Alexander Ferris

In Conversation with Alexander Ferris

In July 2014, Alexander Ferris directed Housed, a hugely ambitious community production incorporating around a hundred non-professional actors that directly addressed the reality of the UK’s housing crises, at London’s Old Vic Theatre. Here, in conversation with Wales Arts Review’s Gary Raymond, he talks about his first experiences in Welsh Theatre, including his early years at Cardiff’s Sherman, and his twenty year journey from Gwent Young People’s Theatre in Abergavenny to directing on the stage of one of the world’s most famous theatres.


Gary Raymond: You’ve just directed your first play on the stage at the Old Vic. That must have been quite an exhilarating, if daunting experience?

Alexander Ferris: It was an extraordinary experience. Terrifying and joyous. There’s a real magic that happens in that space. It’s one of the oldest theatres in the country and it has a wonderful and organic acoustic quality about it. You can be sat in the back row of the Baylis (the upper circle) and still feel like you’re overhearing a quiet conversation between two people on stage.

Then there’s the reputation of The Old Vic. Two hundred years of great productions, including some of the greatest actors, writers and directors to ever have walked the earth – how can you ever expect to live up to those? Finally, it’s the prospect of having a thousand people all watching the work at the same time. The biggest house I’d directed for before that was three hundred and fifty. There’s something overpowering when you hear a thousand people all spontaneously laugh or cheer. It knocks you out as a director sat amongst the audience – I can’t imagine what it must be like for the performers on stage. Thankfully they were laughing and cheering in the right places.

So it went well?

It did go well. There was a real buzz in the auditorium before and after. We even got a standing ovation for the final performance. We’ve had some extraordinary feedback – there were people who felt compelled to write to Boris Johnson about the housing crisis, to those who just got a buzz from the energy of the performers. And the company, of course, were absolutely cock-a-hoop afterwards.

You started out working in theatre in Wales. How did you go from putting on poetry slams in the studio room of the Sherman to directing a play on the stage of the Old Vic?

God only knows. Weirdly, the reason I got into theatre was because of Olivier’s films of Henry V and Richard III when I was about sixteen. It inspired me to join Gwent Young People’s Theatre in Abergavenny for their summer Shakespeare production. I never thought I’d end up at the theatre where Olivier really made his name.

I think the training (and by training, I mean being given the opportunity to fail drastically) that I was afforded in the early stages of my career in Wales have been defining points. Phil Clark (former Artistic Director of The Sherman Theatre) was amazingly trusting and allowed me to put on new writing nights every fortnight for the best part of a year. Tickets were a quid and young actors read short plays, poets performed, companies devised work. The space was really only a former office with curtains round it but it was a great place to learn how plays work and, more importantly, how audiences work. I did everything – marketing, directing, stage-managing, hosting, programming – even writing on occasions. It allowed me to meet many writers and actors who were in the same boat.

I built up enough confidence, and saved up enough money, to put on my first production in the Studio Space – a three-part production with songs, clowning and absurdist drama. What a combo – and not a penny of subsidy. It got totally slated by David Adams. I think he described it as a ‘sandstorm in a drought’ or something like that. I know it wasn’t perfect but I still stand by it. It was ambitious and unlike anything else that was being put on at that time and we sold out for three nights. The hilarious thing is that terrible review got me two directing jobs and one role as an assistant. I think the more established Welsh directors had suffered a similar fate in the past and took pity on me.

Then I cut a deal with a new writing company, Made in Wales, who were taking a show to Edinburgh. They needed someone to do flyering so I said I’d do it if I could be Assistant Director on the show. I was painting and decorating for an income at the time. Jeff Teare, the director, also used to do a bit of ‘P & D’ as he’d call it, and so we hit a bit of a bond. He taught me so much about new plays. Working with a company of brilliant actors, like Hywel Morgan, throughout the festival and for a short Welsh tour afterwards taught me a great deal about working with actors.

So, working in Wales gave me a whole set of experiences. There was no path, no training scheme that I got on, but I was able to make work because with a bit of initiative and drive you could make things happen. And there are lots of very brilliant Welsh actors who want to do good work in Wales which made it easier to find people to get behind an idea.

