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EP 8: Esther Richardson

Esther Richardson is Artistic Director of Pilot Theatre company based in York, UK.

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Esther is Artistic Director of Pilot Theatre company based in York, UK. She leads the vision for the organisation and has directed its acclaimed productions: Brighton Rock (2018), Noughts and Crosses (2019)and Traitor (2017 - co-conceived and co-directed with Cecilie Lundsholt).

Before joining Pilot, Esther directed work for UK theatre companies including Soho Theatre, London, Cast in Doncaster, Tamasha Theatre, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, Derby LIVE, Nottingham Playhouse, Bolton Octagon, Theatre Writing Partnership and New Perspectives. Esther has worked as Associate Director Cast in Doncaster,  Artistic Associate for Soho Theatre in London and as Artistic Associate for Derby LIVE, Assistant Dramaturg for the Royal Shakespeare Company and was the founding Artistic Director of Theatre Writing Partnership - a new writing development company based in Nottingham. Esther is a renowned dramaturg, having worked on numerous award winning plays.

http://estherrichardson.co.uk/

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Jas:
This is Jas Nolan on the 6th of March 2020 recording for Lights Up at Derby Theatre. So what is your connection to the East Midlands?

Esther:
My connection to the East Midlands is that in 2001 I was working in London in theatre and I was really fed up, it was really hard making ends meet, I was on a really low salary, couldn’t quite pay my rent. And this job came up and the job was called literary manager for the East Midlands theatres. At that time I didn’t really know anything about this geographical area called the East Midlands. I literally had to get the map out and have a look at where Leicester, Derby, Nottingham and Northamptonshire were, because that’s what this job was going to be, was about kind of driving around and developing writers.
I just chucked my hat in the ring for this job and I got an interview. And the interview was actually in Mansfield because there was a theatre company called New Perspectives that were based there at the time. So I got the train all the way to Mansfield, via Nottingham, and had this interview in this place called the Old Library. And I thought the interview went really badly (laughs). I think it was one of those interviews where it probably didn’t go as badly as I thought, but I remember being asked a question where I literally could not think of the answer. So I had that kind of paralysis that always feels horrific if you have that in an interview.
But then on the plus side at the end of the interview I said, “Before I leave, can you just go back and answer that question again?” Because I had managed to unfreeze my brain and think of the answer. But I remember leaving and thinking, oh, I’m never going to hear anything from those guys, and I feel quite sad about it because I’ve done all this research into this area called the East Midlands, but I’m probably never going to set foot in the East Midlands again. How wrong can you be? Because they called me up and they offered me the job.
Then I remember it really vividly, it was the 2nd of February 2001 was when I started my job, that was based in Mansfield but was working all across the East Midlands. And the month before I finally passed my driving test, so I saved up and got a really cheap car. It was a really significant moment in my life. Because it was the first time I was earning enough money to trade out of being in really bad debt, so I could pay my rent at the end of the month and I had a cheap place that I was renting in Nottingham, and I had this really cheap old banger (laughs).
And I spent the first three months of the job driving round the East Midlands, in fact, it was really interesting coming here today, driving, I came down the A38 today and I had memories about when I had a blow out in that very car (laughs). I was driving to a writers’ workshop and the tyre just burst and I ended up stranded on the A38. All these memories were flooding back about driving to Derby. The first time I saw Derby Theatre as I came round that flyover as you come into Derby to park in the car park. Yeah, the East Midlands has ended up being a really big part of my life.
So I arrived on the 2nd of February 2001 and then I got a job in York in 2016. But for that whole period of time I lived in the East Midlands. I lived in Nottingham and I worked across Derby, across Northamptonshire, across Nottinghamshire and had a really fantastic fertile, creative period of my life. Became a practicing theatre director, worked with amazing writers and playwrights, and had a baby as well and got married and did all sorts of things. So it’s been a really important period of my life. Also I’ve never lived anywhere for as long as I lived in the East Midlands. Because when I was younger my family moved around quite a lot. So in a way I still feel like the East Midlands is home and if I get invited to come back and work here I always feel a glow because I know the area really, really well and still have lots of connections here, and it’s a really important geographical place for me. (Laughs)

Jas:
Wonderful. You said you moved around a lot as a kid with your parents.

Esther:
Yeah.

Jas:
What did they do? How come you moved so much?

