How I Found Directing in London

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First I wanted to be an actor, then a choreographer, then a writer, but it wasn’t until I was 20, and halfway through my college education, that I realized what I really wanted to be was a director. I’m not sure why it never occurred to me—that understanding and analyzing characters, leading a room, creating with movement, attending to detail, and storytelling all added up to one very clear and specific career path. But it wasn’t until I studied at the British American Dramatic Academy during my third year of university that I fell in love with directing.

That semester was thrilling for me. It was my first introduction to London’s theatre scene and through my dramatic criticism course, which every week took us to see a new play, I discovered the National, the Almeida, Punchdrunk, the English National Opera…it may seem strange to those of you who grew up with these wonderful places and companies, but as an American living in London for the first time, I was experiencing them as totally new. So much of what I saw challenged me and made me want to create something full of equal intensity and sensation.

But it was directing class I took with John Gorrie that made me realize I wanted to do this as a director. I remember the first assignment I had: direct my classmates in a Chekhov scene. We would each have an hour on our appointed day to direct a scene of our choice in front of him and then get feedback.

With short introduction, we jumped in headfirst. I had no idea how to go about the task, so I did what I knew. From my dancing and choreographing days, I knew how to coordinate movement among large groups of people, especially contrasting, specific movement. And from years of literature courses, I knew how to read a text closely.  I chose the party scene from The Cherry Orchard—a scene with many entrances and exits, and intricate interlocking character motivations. I remember poring over the scene trying to unlock why a character might move this way or that way, imagining what might be happening silently between characters while someone else was talking that would spur an upcoming line.

I would have considered my rehearsal a failure now. I had never led actors through a performance before, I did not know how to manage my time, how to layer in information about the scene, or what aspects of the scene to prioritize. I tried to do everything at once, trying to force each moment into an end product in the first instance of rehearsal. In that hour, I think I worked through half a page out of the four pages I had selected.

But John Gorrie saw the story I was trying to tell and the composition I was trying to make. After my hour was up, he said, “Well you’ve shown me you can direct. You clearly can.” He then gave me his thoughts on how I could have better worked through the scene and brought out certain ideas. But the confidence of his statement gave me permission to imagine myself in a career I had no experience in, that I thought I was already too late to try, and to believe that, not only could I do it, but I might be really good at it.

I remain so grateful to him and the rest of the BADA faculty for their encouragement—what we all need when we decide to do something as crazy as go into theatre. Sometimes we have the foundation we need to get started, we just need someone able to see it in us.

-Jessica Bickel-Barlow, BADA Shakespeare Program '13