Cultural Storytellers: Benjamin Henson
Renee Liang talks to Benjamin Henson, a recent arrival from the UK, who is producing a classic English thriller-mystery, The Turn of the Screw, using innovative theatre techniques.
Since when have you known you wanted to be a theatre director?
My work in the theatre began with an organisation called Youth Arts Leicestershire, where from the age of 14 I led weekly youth theatres and workshops. I had a few knocks to my confidence as a teenager, and helping to run groups for young people whose problems were far more pressing than my own helped me to put these worries aside. Youth Arts was run under the guiding eye of an amazing man called Robert Staunton, who always pushed for the highest of standards within a very ‘anti-star-system’ work ethic that quickly levelled even the grandest of egos to the even plane of the ensemble. A very healthy way of working that I have striven for ever since. This work progressed to both performing in and leading productions taken to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe each year, in a venue run by Youth Arts; allowing young people of ages 16+ to be technicians, venue managers, box office staff, performers and stage managers. This was a huge undertaking with up to 80 young people taking part each summer.
Because of the youth-work emphasis of my theatre experience, it wasn’t until University that I heard this word ‘director’ being bandied around. I became incredibly disappointed with the standard of the student theatre societies, both in terms of artistic output and the performer’s stage discipline; within the microcosm of the campus these productions were being heralded for breaking new ground whereas I couldn’t help but think that I had seen groups of ill-affected teenagers from the Midlands do just as well if not better. I decided to put on a production of ‘Disco Pigs’ (Enda Walsh) which was quickly received as if I had reinvented the wheel – I knew very clearly I hadn’t, but what did surprise me was that people began to talk about me as if I were a ‘Director’. It wasn’t really until this point that it dawned on me that all that time and energy spent dragging groups of teenagers into the world of Alice in Wonderland or Sweeny Todd had been directing. From here Mum re-mortgaged the house to send me to drama school so I could train officially.
Is there a "style" or "genre" that your work is known for?
I always find this such a hard question, and one I should make a conscious effort to better explain as I continue to develop as a director. The difficulty being that I direct things in the way I ‘see’ them so for me this generates not a style but a practice. I’m a firm believer that the work should always reflect the needs of the play rather than spreading broad personal brush strokes all over it. I would say that predominately my work has a very physical approach and that the world of the piece is almost always intrinsic to the action of it, meaning I rely heavily on the design and set elements of any play I do. I love creating worlds where the actors can be physical one second and then delivering heartfelt, meaty, text the next. In ‘Pericles’ I had the actor playing the lead role deliver his sobbing speech to his dead wife, only to be sombrely consoled by a glove-puppet sailor he himself manipulated. When these two theatricalities can exist in the same world believably and emotively then I feel like I’ve done my job.
What's the show you have done that you are most proud of?
I’m 24 now and have directed over 25 productions, not including those I have assisted on, and, although it may sound a cop-out, I see every one of them as a progression, a learning-curve, a risk and a valuable lesson. Therefore I’m incredibly proud of each and every one of them. I do, however, have a number of proud moments that have marked that progression:
During a rehearsal late in the process for ‘Disco Pigs’, Kirsty, playing ‘Runt’, turned to me and said “Ben, would you count this show as physical theatre?” Kirsty is incredibly tall and slender and at the time was still battling with the idea that this was something to be overcome in her stage work. She hadn’t yet realised that her unique body shape meant that her acting style was inherently ‘physical’ and was one of her greatest assets. The idea of being a physical theatre performer was to her as unattainable as being a dancer or an acrobat until the movement work in ‘Disco Pigs’ had snuck up on her. By the time we left university, Kirsty immediately started work for Knee High Theatre, one of the UK’s leading physical theatre companies. Kirsty had always had the talent for such work, but the thought that I had even a small part to play in her harnessing it makes me very proud – both of the show and of her.
When working on Harold Pinter’s ‘A Kind of Alaska’, I was beginning to struggle communicating how much there was to be played, captured in so little words in the text. I set up an exercise with two of the actors whereby one (who was playing a woman who had woken from a coma after 29 years) had to excitedly show the other ‘the museum of her childhood’, the ‘exhibits’ lining all the walls of the room. The other (playing a doctor who had been by this woman’s side since the first) had to do all he could to get her back into bed. They could only speak the text. Those two intentions were all they could play. Canice, the male actor, stopped the exercise himself after only a few minutes, overcome as the world of the play, the subtext, the character, all the discussions we’d had, all fell into place in his mind. These are the moments we strive for as directors – the breakthroughs that light the way for the actors.
