Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Salmon and Cream Cheese // Helen Parry

It was over an hour after arriving at Helen’s cottage-like retreat before we sat down on the sofas for the formal interview, while I’m full of apologies, explanations, caveats for the process and Helen takes it all in her stride. Helen Perry is hospitality personified and so first of all I have to eat all of the salmon and bagels – because they’re going away for a theatre jaunt to Stoke and it can’t be left – and we have to catch up, share our thoughts on the shows we’ve seen recently and our bucket-list of theatres we want to visit – Minack, Georgian Theatre Royal, Chichester – and this is as close to small-talk as we get. I try not to talk about work. Helen updates me on family news.

Although we don’t do this often [enough], there is a sort-of routine. It was Helen that gave me my first break in the Manchester fringe scene. This was when the only fringe work in Manchester was 24:7 and occasional work at the Kings Arms through Studio Salford and supporting spaces like Taurus. Somewhere Trevor Suthers was thinking up JB Shorts, Not Part Of was in the offing a few years down the line. The Library Theatre hosted Replay, and as part of that was the annual Replay Debate. I have no doubt many people said many interesting things, and I very clearly remember David Slack railing against the use of the term ‘fringe’. All I could think was – how do I get to join in on this conversation, where’s the network to connect with between annual debates. So of course I ask and no one has an answer except to keep trying, and I exit the theatre vaguely despondent as I feel a hand touch my elbow and Helen is there insisting I send her some of my writing.

Years later we’ve not been able to make the production happen, but the people who have been attached to it over the years are some of the stalwarts of the local independent theatre scene and have become the figures I’m most often excited to see work. Helen has through her longevity and attitude brought under her wing a huge and immensely diverse range of theatrical talent. She’s currently teaching at ALRA North, and was a teacher at Arden from its founding by Wyllie Longmore, whose integrity and vision she says was never surpassed, until her retirement in 2007. You feel it’s her work with students that invigorates her most, or practitioners who have the attitude of students, and she talks with great affection of many productions that would have only been seen by friends and family.

“When I taught in East Ham, it was a time when the Ugandan Asians were being expelled, and I was working with a diverse cast, so we had the idea of different colour t-shirts for the Sharks and the Jets, which worked perfectly. We had the help of the PE department, but not the music department, so the music was on a cassette. And they all had to go and collect their brothers and sisters, or their pets, which they were supposed to be looking after, so the rehearsals were utterly chaotic.” It’s clear although this manic production of West Side Story may have been a baptism of fire, Helen feels this is exactly how it should have been. The joy and energy, the rehearsals with all the families jostling, are so far from the rarefied atmosphere usually associated with the rehearsal room it seems to undermine everything that’s said about how to prepare a production. “The dancing was fantastic, because we has the co-operation of the PE department, and the families were involved. It’s about the story-telling, I am who I say I am.”

I’d hoped to tease out of Helen her approach to the rehearsal process and the text, but I suspect I already know the answer to this. As she outlines her role at ALRA, and the modules she’s teaching, I ask her how she works with students; whether it’s about training them up with skills or exploring the possibilities with each individual. “You’re picking a year group, a range of skills, types, diversity. Some come with lots of experience, drama at school, while others have a passion.” She gives me an answer that feels definitive, text book. “For each student you’re looking at the potential of each student within their limits, or realising they don’t have any limits.” I’m not sure I grasp this as an any more concrete idea, however. “For first and second year there is no public work, as you work through different areas – comedy, Shakespeare – so you’re putting actors out of their comfort zone, in roles they wouldn’t be cast in, wouldn’t be right for.” There are three projects a year, one a term, placing the students in different groups, replicating what it might be like after graduating, and learning something else that she learned from Wyllie; “How can you still work with integrity when not everything is great.”

