Oxford’s drama scene brims with originality, as ever more productions are being born from the minds of its students. Yet, the journey from script to stage is an oft neglected facet of student theatre. Whilst we frequently assess the quality of the performance itself, the ephemerality of the play-going experience leaves little room to dwell on events behind the scenes.
As audience members, we sometimes forego the richer story of the play’s journey to the stage, and of the people charged with bringing it there. Speaking to debuting writer Katy Holland and director Nicholas Phipps this week, I aimed to gain a first-hand insight into their personal experiences of staging an original student production. Holland, whose only prior writing experience was producing short stories for a school newspaper, is now making her way onto the Oxford drama scene, as the creative mind behind this year’s Christ Church garden play, The Oresteia.
The inspiration for this adaption of Aeschylus’ classic Greek tragedy came from an unlikely source: the television series, The Sopranos. Holland recounts spending the vacation watching countless hours of the American drama, which she says shares key themes, such as intergenerational conflict and revenge, with the classical play. The most impressive part of Holland’s method is the way in which she weaves elements of the show into her adaption. For example, the Furies, originally three actors, are merged into the character of ‘Uncle June’ (played by Omar Abdelnasser), a nod to ‘Junior Soprano.’ As the representative of an older generation in the television show, June reflects the Furies’ embodiment of the old world order. As such, Holland elucidates the ways in which modern depictions of dysfunctional families and generational conflict can allow us to access classical tragedy. Not only does her conflation of television drama and historical theatre make Aeschylus’ work more accessible, but it is reminiscent of how even seemingly disparate things can be connected by the imaginative mind.
Another inspiration for Holland’s work, which similarly finds elements of itself woven into the garden play, was a production of The Oresteia she saw at London’s Almeida theatre. Holland pays homage to this modernised production, which influenced her decision to study classics, in echoing its use of The Beach Boys’ song ‘God Only Knows’ in her own production. It was clear from speaking to Holland that this play is an incredibly personal scrapbooking of her theatrical experiences. Despite this, she says it was important to her to keep alive the spirit of its original, and to keep in mind what its original writer Aeschylus wanted to say.
Speaking about choosing the Christ Church garden play as her platform, Holland describes it as an inclusive event in which anyone from the college can get involved. The Oresteia’s journey to becoming this year’s garden play began with a discussion between Holland and the play’s director Nicholas Phipps. After determining the potential for Holland’s work to occupy the Trinity term stage, she wrote the first draft. Originally, Holland intended to only adapt the first play (Agamemnon) from the original trilogy, but after that came up a little short, she decided to add on the further two (The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides), completing them in the first week of term.
When it came to handing over her play to Phipps, Holland knew her play was in safe hands. She describes him as a ‘brilliant’ director whom she approached because of his experience (his previous involvement in drama cuppers earned him a nomination for Best Director). Whilst Holland admits that she did have a specific vision in mind for the end product of her play, she maintained a strong collaborative relationship with Phipps. The experience was ultimately an informative one, with Holland able to learn from Phipps and the actors about the practicalities of staging a play. In fact, she says it has inspired her to try directing for herself.
When asked what she has learnt from this experience, Holland gives a response which is in many ways applicable to not just the theatre, but speaks to the resilience needed for any creative pursuit: “Your first draft won’t be good,” she says, “but that’s okay.” She concludes: writing takes lots of time, and staring at a blank page is scary, but it’s always good to write something. It’s an important message for any aspiring writers out there. The journey of writing anything begins with staring at a blank page, but it has the potential to culminate in something great.
Having previously been assistant director for the New Writing Festival production Plagued, Phipps took on the role of directing The Oresteia. Looking for a potential garden play to stage, he had the idea of the adaption suggested to him by Holland and they agreed to work together on the project. His method of directing displays the careful thought and organisation required when working with such a large group of actors. Describing his approach to the play as if it was “a puzzle that needed to be solved”, Phipps’ process revolved around breaking down the play into small blocks and rehearsing these with separate groups of the cast. In doing so, he says, he had to consider both what happens in the scene and how he could make it work onstage. He also had to be aware of how he would reconstruct the “puzzle” in later rehearsals, making sure its varying elements remained cohesive.
When asked what were the biggest challenges he faced, Phipps outlines the practical elements of working with such a large cast and a comparatively small crew. Not only was it difficult to have all the actors come together at specified times, but the lack of an assistant director meant that Phipps and Holland were often left to complete extra tasks, such as sourcing props, on top of their main duties. Ironically, it is easy to forget that those behind student theatre are still students, with busy academic lives. Their dedication to staging these productions is incredibly admirable, and is demonstrated in the professionalism of the performance itself.
Of the particular considerations surrounding garden plays, Phipps says that audiences come to them with a perspective different to that of any other type of theatre. These events attract people who wouldn’t normally go to plays, says Phipps, and everyone is expecting to have a good time. Whilst he admits this attitude takes some of the pressure off the performance itself, as the audience expect less polish, the outdoor setting offers its own challenges. Rehearsing outside is rarely straightforward and the performances themselves are at the mercy of the weather, as unfortunately was the case with the penultimate performance last Friday, which was cancelled due to the rain.
As for what he learnt from his experience, Phipps highlights the ability to accept changes to an original concept and to respect the needs of the audience. What started out as an intense drama about the Mafia, he says, became in the end a fairly comedic play. As for the future, Phipps would like to be further involved in student productions but is happy to wait for the right opportunity to come along.
The Oresteia was staged in Christ Church Cathedral Gardens from Thurs 6th until Sat 8th June (6th Week).