Esther:
Yeah, good question. So this would be in the sort of 70s and 80s. It was really because of my dad’s job. I was born in Manchester and lived there until I was three. We were in Manchester because my mum was from Manchester and my parents had met there. My dad at the time was a university lecturer and his sort of area was science. My mum had trained as a teacher but as was very common in that period she didn’t continue to work when she got pregnant with me.
So those first three years were living in a place called Urmston, which is very near Davyhulme, the cottage hospital where I was born. And I guess my grandma lived on the next street, so we had a very sort of simple existence, just living among a few streets. But when I must have been three, my dad got a job with a company that doesn’t really exist in the UK anymore which is really sad called ICI, which was a huge chemicals industry company, internationally, globally renowned. And most of their work was over in the North East, and my dad was originally from Hetton-le-Hole, which is a mining village in Durham. So I think he felt the pull of wanting to spend a bit more time with his parents because they were also getting older.
So we moved to a town called Redcar, which is in North Yorkshire, which is a very, very working class town on the North East coast, and almost everybody who lived in that town at the time would have mainly been employed in the steelworks and/or for ICI, which was this big chemicals company. So this was before really Thatcher decimated industry in the north of England and in the Midlands and in other parts of the UK.
So somewhere like Redcar was a really thriving town and it was on the North East coast and my parents thought it was a good move. But what happened in the 80s in the north, I don’t know how much you know about it, was – well, we all still feel in great pain about it (laughs), I think we’re all still recovering from it really. We’re now in this post-Brexit landscape, but really so many things lead back to what happened in the 80s. And what happened in the 80s was that Britain was very rapidly de-industrialised and there was huge unemployment, the miners’ strike, I’m sure you’ve heard about what happened with the miners. So lots of these kind of working class and industrial communities were sort of torn apart really by politics.
And so not maybe because of that, but I think it was a factor, I have very vivid memories of – I have great memories of living in Redcar and having a wonderful time there, but I was really, really aware as I got to be probably seven to eleven of the kind of social fractures that were happening. And I could talk about that for hours actually. And I think that what happened was that my mum and dad, they never discussed this with me because I was a child and my brother and sister were younger than me, but they decided to move to Durham, which was much nearer my dad’s mum and dad. And so we moved there in 1986.
That was a really important move for me, because we moved after I’d started secondary school, it was six weeks after I’d started secondary school, and my mum and dad – and I bear them no ill will for this because they were really busy with three kids – we moved to Durham and they sent me to school on the first day. So I’d just started one secondary school in Redcar and six weeks later I start another secondary school. The uniform was similar but it was not the same. They sent me to this school in the uniform for the old school. So you can imagine, you know, I stood out like a sore thumb, I was immediately someone that people took note of and I was very visibly the new girl. And I also had a completely different accent. So even though it was only thirty miles distance, yeah, you know, I was like an alien, you know.
And all of these things, I look back now and I realise how character forming they were. Because even though that was really hard to experience that at that age and in a way did lead to kind of verbal bullying let’s say, it meant that when I got older and decided to make a wild choice like to be a theatre director, the experience of sitting in a kind of loneliness, and in moments where people may not think that you're right about something but you know you have to old the space and keep everyone’s belief in something. Or actually just accept that through this day you're going to be quite lonely, because you know that you're right about something and in the fullness of time everyone will realise that too. It was really good and really helpful for the kind of leadership I’ve had to do in my career I suppose.
But it did also mean that I always felt a bit like an outsider as well. I never quite knew where I fitted, because I never quite ended up with a Durham accent, because I was nearly twelve when we moved there. So I had to sort of sit in that identity and kind of be cool about it and not worry too much about it if you like. So I think the things that happen to you as a young person, you know, you think you're just moving house or these things don’t seem like such a big deal, but actually they are the things that form you and form your character I think now, now in my forties looking back at those events.

Jas:
That’s really, really interesting actually, I completely agree. Speaking of childhood and growing up, do you remember your first memory of theatre?

Esther:
Oh my goodness! Yeah. I think my first memory of theatre (laughs), I was thinking about this this morning on the way down strangely, is actually not a good memory. So it’s interesting that I ended up doing theatre. I remember being taken to some pantomime – and this would be when we were in Redcar, so it was somewhere on Teesside, I have to say that in the 80s on Teesside there was not a huge amount of arts and cultural activity happening. (Laughs) There was kind of – I remember someone in one of the youth centres playing Greece the movie, and it changed everybody’s world because we’d never seen anything like that before.
But my first experience of going to theatre was going to see some pantomime in Teesside, which honestly I thought was absolutely awful, it was really bad (laughs). One of the reasons why I didn’t like it was there was a guy dressed up as a crocodile and I was sitting on the edge of the row, and the pantomime – I just was like, what are they doing? I was probably about eight and a half, nine. Then this crocodile – it was a bit where they tried to do this audience interaction, as we often try and do in theatre, and sometimes as we know it can work brilliantly and sometimes it can be a disaster. And I would say this fell in the other category.
This crocodile came into the audience, he came down and he was determined to have this interaction with me that I didn’t want to have, I was kind of afraid of this big mask. And he kind of bit me (laughs). And I can actually still feel the sensation of this cardboard triangle teeth going into my shoulder and thinking, I just want to get out of here. So hilariously the first memory that I have of theatre was actually not really enjoying the experience very much (laughs). I’ve never been a huge fan of panto, even though I think it’s really important and I respect people love it, but it’s never really been my thing, and I think a lot of that goes back to that first experience.
But when I was a teenager, so this is when we were in Durham, I think my access points to theatre was kind of through literature really, because there wasn’t really any theatre, let’s be honest, there was nothing like that. There was no drama on the curriculum, it was just something lofty that people did maybe in London or something, but they definitely didn’t really do it in the North East. But I loved books, I loved stories, and eventually everybody has to do Shakespeare at some point. So we went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company in Newcastle, and that just totally blew my mind. And it wasn’t because I was like a real nerd about Shakespeare or anything like that, there was a lot of Shakespeare that we did at school that I didn’t necessarily fully understand. It’s really difficult to understand Shakespeare.
But I think there was something about the stories really, like Macbeth and— and in a way, even the comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they have great passion and electricity in them and they’re really exciting to see performed I think. So seeing the RSC was a real landmark moment. I remember going into this incredible theatre with its incredible red velvet seats, and just the atmosphere of being among so many people as well, as the actors came out, that was really special. And I felt really excited about the potential of the art form from that moment really.