So she works with her students in the same collaborative way she works in her freelance directorial role; “you show me and I will shape it. I discard the things that don’t work.” Her hand gesture here I find quite telling; in truth it doesn’t feel as if those things are discarded as much as placed away to one side. She places an imaginary box off her lap as if nothing is useless although it may not fit, and should be kept in decent shape in case it’s needed in future. Privately, I start to worry that this discussion isn’t combative or incisive enough; this approach to working is not unusual but it could be slightly unfashionable, and I may end up with an article that is opaque about process. So we take a case study.

Blackhand’s production of Look Back In Anger in September 2011 was, I felt at the time, a perfect example of a Helen Parry show. It was unusual to the extent that it wasn’t a piece of new writing, which speaks more to the Manchester scene than Helen’s own interests. The production had all the hallmarks I had come to expect; authentic production values; simple but not abstract; a strong ensemble performance; an honesty to the words. “I always start with a day or two sitting round the table reading through the text. Often I’ll have an actor who wants to get up on their feet, and I say we don’t understand it yet.” The word ‘understand’ is given a plaintive quality that makes it clear she appreciates the desire to move but in some sense regrets that inevitably a chance to engage with the words more deeply is then lost. Later she tells me, “I say to actors, you have to serve the play. The writer has taken a lot of time over each word, it’s your duty to speak the play as it is written, and for the company to tell the story of the play.” Initially working on my own play with Helen was the first time I’d ever worked with trained actors, and I’d presented them with what I worried was a challenging text. Expressing my concerns, Pete Carruthers looked non-plussed at the idea and just said “text with a capital T.”

“I like to have some basic props; tea; smoking for example, some approximate costume. We’ll be inhabiting the world of the play.” She tells me with a laugh that she has recently been given the iron sourced as a prop for the play by Java, who played Alison in the Look Back In Anger production. “I don’t work chronologically through a play; sometimes I’ll pull out key scenes and go back to other scenes. I’ll sometimes improvise scenes to get at the core emotion. Java’s disintegration at the end we did like that, it was very powerful.” This strikes her as a strange dichotomy. “The rehearsal room, it’s got to be safe, a safe space, but also a place where anything can happen. It’s up to the director to create that, and the other actors to some extent.” This seems something commonly accepted but not thought about enough, and so the danger that can be allowed into the space is not allowed for and performances are simply safe, the productions bland.

You have to go there in the rehearsal room, Helen insists. In a production tackling male rape, she spoke to an actor who she didn’t feel was getting close enough in rehearsals, and sure enough he broke down in one of the performances. “I was in the audience, I couldn’t get to him,” as if one of her own children was out of reach; “he got through it, but it was shaky.” So, anything goes in the rehearsal room? “Nothing physical,” meaning arguments should never get violent, “no personal shit. But I’ve never been a fan of confrontation; I don’t see the need for it.”

“I’m against an imposition of a theory on a play. I don’t mind updating Shakespeare, for example, but not when a director you know comes with an agenda. I go into a lot of detail. Why are you doing that? I don’t formally block a play, it’s an organic process, I ask actors to move where they feel natural and you find patterns emerge. Actors find their own routes.” I’m interested in how she feels about moves being different performance to performance. “I’m not a stickler. Things change and things grow. I warn actors not to be too wacky or too wild, it can throw someone else off. Sometimes you find the ego of the actor becomes bigger than the piece. But if an actor comes to me before a show and say, Helen, I’d like to try whatever, I make a judgement. In one show an actor came on in one scene and, without checking with me first, threw glitter everywhere, and regardless of whether it worked in that scene. It ruined the rest of the play, there was glitter everywhere sticking to everything. I was livid.”