From my experiences in Wales, I went on to assist at Theatre Royal Plymouth, thanks to my stint with Made In Wales, direct at the Crucible in Sheffield and on to the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds before making my way to The Old Vic where I’ve been making work and running projects for the last five years. I’ve also set up my own company, The Working Party with actor Matthew Schmolle. We make experimental, socially activating theatre for people in South London.

You have a very valuable perspective on modern theatre – you’ve worked in English regional theatre, Welsh theatre (which isn’t ‘regional theatre’ at all) – not to mention Welsh theatre pre- and post-devolution, and you’ve worked for a long time now in London’s most prestigious theatre, one that doesn’t take a penny of Arts Council subsidy. That is a wide array of different working conditions if nothing else?

Do you think I have a short attention span?

I like the different challenges that those places offer. There is an odd difference between the subsidised sector and the commercial. Being unsubsidised teaches you to be quite light on your feet, to create short sharp bursts of activity. But the flipside of that is you’re often unable to make a long-term commitment to a project or idea which can be frustrating. The commercial side means you have to be a bit more on your mettle as well; otherwise the projects don’t get funded. It helps you refine your ideas and sell them well which in turn, helps you reach your participants more directly.

There are huge and well-documented differences between London and the regions. This is mainly one of resource – financial and creative. The two things go hand in hand. When in Sheffield it was a lot harder to retain those really excellent and talented artists that you wanted to work with because there was more work for them in London. If the regions had more resource, more infrastructure, they could compete with the capital for talent. London audiences are generally more critical and you are competing with a greater amount of activity so finding your place in an already very crowded marketplace is difficult. I think it can be harder to therefore build loyalty amongst an audience. In most regional theatres you would be one of only a handful of other theatres in the locality so your competition is more varied.

But the variety has put me in a good place. I love the challenge of not knowing – I am constantly learning. I feel I can take the best elements of all these experiences and use them in my work.

You talk about the London audience being ‘more critical’. Is that the same as ‘sophisticated’?

No way. I suppose I found an audience, particularly in Sheffield, who were a bit more open and willing to try different types of theatre. I think it may be more segmented in London. And people have a slightly more ‘okay then, impress me’ attitude rather than showing an interest in what someone might have to say. I think this is purely because of population and time.

How do you look over the way now at the health of the Welsh theatre scene compared to when you were a part of it?

It’s always hard to be on the outside looking in because as much as I like to keep abreast of what’s going on, you can never truly know unless you’re in the thick of it. But to my mind, since I’ve left there have been three major game–changing decisions: the creation of Sherman Cymru, the creation of NTW, and the appointment of John McGrath as Artistic Director of NTW.

When I left, The Sherman Theatre was still the only producing house in the capital and despite not always having full houses, it did have a healthy audience. There was then a desire to merge Sgript Cymru and the Sherman. It seemed to me at the time that creating a mid-scale venue that only produces new writing in a city that could only sustain one mid-scale producing venue at all was destined to be challenging. I feel strongly about this because I cut my teeth in the building that was just the Sherman Theatre and so have a great deal of fondness for it. But new writing is a hard sell and, as I mentioned before, you need to take your audience on a journey to these things. There was no journey – just an arrival point. As an outsider, it seems that the tougher times are behind them now and I’m looking forward to seeing what Rachel O’Riordan and her team do with the theatre. Their new season looks good and despite the challenges of the venue I suspect there will be lots of good news to come from there. A vibrant mid-scale venue (complete with Studio) is vital to the health of theatre in any city – and as Wales’s capital it has an entire nation to service.

It seems to me that NTW have left the new writing to Sherman Cymru and concentrated their efforts in other areas. Is that the way it looks to you?

It seems there may be a shift more generally to the idea of new work, rather than new writing. Companies like Punchdrunk, and NTW to an extent, have challenged the notion of what a theatrical experience is. No longer does it need to be the passive, sit down listen-to-the-play type audience that seemed to emerge over the last couple of hundred years. You see this with the Bush Theatre; formerly a ‘new writing venue’, they now accept submissions of ‘new work’, not just plays.

I do often wonder if the idea of sitting back and watching a play, whilst unbeatable when done well, can be a bit outdated.

