An interview with director Richard Hamburger
Interview by David Gardner
“You’re looking for an interesting story, depth of character, accuracy of observation, humor, and some insight into the world we live in.”
David Gardner: When you read through a script for a play you might direct, what goes through your head?
Richard Hamburger: You’re looking for the human possibilities to reveal unpredictable areas. You’re looking to see if it’s accurate to the way people actually are, rather than an idealization of how they should be. You’re looking to see whether it’s an original voice, rather than an imitation of someone else, or unduly influenced by a presently-fashionable author. You’re looking for an interesting story, depth of character, accuracy of observation, humor, and some insight into the world we live in.
DG: So what drew you to My Wonderful Day?
RH: Before I read My Wonderful Day, I don’t think I had thought about Afro-Caribbean cleaning women; this play brings us into an area of the world that has received little attention, but in a very fun, warm, humorous, and pithy way. It gets at what many plays that wear their politics on their sleeves are not able to do. Through the skill of its dramaturgy, it shows how different classes, different races, different parts of society not only see the world differently but speak fundamentally different languages, and it reveals the very hilarious crossed wires, or misunderstandings, that arise from those different languages. Our culture is actually many, many, many cultures, but we think of it as singular, and from that arises tremendous misunderstanding. That sounds all very heavy-handed as I talk about it, but as Alan Ayckbourn grapples with it through his farcical frame, the misunderstandings between people who are really unaware of each other are hilariously funny.
Then, very few plays deal with childhood and how a kid sees. This play’s perspective is through the eyes of a child, so we’re meant to see the spinning world almost like it’s an Alice in Wonderland for contemporary day London—Winnie, being Alice, and various of the characters, looming large and crazily whirling around her, are unaware of how she’s quietly storing it all away inside herself. She’s a witness and a neutral recording device, and I think it says something about the makings of an artist.
DG: What kinds of directorial challenges does the play pose?
RH: You have your ideas about what the play is, and then you cast it, and you’re dealing with wonderfully gifted actors who bring different things to it, so you have to collaborate and adjust. You incorporate their comments, their observations, the things they do, and they incorporate the things you say as a director. You work together to create something that’s better than any single person could create; the group creates something that spins, that has its own life that you couldn’t come up with all by yourself as a director, and they couldn’t come up with all by themselves as individual actors.
We want to give the play a physical life on stage that can work almost as a machine does. We spend a lot of time talking about each character in their particular time and place, and what they would do, how they’re similar to us, and how they’re different. We spend also a lot of time trying to uncover the role inside of each actor. It’s very organic that way, and the audience believes it. It’s much more truthful. Then, we work on identifying the needs of each character and turning the burner up, turning the urgency, the heat of those needs up, and constantly equating ourselves with the situations that they’re in, strengthening those situations, because that’s what audiences observe as like themselves and therefore very funny. The essence of farce is that we recognize ourselves caught in ridiculous situations and the many wonderfully varied, desperate ways we try to cope.
“Just because you’re not speaking doesn’t mean you’re not powerful…”
DG: In this play, specifically, Ayckbourn had said that he was exploring silence, and I was wondering how you and the cast are approaching the long silences Ayckbourn has given different characters throughout the play.
RH: We treat the silences as being as potent and as expressive as the written lines. Silence is always saying something, it is a response, it has content and action to it. Just because you’re not speaking doesn’t mean you’re not powerful, or you’re not going after something. In fact, someone who’s silent is often more powerful than someone speaking. We often speak to deflect, or because we’re panicked.
I see this within the continuum of Alan Ayckbourn’s work, as a very mature piece, moving into a more fully dimensional portrayal of life on stage, which incorporates silence, moments of reflection, private moments. There are quite a few private moments on stage where people are alone, or they think others aren’t watching them: we’re entirely different when we’re alone, or we think we’re unobserved, from when we’re performing for other people in some way, trying to give them what they need, or trying to get what we want from them. Ayckbourn’s plays are becoming more prismatic, where we see more fully dimensional people because we’re seeing different sides of them through silence.
And Alan Ayckbourn, with his extraordinary facility and humor, his sense of rhythm and repartee, and his observation of people, realizes how hilarious it can be to incorporate aspects of what people are like in their most private moments. We can then see how far people travel from their private to their public selves. And I find that interesting to work on and experiment with in the rehearsal hall, and I can’t help but think that this was a step of development, of growth, for Alan Ayckbourn. I look forward to reading his next play.
DG: Is this the first Ayckbourn play you’ve directed?
RH: It is, although I have produced Alan Ayckbourn in theaters that I’ve run. I’ve always known he was greatly talented, I’ve always known that audiences adore his work, and of course, he’s been one of the most successful, widely produced playwrights in the world. But I didn’t know how truly gratifying it is to work on an Ayckbourn play with a very skilled, humane company of actors, because it’s so true to life. Like working on Chekhov, you can explore and explore and explore the people in all their delusory qualities, with their foibles, and you don’t ever feel that the people are other. You feel that you’re shedding light on your own life, but without any self-pity whatsoever, and with a great deal of humor.
"I want people to just see how funny they are.”
DG: Is there anything you hope an audience might take away from seeing My Wonderful Day?
RH: Of course I just want them to have a great time. I want them to go out on a spring evening, and have what they see in the world be altered in some way as a result of what they have gleaned from this extraordinary character study of what happens when people from different areas of a city come together in one place.
I want them to be more aware of other people who they come into contact with, whether casually, or in more serious ways, through employment. Not to take kids for granted, but to understand that kids are witnessing everything we do. And they’re not listening so much to what we say; they’re watching what we do. Because that may be a truer reflection of ourselves.
And I want people to just see how funny they are. I want them to see themselves in the play, how ridiculous we can be, how selfish we can be. I want them to develop a modicum of awareness of what other people might be going through, because to imagine what another person’s life might be like is at the core of what this play is trying to accomplish.
It’s an act of imagining on Alan Ayckbourn’s part, and it asks us to imagine, too, when we’re sitting across the bus from someone, or we’re telling someone what to do—it asks us to imagine what the world’s like from their experience, their background, their needs, and to imagine where they’re coming from, and where they’re going.
And, like a wonderful story, I want them to see that this is a jewel of a play.