Jonathan Humphreys: Changing direction

I am in awe of the skill of actors, but being a director is what I have always wanted to do. From a young age, I found the whole world of theatre alluring. It all felt a bit secret and exciting somehow. I grew up near Salisbury, so I used to visit the Salisbury Playhouse and I saw a lot of work there. I have always been interested in how stories are told and how actors convey a story. I went to the Drama Centre and they have a directing course. So I trained with a lot of actors, but I was always directing. After training, I did what many people do and tried to get a show on at the Fringe and then I was lucky enough to get assistant director contracts at the RSC and National. Then I worked for a year at Sheffield Theatres as part of the Regional Director Scheme and from then on I’ve been directing freelance.

For me, directing is about how you want the audience to feel about the story; it’s not about a grand personal vision. I enjoy a variety of styles of theatre. Living close to London as I grew up I was lucky enough to be able to see wide-ranging work, but what unites the productions I do is that they are actor-centred.

When my work is at its best it feels like creating an event which puts an audience in touch with a group of actors. I’m proud to be a member of Equity, but the union went through a period where the concerns of working directors were not high on the agenda. I think the rise of Stage Directors UK (SDUK) has helped the union re-engage with those directors who can reflect the realities of working as a director today. There was initially some tension between the organisations, but it was evident that (former Equity President) Malcolm Sinclair was very keen to take the opportunity to work together. I am a member of both organisations and it is clear to me that they both have a value for the industry. The SDUK can provide professional development and specific events that Equity, with such a broad brief across the whole entertainment industry, is not best placed to do. However, Equity provides the vital expertise in negotiating deals and has the existing contracts with
the employers.

Being part of the negotiating process demonstrated to me how difficult it can be to get a deal that works for everyone. Going into the talks with UK Theatre it definitely helped that Equity and SDUK were standing together. Directors were speaking with a louder voice than they have done for a long time, and I think that that collaboration has been very effective. This is the reason we were successful in correcting the historic pay disparity for directors and why both organisations are so happy with the deal. I saw first-hand what an impact the union can have in changing the industry for the better.

Raising the minimum pay does not just effect early career directors. One of the arguments that we emphasised during the negotiation was it is not just early career directors who are being paid the minimum, although I think there was an assumption by some managers that this was the case. At some venues, particularly in the subsidised sector, the director’s fee is paid at the minmum, but we obviously hope that is the start of the negotiation, as it is for actors.

It is essential that those who are working as directors, or in whatever sector of the business, get involved with the union so the direct experience from the workplace can be used by the union to make changes. I put myself forward for the Directors Committee but there are other ways to get involved, through the surveys about the agreements, workplace visits or your local branch. It’s been great to discuss the industry with fellow directors on the Equity committee. We can share information about what we are being paid, the different conditions at different venues and what we would like to see change. Despite the collaborative nature of the work, the business side can make individuals feel powerless in challenging the status quo. The union gives us the collective strength to ask for change.

These negotiations have been successful, but the work does not stop there.
There are issues about royalties and having a really grown-up conversation with managers about the director’s role. The pathway into a career for a director is also a real challenge. There are initiatives such as the Regional Young Directors Scheme which are really fantastic, as is the opening up of some assistant director opportunities. But the process of a lot of appointments of assistant directors and associate directors remains fairly opaque. Thought needs to go into increasing the diversity of the workforce and increasing the accessibility to the profession. How the industry works at the moment could be radically improved in terms of enabling young directors to have a clear sense of where they might be able to fit in.