I’m a big fan of centralising your audience. They are as much a part of any project you create as the participants, the artists, the crew. You can do this through new plays or crazy immersive experiences.

I wouldn’t say that NTW have left the new writing to Sherman Cymru, as such. They have produced new plays. Award-winning ones like The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning which is great. They have a really broad remit – to make work for Wales, across Wales. It seems to me that if the appropriate mode for that is to put on a play then they do. If not, they do something else.

It’s hard isn’t it – because Arts Council Wales set a marker by merging Sgript Cymru and the Sherman. What would the point be in NTW following their remit? Every company needs their own distinct identity.

But what I would say is perhaps missing from the theatre scene are the multitude levels of producing from which to build a playwriting tradition in Wales. For every mid-scale venue across the country, you need three or four small companies making new work to populate those venues with great new plays. Then the audience will build. New writers will be inspired. They will write new, better plays. And so on. But then it seems there just isn’t the resource to make that happen.

Well, in that way, NTW have certainly built a very strong identity for themselves.

The boldness and creation of the National Theatre of Wales is something that makes me excited and keen to keep coming back to Wales. Their output has been eclectic and far-reaching. The choices have been surprising and experimental suggesting a future for Wales, rather than just looking back. This is all, in no small part, due to the brilliant appointment of John McGrath whose work and integrity as an Artistic Director I respect greatly. So it is with some envy and pride that I view the theatre scene in Wales now. It seems that there is some investment there and I was excited to read about The Other Room which is due to open next year. A bold idea and I’m sure Kate Wasserberg and her team will do a great job. Can’t wait to see it.

Wales has got one of the best drama schools in the UK in the Royal Welsh College Music and Drama, some really amazing venues across the country and a wealth of talented actors, writers and musicians to call on. Now it is building the infrastructure to facilitate all that good work. Theatre is a great expression of a community’s identity and I think that Wales’s is starting to be recognised beyond the borders.

Do you think Wales is learning how to keep its talent? I don’t think you can have a Golden Age of theatre without the coterie of top class writers in the mix. Do you think there is a great Welsh play around the corner?

To me, it seems there is a disconnect between the great poetic tradition and the music of the Welsh language and the expression of Welsh culture in English language plays. I’ve long felt that if you continue to fund work because it has a ‘Welsh theme’, whatever that means, then you’re only ever going to create a myopic vision of Wales.

I think there probably is a great Welsh play around the corner. But who is going to produce it? There’s not been the infrastructure. One of the most prolific companies, Dirty Protest, remain largely unfunded. The new writing experiment at the Sherman didn’t produce a Welsh canon to draw from. There could have been a movement, a great burst of energy that found its way beyond the borders of Wales and made people look up and go, ‘Oh, that’s what being Welsh is about.’ But it didn’t happen. I’m sure there are people far more qualified than me looking into why that might be. I have my own thoughts but really it’s not a shortage of talent.

The infrastructure is getting there but if I had the cash, I would build a new writing hub in the Brecon Beacons with a studio space, writer retreats and rehearsal rooms and use it as a platform to launch new work to tour Wales and the rest of the UK. Of course, where anyone would get the money for that is another matter.

It does worry me that there haven’t been many Welsh plays seen in the UK’s leading new writing houses in the last 10 years with the exception of Tim Price’s show at the National. Though I did see Land of our Fathers by Chris Urch last night which is a West End transfer from Theatre503. Could be the great Welsh play you’re looking for? Maybe we are slowly taking over again…

There is a question in here that ties together issues of emerging Welsh theatre, of prescriptive subsidy, and how that all comes together to reflect a national identity. Artists will exude ideas of ‘national identity’ if you simply allow them to create their work. You can’t prescribe ‘national identity’ in artists. It’s a ludicrous idea that seems completely to be the unquestioned philosophy of the establishment. Do you think Wales should explicitly remove the words ‘national identity’ from its theatre?

Yes. I don’t think that the National Theatre commission work based purely on its Britishness. It is sometimes a consideration but not the primary focus. I think that’s true of lots of theatres in Scotland too. It’s not the way people think. Writers are artists, not anthropologists. Their job is to respond and interpret the world. They will do this by the very nature of who they are.

