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Interview with Alexander Lass and Nadia Papachronopoulou – directors of the Orange Tree Theatre’s Writers Group new production Unrivalled Landscape

Written by members of Orange Tree Theatre’s Writers Group, which nurtures the talents of professional playwrights, Unrivalled Landscape comprises six new short plays in which a washed-up comedian, a park warden, a former war photographer, a Trinidadian security guard and a Bahraini prince encounter each other as they try to escape from their pasts. The pieces are set in and around Richmond, where the theatre has its home, which was described nearly 200 years ago by Sir Walter Scott as “an unrivalled landscape”. Unrivalled Landscape is directed by the Orange Tree’s Trainee Directors, who are part of a scheme which has launched the careers of leading Artistic Directors including the Lyric’s Sean Holmes, Glasgow Citzens’ Theatre’s Dominic Hill, and former Directors of Hampstead Theatre and Birmingham Rep, Anthony Clark and Rachel Kavanaugh.

Aesthetica spoke to its two directors, Alexander Lass and Nadia Papachronopoulou, about what audiences can expect from the work, and their future projects.

A: You are both part of the Orange Tree’s Trainee Directors scheme – one which has launched the careers of many recognised names including the Lyric Hammermsith’s Sean Holmes, Glasgow Citizens Theatre’s Dominic Hill and many more. Can you tell us a little bit more about the scheme and how you became involved?

NP: It has been an amazingly creative year working on different projects and gaining a vast understanding on how a theatre is run. I personally learnt so much from assisting on a variety of shows from new writing to farce to lost classics and being part of the rehearsal process has been crucial to my development as a director. I have worked in a variety of theatres as a freelance director but have never worked as part of building until now, which was something that really interested me about the Orange Tree.

AL: I graduated from university in 2011, and from the directing course and LAMDA in 2012. At LAMDA, some weird and wonderful characters gave masterclasses. One of them was the Orange Tree’s Artistic Director Sam Walters. During his talk and the following discussion, he told us about his annual trainee director scheme. It sounded great: trainees assist on productions; work in the literary department; run the Monday evening youth theatre; help with public relations and fundraising; AND direct their own production at the end of the year. Opportunities like this are scarce, especially in London. Sam and the Orange Tree are to be commended for nurturing the scheme in spite of today’s economy.

A: The theatre obviously shows a great commitment to fostering and showcasing up and coming talent – not only in terms of directing but also by placing an emphasis on new writing. Unrivalled Landscape comprises six new short plays by writers from the Orange Tree Writers Group – can you talk a little about these emerging talents?

NP: In the 1980s Antony Clark (a former trainee) set up a writers group here at the Orange Tree Theatre were Martin Crimp was discovered. In 2011, our former Literary Director Henry Bell set up a new writers group with writers whose submitted work showed great promise. They started off by writing short response plays to the main house productions, had staged readings and last year one of them – Archie Maddocks – had a main house production. This is the first time that all the writers together got to work collaboratively on a project for the main house.

AL: “Emerging” does not always mean “young.” Our six playwrights are multitalented. One is a retired stage manager of The National Theatre, who has worked under many august directors such as Peter Hall and Christopher Morahan. He knows a thing or two about plays. Another is a journalist. A third writer is breaking through on the comedy circuit. A fourth is a teacher. Several of them have acted and directed as well as written for the stage. We all hope we have created work that is fresh, thought-provoking, and thematically universal, while being firmly rooted in the local landscape of Richmond.

A: The pieces, though each distinctive in its own right, all address themes of escape and trying to get away from the past; do you feel that this is quite a contemporary concern and how have the individual writers approached it?

AL: Writers have always grappled with the essential questions of identity, experience, and fate. Nadia and I suggested to our writers only that our evening should follow five characters with interconnecting storylines set in and around Richmond. Through this process, our central theme became – to paraphrase Cole Porter – making your future by transcending your past. We all agree that this a timeless human dilemma. I will be directing four of the plays. Lara Muth’s Killing Time is the most ambiguous piece. Can a chance encounter change your life? It might remind the viewer of Beckett and TS Eliot. Ernest Hall’s thrilling monologue Goodbye from Me, takes us on a journey of humour, intrigue and pathos. In both Will Gore’s Portman Avenue and Ben Fogarty’s Ties, the characters struggle to fashion and refashion their identities. They embark on unexpected relationships that profoundly disturb their cultural preconceptions.

A:  The title comes from a description of Richmond by Sir Walter Scott as ‘an unrivalled landscape’. What special characteristics of the location do you feel the writers, and yourselves as directors, have been able to draw upon?

NP: We wanted to set it in the here and now and make it very fresh and current. All plays have been influenced by Richmond in some way, some characters see it as a place of refuge were they can escape and hide and others as a place they are desperately trying to escape from. One of the things we were really interested about is the deer cull that happens in Richmond Park every year. This was something as a collective we thought was intriguing to explore within some of the plays.

AL: A pastoral Richmond-upon-Thames offers more than just peace and prosperity. We have all been inspired by the vastness of Richmond Park. It has the Shakespearean juxtaposition of joyous magic and ethereal darkness. As a director, I hope to honour this in discussion and experimentation with the actors during the rehearsal process. And if that means we get to spend some time communing with the atmosphere of Richmond Park while postulating solutions to existential questions, so much the better.

A:  What have been the particular challenges of directing these six pieces and maintaining coherence between them while still bringing out their varied characteristics?

NP: The challenge so far is that we have had to work dramaturgically from the start of this process which is a fun and exciting challenge but a challenge nonetheless.  We had many meetings and reading of the plays in order to fine tune them. As the five characters appear in different plays by different writers we want a cohesive through line and the core of the characters to be consistent.

A: What is up next for you both? Do you have further projects in the pipeline as a result of the scheme with Orange Tree Theatre?

NP: I want to continue to assist on bigger scale productions and get to work with different directors with different process, and continue to grow and learn as a director.

AL: As soon as we open Unrivalled Landscape, I will start rehearsing two projects for the Edinburgh Fringe. I will be Associate Director to Phillip Breen on two new plays, produced by The Invisible Dot. They are Holes by Tom Basden (Secret Seaside Location) and Threeway by DC Jackson (The Pleasance Courtyard). Hopefully, the lifespan of these projects will extend beyond the summer.

Image: Unrivalled Landscape, courtesy Jonno Morley

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