Jas:
Would you say that was kind of when you knew that you wanted to go into theatre?

Esther:
Yeah. I mean, I don’t think that – I think it took a long time for someone like me, with my background, to really believe that I could go into something like theatre. I don’t say that lightly. I remember talking about going to university, I mean, I did well at school and one of the reasons – when you feel like a bit of an outsider you do tend to find yourself reading and studying, that’s an escape and it’s a place you can feel a bit safer and a sense of belonging. So I think that was part of getting interested in literature.
And then theatre led from that really. So I went to university to do English literature. I think I probably said to somebody, “I’d really like to apply to do drama,” and everyone talked me out of it. My mum and dad talked me out of it, my school talked me out of it, and the reason why was they were just like, you don’t have any experience of this and it was – everything was geared towards your success as a kid from state school. You know, like what they wanted was for you to go forward and actually get a job basically and fulfil your potential. So like I was saying before it didn’t come from a bad place, it came from a sense of, we need to guide you towards something realistic I suppose.
But it was at university when I found myself free of my home community in a sense, free of home (laughs), I just mucked in with the drama society and that was it, that was the start. And so I was just always putting plays on. I loved my degree in English, but I definitely spent over half my time at university pitching in, putting on plays. I had a go at everything, I really enjoyed acting at first, I designed shows, some of the shows we put on at uni as well. But the thing that really shifted was when I – what was funny was that actually half the time nobody really wanted to be the director, because the director was always seen as being the boring one in a way, because you don’t really get to show off when you're the director. And also when you're making work as a student everyone is extremely opinionated of course, because you're just all equals. So why should anybody listen to you as the director? They’ve got their own opinion on this role.
So it was exciting to sort of step forward one time, partly because I realised that nobody else wanted to do it and say, “All right, look, I’ll do it.” That first experience, it was just a kind of sketch really. It was a sketch about Shakespearean characters and it was kind of a really witty piece and we did it as part of this review. And what I remember about it most of all was that everybody after saying to me, “Actually you did a really good job of that, we really felt we could trust you, and we really enjoyed working with you. You should pursue this, you should do it again.” So it kind of came from my peers saying to me, maybe this is what you should go after, directing.
But it took actually probably about ten years after that to really get the courage to stand in the identity of a theatre director. Because there just weren’t any women theatre directors around at the time particularly, there definitely weren’t any women directors from Teesside around. It just wasn't a path. So I suppose I stuck to the literary routes, and I did come into theatre and I did get to work in theatre eventually but it was through being what was described at the time as a literary assistant. So I was really, really lucky a couple of years later, because I had my shiny degree that said I’d got the highest score on the Shakespeare paper and stuff, and I actually got a job in the administrative department of the Royal Shakespeare Company, but like at the lowest level, in the literary department.
And that was in a way my big break, because then I kind of had a job, a proper job in theatre. And nobody could take that away from me (laughs). I’d done it, I could say, you know, I had a job there. Even if you – you always have this imposter syndrome, so it was kind of like, well, they’ll probably work out eventually that I’m not good enough or something. But on the other hand, you know, I can always say that I’ve worked here. But it was actually from that job that I ended up coming to the East Midlands. Because it wasn’t very well paid and it’s always hard trying to make ends meet as an artist in London, it’s probably a nightmare now but it was really difficult even twenty years ago. So yeah. (Laughs)

Jas:
Really cool actually. So in those early years in university and putting on those first plays, who was your biggest inspiration?

