Kirsty Patrick Ward on directing Moonlight and Magnolias

Friday 21st February 2020

Our latest production, Moonlight and Magnolias is a riotous farce which tells the (almost) true story of the making of Gone With the Wind. We sat down with Director Kirsty Patrick Ward (Groan Ups, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery) to talk about her career, what attracted her to the play, and lots more.

What was your introduction to the world of theatre, and when did you realise you wanted to be a director?

My parents took me to the theatre when I was a kid, which had a huge influence on me. We always went to the panto in Glasgow with my grandparents when we lived in Scotland, then when we moved to London I remember seeing children’s Shakespeare at The Orange Tree. They got all the kids in the audience up on stage to be deck hands on a ship during a production of The Tempest, and I was ridiculously excited and inspired. I remember thinking, whatever I do with my life, I want it to make me feel like this.

At school I loved performing, and if there was ever a chance to be in a show I was in. My parents still tease me for how seriously I took playing Fantastic Mr Fox at Brownies and how I’d ask them to run lines with me constantly. My mum made two tails for my costume – one impressive full brush and [spoiler alert!] one for after Mr Fox has been shot – I couldn’t have been more thrilled! I vividly remember always being obsessed with the play as a whole, not just my part within it, and it was a great A-Level Drama teacher who first encouraged me to direct. They gave me a scene to work on and I directed my classmates in an extract from A Doll’s House. Suddenly it all clicked into place and I had that same excitement as I did as a deck hand and I knew what I wanted to do.
Working in the arts isn’t always easy; job security rarely exists, it’s hugely competitive and it can be all-consuming, but I think one major positive can be that you feel like you have a calling. To quote a line from the play, ‘It’s knowing that you know’, and, should things get tough, that ‘knowing’ pulls you through.

What do you look for in a script or project, and what about Moonlight and Magnolias most appealed to you?

I think I have quite an instinctive and visceral approach to creating my work, and particularly in choosing scripts. There’s an incredible energy and front-footedness in the way Ron [Hutchinson] writes that really spoke to me. It has such confidence and clarity, and overflows with wit and complexity. As soon as I picked up the script I could hear the characters’ voices because they are all so clear, and the script really harnesses theatre as a forum for debate, which feels like a theme within my work. It’s also really funny, and using comedy to do serious things is something I’ve always been drawn to. The play asks some pertinent and complex questions, but it also captures the stakes and sometimes the outright farcical nature of creating a piece of work.

When I started researching the play and these flawed but fascinating characters, I couldn’t believe just how much was actually true. It captures the hugely collaborative nature of what we do, and what strength of vision and courage of conviction is needed in order to create. These men don’t necessarily have the most progressive ideas about women, but it did intrigue me just how passionate David O Selznick was to bring to life a novel written by a woman, whose protagonist is a deeply ruthless, confident, complex and flawed female.

With only four characters and one location, what are the highlights and challenges of directing Moonlight and Magnolias, and how does it compare with other plays you’ve directed?

It’s actually really nice to be in one location! I haven’t done that for a while without there being serious time-jumps in between scenes. I love the challenges of a play that’s so self-contained, it’s a real study of human nature and artistic commitment. All the characters learn a lot about each other over the course of the play, and tough lessons and home truths are aired in this pressure cooker of a space.

The cast are really fantastic, so on this one it’s been a lot about knowing when to lead and shape, and when to get out of the way in order to let them follow their instincts and find what their character demands from them in the moment. Rhythm and precision is a must with a text like this, so you have to make sure you’re working as a team with the script and not against it. In rehearsals I think all of us have had moments when we’ve felt like we were chasing after the plays own internal engine, trying to keep up. With a lot of hard work, we’re all getting match fit – it’s demanding, but a hugely exciting piece to work on with such a talented team.

You’ve directed and co-directed lots of different types of productions, from new dramas to musicals to Shakespeare. What is unique about directing comedy compared to other genres of plays?

Well, it would be easy to assume that directing comedy is a lot of fun, but it’s a serious business. It requires real discipline from all those involved and if you start playing things for laughs it suddenly stops being funny. It’s often stressed that comedy is about timing and rhythm, but it’s also about narrative, stakes, character and relationships. If you lose any of those things in order to get a laugh, you risk undermining the whole world of the play.

