Milja Fenger never intended to come to Oxford. Born in a small town in Holland, she came to England for the first time when she was eighteen to take part in a two week directing course at East 15 drama school, famous for its unusual rehearsal methods, many of which Fenger has adapted for her own rehearsals.
I ask about a technique she uses called laughter runs. ‘Laughing is actually really hard – we need to laugh more. I thought that if people had giggle fits together, then they wouldn’t be ashamed of opening up in front of each other. English people are often quite guarded – they’re scared of doing something wrong so I make them do something crazy.
‘I don’t think good acting is about being slick or witty, it’s about emotion and freeing your own imagination.’
To date Fenger has written over fifteen plays, and with her second full-length play, I Am Green, she was accepted onto the Royal Court’s Young Writers Program. Her first screenplay – The Road Home, about an Indian boy brought up in England who is forced to return to India – has toured over 50 festivals world-wide as well as winning the Jury Award at the Palm Springs Festival and shortlisted for the Best Short Film Oscar for 2012.
I ask a little more about Mephisto, the play she is directing at the Oxford Playhouse in 6th week. Based on the autobiographical novel by Klaus Mann, Mephisto tells the true story of the rise and fall of a radical cabaret troupe during Hitler’s rise to power. Fenger is hesitant to give too much away; ‘Mephisto is an incredible story: it’s about sexuality and race and politics and moral compromise. And it’s about the power and responsibility of theatre – most of the play takes place in various dingy theatres with the actors playing actors and performing to another audience: its very ‘meta’.’
Moving on, I mention something about student drama ultimately being about having fun. She chuckles, ‘I didn’t do it for fun. I did it for a challenge and because I think it’s an incredible story and a brilliant cast. At the moment I don’t have a life, I just have rehearsals – about 40 hours a week. I don’t even see my own boyfriend!’
Why, then, does Fenger do it? ‘It’s important to think about how other people live. Living is hard and it’s not easy to make decisions. This is where theatre can help us – at its best theatre can be extraordinarily powerful – and I love that. If there is anything that I do well it’s just because I am curious about the world and about human nature.’
Finally, I couldn’t help but ask what was coming up next for such an accomplished and up-and-coming director. Again she is hesitant to give too much away, ‘I have been commissioned to write a feature film. I can’t say for whom because you will know what the film is about. All I can say is that it’s set in Columbia…’
I try my luck to find out some details. ‘I’m sorry – confidentiality contract! As for theatre, I’ve said in the past that Mephisto would be my last play in Oxford as I should really get back to studying – I love my course- but actually I might do just one more…’