You've hit the ground running in NZ... what made you decide to come to NZ, and what have you found good/easy about our community?
I met my partner in London and when he was called back to work in Auckland, it seemed only the natural thing that I follow. I tried to build a few links and search for opportunities here whilst still in the UK, but was directing a musical adaptation of ‘Five Children and It’ (Edith Nesbit) for last year’s Edinburgh Festival so it was hard to find the time. I had about two weeks from my return from Edinburgh until getting on the plane for the other side of the world, so there wasn’t really that much time to think about it!
What I’ve found to be really great about the theatre scene here is people’s willingness to share knowledge and skills – something that is very lacking in London. In the UK, theatre people can be extremely protective and very secretive about their practice and about their resources. A terrible contradiction, really, when working in a medium that relies on the work of others to get it off the ground. What I’ve found here is that if someone knows a great lighting designer, or a great costume maker, then they are far more willing to put you in touch. I think that community sense in the theatre scene of Auckland is one of its greatest assets and should be something encouraged to continue – other productions and other practitioners should never be rivals; instead we should be thankful that so much is going on, that the city is being encouraged to make theatre a part of its make-up and be honest about being in the same boat of tight money and resources.
I’m extremely thankful to the ATC for their support since my arrival here, and I think NZ is very lucky to have a website like The Big Idea in order to encourage the sharing of people and resources. Practically everyone I’ve found to be a part of The Turn of the Screw was done so by putting the call out there on The Big Idea!
What have you found hard/not as good?
I’m still getting used to the laid back nature of things over here, especially with people telling me how Kiwis notoriously fail to book tickets for things in advance – which is fine when I’m enjoying a night at the theatre, but keeps me awake at night when I’m on the other end of things and worrying about pre-sales! I’m sure it’ll all be fine when the crowds (fingers crossed) turn up at the door… but if you’re reading this and you’d like to see the show, make a Pom smile and book in advance…
What is it about the "Turn of the Screw" that made you pull it off your shelf and decide to turn into a play?
The Turn of the Screw is the kind of story that stays with you long after you’ve read it. I was always intrigued because my Penguin Classics edition had classified the story in their ‘Crime’ section rather than as a supernatural tale. Is this a ghost story or is it an exploration into mental illness? I find the ambiguity of the story remarkable considering the time it was written (1898); a time where a belief in spirits and omens was rife and where the psycho-babble we’re so swamped with in everyday life now just wasn’t so commonplace. It could be argued that our staged version is a very anti-apparitionist take on the story, but I hope that we’ve kept enough of the ambiguity there. When working on an adaptation I’m always very conscious of creating a theatre experience that doesn’t negate the need to read the original material but is balanced enough not to require previous knowledge of the story for the stage version to be enjoyed. If people come along and see a much-loved story in a new light, or if they are inspired to go home and read it, then I’m very happy that we’ve done our job correctly.
The story has been the inspiration for a number of adaptations and TV dramas. The 60’s black and white horror film ‘The Innocents’ used the story to set the precedent for all horror films to come and there’s the famous chamber opera version by Benjamin Britton (also being performed as part of the Fringe Festival by Opera Factory, Newmarket). The gothic-epic style of the story lends itself to opera extremely well, but in Britton’s take on it there is no denying the ghosts are truly there (they do, after all, have their own solos to sing). Our version of the story epitomises the theme of this year’s Festival – “Leave with more questions than answers”. Our take on the story unfolds in a fractious way, adhering more to the logic of a nightmare than to real-life whereby time and location slip and slide and the ‘everyday’ can co-exist with the fantastical, unchallenged. The aim is to deliver an experience as unsettling as Henry James is able to make his storytelling, whilst still exploding the story for us to see it in a new way.
How did you get Kiwi actors to enter the world of Victorian gothic fiction? What was easy? what was difficult?