Esther:
Oh my God. I always find that really hard to answer. So my biggest inspiration would be – and actually I’ve always had quite a lot of time for Emma Thompson. And one of the reasons is she was in the Royal Shakespeare production that I saw in Newcastle. So she wasn’t particularly famous then. I think she stood out because her – she was doing Shakespeare and she was kind of doing comedy and she was quite cool for someone in my generation. She had a way where she was able to come across as quite down to earth, even though she probably is from a much more rarefied home than I am. She somehow seemed like someone who was cool, who was putting on Shakespeare in a cool way, so she springs to mind, just because I know that I saw her on the stage in Newcastle.
I think in a way I hadn’t had a huge amount of exposure to theatre, so I didn’t have at my fingertips Brecht or different styles of theatre or even practitioners who perhaps were really famous at the time. Looking back now someone like Richard Eyre was running the National Theatre then, I’d never heard of those people. I’d never heard of the National Theatre. Even when I left university and went to London I kind of stumbled across the National Theatre, I really didn’t know it even existed. Because I just didn’t have those reference points in a way. So reference points were kind of through television or they were through, yeah, the fact that someone had come to Newcastle who was a major deal, who was also on the television, and that was wow. So that’s kind of how you made those sorts of connections.

Jas:
That’s really cool actually, I wasn’t expecting Emma Thompson.

Esther:
(Laughs) Me neither, there you go. But actually telling this story makes me make these connections.

Jas:
Did you do any training for your career or was it more through the university?

Esther:
I did my degree and I think really my training was just through trial and error of putting on plays. Then after university I had this kind of crazy year where I ended up going to Poland for a year to teach English. So everything was very much about English literature or English language. When I got to Poland I set up with a friend a kind of English speaking theatre company. So we were still putting on plays.
I think one of the reasons those things happened were because even though at the end of university I’d got a good degree and, you know, I’d taken a show to Edinburgh that had done really well, I still couldn’t quite – I didn’t have the confidence to say, I am going to do this now for real. I just didn’t have that kind of – you know, yet.
So what happened when I came back from Poland, which was in that summer, was my parents sat down with me and we had a sort of chat about what next. Because I could have gone back and done another year in Poland, there was a whole big sort of TEFL teaching thing at the time, this would be the 90. But I was able to find the courage to say to them, “Look, you know, my passion is theatre, that’s what I want to do.” So we sort of made an agreement that there was a course in London that I thought could be useful to do and it would get me – it all felt at the time that you kind of needed to be in London really, because there just wasn’t a lot of activity happening in the North East, so this was back in Durham.
And I kind of did some sums on the back of an envelope and realised that I could go and maybe do this course part-time and then I could have a job as well, and then I could try and do it all if I could just get onto the course. They gave me the support to do that, and that was really significant. So I went to London to do that in 1997 and it was a course at Goldsmiths, it was a Masters in theatre arts.
And actually at that time – the course has gone to become quite a famous course, and there’s some fantastic people who’ve done it, but it was actually going through a weird period and it was a bit disappointing. Because some people who were running it had left and they had some people doing it who didn’t really want to be teaching that, they wanted to be doing something else. But as ever I tried to turn that to my advantage.
One thing you could do as part of the course and one of the reasons why I chose it was you had to do placements where you would observe directors at work. And getting onto the course meant that I could suddenly start writing letters to real directors, researching them properly and thinking, who would be good to shadow and who would be good to go and observe? So I started that process.
Then – because it was always, when you're a student and you're young and you haven't got much money you're always thinking, how can I afford to do that, it’s not just a simple thing to decide to go to a different part of the country to shadow someone. One of the people who did respond, which was great, was Max Roberts at Live Theatre in Newcastle. So what I realised, I hadn’t really known the whole time that I’d lived in the North East was that there was a theatre dedicated to new writing in Newcastle, it’s just that it was really, really under resourced. So they didn’t get to put so many plays on. But the thing that was suddenly starting to make them break through and become really well known was the writers.
And one of the writers that they had was Lee Hall who wrote Billy Elliot. So Lee Hall started to help to put that theatre company on the map, which was really exciting. So Max responded I think because he recognised, oh, this is a girl from Durham, why don’t you come and do a placement with us. So I did that as part of the course. And that in turn sort of helped me to get the job at the RSC. Because the RSC were really interested in the North East and forging this really strong link with Newcastle. So I think that kind of helped me by chance get this interview with them when I got to the end of my course at Goldsmiths.

Jas:
That’s very, very interesting, it’s nice that you had people to observe and learn from. So when you said that you did your first play about the Shakespeare characters you said that your friends were very supportive and said that you were, you know, pretty good at directing.

Esther:
(Laughs)

Jas:
What qualities do you think makes a good director?

Esther:
Ah, that’s good. I think you need to have vision. So I think you need to be able to articulate to a room of people who you're collaborating with why you're all here. Why are we doing this, why are we telling this story and why are we telling it now? I think you need to be able to ask fantastic questions. So I think that you don’t necessarily need to have all the answers to things, in fact, if you don’t have all the answers that’s often also really good, because it means that other people can step in and help and make their contributions, if you see what I mean. But I think you’ve got to fundamentally have the vision to be able to choose something and describe why that’s important, I think that’s really important.
I think you need to have openness, an open heart, and the willingness to learn. So I think a good healthy degree of generosity. And in a way probably vulnerability – I learnt this from a practitioner called Philip Osmonde who I didn’t get to meet until a number of years later, are really, really good qualities to have too. I think you need to be brave and have courage, that’s also important. Because when things sometimes go wrong, as they might do in a rehearsal room, or when you might get flak for doing something say online, on social media, this kind of thing happens these days, but also might have happened before in newspapers. Or people might really want to hold you to account for, well, why are you doing that play? Why are you putting on this story that’s so controversial? Then you have to be able to respond and have the courage to respond. And have the courage to hold everybody else who you’ve asked to make this journey with you and understand that that’s a massive responsibility in a way.

