Max Stafford-Clark Topics List taken from his interview with Carole Woddis, 8th December 2009, recorded by Carole Woddis.
Audio extracts edited by Jessica Higgs.
Family background and education
Born 17th March, 1941, educated in Felsted, Essex
Sam Walters and Stuart Burge educated at same school, there from 9 to 17 Won a year’s Exchange scholarship to the US and Riversdale County day school
Went to [Greenwich] Village where saw the original production of Zoo Story (Edward Albee] and The Balcony [Jean Genet] and various other plays
Acted at his school in Treasure Island and a pastiche Two Gentlemen of Verona, not outstanding schoolboy actor
Later while studying at Trinity [Dublin] he noted there were a lot of would-be actors, not so many directors so thought he’d try that
Theatre education began in New York, on return took his father to a number of West End productions – The Caretaker [Pinter], Brand [Ibsen] at Lyric, Hammersmith, and The Long and the Short and the Tall at the Royal Court
Theatre going important part of his life by late teens
2 brothers and a sister, close to parents, especially his father who was Head of Psychiatry at Guys and an eminent TV personality
Father thought if he hadn’t been a doctor he could have been an actor
MSC never thought to go into medicine, one brother was a drummer in rock group, a session musician who runs a sound studio, and Nigel is film & TV producer, responsible for Bleak House and The Passion
No theatre in family, Grandfather was a solicitor
Father encouraged MSC into theatre, Mother less positive about it
MSC’s biological father was killed in early stages of WW2, met wife May 1940, married June, killed November, MSC born March 1941, has one surviving uncle
Education and early influences cont
Whilst at school came to Vanbrugh Theatre at RADA to see a Beaumont & Fletcher play
Did Tempest at A level and King Lear, which he directed for the RSC much later, never fell in love with Shakespeare as he was growing up
Poetry was important at school and later at Trinity
US changed him quite a bit and came back a different person, it was an exchange scholarship through the English Speaking Union Scholarship in 1960
Higher education at Trinity and Dublin theatre then
Came back from States and took Oxford and Cambridge entrance exams Offered a place at Wadham, but had also got a place at Trinity, Dublin
Very eccentric place in the 1960s, made Oxford and Cambridge look very red brick, lots of anglophile families there, small enough to do rugby and plays at the same time
Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammóir ran Gate Theatre at the time, high camp, they championed Oscar Wilde
They changed roles all the time, one would direct, whilst other acted or designed etc.
MSC realised directing was more than being a traffic policeman
Could go to the Gate for 3/6d (17 ½ p) in the back row, interesting work
Abbey Theatre going through a dull stage at that time, the old Abbey had burnt down and the company was quartered in the Queen’s Theatre then, which was an old music hall
Amateurs came in for 3 weeks every year and did Plough and the Stars, Juno and the Paycock and Shadow of a Gunman (all Sean O’Casey), wonderful plays, appalling productions, rapt audiences – Dubliners starved of their own voices
Did John B Keane plays which MSC thought dull until he saw some Garry Hynes production of them which restored them to the canon of Irish plays
Left Trinity in 1966 and went straight to Traverse, Edinburgh
Had been on rugby tour with his university in Edinburgh and rather than drinking with mates after the matches went to Traverse, where he met Ricky [Richard] Demarco and helped him stuff envelopes for venue
Following Summer he was directing a Trinity review and asked Jim Haynes if he could bring it over to the Traverse, and did it as a late night review called Dublin Fair
Very successful, invited back to do it at following Festival, got good reviews and transferred to Arts in London (part of Traverse at the Jeanette Cochrane) and bombed
Collections of sketches, couple of good writers, predominantly Irish in flavour
When it transferred the one-hour show had to be extended to two hours, so the poor material that had been taken out was reinstated to bad effect
Jeanette Cochrane was leased to Traverse for a year, but plays weren’t good What might have been new in Edinburgh, not so in London
Hung around unemployed and became rather depressed
Early stage management experience at Traverse, loved Edinburgh and dreams of it now
Lived in West Bow,Danube Street, communal living
Traverse Workshop Company & influences
Left Traverse and set up the Traverse Workshop Company
On £6 a week, he’d put each single note in 6 different drawers, the change from each day went back in the drawer and on the 7th day he’d have the remainder
Communal living, lived off a stew that boiled away all week
His ideas were formulating
After Hilton Edwards his second influence was Tom O’Horgan and the La Mama Theatre Troupe from the States
Later when MSC was Royal Court Associate director to Gordon McDougall he invited them over, they did Futz by Rochelle Owens,
Melodrama Play by Sam Shepard, Tom Paine by Paul Foster, actors played instruments
Tom O’Horgan skilled musicologist, very physical and adept musically
Big influences, one time went back to New York with La Mama and operated follow spot on first production of Hair, 1968, met Ellen Stewart of La Mama
Always been a text man
Physical commitment of La Mama essential part of their success and dynamic
Traverse had European repertory, for instance Ubu Roi, De Ghelderode. Influence of La Mama, Open Space, Living Theatre, Jim Haynes, Happenings in London.
No politics for him then, more personal exploration
Third influence on his work was Bill Gaskill (BG) at the Royal Court
BG had seen a couple of MSC’s plays in Edinburgh and invited him down to contribute to the ‘Come Together’ season
Nothing appropriate to send, but later brought down a Stanley Eveling play which had been very successful at Traverse
‘Bread’s Lovin’ Dreams’ was a folk/rock band, part of the Traverse Workshop Company which ensured their audiences
Did this hippie show in London and re-connected MSC with BG
From different theatre backgrounds and experiences and agreed to work together for a period of work in 1970/71, 4 week workshop with a number of actors on Heathcote William’s The Speakers.
