Stranger than fiction

For many of us, the thrill of the stage is keenly anticipated as we await the return of our most beloved cultural stars to the wings of the theatre – but what has it been like for those who work in the arts?

Carrie Cracknell (History, 2002) is one of the West End’s leading lights and since treading the boards here at the New Theatre, became the youngest Artistic Director in Britain, directing the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Helen McCrory and Andrew Scott along the way.

She takes us behind the scenes of her career up to now and shines a light on the sector post-pandemic.


The post-pandemic stage

Covid–19 has been devastating for the industry, and so many of my colleagues are reeling, and have been left destitute from the theatre closures. The moment offers an extraordinary challenge to us as theatre makers, to really consider in very deep ways what is meaningful about the work that we do, how the structures that we use to make it can be changed for the better, and how we can make work that is more relevant, searching and connected to our audiences.

The desire for human beings to sit as part of a group, within a community, and to connect, to laugh, to weep, to engage in the act of collective imagination - is both profound and ancient. It will take more than a pandemic to end that.

Most importantly, in the midst of this, has been the extraordinary and empowering rise of energy and focus around the Black Lives Matter movement, which has rightly challenged and questioned the traditional white led power structures that have run our industry.

A group of provocative and insightful voices have persistently and boldly called out the systemic bias which has traditionally seen black and brown talent shut out of the corridors of artistic power. It is time for change. It feels a potent moment of possibility. Let’s hope we see the change that is needed in a sustained and meaningful way. This is more than a moment.

The stories

I still think that storytelling cultures, almost across the board, tell the stories of men and the women in their lives. And that's always been the case. So we still frame women as mothers, daughters, lovers, girlfriends, whores, and we have a whole set of constructs around women, and men are protagonists. And that's absolutely embedded in our narrative culture, it's embedded in all of the classical repertoire, there are very, very few plays that don't do that.

I think we can push perceptions around gender in terms of women, and I try to in my work, but it's also interesting to counteract male stereotypes. So for me to hear two men talk really openly (in Seawall/A Life) and in a very raw way about how emotionally connected they are to their children and how that makes them feel and how sensitive and alive they have to be in order to respond to that role, that, in its own way felt quite radical.

The female perspective

What feels really seismic is the shift in female directors, writers and producers transforming the story and trying to find more material which puts women and their experience at the centre. I think the success of I May Destroy You and of Fleabag is instructive because we all want to hear the sort of messy, real, unresolved truth of female existence, and I think the more that comes into film and television that will also continue to influence theatre, because all of the sectors feed into each other.

I think there are some really exceptionally talented female directors coming up under me. I think it's never been a better time to be a woman in theatre or film. The world is slowly waking up to realising those stories need to be told, and actually there's an enormous amount of opportunity.

The audience

I think audiences are starting to change, and I know that lots of venues are working really hard to open out access to theatre and make it feel more representative of the cities within which it's being made. Certainly in London where I'm mainly working, that's happening quite quickly. For me, that makes the work much more exciting because of course theatre has to be a dialogue with your audience and you watch it through an audience. So you make something that feels a certain way in your mind and then you learn what it is by observing it through an audience and they respond to what connects with them. So, I think the more diverse that audience is, the more interesting it is to make for them certainly.

Often in theatres, the funders or people who are investing in the work are from an older generation. So you see quite an interesting sort of splitting between different segments of the audience whose desires are distinct and those whose desires can be articulated on social media in a way that they couldn't historically.

You might stand in the queue at the loo and grumble to your friend historically, about whether you did or didn't respond to the work, but now you can make a public declaration about that on a very open platform.

And so I think theatres find themselves in quite a complex place in terms of trying to navigate this dialogue with the different segments of their audience, and that's something I find really interesting in terms of how you write a story for a programme for a theatre.

The process

I love the sense of creating a kind of imagined landscape, and then trying to draw your actors into that. I love the totality of directing, the fact that you're responsible for everything. I find the combination of having to be really child-like and imaginative and weird, and also being very adult, quite an interesting duality.

Theatre has a power to create a vision of what the world can be like, could be like and asking audiences to see in a certain way. And I think all directors have a responsibility for that - whether or not they accept that responsibility is up to them.

But we see the world that we make through our own lens, and that lens is informed by our politics and our beliefs and our experiences, and we then represent that and beam it back into an audience, and it helps them to see and understand the world in a different way. For me, it's one of the most interesting things about directing, which is “What is the world I want to show?” I am responsible for what's being told here and what this story is. I think it's one of the things which really enlivens theatre actually.

I always test everything I read to decide whether it feels it has a strong relationship to a contemporary audience. And also whether I have an emotional connection to the piece. And I never direct anything that doesn't have those two things, because you need to have a lot of skin in the game to stay present inside a piece for the years it takes to bring it to the stage.