Jas:
Yeah, that’s really, really beautiful actually. So as a director, what drives you to do your job?

Esther:
Ah. I think what drives me is – narrative drives me. I’ve always been very passionate about story and about – really truly trying to make sense of why we’re here and what we’re doing and how we can make the world a better place really. I think that there is a sort of social change element to the things I choose to do and the journey that I’ve made and decisions that I’ve made at key moments really.
Because I do think stories can change people, I do actually think that. I do think stories develop empathy, and I think empathy is what the world needs and it’s definitely what the world needs right now, talking to you in 2020. So those are the kind of things that really drive me.

Jas:
So following on from that, if you had to choose what three words you would describe your job as, what would you choose?

Esther:
Three words to describe artistic directing?

Jas:
Yes.

Esther:
Okay. Fun. Challenging. Oh… ground breaking, in the sense of trying to break new ground.

Jas:
Yeah, I like that. Actually this is quite interesting, what would you say is the difference between being a director and being an artistic director?

Esther:
Oh wow, there’s a big difference. So being an artistic director means that you kind of carry the can for a whole artistic programme. But also just as importantly you are a manager of teams of people. So sometimes what you want to do – what you personally want to do – is really irrelevant. Because usually as an artistic director you’ll be doing some significant strategic work. And strategic work means that you’ll be really trying to set out a stall which is about something really specific. So for example, in my job at the moment, my current job is about making work for teenagers. So that has to come first.
So the question that I always ask is, how is this going to be relevant to teenagers today? Is it going to move them, is it going to impact them? Is it the kind of thing that they would want to see? How can we get as many teenagers involved in this as possible? How can we make sure we reach teenagers who wouldn’t otherwise get an opportunity? These are the questions that I ask daily of my staff, of myself, of everybody that we work with.
So I think that strategic element is really, really important about artistic directing. And the management is important too because you have to run a business basically. You have to have some nous or some common sense and sometimes you’ll have to take calls that you find tricky because you’d really rather give the designer another five thousand pounds to make this show look absolutely spectacular. But you know that you really can't afford to do that and if you do that you’ll have to cut the education project, and you know the education project is critical. So you have to take those kind of calls, which are big, important decisions. Thinking about things from a broad and strategic perspective.
Directing is different because you simply have responsibility for this project. You still have lots of project management aspects to the job and you're still managing people, but you can just give one focus really to telling this one story and putting this one story on stage. And that can feel a really luxurious space to be in when you’ve had experience of being an artistic director (laughs). Because the questions that an artistic director has to ask are not necessarily the questions that a theatre director has to ask in the same way, if that makes sense.

Jas:
Yeah, I think that does. And there’s a nice difference between the two I think.

Esther:
Yeah (laughs).

Jas:
As a director and as an artistic director, what do you find most challenging?

Esther:
I think what I find most challenging is balancing all the different aspects of my job. So what I’ve just described about artistic directing really already. You have to balance lots of different elements to make the right decisions. You're constantly making decisions about things. And you can get decision making fatigue (laughs). Because you're like, really? I have to make a decision about this as well? So you have to balance also how you hold power. Because you have power to make these decisions and why have you got that power and why has somebody else not got it? So you're also constantly thinking about how you should be sharing your power and how you should be including others as much as possible in as many decisions as you possibly can in order to have the biggest impact. So those kind of things are challenging.
Resources are always challenging. You always have extremely grand ideas but you might not have initially very much cash basically to make that happen. Or it might not even be about money, it might just be about the network that you need, or it might be that you want to do an opera but you’ve never done that before, so how are you going to make the network or find the artists and persuade them to come and work with you on it? So those sorts of things are challenging.
And I think working with people is – working with people, trying to make anything that’s full of risk and vulnerability, which is what putting any kind of art together with other people always is, because it’s an act of courage really, that’s always challenging (laughs). Because there’s always – we’re only human beings, and there’s always a moment where someone will have a wobbly or someone will be feeling very worried or anxious, either about the performance or about how the sound equipment is working today, or whether we really are now we’re stuck in all this traffic going to make it to Derby on time for the performance tonight. Every single day is full of people, people management, and all the kind of – all the humanness (laughs) in that 360 degree sense of working with people on complex things.

Jas:
And I think like you said you're responsible for those people and creating that atmosphere where everybody’s comfortable…

Esther:
Yeah.

