In Conversation With
BAFTA nominated Simon Curtis is a producer and director.
His extensive career spans the genres of theatre, film and television,
having worked on some of the most successful productions in recent years.
He directed Serenading Louie at the Donmar Warehouse, London,
which opened on 11 February and continued until 27 March 2010.
Can you tell me about yourself?
I began my career directing at the Royal Court Theatre in London, where I was the Deputy Director to Max Stafford Clark and the director of the Theatre Upstairs. My productions there included the premiere of Jim Cartwright’s Road, Lincoln Centre, New York with Kevin Bacon and Joan Cusack, Sam Shepard’s A Life of the Mind, and the Rise and Fall of Little Voice, which was staged at Steppenwolf Theatre. I have also worked extensively for BBC Television and Films as a producer/executive producer for programmes such as Cranford, A Short Stay in Switzerland, Five Days and Freezing to name a few.
You’re currently directing Serenading Louie at Donmar Warehouse, can you tell me a bit about the play
and what audiences can expect?
Well I think it’s a bit of a lost masterpiece of American theatre. Lanford Wilson, who only last month received the Dramatists Guild of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and who is deserving of the same status of Sam Shepard and David Mamet. He’s most famous in the UK for Burn This (1987), the cast included John Malkovich, Lou Liberatore, Juliet Stevenson and Michael Simkins, which opened at the Lyric Theatre in the West End in 1990. Serenading Louie is a brilliant play that captures the uneasy moment in American history that was the early 1970s. It follows Carl and Alex trying to make sense of life in their 30s, exploring the destruction of dreams and the loss of purpose as they grow up. One of the most poignant lines in the play is “I keep feeling my real life will begin any day now.” Serenading Louie is in the tradition of the Arthur Miller plays and returns to Gibson and Chekhov in that it is a complex play about grown up people, some of it’s very funny and some of it’s very tough.
How do you approach a new piece of work?
I read it very often. Then I begin my research by trying to find out as much as I can about the author, and sometimes I even try and get to know the writer. My father was a publisher and I’m very much in the tradition of serving the material and paying great attention to what the writer has to say. A director’s job is to serve the text, every play has its own atmosphere and you need to try and find what’s right for that play. Next it’s about speaking to the actors, making sure everyone knows as much as possible about the period and the history of the characters before we get to the first page of the play. After working in television, where you only have two or three days of rehearsals, sometimes with up to 40 actors, for example, on something like Cranford – with some of the most famous actors in the world – having a month in the rehearsal room with just four people seems rather luxurious. It’s not the most important thing but it’s definitely an important stage in the progress of developing a play.
What are the main differences between directing for television and for theatre, which would you say you prefer?
In a way, in television you’re very rushed. When you’re filming, you’re making hundreds of final decisions all day and every day. Whereas in theatre you have time to reflect and consider the outcomes, and if it’s not quite working you can leave it for the weekend and see how it feels next week in rehearsals. The other major difference is that in theatre when the play opens the director is pretty much finished, whereas in television and films, the director stays around for much longer than the actors do on the project. Honestly, I don’t think I prefer one to the other.
Do you think the Arts Council England’s Free Tickets for Under 26 scheme is broadening younger audiences?
I am not sure about that, but I do know that it does feel like London theatre has a lot of energy around it at the moment. Certainly a lot of younger people I know, including my teenage daughter, are very passionate about the theatre, so the scheme must be doing something right.
How do you think the role/position of theatre has changed in the last decade?
I think that people watch more and more movies and television on a variety of screens of different shapes and sizes. In some ways, the experience of going to the cinema becomes less and less attractive. I think theatre, the live experience, becomes even more precious and more special and I think more people want to have the shared experience of live theatre.
What would you say is the most exciting thing happening in theatre at the moment?
I think it has to be the energy around new writing and the vibrant new ways of telling stories that are emerging.
What do you have coming up in 2010?
I am working on a film based on Colin Clark’s diary called The Prince, The Showgirl and Me. Clark wrote his diary when he was Lawrence Olivier’s assistant on the original film in 1956 with Marilyn Monroe. In the theatre, I’m working with Josie Rourke and The National Theatre on a new play to be written by Catherine Johnson.