck, which is a two-year programme of intensive director training at postgraduate level.

Outside of this training and my work at Curve, I’m (shock horror) a theatre director. I’ve directed my own productions of musicals and plays in Manchester, at the Edinburgh Fringe and on tour. Currently, I’m developing a new musical called Erainne with my company, Junction Theatre Company Ltd.

I’m so pleased to be working at Curve in particular because it’s a national centre of excellence for musical theatre, which is a central theatrical interest of mine. It also has such an exciting and diverse programme, which has given me loads of opportunities to work on, learn about and see different genres and types of work.

The main strand of my role as Trainee Director is assistant directing. So far, I’ve worked on The EntertainerMy Beautiful Laundrette at Curve and on tour and West Side Story. These projects have all been really varied, and as is often the case when assistant directing, I’ve taken on all sorts of different jobs within the role.

At Curve, I tend to weave between the Artistic, New Work and Learning departments and I’ve had some useful and exciting opportunities to shadow and experience other areas. Some of the jobs I’ve done have included reading script submissions, chairing panel discussions, facilitating theatre days, seeing local artists’ work and undertaking research for future productions. No day is ever the same and it’s really enriching and rewarding to be working all over the building. I also reckon I’m keeping fit by walking around Curve’s enormous foyer multiple times a day.

I knew before I came to Curve that the theatre was about to take on one of the most stunning, intricate and ambitious musicals ever written in West Side Story. I’m a big Stephen Sondheim fan, so I was so excited at the prospect of working on it. Curve’s Artistic Director Nikolai Foster had a really exciting and fresh vision for this new version of the show. It was to be all about the conjuring of the authentic lives of the disenfranchised young people at the heart of the story; their beliefs, their dreams and outlook on the world. It was to be set in the context of 1950s life as a first ñ or second-generation immigrant, experiencing racism, xenophobia, poverty and gang activity. It would feel gritty, shockingly relevant, uncensored and like an epic juggernaut hitting Leicester at full speed.

The first step of my process as an assistant director when working on a new show is to completely immerse myself in the world of the production. This means I can be really useful, active and supportive in the rehearsal room when any information or context is needed. I do this by reading as much work by the writer as possible, watching films set or made in the time period, listening to music the characters would be and reading all about the era and political landscape. This is one of the things I really love about working in theatre: the opportunity to find out so much about the different ways in which people live. I also use all this information to compile a research pack for the actors and creative team so they can get immersed themselves. The week before rehearsals started, I decorated the room with 200+ photographs of life in the West Side in the late 1950s, so we could make the show with the world surrounding us.

So, we embarked on our intense four-week rehearsal period. There was so much to cover: 2,000 bars of music, 120 pages of text, 6 major sequences of choreography and 2 fights. We worked Monday to Saturday, including some evenings. There was loads to do, but the key was to trust in the process, serve the amazing text that is West Side Story and be unified and supportive team members to one another. Rehearsals were led by director Nikolai, choreographer Ellen Kane and musical supervisor Sarah Travis and we worked mostly chronologically through the text, where Nikolai would conceive each scene in detail with the actors in order to tell the story.

When making this kind of work, especially when trying to conjure the authentic experience of something, it feels hugely important to speak to those who have had direct contact with the subject in question. One day in rehearsals, we spoke to the Leicestershire Police and staff and peer mentors from the Violence Reduction Network about gang culture and what leads a person to carry and use a knife. This afternoon was hugely affecting, informative and inspiring for everyone present. It made us look at West Side Story in a different light.

The actors were truly unbelievable during rehearsals. One moment, they’d be doing the splits mid-air, the next belting a top E, and the next they’d be giving powerhouse performances in some of the most difficult emotional scenes ever written for the stage. My role in rehearsals was to support Nikolai and the other creatives, whether that was actioning his notes with the actors and the production team, coordinating our dream team 36-strong young company and working with the Deputy Stage Manager Lisa Lewis to ensure we had a written record of every creative decision being made for when we went into tech.

Tech is a really intense, challenging and exciting process as you finally see the show that’s been existing in people’s minds for months come to life. It’s a really special time, because it’s also your only chance as a creative on the show to experience the stunning visual effects fresh and for the first time as the audience will. Before then, the show exists in its purest and most stripped-back form; with the actors and some props. During tech, this is when the show is lifted to the next level, and we really enter into the vibrant visual world of the show. After tech came dress rehearsals and previews, where the show was put in front of an audience for the first time and finessed.

There was such a buzz about the building on opening night. Curve’s Artistic team accidentally all came matching; in red and black. (We’d obviously all been staring at the West Side poster for too long). The opening show was triumphant – I sat in the second row of the circle which was my favourite seat because you had the very best view of Guy Hoare’s stunning lighting, especially the massive, spectacular American flag in ‘the Dance at the Gym’ and the heavenly explosion of colour and white light in ‘Somewhere’.

After opening, this is where one of the really important parts of my job began. Working closely with the dance captain Katie Lee, I was responsible for rehearsing in and directing the understudies and swings. The task is a combination of being really creative and also logistical and pragmatic, as it is important that the actor knows exactly what they need to do and where they need to go (we call this their ‘track’) but also that they are able to make their own acting choices and play it organically. Sometimes you’ll do a show and never have the misfortune of cast illness, but this secondary rehearsal process was really vital during West Side Story when we were attacked by a vicious flu bug!

A few people have asked me how the West Side Story team managed to keep spirits high during the run, especially being away from family and friends over the Christmas period. It was really owing to the way that it was such a creative, thoughtful and happy company, and that they all really became part of Team Curve in the three months that they were all here. Some worked with Beth in the New Work department, performing drafts of scripts for writers who wanted to hear their work out loud. I worked with two members of the company to workshop a play idea they had together. A few members of the cast helped me out enormously by reading the book for my new musical out loud so I could hear it before the next draft.


And of course, there’s no Curve West Side Story without Wig Wednesdays. It was a big event in the calendar each week. Alex Christian, who played Baby John, worked extensively with costume supervisor Lucy and head of wigs Helen. Every Wednesday, Lucy and Helen would put one of the girls’ wigs on Alex and prepare him a matching outfit to parade around the building in after warm-up. We had Britney Spears, a Jessica Rabbit glam 1920s club singer and – a personal favourite, Belle from Beauty And The Beast with a met-gala-esque transformation into an 80s fitness guru. Truly legendary.