Jas:
…and can strive together creatively. I think that would be quite challenging. Who gave you your big break? Would you say it was the Royal Shakespeare Company?

Esther:
Yeah. I do think I owe a man called Simon Reid a lot, so he’s the one who gave me my job at the RSC. He obviously saw something in me and gave me that first opportunity. I think the people who give you the defining first opportunities are very important. I think Giles Croft, who was previously artistic director at Nottingham was really important as well. He was the first person who let me direct on a big stage, and that was a really important, significant opportunity and in a way a kind of career changing opportunity for me, to be able to do that. So they’re two people, yeah.

Jas:
Speaking of Simon, your kind of big break, do you think that gave you the confidence to pursue this career or was it more so your friends or would you actually there was another aspect?

Esther:
I think confidence is something that you might work on for a long period of time. I don’t think there was ever a moment where I felt like, I have arrived! (Laughs) I’ve earned the right, you know! I think I feel like that more now in my forties but I think when you get to say your forties you can kind of worry less about stuff. You really have lived a life already and you hopefully feel that you don’t have to prove things to the same degree. So I don’t think there was a moment in my twenties where I suddenly felt like, you know, oh, I’ve absolutely made it, or anything like that, for me, that’s my personal experience.

Jas:
That’s nice, it’s very humble.

Esther:
(Laughs) It’s just true, it’s just the truth. And also somebody said the other day and I thought this is so true, every time I’ve put a show on, and I’ve put on loads of shows, I must have put on a hundred productions, it’s always new again. Because I always work with new people, I almost always tell a completely new story. And my rooms are really collaborative. And that means that it’s sometimes quite wild, it also means there’s quite often disagreements and things that you have to kind of hold.
So it always feels a little bit scary (laughs), in a good way. I don’t think I ever arrive on the first day of rehearsals and think, oh yeah, I’ve got this, this is going to be a breeze. But I think that sort of slight feeling of a little bit of fear. Not terror, like I can't do this, because that would be paralysing, but just a little drop of – yeah, fear about how is this going to turn out, this is a big risk, is actually really energising and really motivating. And actually leads you I think to innovate. So I think I partly cultivate that a little bit too if I’m really honest.

Jas:
I appreciate the honesty. What was your or has been your biggest setback in your career and how did you cope with that?

Esther:
Oh gosh. I don’t think I’ve ever had a major thing that felt like, you know, like oh, I got this terrible review and it meant nobody employed me. Because it doesn’t really work like that. I think something that felt like a bit of a setback was there was a period where I was freelance for a really long time, for about ten years, and towards the end of that period I started to feel like it was getting harder to secure jobs. But that wasn’t because of me, that was because of cuts really. So it was more to do with the fact that theatre buildings were putting on fewer shows in that period. So it didn’t feel like a setback, it just felt harder in a way.
And actually there was a year where I didn’t really do any theatre, I went off and I did film and stuff like that. Although that wasn’t particularly well paid, so I had to do mentoring, teaching, other bits like that, to make my kind of year stack up and be able to pay all my bills and everything. So I sort of fell out of love with theatre for a year, but it kind of came full circle.
Because a really old colleague and friend – actually someone who I should have mentioned before who’s always been a great inspiration to me is a director and arts leader called Kully Thiarai. And she at the end of that year kind of called me up and said to me, “What’s going on here? The sector really needs you, we need you. And by the way, I’ve got this work, will you come and help me?” So actually pulled me up a bit about what was my reason for going off and doing this other stuff. Which I’m sure she would have supported me in, but I think she sensed that there was something else going on and that maybe I’d kind of lost touch with my values, my real kind of va-va-voom and sense of why I felt theatre was important. And going back to work with her, I kind of rediscovered it all again. That’s actually led me to where I am now.

Jas:
So as a theatre director and as a film director, how would you say they differ? Is there things in one area that you prefer over the other?

Esther:
Yeah. I love how different they are. One of the reasons why I wanted to start making film was because one of the creative frustrations I started to have with theatre is that it takes so much effort (laughs). You really feel like you put your heart on a block when you make stuff and you make stuff with people, and it’s vulnerable. You put it out there and you might get the most fantastic reaction to it, or you might not, but hopefully you get a positive response. But then when it’s done it’s done. So it’s a really ephemeral art form. And that of course is the beauty of it, that is the poetry of it, that you had to be there. You had to be there, you had to see it, to really understand what it was.
So even though – I suppose that’s one of the great challenges about writing about theatre or recording theatre, and why actually writing about theatre is such an important thing, and it’s great that people lean into that and want to express what theatre is in words really well. But the poetry of it all really is exactly that, that it’s about this moment right now, you know, this live moment. And that moment can never return ever again. And there’s something so beautiful about that I think in terms of just the fragility of life. I think all theatre that’s any good actually on some subliminal level gets you thinking about that.
Then what I love about film is that it sort of does the opposite, it actually captures forever maybe a moment in time. I think because I was reaching a point in my career where I was telling you things felt like they were getting harder, I was reaching a point where I also wanted to have a child. And I think I wanted – I think I was asking myself, what’s the point of all of this? How can I look back on what I’ve done? Because it’s just memories really, a few reviews and some photos (laughs), does that really capture what it was? Whereas it felt like if I got more into photography – I’d always been interested in photography and in film, there was something really captivating about the idea of capturing a life moment forever, if that makes sense. And essentially that’s artistically how I see the differences in the two medium.

