At the Helm

Special Features   At the Helm
Do British directors approach the job differently than Yankee directors? American actors share their stories.
Richard Eyre
Richard Eyre Photo by Aubrey Reuben


The exchange of talent between Britain and America has been a steady factor of New York and London theatrical life for decades now. Actors are usually the participants that attract the most attention from the public and press, and the different strengths of the two breeds of performer have been fairly well documented.

As the thinking goes: American actors are known for their emotional vitality, sometimes volcanic intensity and facility with the native art form — musical theatre. Their British counterparts are often praised for their diction, affinity for language and adeptness with the works of their native Shakespeare. (Whether one agrees with these "accepted truths" is another matter. I merely enumerate them here.)

But what of the directors? A wide variety of British directors frequently work on Broadway. Current practitioners include Rupert Goold (Macbeth), Maria Aitken (The 39 Steps), John Doyle (A Catered Affair), Rufus Norris (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) Richard Eyre (Mary Poppins), James Macdonald (Top Girls) and Sam Buntrock (Sunday in the Park With George). Are there distinct differences between the ways English and American helmspersons go about their task?

The answer is yes, and no. No, in that every director is an individual and their approach to a play or musical can be largely chalked up to the personality and perspective. "It's a pretty personal thing," said actor Alexander Gemignani, who was directed by Britishers Buntrock and Doyle in Sondheim's Sunday in the Park and Sweeney Todd, respectively; and by American Joe Mantello in Sondheim's Assassins. "Much as every actor is his own actor, it also applies to directors." Rebecca Luker, who was guided by Eyre in Mary Poppins, and has worked under such Americans as Harold Prince and Susan Stroman, agreed. "The difference is that they're all very different people. I don't know what it has to do with their nationalities."

However, when prompted with particular questions, the actors interviewed for this article allowed that, in specific areas of auditions and rehearsals, the British and American manners of show-shaping diverged somewhat. One aspect that is handled in completely different styles, most agreed, was the audition process. The British version seems to parallel the intimacy of a job interview; the American version most resembled an assembly line.

"They often pull up a chair right in front of you and have you do the scene in front of them or with them," Gemignani said of the British directors he's worked with. "Very intimate. It allows them to get a sense of you, to try to strip away your performer-ness. I think we have this notion in this county — there's a finished-product mentality for theatre in New York. I don't know if that's true, but it feels true. I got the sense from John Caird and John Doyle that they really don't want that. They want to like you as a person, they want to get to know you. They want to play."

"It's more of a warmer environment," said Ashley Brown, who plays the title role in Mary Poppins, where she auditioned for Richard Eyre. "It isn't so much 'Show me what you've got. If you can't do it, you're out of here.' [The British] make you feel comfortable. They're not in a rush."

David Leveaux
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Rebecca Luker said she was invited out to lunch by director David Leveaux when asked to join the cast of the recent Broadway revival of Nine — a novel experience for her. "It made me feel very important," she laughed. "It made me feel very special. I was a bit uncomfortable with it actually, though I'm glad I did it. It made me learn a little more about him and him learn a little more about me." Arnie Burton, an American actor who is one of the four cast members in the British import The 39 Steps, has had similar experiences. "Other actors agree with this. We talk about it. It seems much less formal with British directors. You're much more at ease. They want to talk more. The audition becomes almost secondary. In my audition for The 39 Steps, Maria Aitken completely charmed me, so I didn't have a chance to be nervous. I auditioned for Kenneth Branagh and he was the same. He was so giving and very funny. I find most of them are very funny in this disarming way."

"I've never heard a British director talk about it," he continued. "It's just normal. It's the how they're trained over there. You're going to get better auditions by doing that. And I don't mean to say that all American directors aren't like that. Some are very charming. But for the most part I find that auditions are quite different over there than they are over here."

Mr. Burton also witnessed a lighter, more humorous touch in rehearsals, particularly during the "notes" session at the end of each day, when directors sit down with their casts and let them know where they would like to see improvement.

"Inevitably, the British directors' note sessions are much more fun," he said. "Their note sessions tend to be wittier and funnier. They say something that you've done wrong, and you just laugh, because they all sound like Noel Coward. They just know how to turn a phrase. This director I worked with, Tony Cornish, were just legendary. I remember he turned to me and, talking about a choice I had made, said with a smile and perfect English phrasing, 'Yes, Arnie, there was absolutely nothing about that that I liked.'"

Ashley Brown, meanwhile, was struck by how she was left to her own devices for a long period during rehearsals before director Richard Eyre ever interfered with her interpretation of Mary Poppins. "He let me be for three weeks. I thought I must being doing awfully, since he said nothing. It was more freedom than I was used to."

For Boyd Gaines, however, who recently worked with British David Grindley in Journey's End and Pygmalion and American Arthur Laurents in Gypsy, the differences in the two men's approaches was "as much dictated by the material as by the director. Both British plays I did were directed by a British director. The action was carried much more by the language of the play. There was less subtext, a kind of rhetoric that demanded a certain king of technique."

He observed that Grindley demanded "great speed of thought" — that is, a quick response to his suggestions. Laurents, meanwhile, "has relentless pursuit of dramatic truth, which means asking actors to take time."

But he said he had also noticed a certain melding of the two country's directing styles. "I've noticed in the last 10-15 years that British directors have in a certain way become more American," he said, "in as much as they're very much interested in dramatic action and playing actions, verbalizing actions. The older style is of it being fairly musical and lyrical."

Maybe one day soon, they can agree on a shared audition style as well.

Alexander Gemignani and John Caird
Alexander Gemignani and John Caird Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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