Theatre

“Rockets and Blue Lights” comes to National Theatre: Director Miranda Cromwell talks career, her love for Winsome Pinnock’s “master storytelling” and more

Directed by Miranda Cromwell, and first staged at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, this astonishing and fiercely political new play by Winsome Pinnock was named winner of the 2018 Alfred Fagon Award, Rockets and Blue Lights is now at the National Theatre until 9th October 2021

Cromwell’s credit include: Rockets and Blue LightsAngels in America (associate director on Broadway, West End Death of a Salesman (co-director), Company (associate director)

Other theatre includes: and breathe… at the Almeida; Rockets and Blue Lights at the Royal Exchange; Death of a Salesman (co-director) at the Young Vic; Half Breed at Talawa, the Soho, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and on tour in India; Magic ElvesHey Diddle Diddle and Sense at Bristol Old Vic; Pigeon English at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Bristol Old Vic; The Rest of Your Life at the Bush; and Death and Treason at Bristol Old Vic and on UK tour. As associate director: A Monster Calls (Olivier Award for Best Entertainment and Family) at the Old Vic and Bristol Old Vic; Coram Boy at Colston Hall.

Miranda Cromwell credit Helen Murray

Her awards, Death of a Salesman – Olivier Award for Best Director, Company – Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival, Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, Angels in America – Olivier and Tony awards for Best Revival, A Monster Calls – Olivier Award for Best Entertainment and Family.

  • What made you want to direct theatre?

I wanted to direct theatre because I’ve always loved being in a rehearsal space, whether that was acting or dancing, and then I found that I was also really interested in everyone else’s jobs. I wanted to know what everything was going to look like and sound like, what it was all going to feel like. I just loved the idea that directing theatre is making your imagination manifest and that you need all these different people to collaborate with to make the work greater than the sum of its parts.

  • What was your route in to theatre? Did you have any professional training?

I did a BTEC at Truro College of Arts and then I went to Dartington College of Arts. After that I became the young company director at Bristol Old Vic and I absolutely loved teaching and leading a room. One day I realised that at the end of all this rehearsing we were going to have to put on a play, and I realised it was my job to be the director. I remember the moment so well because I remember thinking ‘Oh wow could I just do that then, should I just be the director?’ It had never really occurred to me before!

  • What has been your most memorable job to date?

My most memorable job was Co-Director with Marianne Elliott on Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic. It was a wonderful process to be a part of, with an incredible company, a supportive co-director; the whole journey was a huge joyous learning curve.

  • How do you think the pandemic has affected theatre and what do you think a positive outcome might be?

I think the pandemic has been so damaging to theatre and it will take a substantial amount of time for us to recover. There were already problems in theatre that needed to be addressed – diversity, power structures, the issue of class – and the pandemic has, to my mind, exacerbated these issues. There is a huge desire to take a radical look at these structures, in the way we work to ensure that it can be accessible and so that everyone has opportunities to both work in and to see theatre. It’s more important than ever for us to have shared spaces where we can connect with lived experiences and try to grapple with our own humanity. So, in a positive way I think if we could really look at how we can build back better and more equitably then we can really have a great function in bringing people out of the pandemic and making a society that is more compassionate and has more understanding for different people’s ways of life.

  • How did you come to work on Rockets & Blue Lights?

I saw a reading of Rockets and Blue Lights when it won the Alfred Fagon Award in 2018 and I totally fell in love with it. Winsome Pinnock then agreed to meet with me and we had a discussion about the play, which at that point was going to be commissioned by Manchester Royal Exchange, and she let me direct it. I think, I hope, there was some synergy between us because I think Winsome could see that I had a deep respect for the work but also that I was hugely inspired by it and had a vision on how I could see it staged in that space.

  • What do you like about Winsome Pinnock’s work and do you have a favourite play of hers?

I think Winsome is a master storyteller and she’s so skilled in her craft. Her plays feel so human and urgent and what I love about the balance of her work is that she is able to keep lots of contradictory ideas in the same frame, the same character or the same conversation, about who they are and how they feel. For me, this just reads so honestly about the experience of being a human being. Her play Talking in Tongues was one that I absolutely fell in love with because of its ability to hold that black female experience and speak on it honestly as something that is both so uniquely wonderful and challenging.

  • What is poignant about this story for you and how does it resonant in the present day?

I think what’s really poignant about this story is that it’s really speaking to our shared history. Over the past year, with conversations that have been going on around Black Lives Matter, it’s been highlighted that for too long conversation has been framed around what can black people do but ultimately the issue of racism is an issue for white people to grapple with. I feel that we really need to be addressing what we all do with our shared history, which is a shared history of slavery. This play is so brave in confronting those issues whilst also allowing for the joy, compassion, love and hope to interweave with this past and present. The way that the play straddles time allows us to really consider this as not ancient history but as a very real legacy that we have to contend with and that we haven’t recovered from.

  • Which other writers would you most like to work with and what kind of stories excite you?

Some writers I admire and would love to work with include Tanika Gupta, Babirye Bukilwa, Bea Roberts, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Isobel McArthur. I love really epic, difficult stories, but I also love the domestic emotional heart piece. So I always love plays that have the macro and the micro – stories about domestic, small lives but with big epic themes. I also love ensemble plays and plays with music.

  • Do you feel that female directors are gaining momentum in terms of gender diversity within the industry?

I think we are taking some positive steps towards more visibility of female directors within the industry; it’s time we saw female directors creating work on all our stages. I would love to see more female directors from the global majority.

  • What 3 tips would you give someone who wants to direct theatre and doesn’t know where to start?
  • I think you have to be a champion for the work. So you have to forge relationships with the creatives, the writers, the designers, the people who are going to go on that journey with you. And I think a lot of that does have to be done on your own time.
  • Because of how much unpaid work you will end up doing as a director, you have to think about how you’re going to subsidise your income, so I’ve always had secondary jobs. Teaching was perfect for me because it still allowed me to work on the plays, and with writers and other creatives, and I also love working with communities and young people. But I’ve also had other jobs not in the industry too and I think that’s a reality of it.
  • You need to look for and seek out the work, the buildings and the people that you want to work with who share your values and will help you form a tribe.

Billie
Anthony Aje

Turner/Roy
Paul Bradley

Thomas/Trever
Karl Collins

Lou/Olu
Kiza Deen

Understudy Thomas/Trevor
David Rawlins

Essie/Lucy

Rochelle Rose

Ruskin/Johnson/Decker

Rockets and Blue Lights is playing at the National Theatre until 9 October.

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