The idea of producing the classic angry young man text had been discussed during an earlier production Adam Davies had been behind, his outing Working Title with co-conspirator Adam Jowett. They had been talking about Look Back In Anger, and how it was a favourite play of Helen’s, and she loves the film. It needed a good venue; hence the Martin Harris centre, and they all agreed to put in £100. They were allowed to run their own bar, which resulted in them making back their investment and paying their bills. The project was kickstarted with a phonecall from Adam and Java who were at Kim By The Sea, no doubt lubricated by alcohol, but Adam and Helen felt the play needed editing “so Adam came round here and we spend two days going through the text, sitting at that table. One of the
reviews, I was so pleased with this, said that it felt like a play for today, which was fabulous, a testament to the editing skills.” Helen says they were lucky to get cheap rehearsal space at White Circle; “They had some furniture already there,” a stage manager in Ellie Whitfield that makes Helen visible vibrant; “God she was good,” and three weeks full-time rehearsal; “four would have been good,” and when it came to the production she was happy with it, the tech-dress was comfortable “but I hardly watch the play; I watch the audience.”

The majority of Helen’s freelance work, especially on the Manchester scene, has been with new writing. Do you have the writer in the rehearsal room? “You discuss what are the groundrules. The writer and actor should have as much freedom as possible,” except the writer shouldn’t disagree with the director in the rehearsal room in front of the company. “We should discuss it separately, go for coffee. It’s always a collaborative relationship.” Working on new writing is “so exciting. It’s a huge responsibility. You’re taking a writer’s work to make it better than they could hope.” It might not always be fruitful, sometimes they want you to do things that you believe don’t work, and then it can depend who’s employing you. Ultimately, however “having the writer in the rehearsal room, I enjoy that. It’s useful.”

Earlier, Helen has explained that she had been surprised to be asked to direct Working Title, which seemed to her a very male project, and because she felt the two Adams were closer in admiration to another of their tutors to the extent she thought they might be entrenched in his methods. This puzzled away at me for a bit, because from the work of Helen’s that I’d seen, and from the conversations we’d had, this didn’t seem the sort of issue to concern her. She started in theatre as a champion of Black work, she’s a strong advocate of women’s work, and is currently a force in local LGBT drama. But it’s not her decidedly left-of-centre politics that have driven this so much as her ability to grasp an opportunity and almost accidentally fall into a gap in the market.

After teaching in East Ham and her West Side Story experience, she became drama consultant at Abraham Moss, in the late-seventies to an ethnically diverse student group. “It happened out of necessity, and it becomes second nature, through common experience.” She was hired to direct A Raisin In The Sun, and a subsequent play in which one of the actors had been particularly abrasive in the first rehearsal “and I thought, this isn’t going to work. Then, at the break, he came up to me, put his hand around my waist, and said ‘are we going for lunch then?’ I’d been put under the grill, and then lunch.” Her production of Black Love at the Green Room transferred to the Library Theatre. “Chris Honer could see the queues round the block. No one else was doing it at the time, there was a black audience.” She also reminisces, “We put on gay plays at Dukes ’92, with Trevor Suthers and Michael Harvey. They were areas of work that straight white people weren’t doing.”

Helen gets more impassioned as she diverts from her theatrical history to the personal stories that have driven her, and of course we’re now running out of time for me to reach my train. “I was turned down for a TV, in those days you could hire a TV but I needed your husband or father to sign the form so I had to take it to work the next day, which was humiliating. I remember being sat with someone on the phone and him saying ‘I’m sat with the lovely Helen Parry,’ those little condescensions.” One of her current teaching modules is on politics, for which she has invested in more books, and she finds that it’s the male speeches that are chosen even by the female students, “and I tell them, look at this, there are lots of male speeches, so few female – three. How little are female words heard; why not speak them?”

She has a warm-up exercise using letters cut from The Guardian [other letters pages are also available], and having the actors pick them at random, read them out loud, in different ways. “You know, you get them signed by a group of doctors, or whoever. It leads to discussion. You don’t have to agree, but you need to empathise.” As I pack up and worry about whether the phone has captured the recording, Helen sums up. “I love working, I love working with young actors. I’m in a unique position.” And I stride away up the crooked lane past the bluebells.

conversation with Helen Parry took place in her living room on Friday 13 May 2016 from 11:00am // @ParryMargaret

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