Interview: Ellen McDougall
Published in The Stage, 19.06.2014
Ellen McDougall delivered one of the most considered shows of last year. That it was made for children – the Unicorn’s production of Henry the Fifth – is both heartening and deadening. How brilliant that kids get work this good. How infuriating that it should so fly beneath the radar as a result.
McDougall’s production of Ignace Cornelissen’s adaptation was both playful and probing. Warring kings became bickering schoolboys, squabbling over sandcastles. Queen Elisabeth broke out of her bit part constraints. Balloons stood in for soldiers, their gruesome deaths replaced by the bangs of bursting. Everything onstage had been critiqued; every representation was a conscious, ethical choice.
That probably defines McDougall’s practice. For Hayley Squires’ Glitterland, a showboating script with a debt to gangster flicks, she swapped guns for bloodied hands, refusing to replicate the seductive glamour of weaponry. For Hattie Naylor’s Ivan and the Dogs, which won an Olivier Affiliate nomination in 2010, she opted against showing a scraggy wildchild for a cooler, abstracted aesthetic.
Her next show, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Idomeneus, which opens at the Gate tonight, sees a chorus tussling for control of the story they’re telling. They argue over events recounted, assessing details and implications. Again, reflexivity and representation are all.
“I’m really drawn to plays that leave the way you stage them up for grabs,” says McDougall on a sunny afternoon in Brixton. In all these plays, “the stories really live in the actors as well as in the characters. It’s as much about the people in the room as who and what they’re representing at any given time.” She’s a thoughtful presence: peppy but not pushy, mousy without being withdrawn. There’s a firmness to her too: an adamancy about what theatre could and, crucially, should be.
She’s wanted to stage Idomeneus for four years. “I love the democracy of its gesture. It’s a play about a king, but it’s told by the people.” What’s more Schimmelpfennig’s writing pushes at the same aesthetic concerns she troubles at onstage. “You realise not only the story that’s emerging, but also why we’re drawn to these stories of such incredible violence and suffering. What is it in us that needs to tell those stories and explore those horrors.” We are, she notes, all capable of them.
McDougall has sort of felt her way into direction. Hooked on theatre after a one-line role in a school musical “completely took over my life,” she “had a go at directing” at university, choosing plays “that you couldn’t see workingon the page” – Cymbeline, Philadelphia Here I Come. She was basically self-teaching; finding her own solutions as she went. “I didn’t even know who Peter Brook was,” she laughs. “I just had no idea.”
She might joke, but there’s something cautionary in all this. On graduating, McDougall didn’t contemplate directing professionally; “I didn’t really know how you’d do that.” She envisaged drama schools as “absolutely horrific,” all cliques and cool kids. Theatre favours recognisable talents, those that replicate – what industry doesn’t? – but it can leave quieter, unorthodox figures and latent talents on the outside, either unnoticed or dismissed as ‘not doing it properly.’
McDougall wound up in literary management first, then administration. “I found it really frustrating having to walk through the theatre every day to my little corner of the office. I wanted to be in there, making stuff.” While working at Chickenshed, she took a directing course at the Young Vic, led by Indhu Rubasingham, and was ushered into assisting: for Bijan Sheibani at ATC, Katie Mitchell and Marianne Elliot at the National. “I get a lot from watching other people,” she says now. “You don’t realise how much you’ve learned until you find yourself doing it in a rehearsal room, going ‘I know how to solve this.’” Her own work was mostly on paper in JMK applications or in workshops – all down to confidence. Even now, she still relies on storyboarding before rehearsals start.
McDougall has quietly grown in stature at her own pace, but it’s why being part of the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre company has been so cheering. “I feel much more confident going into a room now,” she explains, “and going, ‘Let’s figure this out. I know how to be in a room that’s about trying ideas out and seeing what happens.” She talks of Secret Theatre rehearsals like a workout: “You only realise the muscles you’ve developed afterwards – dramaturgical understanding about how a play works, about its DNA, its bone structure.”
It’s behind her love of making work for kids too, particularly at the Unicorn, where she’s directing a new version of The Nutcracker this Christmas. “Everyone in that building is making work for people that might be coming for the first time. It’s not about who’s cleverer than who. It’s not about acclaim or awards. When you’re in that building, you know who you’re making work for: not critics, not adults, but eight year-olds.
“What’s brilliant about eight year-olds is how ready they are to imagine. You can do anything. An adult audience will go, ‘Ah interesting, you’ve got balloons for soldiers.’ Kids go, ‘Soldiers, ok, good. Red, blue. Yep, let’s go.’ That’s thrilling.”
Photograph: Robert Workman