Jas:
Yeah, I really like that, I never thought about it that way.

Esther:
(Laughs)

Jas:
What do you enjoy most about your job?

Esther:
I just love the creativity of my job. I love telling stories. And I love working with other people in that process actually. They’re the main things that I love. I think it’s a huge privilege to be able to do what I do. I also always find really electrifying the first audience that come and see something that we’ve made. I always sit – they always get me a seat, because someone’s allocated it for you, the company stage manager, I never take my seat – I always sit or stand at the very back of the auditorium. Because I like to witness and learn from how the audience respond to the work. Because that’s when it really becomes true, it’s actually the fulfilling prophecy of what you’ve been working towards. And it’s not really theatre until that work meets that audience in that sense. So that’s always a real highlight for me.

Jas:
It must be very rewarding as well.

Esther:
Yeah, it is rewarding. It’s very, very challenging, but it’s immensely rewarding of course. And you hope that it has some impact, you know. What I love about running Pilot and working with teenagers is it takes me back to when I saw that show at the RSC and how it was quite a transformational experience for me, or one that I’ve never really forgotten. So I think that theatre can do that and stories can do that. Really you’re helping people make powerful memories and understand what moments in one’s life are important and what one’s life even amounts to, you know, going back to that idea about the live moment.
So I think being able to work in that territory is such a massive, colossal privilege, you know. So I love my job, what can I say (laughs)?

Jas:
So you love your job. Is there anything that you would change about your job?

Esther:
What would I change about my job? I wish there were more hours in the day. I wish there were more days in the week, I wish there was more time. Time always feels like one of the major things that you have to wrestle with. Because the work I make tends to be pretty ambitious for the scale. I’m always pushing slightly beyond what is probably possible. And in a way I think that’s good because that means that it’s quite exciting, my rehearsal room, hopefully, and it’s usually something a bit risky. And people always want to come and join in because of that sense of ambition.
But sometimes I just wish we actually did have an extra week to rehearse. So time more than money, but the two are usually connected unfortunately. That’s what would make a big difference.

Jas:
I agree, time is the biggest villain I think.

Esther:
(Laughs)

Jas:
On the subject of change, I kind of want to talk about changes in the industry for women and what have you noticed as a woman in the industry?

Esther:
I think I’ve noticed over the last twenty years that the industry has become much more alert to feminism, which has been really powerful to observe. I think there are a lot more women around now in leadership roles. I mean, when I was starting out, it was absolutely dire. It was just so bad, looking back now. Like I was saying to you, I couldn’t have named you probably a female theatre director. There would have been a few but they would really be so the exception, and they must have been so extraordinarily talented or they were just able to play a particular game in rooms full of guys, where they were able to get themselves to be taken more seriously.
So I think that has definitely changed. I still think we haven't gone far enough however, may I say. I think it’s clear from the statistics that we still don’t quite have parity with guys in terms of artistic directors. But I do feel a great sense of hope and optimism looking at the new generation who are coming in now to be artistic directors. And also a sense of real fervent passion and determination in them that things are never going to go back, they’re only going to be progressive and go forwards. So that really makes me feel great. And yeah, full of hope really.

Jas:
That’s lovely. Could you identify any advantages of being a woman in your role?

Esther:
Ah gosh. Well, I think that – I suppose – I don’t know whether it’s an advantage, but I think you can't help but bring your identity, your tastes, your enthusiasms with you, right, when you step up to be something brave like an artistic director. So I wouldn’t say I consider this to be an advantage as such but I think that – for me, what I always brought with me, because I was always very, very alert to women not being given the opportunities actually as playwrights, as directors, perhaps backstage, you know, and actually girls on stage maybe not really being given always parts that truly reflect the breadth of who women are, which is absolutely huge, right?
I think I’ve always tried to and continue to make sure that I commission female playwrights on the mid-scale, not a lot of people commit to that even now, but I always have. Make sure that girls are centred in stories. And reflective of who girls are today in the world and that our work at Pilot and my broader work tries to speak to the breadth of female identity actually and tries to tell the stories of the women who you just don’t see represented. So that’s something I think I’ve always been conscious of and remain conscious of.
And I’m not saying that that’s an advantage, I just think that’s a difference. Because I think that you can't help but bring your back story with you – and I’ve told you my back story. So I’m alert to all of those things and all of those things shape my decisions, my sense of what’s fair and what’s right, and my sense of what’s not being heard and who’s being silenced, and who should be represented.

