Who’s direction is it anyway? An interview with the director of How to Make Friends and then Kill Them

Charlie Rogers talks black-box theatre and responds to recent Oxfess controversy

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How To Make Friends and then Kill Them is an all-female play about friendship, growing up, and three-sided relationships, written by American playwright Halley Feiffer. Having premiered in an off-Broadway production in 2013, this term Oxford will see its first performance in Europe – and at none other than our very own Michael Pilch Studio.

I sit down with the play’s director, Charlie Rogers, to discuss the play in greater depth. He tells me that the play is set in rural New York, following three women from childhood to adulthood and the friendships they forge with one other. Sisters Ada (Simone Norowzian) and Sam (Imogen Front) form a dramatic duo, but soon draw the quieter Dorrie (Saraniya Tharmarajah) into the equation. The play traces how this three way dynamic shifts as they each drift into adulthood: ultimately, Rogers says, revealing “how they ruin each other’s lives”.

I go on to ask Rogers more about his intentions behind staging the play – what drew him to it initially? He explains that he thought a lot about space when considering the play, and How To Make Friends and then Kill Them is a text well suited to the blackbox framework that Oxford does best. I find myself agreeing that the space of the venue should be at the forefront of a director’s mind when putting on a production, and look forward to seeing how it’s reimagined here in the UK.

However, Rogers and I’s agreement to discuss this production together was to an extent precipitated by the publication of an Oxfess, which appeared around the time of Coningsby Productions’ audition process last term.

#Oxfess26477 read: “What the f**k is up with male directors in Oxford taking plays with all female specified casts, with themes that are explicitly about the female experience and then deciding its appropriate to direct them? Don’t take expressions of women’s experiences and behave as if you have any right to interpret, let alone f**king DIRECT them. Honestly, the arrogance of some people here astounds me.”

The anonymous writer of the Oxfess raises a clearly topical point around the ethics of theatre production – that we should not partake in direction outside the scope of our own personal experience. It’s an increasingly common opinion on a contentious subject – but is such a viewpoint justified?

Rogers tells me that he first became interested in the work of Hayley Feiffer whilst working for the Finborough Theatre’s Literary Department over last summer. He explains that Coningsby Productions were successful in obtaining the rights, after a long process, primarily due to his work at the theatre. With the writer’s backing, Rogers questions, surely a director should feel that they are able to successfully put on a show?

Rogers remarks that the play, of course, deals with a number of “sensitive issues” and that many of these are interwoven into the experience of being female, simply because the characters happen to be women. Overall, he says, How To Make Friends and then Kill Them deals with themes “relatable to all,” such as addiction, friendship, and how things both change and stay the same as one grows from childhood into adulthood.

But, crucially, Rogers outlines his role of the director. He emphasizes the fact that a director serves simply as a facilitator, and that their job is “to make them [the actors] as good as they can be.” The rehearsal process is a wholly “collaborative” experience, he continues, and in this way the characters fleshed out on-stage are not simply realisations of the director – they are products of a process which incorporates multiple influences and perspectives.

Rogers goes on to argue that if we were to place restrictions on what certain people could direct and what they couldn’t, we would have a “literal vision of theatre” by which only those who have experienced something can attempt to understand it. He offers the example of William Shakespeare’s King Lear – can one only direct this play if they have suffered through madness? If we want to “redress the imbalances of theatre,” Rogers continues, we need to attempt to tell stories that are not identical to our own.

In this play’s case, I do not align myself with the views of the anonymous Oxfess-er. To argue that only a female director should direct How To Make Friends and then Kill Them is to foreground the issue of gender without concern for the play’s other themes. Equally, if we are to insist that such a play only be directed by a female director, I think there is a danger we ignore the fact that humans have quite a lot in common after all. If we are to immediately distrust a male director who wants to put on a play with an all-female cast, are we inadvertently suggesting a man shouldn’t have any interest in the female experience at all? – because that sounds like a very ominous vision for the future of theatre.

That being said, I find myself thinking that, for certain productions, directorial experience with a subject matter can be important, particularly those which are intersectional or have been historically silenced. For example, a play about the black female experience would most likely prove more authentic and effective if it were to have a black female director who could preserve the authenticity of the final product. And of course, at all stages of the directorial process, communication with the represented group is key. But, crucially, each play should be considered individually and judged as a final product. The audience has the ability to decide if a production is successful, and I very much look forward to seeing Coningsby Productions’ How To Make Friends and then Kill Them in fifth week.

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