Interview with Kes Associate Director Martin Leonard

Kes is coming to Leeds Playhouse’s Pop-Up theatre from 25th January to 16th February 2019. This adaptation of Barry Hines’ iconic story explores the true meaning of friendship and, as we all know, any adaptation requires meticulous planning and beautiful direction.

I personally missed the show when it first arrived at the Playhouse in 2016, so I’m really excited to be able to have a second opportunity to see the show. It’s going to be very special, I’m sure.

I had the pleasure of asking Associate Director of the show, Martin Leonard, a little more about his involvement with the production…

You are ‘remounting’ Kes for new audiences in the Pop-Up theatre. What does this process involve? 

It’s a slightly strange process because you remember the original production (I was the assistant director) and so feel you have a duty to try to reconstruct everything that was great about the show the first time round –  but you also want to utilise the fresh creativity of new people in the room. We’re lucky to have one of the original actors, Jack Lord, coming back as well as a fantastic new Billy Caspar in Lucas Button. We are therefore half remembering what was discovered before and also looking at things in a new light. This version will also be in the exciting new Pop-Up theatre so requires a completely new set and redesign from Max Johns (our designer) so will also need a re-think in terms of the shape and blocking of the piece.

Have you followed Amy Leach’s directing process/style or does each director have their own style? If so, what’s yours? 

When I originally worked with Amy (during my directing training three years ago), I was really inspired by her relentless optimism, energy and generosity in the rehearsal room. I have therefore tried to nick all of that for use in any rehearsal room that I work in.

Amy has been hugely trusting in essentially handing over the directing process to us and has been really keen to let us interrogate the play in our own way.

What does the role of assistant director involve?  

That’s a good question. It can mean a whole variety of things depending on the needs of the production. On one level it’s about supporting the director in order to best realise their plans for a show (and this can range from script editing in the rehearsal room, making dramaturgical suggestions, or just getting them a cup of tea and making sure they’re alright!) and it can also be all about supporting the productions as a whole – so taking actors to a second rehearsal room to go over lines or scenes, working with a community company, liaising with stage management or the writer and other creatives in order to keep them up to date with what’s going on.

I’ve done a lot of assisting in the past but this is the first production in which I’ve had an assistant director myself (Lucy Allan). So it’s been a whole new adventure for me in terms of understanding that side of the relationship. Lucy is fantastic and has been a really useful additional voice in the rehearsal room – another person to bounce ideas off.

It gets even more complicated when you add in the ‘associate director’ which is what I am on Kes. This role is usually differentiated from the assistant in a production as it usually entails taking on more directorial responsibility, whether that be going on tour with a production, rehearsing in a new cast over a long performance run, or, as in this case, remounting a production.

What was your first role in the theatre and how has your career developed? Has there been any stand-out career highlights? 

My first role in the theatre was playing the letter ‘M’ of the word ‘Christmas’ in a nativity play when I was about 6. The fact that I still remember this presumably makes it a career highlight.

In more recent times, I directed a piece in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe last year called ‘Shakespeare and Remembrance’ which was in part to commemorate the centenary of Armistice Day. I worked with veterans and members of the military from the Soldiers Arts Academy in order to create a piece in which we pitted Shakespeare’s imagined effects of war with the realities of being in the armed forces today. The participants in the piece were amazing – crafting these incredible monologues based on their own experiences and prompted/inspired by passages from plays such as Richard III, Henry V, Much Ado and Titus Andronicus. It was an incredible process and I learnt a huge amount about Shakespeare and the continuing vitality of his work. It made me really appreciate the extent to which his plays still emotionally resonate with people today.

What is the biggest challenge when it comes to directing Kes

Kes is a very well-known story and I think a majority of the audience will come see the show having already seen the iconic film by Ken Loach or read Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines. What Rob (Alan Evans, the writer) has done really well is capture the essence of the book and the film while also reshaping the story through an innately theatrical form. This is not just ‘the film or book’ on stage – it utilises what is brilliant about theatre, (i.e. the suspension of disbelief, the audience and actors’ shared imagination, the freedom to play with narrative and time) in order to present a familiar story in a completely new and exciting way. Therefore you have to make bold choices and be confident that the audience will enjoy seeing something they think they know in a new light.

Of course the thing you get asked most often is ‘how are you going to do the bird?’….To find that out you will have to come and see it.

Do you find directing a small cast easier/more difficult and why? 

I like how quickly you can establish a common language with everybody in the room – you all figure out how everyone else likes to work pretty quickly. This means that you can work at some speed and be more easily responsive to each other’s needs.

On the other hand it can sometimes be quite intense and exhausting as you are all essentially stuck in a rehearsal room with each other for the whole day – therefore I think it’s really important to have proper breaks, be light hearted, laugh a lot, and try to keep the process as enjoyable as possible.

What is your dream play to direct one day?

I’m not sure I have a dream play but I’m currently really into the theatre of the absurd  (I’ve been reading a lot of Ionesco – Rhinoceros and The Chairs etc). You don’t see much of it on at the moment, which I think is a shame as something like The Chairs would be absolutely perfect to explore in the context of current times. It’s all about our failure to communicate, our tendency towards presenting ‘alternative facts’, of putting all one’s faith in a project that ultimately turns out to be a complete let down…. Sounds pretty familiar to me…

Have you ever dabbled in other theatrical roles (acting, other backstage work etc) 

Yep I’ve done all sorts. I was a stage manager while at university, occasional actor (predominantly playing letters of the alphabet – see above), usher, box office assistant and also a producer of fringe theatre, festivals and opera.

Get your tickets to see Kes as soon as you can!

I hear you need to snap ’em up quick before they sell out. Visit the Leeds Playhouse website for more information.

Photography credited to Anthony Robling

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