Portrait

Talking process with Sydney Theatre Company’s resident director Jessica Arthur. By Sarah Price.

Theatre director Jessica Arthur

Before Jessica Arthur can direct a play, she needs to research. She is interested in reading into patterns and why things work. She spends hours, weeks, months even, thinking about a play’s ideas. Something about early research – when it is just her and the script – anchors her to the world of the story and to its characters. Later, when production meetings and rehearsals are under way she feels equipped to know what decisions to make.

Arthur has always been interested in why we tell certain stories, she tells me. “That’s what has been fed back to me about my work: it’s always speaking very directly to a certain kind of experience. It is a lot to do with connections – how we connect, how we operate as humans. I find that really interesting. I think a lot of people who see my work come out and have to reassess the ways in which they live their life: whether that’s a relationship, or decisions they make, or just what’s important to them. That’s why I love art – because that’s what it does.”

Arthur started directing plays in 2013, at age 21. She used her formal education at the National Institute of Dramatic Art to think through who she was, and what kind of artist she wanted to be. She knew straightaway she needed to understand other people’s processes. She watched Andrew Upton direct, and spent time working in any theatre that would have her. Sometimes it was hard; she didn’t always get paid, “but when it came to soaking things up, I said yes to everything”. In her current role as resident director at Sydney Theatre Company, Arthur is working on Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitoes, and later in the year, Van Badham’s Banging Denmark.

Directing a play, she says, is like a marathon. Planning starts far earlier than people realise. Your role is to create a concept and to oversee the entire process. You have to understand every aspect of theatre: lighting, sound, musicality. You have to be an intense collaborator. You need to facilitate, mediate and read people and relationships. “A lot of my direction is asking questions that kind of lead to a point that makes sense – it’s like digging … or kind of diagnosing. You do want to get everyone on the same page when it comes to the world of the play, but you don’t want to set up too many rules. You want the actors to play within that realm – it’s so much more interesting to have the people in the play pushing it in every direction until it falls into place. Sometimes it goes way against logic, which is great, because that’s how humans work.”

There are certain stories Arthur doesn’t want to tell: kitchen-sink dramas with really pleasant people living really pleasant lives. She doesn’t want a script to have all the answers, either. She likes plays that leave an audience thinking. Plays that reflect the world right now or those that involve the things that affect us. There needs to be space. She loves it when form is broken, when a playwright messes with what we know. “I always come from a place where I ask myself: how can I break this play open so that it does something more than just present a story? That’s what I strive to do in a lot of the things I make. You want to explore as many options as possible and explore the parameters … I love surprise. I make decisions about the concept, but I want people to be allowed enough space in the room to experiment.”

She continues: “Sometimes in the creative process you think you have to know all the answers but, really, it’s about allowing enough space for not having all the answers – that’s important. It’s about energy. Getting everyone on the same page and giving them the tools they need to bring the thing to life.”

Arthur enjoys the immediacy of theatre: the challenge of needing to deal with things straightaway. You can’t press pause, she says. You can’t rewind it or close your laptop and walk away. You might make mistakes, but you refine your process every time you do something. She says it’s hard to teach directing because so much of it is about being adaptable and reading vibes. Instinct is important: knowing when to give and withhold information or directions, and how to use time most effectively at precise moments. “You can come into the room wanting to do something and someone could be in a certain mood, or you could be in a certain mood, and you know it just won’t work. It’s about knowing when to cut your losses and when to push things. Directing is something you need to practise and observe. For the first few days of rehearsal you are just trying to understand everyone in the room.

“You need to believe in the people you’ve brought together to make this thing,” she says. “And you need to have a vision or a reason to make the work you do – otherwise you are just telling hollow stories.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 30, 2019 as "Arthur’s range". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.