I think most artists see that we should be aiming to create a theatre that is fundamentally excellent, rather than a theatre that is fundamentally Welsh.

Housed, as we’ll discuss, was a massive production, filled with intrinsic complications, but what was the story being told?

Intrinsic complications…?

Logistically, I mean… if you want to put it that way.

The story was a reflection of the views of over two hundred people. A tough challenge for the writer. There were a number of narratives – and I think one of the difficulties we found is that the situation is in such a mess, it’s nigh on impossible to draw any positive conclusions about the housing crisis. We spoke to a number of economic migrants, who came to this country, and London in particular, to work, yet discover that they are thrown into a housing system that favours the landlords far more than the tenants and what that can mean.

We also spoke to ‘empty nesters’ and so many people with differing solutions to the problem. The most affecting section was through the voices of the housing officers that we spoke to. They had tales of unbelievable tragedy and unbelievable joy. They came in and spoke to the cast. Our Project Assistant, Claire French, ran a session which enabled discussion between them all. Many of the participants had no idea of the severity of the situation. It really is life or death for some people.

This is a very vital contemporary question for theatre, isn’t it? – How do we get beyond the ‘typical theatre audience’?

Many will argue that there is no such thing as the typical theatre audience, but I’m not so sure. There have been any number of initiatives over the years to try to get new audiences in; some have worked, some haven’t, but I think you have to begin with the content, the work that you present. If that is good quality, to have mass appeal but still have integrity, then that’s the Holy Grail.

There’s a bit of a myth that if you want to attract X community, you must put on a play by people from X community. I’m not sure that’s true but I think people need to be able to see ‘themselves’ on the stage.

Theatre is often seen as some sort of middle class pursuit but theatre is for everyone. It has been for hundreds of years. Theatre is also, bizarrely, becoming one of the cheapest forms of live entertainment to see. At The Old Vic under 25s can get a ticket for £12. If you want to go see a band at Brixton Academy it’s over £20. Tickets to the football can be extortionate.

For me, the personal touch has always been the key. Saying to people, ‘this is for you. You can enjoy this too.’

This is a play that addresses issues surrounding government and local council policy that affects house prices, and the consequences of those policies on peoples’ lives. Does outreach theatre always end up being political?

Not necessarily. In fact, some very good outreach work can be completely apolitical. But I do think that whenever you do a piece about people, or giving a platform to what people think, the ‘political’ is hard to avoid. Augusto Boal said that everything is political. And it’s hard to disagree with that. I like for theatre to have a contemporary edge, to be relevant. Some people in the industry get a bit twitchy about that word. But I think it’s so important. Otherwise, why do it? If that means it’s political, then so be it.

With Housed and the community work we do at The Old Vic, I made the conscious choice to be political. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean partisan.

Maybe not partisan, but it must be anti-establishment, mustn’t it? The policies your play has focused on are the policies born off the back of thirty years of Thatcherite policy-evolution from Tory and Labour governments. Do you think work like Housed promotes an Us versus Them paradigm?

We tried as best we could to present a 360 degree view. We had home owners and the wealthy having their say in the piece too. Likewise in the programme we had an interview with an estate agent alongside a piece by a London Assembly Member for Labour.

The truth is that we wanted to represent the issue. And unfortunately, you could always trace the problem back to the Thatcher government. Just statistically, you could see it – the amount of new builds just started decreasing. There was a line in the play: ‘This isn’t a crisis caused by a lack of resources. It’s caused by the things we have chosen to prioritise.’ And I think you’d be hard pushed to disagree with that.

Subconsciously, there may be an Us vs Them mentality in my work but that is partly because when I look around I don’t see the views of everyday people, like myself, on stage, on TV. So if this is my way of redressing the balance, then I’m ok with that. The purpose for me is always to raise the questions, get people talking. The play is not the solution; the play is the process to air those views. The next project is about the ageing population which has less of a direct ‘villain’, if you like. But it will still see us trying to raise the issues, to explore ideas.