If you look at a clip of, say, Buster Keaton, it’s the specificity with which things are executed that makes the comedy land. There are rules and logic (however warped) that apply. So with comedy, it’s all about finding the balance between discipline and chaos. To quote Mike Alfreds, ‘You’ve got to be very disciplined in order to be free’, and I think the same is true of comedy.

The relationship between stage and screen is one of the themes of Moonlight and Magnolias. Is film an important part of your life as well as theatre, and would you ever want to direct film or TV?

Film is a huge part of my life. I studied Drama and Film at university, my dad is a screenwriter, and my mum is a TV director, so all of Ron’s observations about writing and the nature of making films completely spoke to me. I loved the fact that in this play you get to peek behind the curtain, and see that all these huge, epic, visual moments that eventually create a film, actually come from the thoughts, debates, dreams and hard graft of people in small rooms. I often work as both a Director and Dramaturg, so I loved the way the play lets the audience in on the discussions that can take place when you’re making a piece of work. David’s line, ‘What do we want our specks of light to be this time?’ is the question you need to keep asking yourself whenever you’re creating new work.

It’s been fascinating and complex revisiting Gone with the Wind (which I remember watching in one sitting when I was home sick from school at the age of 10). Visually it’s an incredible feat of filmmaking and it changed the game of movie-making forever, but there’s no doubt that the novel is hugely flawed and so in turn is the movie.

I do indeed want to move into film and TV – on stage an audience can look wherever they like, but on screen you control everything they see. This brings with it huge creative opportunities and also huge storytelling responsibilities, but the tools you have at your disposal such as editing, close ups, underscoring, the ability to effortlessly leap across locations and through time are incredible. One of the joys of theatre is that there’s a chance on every show to improve and grow, but once the run ends all you’re left with is precious memories. With film and TV, you get to capture the magic for all time, and you can also reach many more people with your art.

Do you notice any differences between directing plays in the West End and in regional theatres such as Nottingham Playhouse?

Honestly, there hasn’t been a huge amount of difference. In both experiences it’s all been about collaboration and communication, and the people I’ve been working with have been incredible. Yes, there are moments where your budgets might be different, but the expertise, the passion, the commitment and the hard graft from all those involved never changes, in my experience, whether you’re creating a show for an audience of 60 or 1,500.

Is there a dream play you’d love to direct but haven’t yet?

So many, but also lots of ideas for plays that haven’t been written yet and should be! There are so many incredible stories that haven’t been told yet, and good writers help us understand and see the world for how it is, and what it could be. It’s the immediacy of theatre and its ability to respond quickly to our ever changing world that still excites me, and I love to develop scripts with writers.

That being said, there are plenty of plays I’d love to direct, including Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall, Honour by Joanna Murray-Smith, Shakespeare’s Othello and I’d love to adapt Chekhov’s The Seagull. There are a few musicals too, including Barnum, West Side Story and The Producers.

Do you have one piece of advice you’d give to anyone wanting to get involved in creating theatre?

Never forget that there’s nothing truer than ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’, this applies to everything when creating theatre and indeed anything in the arts. Writing to that director whose work inspires you could maybe end up with you assisting them on something, or if you need funding for a show that you desperately want to make, send that email applying for it that’s been sitting in your drafts; even if you don’t get it, you’ll learn so much from just writing the application, and often you’re given invaluable feedback on what to do next.

Lastly, if you’re an aspiring writer, apply for all the short play nights you can find, and get a piece on. Even if it’s just for a night you’ll learn no much. Creating theatre is sometimes just as much about being tenacious as it is about being creative. Throw your hat in the ring, put yourself out there, be like David O Selznick and make it happen. Ask for it. Yes, there will be ‘no’s along the way, but keeping trying, because there are opportunities out there, and if you really want this you owe it to yourself to try. Be brave, because you never know what you might get in return. Nothing worth having falls into your lap, you have to go and get it.

See Moonlight and Magnolias Friday 21 February – Saturday 7 March 2020.