I like to approach any project with lots of research both for myself and for the actors. We began rehearsals with table-work and ‘homework’ topics because there were a number of elements to get a grip of before we would be able to deliver the story in a truthful way. In the UK we’re surrounded by the Victorians everyday – the transport systems, the architecture, the art. We looked at pictures, read books, even talked through the differences in weather during times in the year (the action of the story occurs between July and Nov… the transition between summer and autumn in the UK). Add to that trying to get our heads around the ambiguities within the story itself, which at times has felt a little like clinging to smoke, tackling the story has been a huge challenge. I am extremely proud of the courage the actors have shown in grabbing this beast by the horns – put into the mixing pot English accents, puppet work, a gothic story that refuses to be clean-cut, a fractious script and the physical approach to staging it… I think in retrospect I would have been hard pushed to find something harder for them. And they are facing it magnificently. It is just these kind of challenges that make the project so exciting – and where else could such risks be made, but at the Fringe?
Why did you choose to use puppets?
The puppets represent the two children, Miles and Flora, who are the hinge-pin of the entire plot. Therefore the best answer to this question would spoil the end of the piece…. (for those who know the story – our version is told retrospectively…). However, the starting point for the puppets (beautifully made by Bronwyn Bent) was Victorian dolls. A lot of the problems the Governess faces stem from her idolisation of the children – the puppets allows us to see the children through her eyes in a way that two child-actors would have prevented. Her downfall is put into motion because of the Governess’ refusal to see the children as two people in their own right, but rather as precious porcelain dolls all too easily found in the Victorian nursery.
How do you approach training people in puppetry? are there any tips or tricks you can share?
The use of the puppets has been a huge process, both in their design and their manipulation by Jordan, Virginia and Lisa. We have worked a lot on ‘looking through’ the puppets eyes; if the puppeteer takes their eyes off the puppet for even a second, the focus is lost and the puppet dies. We’ve also worked on the puppets having an inner rhythm, which helps slow down the thoughts of the puppet characters and helps the audience read the emotions running through them - hard to do when with an inanimate face. Philippa and Brenda, who interact a lot with the children, have done a wonderful job, also, of engaging with the puppets as though they were any other actor in the piece.
Unfortunately a lot of what makes an actor great with a puppet comes from something you can’t train – the ability to sympathise with and project feeling through an inanimate object. What I saw in Virginia, Lisa and Jordan way back in the auditions was the sensitivity, imagination and depth of understanding to make the puppets seem real. I’ve used puppets in a lot of productions and some actors never take to them – they never really come to terms with all of their hard work being projected onto a piece of wood. They feel, silly as it seems, upstaged by their own puppet. Virginia is one of the most skilled performers that we are lucky to have in the company, and the only one who doesn’t also play another non-puppet role. She has only ever taken to ‘Flora’ with skill, grace and playfulness – a blessing for any director working in a production featuring puppets!
How have you used live music in this piece?
The piece is supported by a live cellist, Polly Sussex, who is extremely skilled and knowledgeable. Music is such an integral element to theatre work and to have it played live is very moving and very exciting. Polly plays a cello that is sympathetic to the period – without a spike and with gut strings. My musical knowledge is poor to say the least, and Polly is wonderfully adept at translating my ramblings about mood, texture and feeling into a tangible musical score that lifts the performance no end. Where would any good horror film be without its tense and unnerving strings?
What are you planning to do next?
I would love for The Turn of the Screw to have a longer life than the four performances at the Fringe, to honour the hard work the performers have put in and to allow them the chance to let the production grow. Life after the Festival is a little foggy at the moment, as I have no idea what further directing opportunities there’ll be. I always have a number of plays in my back pocket however (I’m desperate to do Lord of the Flies; Little Eyolfe; Antigone and We Have Also Lived in the Castle), in order to leap on the chances when they do pop up. I would also love the opportunity to get stuck into some new writing and developmental work with new writers. I’ve met so many talented people within the Auckland theatre scene, I’m hoping I get the chance to work with them. Long-term I would love to set up a funding body that gives pockets of money to fringe companies in order to pay the rights on the plays they’d like to do. Obviously out of poverty comes creativity and it’s great when new companies create their own work when unable to pay for performance rights on established plays; but I think it would be great if young directors and performers could also have the option of cutting their teeth on key modern texts. How I do this though, I have no idea. But that’s the future. Right now I have to get ready to rehearse the final scenes of ‘Turn’.
The Turn of the Screw
Dates: 7, 11, 12, 13th March.
Auckland Fringe Festival