Interview with Marianne Copithorne

Oct 01, 2009

What was it about The Woman in Black that drew you in?
The thing that most attracted me to The Woman in Black was the idea that there is something or someone near that you cannot explain – and this entity or energy has an agenda you cannot understand. You have no power over it – it has power over you. I am attracted and repelled by a fear of the unknown.
Do you believe in ghosts? Ever seen one?
I would like to admit that I believe in ghosts, but like many other people, when I thought I had experienced being in the presence of one, I tried to find a logical explanation – you know the old saying: “It’s just the house settling…” or “I must have an overactive imagination.”
I had a ‘spiritual’ experience once. A very close friend of mine had died in the spring. Six months later, on a lovely fall day, the sun was shining. I was putting the garden to bed, and washing out plant pots in the kitchen sink. A beautiful butterfly came in the patio door and flew towards the kitchen window where I was working. I was suddenly filled with the essence of my friend. I could smell his aftershave; it was though he was standing directly beside me, and I was filled with a sense of peace and a powerful feeling of love enveloped me. The butterfly found its way out the patio door, and when it did, the feeling was gone. Just like that.
Of course this experience was not frightening – my butterfly visitor was not evil – there was no darkness, lightning and thunder, or wind howling – doors didn’t suddenly lock behind me. But I did house-sit for someone once – and that house was full of poltergeists – it was that ‘classic’ frightening experience – stereos and dryers and lights going on and off for no reason – mail being moved from one table to the next. Still, years later I have convinced myself that the house just had an electrical problem – it was just ‘the house settling…’
What are the challenges and rewards of directing a play in the “horror” or “suspense” genre?
The challenge is to scare your audience – to make them believe – to allow them to have the same anxieties and fears as the protagonist. I directed Wait Until Dark once, and the trick was to get the audience to believe that Susy Hendrix, the blind woman, was in real danger of being murdered by Harry Roat, the psychopath. Susy decided the only way she would have a chance of surviving was to create a level playing field, so she smashed all the light bulbs in the apartment – causing her opponent to have to deal with darkness too.
When I directed Hamlet down at the Park, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears at midnight and scares the wits out of the soldiers on watch. That scene happens right at the beginning of the play – and we weren’t in a controlled environment, like a conventional ‘black box’ theatre facilitates. The sun was shining at 8 PM, and we had to make the ghost of Hamlet’s father a scary presence, without the ability to control light. Darkness is a powerful tool when you need to scare your audience – think of all those stories that scared the pants off of you as a kid around the campfire – the less you can see, the more you start to imagine, and before you know it, you need someone to walk you back to the cabin…
Anyway, what we did was to create the bust of a statue of Hamlet’s father. Early in, Claudius arrives and insists it be taken away. When the clock strikes midnight, a very foreboding and terrifying sound began – it sounded like marble being scraped along a stone floor – like a statue actually walking. Sound is our best friend down at the Park when creating mood. Suddenly the statue appeared – the actor playing Hamlet’s father was made up to look exactly like the statue that had been removed – and because he appeared so quickly and was active instead of static – I think it alarmed the audience and knocked them off their plate for a moment – it was kind of thrilling to do that in broad daylight.
The Woman in Black has been playing at the Fortune Theatre in London for two decades, making it the fifth longest running play ever in the West End. Why do you think audiences are so drawn to this play?
Audiences love to be frightened – to be thrilled and chilled, and then to be able to return to the safety of their world. That’s why horror movies and novels are so popular. People have a curiosity about spirituality, and are fascinated by ghosts – especially evil ones.
I think people truly start to believe what is happening to Kipps in The Woman in Black, because their imaginations have been ignited. Stephen Mallatratt’s words light the match. Light (or the lack thereof), and sound – feed their fire. Sound is our best friend too, in the controlled environment of the ‘black box’ – and Dave Clarke is the master of that!
Audiences start to empathize and live in Kipps’ shoes. They might even start to have the same experiences he has been having. And when they walk out of the theatre, they are thrilled to have been frightened. And they might have to have someone walk them back to their cars so they can arrive back to their ‘settled houses’.
Lets talk about you. When and why did you decide to start directing plays?
