Interview | Faye Merralls | Artistic Director, Descent

Our Artistic Director Faye Merralls talks about the importance of entertainment, her Posh obsession and even slips a couple of swear words past our censors.

Tell us about your role in Descent.
I’m listed as Artistic Director, but in reality the creative direction that goes on in Descent is massively collaborative and I don’t consider myself ‘head’ of the team in any way. My role practically is to help Keziah with the final decisions on programming and then to select directors for our plays. The role of Descent literary manager is to look out for new writing talent, my role is to look out for new directing talent and get them involved!

What does Descent mean to you?
A lot. New writing is fresh and exciting but presented in the wrong way, it can be pretty heavy-going and sometimes the entertainment factor gets lost. For some writers, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Not all writers believe their work needs to be entertaining, and this can be a valid approach. It’s just not my approach; I place a lot of faith in the ability of theatre to entertain. And for Descent to be a success, it must be entertaining.

Descent is working with first time writers and with the audiences to figure out the best ways to present and develop each new play. So really the emphasis is on fun; fun and flexibility. In terms of our Descent events, my main aim is to keep them as casual affairs as possible, whilst still pertaining to a professional approach – the professionalism of the nights, with a laid-back vibe, makes the audience feel comfortable and therefore there’ll react instinctively to what they see. And they’ll have a great night, hopefully.

So, I suppose, audience is also a huge focus for me beside the new writing. As a director, I like to work with writers to gage how their work will make an audience feel, to make the most of that and to manipulate it in some way.

Part of the fun is the comedy that Descent presents, courtesy of our stand-up comedian compere. Out of all the members of the company, I am probably the main advocate of the comedy as a crucial part of what Descent theatre aims to do. Stand up comedians are massively talented writers themselves and thus are a huge contribution to new writing and should be part of a new writing company. A lot of comedians are actors as well – jacks of all trades so to speak. It is not news that there is a very fine line between comedy and drama/tragedy and I like to think Descent will explore this further in the future and continue to explore and make use of the comedic talent that’s out there.

Why is new writing important in theatre today?
Is this an obvious question? I feel like there should be an obvious answer. The word ‘today’ is what throws me. New writing is always, will always be important. Does this sound a bit preachy? It’s a way for people to express themsleves and deal with what life throws at them. Some people do that by actually writing about it, in literal and imaginative ways. Other people do that by  watching or reading what people write and relating to that. I do it by reading and directing what people write and manipulating it so that people can relate to it. I’m gonna go read some philosophy on the importnace of continuous creativity to a healthy lifestyle and report back on this one.

What has been your Descent highlight so far?
Working on Holding on to Helen, by James King was a lot of fun. It was a 50 minute one-act play; so the longest submission we’ve worked on so far for a Descent. James had written a short for us previously and it was great to use a piece of his that had developed further. From a directing point of view; a longer, more developed play is a juicier fruit to get one’s teeth stuck into, but Holding on to Helen was so much fun because of the size of the cast too. A nine-hander as opposed to a two/three-hander adds colour to a performance and it was an exciting challenge figuring out how to keep 9 people on stage for 50 minutes; all in full view of the audience in an asthetically pleasing fashion. It’s also really lovely to watch a group of people bond as they work together!

What have you been up to outside of Descent recently?
Directing -wise: I’m working with a theatre company called 8fold Theatre on a new play called The Door, by Cherise Cross. We worked on the first couple of scenes for The Cockpit Theatre’s Theatre in the Pound recently and 8fold are looking for a venue to produce a 3-week or so run of the play. So if you’re a venue manger/programmer out there and you fancy a play that adresses insomnia and mental illness in a dystopian setting, GET IN TOUCH.

Life-wise: I’m doing an MA in Shakespeare. Just as a bit of a contrast to new writing, y’know.

How did you get into theatre?
Acting. Really simply, I used to act in school plays, took LAMDA acting exams, local Warwickshire am dram, that kind of thing. I didn’t direct anything until university and it was only when I started directing I realised that I was a distinctly mediocre actor. It was my first summer in Edinburgh in August 2010 that sealed the decision to persue a career in theatre professionally – I saw soooooo many plays in such a short space of time and it was so busy and hectic up there in a creative way that I thought I want my life to be busy and hectic in a creative way too.

What is your favourite new play you’ve seen?
Posh, by Laura Wade. I went to see it when it was on at the Royal Court about 4 days before my BA dissertation was due in. I had written 0 of my 10,000 words but got a text from a friend offering me a cheap ticket for the Saturday matinee and thought f*** it. For me the play was so unbelievably relevant, I could not quite put my finger on why it spoke to me so much and made me laugh so much as well as scare me a little bit. The boys were so recognisable (that probably says more about me than it does about the play: yes, I’m a posh tit. No, not really, I’ve just know a lot of them…). And in terms of the fine line between comedy and drama that I mentioned earlier, the dialogue is laugh out loud funny, even when Alistair is saying something really dark that shouldn’t be funny; the laughter is involuntary. And then there’s the tragic end. My dissertation was on tragedy and comedy in the plays of Eugene Ionesco: somehow, after loving the performance so much and enjoying a couple of pints in the Royal Court bar afterwards, I headed to the library at about 7pm on a Saturday evening and wangled Posh into my dissertation. Definitely not a wasted afternoon.

Fave new play of this year (besides the revival of Posh) – This House, by James Graham. It’s ace. Go see it.

Who are your theatre role models?
Lyndsey Turner, because of the writers she’s worked with. (See above). Her direction of Posh was fantastic and actually when I read the play it doesn’t leap off the page as much as it leapt off the stage. She’s also worked with Tom Basden, who’s a great writer and comedian; I think There is a War was a little overlooked when it was on in the National Theatre’s Paintframe: it was surreal, hugely imaginative and very darkly comic at times (noticing a pattern in what I like in a play yet?!)

Marianne Elliot is also a director that I would love to work with and in general just love her productions, particularly the visual spectacles she creates on stage. GO FEMALE DIRECTORS. There are also many male dircetors I like, but my answers are overly long already, I expect, and I don’t want to bore.

If you could play any character who would it be and why?
Should this not be ‘If I could direct any play, what would it be and why?’. It’s fine though, because that would be a far more difficult question and I would probably waffle on about various plays for a while.

I really like the character Becky in Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike. Romola Garai portrayed her frustration at the stagnant nature of life brilliantly, and her portaryal of Becky’s vulnerability was very touching. And hey, who doesn’t want to dress up as Britney Spears from Hit Me Baby One More Time to act out some ‘hidden’ sexual fantasy?! I pick Becky from The Village Bike.

What’s your favourite line from a play?
ARGH. SO MANY.
I’m just gonna go with a few faves from Posh as the theme of this particular Q&A:
“carpe some fucking diem” (is a motto for everyday life, obvs)
“No they won’t because a) why would they bring horse tranquiliser to a pub and b) even if they did it’d be liquid ’cause you can’t get a horse to snort something”
“His back garden’s most of Warwickshire” (I probably only like this because I grew up in Warwickshire)
“I’m not just a live version of the sock you wank into”
“I am sick to fucking death of poor people”

And that’s just the first half…

I’m a bit of a fan of finding the line in a play that sums up the play as a whole. It usually changes each rehearsal/performance… it’s like so today THIS is the line of the play. But it is an interesting way to hit different notes. Like Iago’s “I am not what I am” is so multi-layered and just sums up the whole dissembling mess of the play.

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