Jas:
I really, really like that. I think we’ve touched on it a little bit but just more to kind of challenge it. What are the disadvantages of being a woman?

Esther:
Oh my goodness. Well, I used to feel twenty years ago it was tough. I mean, it was tough being taken seriously. I used to be so angry, I was really (laughs) quite enraged in my twenties about some of this stuff. Because you just wouldn’t get heard. You would make suggestions about things, they would just be dismissed. Sorry to say it, but I had a meeting once with a guy who meant to be my boss and he patted me on the bum at the end of the meeting. With people who were senior people from the BBC in this meeting, I felt absolutely enraged about that.
So it’s hard to be honest about these things but it was a really, really different climate. That probably seems now unimaginable, right? Because you’d think, well, you know, there’d be an outcry if something like that happened. But those things were just like a matter of course when you were a young woman in the sector. So you had to navigate a lot of stuff.
What helped me was finding people like Amanda Whittington who was also part of this project. And you found other women who helped you understand that you weren’t going mad and some of this stuff was systemic, you know, and you were being blocked. And it wasn’t an accident that that was an all-male panel over there, there was something going on. But I guess people like us we tried to stick together, we put plays on together and we tried to champion one another. And that became I suppose an early phase. But women would have been there before us of course, God knows what the previous generation went through, so it’d be interesting to talk to them.
But you stuck together and you tried to champion each other really. And you always tried, always, to have a little conversation with yourself which was, I am never going to behave like this. Whatever happens to me, no matter how some of the kind of stresses and strains of this industry might drive me to go a bit bonkers (laughs) I am never going to behave like this. I make a pledge to myself. And if I have the opportunity to help other women move forward, have opportunities, I’m going to do it.
So I think that one approached things like that. And I think the generation before that would have probably also been true. So I think slowly, slowly, slowly things are changing. And like I say, I have optimism about the future because I think there’s enough of us now and we’re not going to go back, we’re only going to go forward. So hopefully younger women will never have to experience stuff like that again.

Jas:
Yeah, I like that, that’s quite comforting to think that we can't really go back.

Esther:
Yeah.

Jas:
The only way is forward. So not as a woman, not as a director, but just as a person, what would you say is your greatest achievement?

Esther:
Ah. My greatest achievement is just perseverance, really just keeping going through some times that weren’t as easy. And yeah, keeping the faith really. Because you have bad days, you get bad reviews, you work with people who are tricky and may knock your confidence, but you keep on. And I think ultimately that’s the biggest achievement really.

Jas:
That’s actually been quite a common theme throughout the project, perseverance.

Esther:
(Laughs) I’m sure it has, yeah.

Jas:
It’s important. So now as a director, is there a production that you are most proud of?

Esther:
I think I’m proud of a lot of the work that I’ve made. There was a show that I did in Derby actually that I think is one of the best shows I’ve ever made, which hardly anybody saw, which was a version of A Kind of Alaska by Harold Pinter, and I think that’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. And it was a really, really simple, simply staged piece. But the company that I got to work with on that, the quality, the actors were absolutely amazing. It was very unfussy and just I thought was a really powerful piece and I was really, really proud of it.
So I’ve done things (laughs) that have played to much bigger houses but I think the ones that stay with you artistically are the ones where you felt you achieved the fullest expression of what you were aiming for with a really wonderful room of people. So that would probably be up there. But there would be others too. You end up being proud of your work, of different projects for different reasons.

Jas:
What advice would you give to your younger self?

Esther:
To my younger self? I think I would give myself a lot of advice. I think I would say just go for it, don’t worry so much about things, don’t take things so seriously, and don’t be afraid to just really go after what you want. I can't think of anything else particularly. I kind of strangely don’t have – I don’t want to be too hard on my younger self in a way because I think every context brings its own challenges. And you just have to face those, you know, in the moment, in the best way that you can. But yeah, I think I took things too seriously, more seriously than maybe I needed to sometimes. But then on the other hand maybe that helped me push for change. So it’s tricky. It’s tricky.

Jas:
Yeah. Everything kind of happens for a reason.

Esther:
Yeah.

Jas:
So given your younger self, how would you suggest a young person could get into the industry and what advice would you give them?

Esther:
I think you’ve got to be very determined to do it. I think you need to learn to be resilient. Because it’s a challenging space. Even if it’s a wholesome space, we don’t have to worry anymore about Me Too issues and things, and I’m not saying that’s the case, but I’m saying let’s hope that it’s a more wholesome industry. Then it’s still hard finding the courage to step up to make the statement that you want to make or to go after being an actor or a designer or whatever. So I think understanding that you will get knockbacks, you won't always get the job. Sometimes people say something really stupid or they won't really fully understand what you were trying to express there. Because people all have different opinions, we’re all different, we all have different takes on things. So I think learning a good healthy degree of resilience or learning that you need to build that is important.

Jas:
Thank you very much.