Donnacadh O’Briain is an Olivier Award-winning director whose productions have played at The Royal Shakespeare Company, in the West End, and internationally. In 2017 his production of Rotterdam received an Olivier for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre and went on to play at The Arts Theatre (West End) before embarking on a UK tour. His other credits include Always Orange (RSC), PEEP (a unique cross art form pop up theatre show) and the multi-award winning Electrolyte (Wildcard / Edinburgh / UK Tour).
I first worked with Donnacadh on Time and the Conways by J.B Priestly at The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in 2012. He was the first director I’d worked with that expressed no desire to block the play. The philosophy (it seemed to me) was that if we immersed ourselves in the landscape of the play and knew every inch of it in vivid detail – both psychologically and somatically – then, with solid stage craft supporting us, the blocking would take care of itself. With no set staging to adhere to, we were free to remain open to our impulses and that meant you couldn’t stop listening, not for a second, because you were never quite certain what might happen next. Whilst we did collabortively establish some structure to our movement and action by opening night, we never lost that sense of freedom and spontaneity. To me, as a young actor, this was liberating.
Another technique which enabled such freedom in rehearsal was a total ban of scripts on stage, right from day one; something which Donnacadh discusses further in this interview some eight years later. Here’s what he had to say:
Could you give us an insight into the creative process behind Rotterdam, your Olivier Award-winning production?
Well, I read a lot of unproduced plays until I found a gem. That was a big part of it – had the play not been so accomplished, very little else would have happened. After that there’s no doubt that finding actors who could bring it to life was equally as important. Once I had those key elements the next phase was about creating an environment that would nurture a deep understanding of the characters, and a relentless commitment to representing them fully and honestly in the work…and finding the laughs! It’s a very funny play, though finding the comedy came later in the process, the drama is always first for me. In terms of getting the company to really make the play sing, I use a series of approaches and exercises that I’ve developed over the years; a mix of things I’ve picked up. One important element is that I use line feeding instead of scripts so that whenever actors are on their feet, their bodies and eyes are free to connect and be present, rather than have the distraction of the script which can shut down both intimacy and one half of the body. The simplest way of putting it is that I try to embed the possibility that anyone can do anything at any time, through a combination of improvisational elements and a disinclination to work towards staging in the first couple of weeks. I want to get a company working together with real immediacy, understanding and playfulness, and once they’re there, directing the play is easy.
Are there any particular qualities that you look for when auditioning actors, irrespective of the role?
I suppose any director wants to get a feel that someone will bring a positive, open and creative energy to rehearsals, both because you need that yourself and because the other actors need it. How you judge that is hard to express in words. Also, I look for someone who is bringing empathy for their character, who is finding a connection.
Many proactive actors like to contact directors. Would you generally encourage actors to reach out to you or is it better to go through casting directors for specific productions?
I don’t have any objection to being contacted directly. I try to respond when actors do. It certainly increases the chances of being noticed but inevitably you can only meet a small number of actors for any role.
When you’re casting a play, do you have any audition room bugbears that actors do?
It’s frustrating when someone is underprepared, it can feel like they’ve not given themselves a fair chance or me the opportunity to really know whether they’re right or not. The more prepared you are the more of yourself you can show and the more you can connect to the material. If someone’s borderline suitable but they’ve put in the work, learned the text etc, then they give themselves a better shot at getting a call back. I know how time consuming learning the text can be, but I do think it gives you an advantage.
What has been your favourite production to direct and why?
Impossible to say really. In recent times, I really enjoyed directing Always Orange for the RSC. I really felt that I was able to work exactly the way I wanted to. And also Philistines for RADA, due to the challenge of directing such a huge play – made all the more huge as I added a whole off-stage abstract movement element. Day after day we worked on character through table work and improvisation and pushed ourselves in the scene work to go emotionally and intellectually to the places the characters go. I was able to keep testing my aesthetic and pushing at the boundaries of the style to see how far it could go. We were playing with naturalism, expressionism and metatheatricallity with a bit of music-hall and melodrama thrown in; it’s a mad play and I wanted us to be able to serve all its contradictions. It was relentless, but the level of ambition and determination in the room was incredibly exciting.
What’s next for you?
Next up I’m directing a new play I’m co-writing about border control for Ice & Fire, then opening Electrolyte in London and New York before sending it off on an international tour. I’m also making a new show, Arms Flung Wide, about helping, with Bella Heesom and our company All About You, and directing a one person show for Edinburgh called A Story of Destiny. And spending as much time as possible with my kids – 3, 0.5 & 0.5 (ages not names).
What do you mean when you say that Arms Flung Wide is about helping?
Well, it’s in part a biographical piece about a woman with MS who progressively needs more help as her illness develops. Her daughter, amongst others, helps to manage many of her most basic human needs. More broadly it will be about the fact that we as individuals need help – or to use a more politicised word, co-operation – to do anything. In part, we may dramatise that idea by the audience needing to help Bella in order to actually complete the show itself.
Finally, just for fun, could you describe the secret to acting in a cryptic, abstract metaphor?
Drop your shopping, take off your coat and show us your secret dance.