Is there a model for Welsh Theatre in there somewhere? Wales is a nation of radical politics, but you wouldn’t really know it from looking either at its modern politics or its theatre. Apart from some sounds from Dirty Protest (unsubsidised, as you say), Wales’ theatre companies are particularly conservative. I would be the first to stand up and cheer were a company like NTW to come out with something remotely thematically radical. Where is the Welsh play about the crisis in the Welsh NHS, which would be akin to a project like Housed, for example? Is it something to do with the funding model, do you think?

That’s a hard one for me to say. The funding model for us is such that we decide what we want to go and fundraise in order to make it happen. I don’t see why that should be any different in Wales as a model – other than the fact that London has a tendency to absorb a lot of the potential funding.

Maybe it’s that people don’t feel that strongly about it. Or that they don’t feel that theatre is the best way to address that potential issue. I mean, it depends what is deemed ‘thematically radical’. I think a lot of NTW’s work is conceptually radical – and their community work is quite politically led – again, it is about people.

I suspect the plays that you are looking for are out there. It could be that producers don’t feel there’s an audience for them.

Who do you look to when looking for inspiration in areas like this? I mean, you could talk about admiring the work of great directors etc. but this is a singular challenge, isn’t it? Do you draw bits from all over the place? A bit of political theatre here, a bit of stylisation here…

With this kind of work there is often a debate about process vs product [i.e. should the process be the focus or is it about making a good piece of work] but if the product is excellent then it follows that the process should be too. But as I mention above, I see the play as a process too. It’s a process of creating debate, pushing discussion points for your audience, the public. If you expect people to engage with that then it has to be engaging in the first place.

So I do try to draw inspiration from all over the place. I’m heavily influenced by music and try to use lots of music in my shows – it speaks on a subconscious level to the audience. For Housed, I was listening to lots of Jon Hopkins and weirdly, our movement director used a lot of his music in the movement workshops so there must have been something in his work that connected with ours.

In terms of directing, I’m always heavily influenced by Robert Wilson – particularly in terms of aesthetic. His work has a real epic quality and that’s useful when you have a large cast. But you do pick up little bits from everywhere. When I was doing my rehearsal prep, Lindsay Posner was directing Other Desert Cities in-the-round at The Old Vic so I was able to learn little bits about working in the round from that rehearsal room. And Yael Farber talked to us about her approach to The Crucible which was insightful. Then you read a fair bit – I was in the midst of reading Meisner’s book which was useful for the rehearsals. David Mamet’s True and False is a constant inspiration. And Notes on Directing by Frank Hauser and Russell Reich continues to prove helpful. I’ve been lucky to assist some amazing directors such as Jamie Lloyd and Kate Saxon, as well as work with some great actors like David Bradley. That very real experience teaches you so much. So you end up being a bit of a magpie, taking little bits from everywhere.

Due in part to the funding models on offer, theatre that does not necessarily turn a rude profit is expected to tick boxes in other ways – community projects, outreach productions etc. That is all very well – we’re all in favour of theatre engaging with people – but do you think there is the danger of things being lost there too?

One of the things that makes The Old Vic unique is its funding model. It doesn’t receive government subsidy. It survives on its own merit, through ticket sales, support from individuals and corporate and some serious entrepreneurial spirit. And a bit of luck too. This idea of ticking boxes isn’t there for us. We choose what we want to do (it’s pretty intrinsic to the history of the building), and then we seek out funding to make it happen. It takes a lot of work but it makes you as an artist a little bit sharper and a lot more savvy. I’m pleased to say that in all of the theatres I’ve worked in, and in my own work too, I’ve never made a piece of work or created a project just to get the funding.

But to get back to your question – is there a danger of things being lost? No, I’d say not. If they’re done well, quite the contrary. You talk about being in favour of theatre engaging with people, but if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t exist. There is, I believe, something fundamental in human beings that needs stories, that needs to see characters enacting their lives. All theatre should be reacting, responding, engaging with people – not just the community project or the outreach production. However, not all theatre does and that’s why these projects are so essential.

Is it rare for a director with your amount of air miles to be able to say that? And how dangerous is it to chase the dollar in that way, to creative energies, and more importantly, the quality of theatre? Can great work be created, for example, if it isn’t a pure vision?

You make me sound old.

