Lungs, a play by UK playwright Duncan Macmillan, has its Wellington premieres this week. Featuring acting heavyweights Aidee Walker and Arthur Meek, it's a funny yet serious look at relationships in an age of climate change. Renee Liang talks to Dean Hewison about directing.
Why do you make theatre?
I love the immediacy of it - being able to be there to see and hear the audience react, and having that inform and sometimes alter the performance.
What drew you to Lungs the first time you saw it?
The script is exceptional, and very original in the way it is structured. It is also extremely honest, funny, and relatable. One day I hope to write something as good as Lungs, but in the meantime it is a privilege to direct it.
Directing a piece you wrote: some say don't do it, but you do it all the time. What are the benefits? The pitfalls? How do you keep yourself honest and critical?
When I'm directing something I wrote, I know exactly what I meant when I wrote it. If the performers or crew don't understand something, at that stage I can change things around to clarify my intentions. I write dialogue and jokes knowing how I want them to sound when they're performed, and directing lets me see this through to the end. Having an outside eye can be useful to make sure that the message is coming across effectively, or the humour is working.
This is the first time you've directed a piece you didn't write. What's different? What's scary?
With Lungs, we are constantly questioning whether we are on the right track with what the playwright intended. Duncan Macmillan has given no stage directions throughout the script, which takes massive leaps through time with no indication, so we're always interrogating the text to make sure we're getting it right.
You've localised the script (with permission). Can you give some examples?
A couple of examples: Ikea became Briscoes, and crappy cafe coffee that tastes like dirt became coffee that costs $4.50 for a Long Black.
The writer, Duncan Macmillan, states that no props, no set, no mime, and no lighting /sound be used to denote scene changes - in effect removing most of the magic tricks theatre uses. What's left?
Primarily the script, which is the best part about Lungs. To do it justice, you need two kick-ass actors who are willing to take the leap into the unknown with the director. The play is very raw and there's nowhere for them to hide up there on the stage.
That's a pretty sweet acting team. How did you get them on board, and how are they coping with the script? What have been some of their discoveries?
I got Aidee involved a year ago, just to lock her in. There was never really any question about that role - Adrianne and I always had her down as our actress. Arthur read the script while we were shooting the On the Conditions and Possibilities of Hillary Clinton Taking Me as Her Young Lover comedy special, and it grabbed him as much as it grabbed us. The two of them felt like a good couple so we ran with it. We identified the biggest challenge as the number of lines they have to learn, and they're getting closer and closer to nailing it. They're finding new ways of unpacking the lines every day, which is exciting.
You've also built a career as a film director - is making the leap between theatre and film easy?
They're two different things that I love to do, same with writing for film and theatre. They all tap into the same area of my brain, where I get to turn the stories in my head into things that other people can enjoy in one form or another. But the actual technical skills involved for each area are quite different, and I'm definitely still developing mine.
What are you working on next?
We're trying to encourage people to buy the Hillary Clinton comedy special before the election! I also have three feature films that I am in the early stages of writing and will be working with an old friend on a web-series that he's been mulling for a long time. My musical comedy Jingles is touring to Auckland next year, and I might see about doing another season of it in Wellington around the same time. I'm directing my friend Ben's Fringe NZ show DILF, which is a hilarious and jaw-droppingly honest summary of his marriage and how it is a miracle he hasn't destroyed it. Also we are releasing my short film Judgment Tavern online for free, so get on our Facebook page and watch it!