Theatre Critic and Journalist

Forging a Direct Path to the Future: JMK Award

Forging a Direct Path to the Future: JMK Award

Published in The Stage, 08.11.2012

In 1995, with only two professional productions under his belt, James Menzies-Kitchin had marked himself out as a young director to watch. His first, a Much Ado About Nothing at the Southwark Playhouse, handed a stage debut to Eve Best. His subsequent Don Juan, starring Michael Grecco at the Battersea Arts Centre, was dubbed “bold” and “undaunted” by The Independent. The following year, James died of Sudden Death Syndrome at the age of 28.

Sixteen years on, there’s no knowing what he might have gone onto achieve. However, in a very real sense, he has a hand in Orla O’Loughlin’s artistic directorship at the Traverse, in Thea Sharrock’s Olivier Award for After the Dance, in Bijan Sheibani and Polly Findlay’s work for the National Theatre and much more beside.

As fledgling directors, all of them were recipients of the award established in James’s memory by his mother Clare, who was herself honoured with an MBE earlier this year. Each year, the JMK Trust provides one emerging director with the means to produce a full-scale production. (A runner up also wins a smaller cash prize towards a production, supported by the Ian Ritchie Foundation.) Last month, this year’s winner Sam Pritchard directed the 15th such production, Fireface at the Young Vic. (Until 2010, winning productions were presented at the BAC.)

Such opportunities, particularly so early in a director’s career, are exceedingly rare.

“The JMK Trust changed everything for me,” says Thea Sharrock, who won the award in 2000 with a production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, “It is the best award any young, inexperience director can hope to win because it gives you the two things you need that no one else is going to give you: a space to put on a show and some money to produce it.”

The Young Vic’s artistic director David Lan agrees: “You learn to direct by directing, but it’s harder and harder for young people to find the means to put on shows. Doing so at a Fringe venue can cost £15-20,000. Where do you find that money these days?”

Today, the prize stands at £18,000 (up from £12,000 the previous year) all of which is raised afresh each year, relying on donations and other charitable foundations. The Trust hope to increase that amount again next year; a mark of the increased professionalism involved.

The first winner Tassos Stevens, who’s company Coney was recently granted NPO status, recalls directing a cast as inexperienced as he was in 1998: “I didn’t have the expertise to direct actors without the technical ability of verse-speaking. Nowadays, there’s a much better understanding of the qualities a candidate needs and how best to support them.”

By contrast, Pritchard cites the quality of his Fireface cast, which included Aimee-Ffion Edwards and David Annen, as one of the prime rewards. “To work with that calibre of actor and creative at this point in my career was an amazing luxury.”

It’s more than that though; a case of free reign that extends right to the choice of play. “When you’re starting out as a freelance director,” says Rosenblatt, 1999 winner and now JMK Trustee, “you have to make compromises all the time. That involves trying to find plays that regional theatres can afford and find audiences for. The JMK Award allows you to make those idiosyncratic choices and, personally, I believe those tell you a lot about who a director is.”

In many ways, then, the award affords a young director an identity. It attracts industry – most winners come away with meetings and offers – and press, though that’s not to everyone’s preference. Lan says the Young Vic would avoid reviews: “It’s all about risk and how you place risk.”

However, that risk is tempered by a carefully managed selection process that, says Rosenblatt, “vaguely resembles, inasmuch as an application process can, the arc of pre-production.”

Applicants start with written proposals and later add design and production elements, presented at an intensive weekend of interviews and workshops. “You go from a room on your own with a play to, by the end of the process, a supported and structured sense of the work you want to make,” says Pritchard.

That rigour is a key factor in the quality of the award’s alumni, but it has led to suggestions that it favours Oxbridge-educated candidates, with more than a third of winners stemming from one of the two. Since 2009, however, the JMK Trust has conducted a series of one-off workshops around the UK aimed at widening the pool of applicants.

This year, funded by the Arts Council, that Direct Access scheme has grown into a new regional programme aiming to establish support groups for young directors at – initially – six major theatres, including Bristol Old Vic, Northern Stage and the Traverse, with each theatre setting its own selection criteria.

“Ultimately, we’re trying to take the fear out of people,” explains Rosenblatt, “We’re trying to persuade them to apply and, crucially, to trust their own voice as a director.”

That’s always been at the heart of the JMK Award: allowing an individual with great potential and a distinctive outlook. As Pritchard says, “That’s one of the exciting things about the award: previous winners have gone on to work in very different ways.”

“We’re after skill and we’re after engagement,” says Lan, “If, by happy chance, a beautiful thing emerges, then we’re all delighted.”

Photograph: Jane Hobson

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