When I was in my early forties, I started to realize there weren’t as many acting opportunities for me as there had been. I also realized there weren’t many women directors. After a twenty-two year career as an actor, I decided I wanted to have more control over my life as an artist, and to take more responsibility and leadership in the creative process. So I applied to the U of A, and got my MFA in Directing. Since 2003, I have been directing almost exclusively. Not by choice, by the way – I still love acting – it’s just the way things have turned out. Now I seem to be known as a director, and that’s what I get hired to do.
You’re an award-winning actress, and have performed across the country in theatre, film and television. How does being a performer affect you as a director?
Until my early forties, I had the good fortune to work quite regularly, and got the opportunity to collaborate with some great directors. I was also a slave to some bad ones too. Some were super prepared, gifted and generous; some were ill-prepared, uninspired and abusive.
Having been an actor first, I recognize how important it is to nurture what actors bring to the process and try to be as prepared as I can, so I can help them do their job. Of all the various gifted and wonderful artists working in the theatre, I believe actors work the hardest. They have a huge responsibility, so they have to be given the leadership, trust, and encouragement it takes to drive the bus once the director goes away. If I do my job well, and give them the respect they deserve – they’ll take ownership of their show and protect it. Great directors have taught me this. Bad directors have made it even clearer to me that this is the way to proceed.
What types of plays are you drawn to directing?
As a freelance director, I don’t have too much choice in the plays I direct – I get an offer and I usually take it. This is not always the case – Brad Moss has generously afforded me many opportunities to direct – and he lets me pitch him plays I am drawn to. For every 20 plays I read, there might be one that really appeals, so I have empathy for Brad, and so many directors who have to choose their seasons every year (my job is so much easier at The Freewill Shakespeare Festival!). I spent most of my career doing contemporary plays – for which I have a huge passion. What draws me to a play are characters I can believe in and empathize with, who are put in devastatingly challenging situations – whether it’s drama or comedy.
You’re heading into your second season as Artistic Director of The Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Is the process of directing Shakespeare different than directing contemporary work? If so, how?
One big difference is that I never have to ‘workshop’ my playwright. His words are terrific, his structure is impeccable – it’s all there, ready to be performed. I have directed five times now down at the Park, and the biggest job is to whittle some of these four-hour texts down to two and a half hours. And because my playwright is dead, I don’t have to get his permission to edit. But I have to champion him just like I would a contemporary playwright, and make sure my concept supports his ideals. I can’t ‘just decide’ that Romeo and Juliet don’t love each other, or that Hamlet doesn’t want to revenge his father – any more than I can ‘just decide’ that Audrey II, the man eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors wants to love humans, rather than eat them. But because Shakespeare’s plays are done so often, I do have to find a fresh way of telling the story, and make it as accessible to a 21st century audience as possible. And that means I have to pay attention to making my actors sound as contemporary as possible, while being true to the Bard’s text.
What, in your opinion, is the greatest attribute a director can have?
A sense of humour! Rehearsals have to be fun, especially when you are working on a drama. Even with Palace of the End, we had to laugh our asses off now and again, or we would have hurled ourselves in front of busses.
Who/what are your biggest creative influences?
I love Julie Taymor; Micheline Chevrier has been a strong female influence; Jan Selman, Chair of the U of A’s Drama Department has been inspirational to me. Joey Tremblay is a great director, so funny and imaginative. Jim Guedo was pretty stellar, when he ran the Phoenix. James Macdonald’s production of Julius Caesar down at the Park in the ‘90s changed my whole idea of what Shakespeare was all about. John Kirkpatrick taught me how to run a festival and do the ‘Fainting Goat’ (falling on the ground and feigning unconsciousness instead of losing your mind and yelling at someone). I admire Brad Moss’ attention to, and talent for technical wizardry in his productions – especially Buddy, and his incredible mentorship from artistry to administration. Jonathan Christenson is pretty fantastic. I loved Ron Jenkins’ Extinction Song. Stewart Lemoine is a living breathing walking endorphin. John Wright is a pretty fabulous actor, and a great sounding board, whenever we work together.
If you could offer one piece of advice for upcoming directors, what would it be?
Do your homework, and be open to criticism – you aren’t the only person who gets to give notes!