I don’t know if it’s about a pure vision but I think creating work purely to fit a funding criteria will instantly lessen the integrity of it. I get questioned a lot. If you go to an estate in Peckham and say I’m here from The Old Vic and I want to hear what you have to say, people do assume you’re doing it because you have to. Not because you want to. It gives me great pride to be able to say that we choose to do this and have fought tooth and nail to raise the money in order to do it. Not the other way round.

You can be canny and smart and create work that you know will be fundable. I wouldn’t say that is definitely going to damage the quality of the work.

I think most artists and theatres would reject the idea of creating work to fit the funding but you can understand the mentality behind it. Ultimately, though, my job is as a theatre director, not a fundraiser. So I want to make work not raise money. Obviously, you need money to make work. That’s the challenge.

Do you think theatre is a place nowadays where people can take chances?

Every time you commit to put a piece of work in front of an audience you’re taking chances. I always see this kind of theatre as just another genre – you have musical theatre, you have physical theatre, you have community theatre. So, of course you can take chances.

Community theatre can be a good way of presenting new work to a new audience, sometimes in a new environment. I’ve seen some extraordinarily inventive work. You Me Bum Bum Train’s productions are just one example of experimental forms of community theatre. We’ve converted underground tunnels into snow-filled London streets. What you don’t get is art for art’s sake. But that’s not so much of a bad thing.

Those with the purse strings often don’t seem to understand any of this.

It’s not an exact science. Which is why I think it is seen as not economically viable. Theatre will always need subsidy in some way or another. We offer the tickets to our community productions for free. Participants always ask why we don’t charge but for me it’s a principle. We need to keep it open for those people who can’t afford it. Price isn’t always a barrier but it also shouldn’t be. We couldn’t do that without some sort of subsidy. Similarly, companies and theatres couldn’t experiment without it.

How do you fight philistinism when it is so often married to ignorance? Put on a play about it?

You can understand their point of view. Particularly at the moment when every sector is seeing extreme cuts. I remember when the Wales Millennium Centre was going to be built and there was lots of discussion about whether it should be built or whether a new hospital should be built. It’s impossible to have that kind of discussion.

I think theatre has even more than an economic case to make. I’ve been exploring the idea of wellbeing through theatre and there’s a big movement in that regard now. We are finding ways to measure the ‘quality of life’ impact that theatre-going has. So it is not only an economically sound industry, but also an emotionally sound one. There’s no doubt that the arts can enrich a city or town. With theatre, you need materials for set, clothes shops for costumes, places for actors to stay, places for audiences to eat. It’s no surprise to me that there is a return on every bit of subsidy. I’m not sure if this will ever be heard and we do, as an industry, need to get better at making the case. And I think we are. Slowly but surely. But it must go beyond the economic argument. The last thing we want to see is for every piece of work to have to tot up how much of the spend went back into the economy.

The Left is not represented in mainstream politics now – and yet the arts are traditionally left-leaning. Do you think this is part of the problem?

I’m particularly worried about this idea of ‘philanthropy’ that the Conservatives in the government are so keen on. It’s an American model but the way the American economy works is very different and the individual’s relationship to money and taxes is also massively different. So I feel they’ve got that idea wrong as it feels like a shift away from government subsidy which is vital to the survival of the industry.

Whether you’re on the left or the right, if you’re in power, you will always be expected to justify where you put your money. The sad reality is that theatre is not a daily part of most people’s lives, so it is perhaps wrong of us to expect politicians to care about it unless we give them cause and argument to do so.

What are your plans for the future? Do you have a grand design to your career? Do you see yourself ever coming back to work in Wales?

It’s hard to plan your career fully but I would love to take up an Artistic Director role with a company or theatre in the next 5 years. I’ve just taken over as Director of Old Vic New Voices and we’re about to embark on an exciting year of projects including our next community production about the ageing population. The Old Vic is about to change Artistic Directors from Kevin Spacey to Matthew Warchus, so it’s a good time to develop the artistic vision of Old Vic New Voices. I’m also developing a few new ideas through The Working Party.

I would love to return to work in Wales. I continue to be fascinated by what it means to be Welsh and am eager to see how the theatre grows over the coming years. There’s so much potential and I can’t wait to see that great Welsh play that is just around the corner.

 original illustration by Dean Lewis