Description of workshop process & performance in theatre, based on speakers in Hyde Park
Story about learning that if you practise something for a long time you can get good at it
La Mama influence on Traverse Theatre Workshop & working processes
You could see from La Mama the benefit of prolonged rehearsal periods Anecdote of taking Blueheart [Caryl Churchill] to St Petersburg and different rehearsal periods in Russia compared to UK.
Traverse Theatre Workshop emulated La Mama by having long rehearsals.
Company used old Traverse building after it moved, they lived and rehearsed there, worked with writers at Traverse: Howard Brenton, Stanley Eveling, David Edgar, David Mallard.
MSC dreamt of having a permanent company and ensemble
Describes his working process, refers to recent Australian piece Convicts’ Opera and Mixed Up North
A State Affair [Robin Soans] rehearsed in West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Relates his own research experiences to this piece and gathering of information.
Seeds of how he works sewn in 1960s
Research and contributions help give actors part of ownership of play
Joint Stock – issues taken collectively, research by actors playing in it Important going into work not knowing outcome, especially important for verbatim drama
The Permanent Way [David Hare] – knew some general information about the rail crashes, but not certain things that came to light from the research.
This process allows actors to actually have experienced and done the things they might have to re-enact on stage. –cook crack cocaine, deliver a baby etc, difference between really knowing and ‘acting’.
Verbatim style theatre is what he’s always done
In Light Shining in Buckinghamshire [Caryl Churchill] did research back to Crusades and millennial Christian movements, actors practised preaching and learnt passages from Bible
MSC allowed research to be part of production
Our society doesn’t give voice to ordinary voices
Power of Yes [David Hare] slipped in that he only spoke to bankers and movers and shakers in finance not those who lost out
Politicised by Fanshen [David Hare]
The company took on colour of each piece
Epsom Downs [Howard Brenton] – they became racegoers, punters etc
Joint Stock was amorphous group, didn’t know what they were going to be,unlike feminists and their companies
No political agenda
Fanshen was a book about the coming of communism to a small socialist village
Description of play and workshop process, naïve political expectations change the effect it might have, doesn’t see theatre as missionary medium anymore but it can change lives
John McGrath of 7:84 did consciously want to change structure of society and thought you could do it through plays
Joint Stock had social curiosity, plays illuminated: Serious Money [Caryl Churchill] – the city, Fixed up North – serial unemployment in a clapped out mill town, shining torches on neglected areas of human experience
It has educated MSC.
Stroke and recovery
Had a stroke in 2006 and in hospital for 6 months, his partner Stella [Feehily] saved his life, got closer to BG, Graham Cowley and brother but really missed company of actors and rehearsing
Got back by co-directing King of Hearts by Alasdair Beaton with Rahmin Grey
Then began developing Mixed up North with LAMDA students to final production which aided his recovery and helped restore his directing muscle
Revisiting 60s and 70s
Always had other lives on the go – in Edinburgh played rugby for Edinburgh Wanderers, twice a week and games on Saturdays
Adopted a Bulgarian daughter at 8 months
Joint Stock had one time of working together for whole year which meant high standards could be achieved
Describes a radical Edinburgh production called U2 – one audience member on a single journey taken all the way from Traverse through Edinburgh streets to Old Traverse to spy through key holes etc at staged scenarios
What is now common place but must have stood alone then
MSC interested in how to dominate and find rapport with audience, which is
why he likes Restoration when the chandeliers shone above the auditorium on the audience
MSC working methods
His work is distinguished by clarity and minimal design and action
Says his instinct for this for reinforced by BG
When he asked Ken Campbell to work for him, he said, ‘Is this one of your normal 5 chair productions or one of your lavish 7 chair ones?’
It means focus is with the actors and essential things in the drama
Caryl Churchill (CC)
She was already working at the Royal Court when he got there
Very bright, clever person, natural instinct for theatre which made her a joy to work with – she would suggest cuts
British attitudes to allowing writers into whole rehearsal process unusual in mainland Europe
Met Stanley Eveling when he took over directing Come and Be Killed, had already directed a James Saunders play Double Double
Used to give a lift home to actress Susan Williams after rehearsals who would advise him in how he should be directing and he would implement the ideas the next day.
Ordinary yet crucial things about costumes, glasses etc
In those days he was often the youngest person there but it was an asset, experienced actors can help if asked
1971 International Paris Institute Conference
Took place in outskirts of Paris, very international, each country inhabited a different chalet.
They had a long boring meeting discussing what was going to happen during the week, agreed to show their work to each other.
Swedes did a live couple fucking on a lilo in the open air
French was political protest at what they saw as a very bourgeois conference They came to meals wrap up as mummies from head to toe
Robert Wilson carried around a dead rabbit carcass
It was confused and chaotic.
They said they were the Scottish Liberation Group and did some vague scenes entitled In the Heart of the British Museum, set in Mexico they were asked what it had to do with Scottish liberation?
For them [Traverse Theatre Workshop] it was beginning of a tour that went Hamburg – Copenhagen – Stockholm.
Touring very instructive. North – South divide in audience appreciation