A day in the life of… a theatre director
Losing star actors, playing Dobble, chucking mashed potato around - it's all in a (surreal) day's work for Chipping Norton Theatre's artistic director.
It might be a diddy rural theatre with just 200 seats, but thanks to John Terry (not the footballer!), Chipping Norton Theatre is known for punching well above its weight.
For the last decade John has created the acclaimed annual panto, as well as various other productions (some of which then tour) and books myriad other shows, comedians and films. When we speak, he’s knee-deep in prep for this year’s panto, Puss In Boots. Oh no he isn’t. Oh yes, he is… right, over to you John before I get sent to the old joke’s home. How’s your day shaping up?
I start the day by going around the building to say hello to as many people as possible in person. I think that’s really important. You can easily fall into habit of only bouncing emails back and forth but I like to get a sense of how people feel each day.
We keep traditional theatre hours so 10am until 6pm, later if there’s a show on. That late start helps as I have two young daughters, one of whom currently wakes up a lot on in the night. It means I can drop them off at childcare on my way to work.
My job is two quite different roles rolled into one – I’m the lead creative but also CEO as the business. So I have to be as adept at reading budgets as I am at creating pantos. On an average day, I might come out of directing a scene where people are covered in mashed potato, walk downstairs and deal with the fact that the heating has broken or someone’s handed in their notice, and then go back in and carry on with the mashed potato. There’s no chance of getting bored!
We’ve just finished casting this year’s panto, Puss In Boots. Much of this we do via a casting agency and you might have 2000 applicants for six roles, of which we see about 50 people at auditions. You have an initial sense when someone walks in a room as to what they might be like but often 10 minutes in you uncover something else, be it good or bad.
I have what we call a “troubleometer”! The panto is such a long run – 97 performances over 3 months, with actors living in a town that’s barely larger than a village where they don’t know anyone. You’ve got to make sure people will gel as well as being the right person for the job.
Sometimes things go wrong – we’ve had actors being rescued from their digs by tractors in heavy snow and just making it on stage. And once Prunella Scales took a wrong turn backstage and ended up locked out, outside the pub next door in her dressing gown.
We tend to be working on two pantos at once so it’s an all year round process. We start with a specific time and place – Puss in Boots is set in 1950s East End London, in the world of the Kray twins, teddies and mods. We do this because the danger with panto is that it often exists in a fantasy world where everybody wears brightly clothes and lives in a 2D cottage – and everyone is on autopilot. Starting with a specific time and place makes it more of a challenge, which makes it a better show.
Lots of people think that panto is a bit cheesy. I must admit I’d never been to one before I started this job and assumed it wasn’t something for me. But when it’s a truly well-made show, it has an anarchic chaos which is more akin to a carnival or circus. It’s a proper shared event for everyone in the room, for a community to enjoy itself together. I think that has great value.
At lunch time we have a green room where everyone meets. We have a hotly contested staff Dobble tournament – there’s lots of shrieks and swearing echoing around the backstage corridors.
In the evenings I watch as many shows as I can. I sit with the audience to get a flavour of the room. I find it quite stressful. After 20 years I should know by now not to watch people’s expressions. Audiences have a capacity to look bored or furious when they’re actually enjoying something. It’s like resting bitch face – resting disgusted audience face! So often I’ll think, Oh no, this is a disaster! But you get to the end and everyone leaps to their feet, applauding.
Despite that I love my job. It’s those moments when you go outside after the show and everyone’s spilled out on the pavement, drinks in hand, standing under streetlights, passionately discussing the show they’ve just seen. It’s an awfully nice way to make a living really.
Chipping Norton Theatre‘s Puss in Boots runs 13 Nov to 12 Jan 2020, with tickets on sale now.
2 Spring St, Chipping Norton OX7 5NL. Box Office: 01608 642350.