Chipping at the Hard Stuff: Reflections on my Leverhulme Scholarship


Back in mid-November, I was on a totally lush Hawkwood College Artist Residency as part of my Leverhulme Scholarship with Ferment at Bristol Old Vic (BOV). I was asked to write a few words for Team Ferment about it, but never got round to it due to a) various busy and b) an itch at the back of my mind that I’d like to do some deeper reflection on the scholarship so far and where it’s taken me – because it’s been utterly transformative for how I understand my perspective and skills as a theatre director (thumbs up!) but the journey has been waaaaay different to what I’d planned or anticipated (thumbs up!).

I came into the Leverhulme scholarship at a point of deep professional frustration.

The scholarship has been brilliant for letting me let it out, and then helping me work out what I can do about it and how I can do that on my own terms. The time – and the money to spend the time – has been crucial to that, as has the stamp of affirmation that comes from being awarded the scholarship. But really, the MOST important thing has been the regular, thoughtful interrogation I’m getting from the brilliant Emma Bettridge (BOV Ferment Producer). I’m lucky to be working a lot, but it means I don’t prioritise time to deal with the hard stuff that will open up new opportunities for me as a director. Right at the start of the process I asked Emma to keep pushing me out of my comfort zone, and she’s been brilliant at reminding me to keep chipping away at the hard stuff. She’s been genius at helping me start building that chipping away into my ongoing practice as a director.

Here’s a bit from my February 2017 application:

“By producing work through Sleepdogs, I’ve had the freedom to hone an artistic vision and approach that is deeply influenced by my cultural curiosity and my identity as a third culture woman of colour. But I think this unconventional approach makes it hard for commissioners and producers to assess my practice and imagine how I might be able to work with them. I’m at a point now where my lack of technical training, and the (false) perception of my work as devised rather than script-based, are making it impossible for me to develop as an individual artist and move towards a sustainable career as a director.”

Or more succinctly: I’d to use this opportunity to make myself more employable as a director please. It’s strange looking back at this application now, many months into the scholarship, because it reveals how unconfident I was about my skills and ability; how insignificant I felt my experience was; and how much I thought it was all about me needing to change, rather than the industry. It reeks of me seeking validation from the establishment.

In October, 6 months into the scholarship, Emma asked if I could send an informal update on where I was at. Here’s an extract from the update I emailed her:

“I was nervous that existing work commitments were going to make me feel like I wasn’t getting stuck into the scholarship, but actually it’s proved brilliant for me to use this time to honestly reflect on my current situation and to think in a very practical way about how and where I need to focus in order for me to push my directing practice in a way that meets my artistic ambitions (rather than seeking to ape what a ‘proper’ directing career looks like.)

The award has been a really useful “pressure” on me to be honest about my artistic desires, jealousies and ambitions and to be more clear and forthright about why and how I make theatre. As a result I am already more confident and forthright about my individual perspective as a female artist of colour, and as a theatre director who is interested in making productions that feel like they come from the modern world rather than some arcane notion of theatre tied to traditional conventions. In the past, I’ve been quite timid about expressing either of these aspects because I’ve feared they would marginalise me, and limit my opportunities to work in mainstream contexts. What I’ve realised is that I’m marginalised already by these things (!!) and it’s more powerful for me to own these positions and push for the value they can bring to mainstream theatre contexts.”

I’m struck by how much more confident I’ve become in my own artistry and the need to value it better and draw power from it. There are 3 key things that cleared the fog for me on this:

  • In May, I wrote and published this article, as a way of working through some deep-seated, inhibiting frustrations I had about being too “diverse” to be mainstream, yet not authentic enough to bring a “diverse perspective” in the eyes of producers.
  • In July, I heard a brilliant talk by Dr Sarah Atkinson about how women have been written out of history, which included a plea for more women to go for opportunities even when they don’t feel fully qualified (in a way that men have less of a problem with).
  • And in August I had a brief session with super-successful (and also not formally trained) War Horse etc director, Tom Morris, looking at AREAS OF BASIC THEATRECRAFTZ (AOBTz), which a) reminded me that professional experience trumps formal training and b) surprised me by revealing that I already understand and regularly employ AOBTz in my theatre directing – I just also tend to stretch it beyond its conventional purpose, and mix it up with techniques from other forms.

This quiet revelation about AOBTz has been crucial for me. Not only did that session give me confidence in my basic foundations, but it was also great to realise that I regularly apply technical craft from other forms (e.g. live art, dance, film) that are either not considered part of a director’s toolkit or dismissed as ‘uncrafted’ by the theatre mainstream.

In my first few weeks of Music GCSE, my teacher marked down one of my compositions for its reliance on perfect fourths and fifths.

“But it sounds good,” I insisted.

“Yes it does,” said my teacher, “but it’s not good composition.”

So I quit Music GCSE. I kept playing music and composing, but I was a bolshy teenager and I was in no way going to formally buy into the notion that the theory of music was more important than the experience of music. I guess it’s the same for me with theatre – though more mature me is more conscious of wanting to understand the craft in order to manipulate it more powerfully. There are always going to be people who judge me as doing the theatre craft badly, when actually I’m consciously trying to give the audience a more surprising – and hopefully more remarkable – way into the story and the experience. Ultimately, it all comes down to desire, and taste.

Having said all that, I end that October email with this:

  since august I have been feeling very frustrated and alienated by the theatre industry. I’m so ranty at the moment, but I hope I can channel that frustration into really strong meaningful creative work. I’m feeling pretty low about my opportunities as a director within the structures of our current industry and how people make connections and make assumptions […] I feel like I’m constantly fighting so hard for people to even acknowledge me as a director, never mind consider working with me. I need to be visible as a director before I even get to worry about whether people take me seriously or not.”

So since October, I’ve been focused on how I might address that invisibility. If you’ll allow me to talk frankly here, the fact is that the UK theatre industry is deeply conservative in how it functions, very concerned with peer judgement, and has black hole levels of London-centricity. I mean, I get it. We work with an ephemeral art-form. You can’t just pick up a DVD of someone’s production and get up to speed with their work – we need other anchor points to help us get to know who’s out there. The problem is that these anchor points – certainly in the field of script-led theatre – are skewed enormously towards traditional training routes, LONDON, those who work for theatres rather than self-produce, and LONDON. You might see all the new work in your local town, but you probably also go to London. You don’t necessarily also go to Manchester, or Newcastle, or Bristol as a matter of course. Especially if you’re a theatre critic. All of this is compounded by the feedback loop of current theatre criticism.

In the grand game of theatre industry top trumps, I have rubbish scores in all those areas. I’ve got an impressive CV of experience to point to, but no-one’s looking, because I’ve got crap scores in those boxes. I don’t have those privileges so I’m going to have to find other ways to get people to see me.

There’s stuff I need to practise, actual practical work I need to do, in order to improve my visibility as a director and that’s what I’ve been getting my head down to over the last few months. I’ve got to get better at articulating my practice and why people should be interested. I’ve got to get better at pitching my approach to plays. I’ve got to get out and meet more people who live in venues (artistic directors, literary producers etc). I probably need to get an agent. I’ve got to come to terms with being on repeat about the fact that despite not living in London, I’m up for working on plays in your theatre.

One of the great things about Bristol – and one of the main reasons why I choose to live here – is the clever, confident and ambitious artist community I get to play and think things through with. I’m not the only Bristol-based director experiencing this frustration and I’m working with allies to challenge our local producing theatres not to overlook Bristol-based directors for their productions. I love that this scholarship is helping me work with my peers to change opportunities for more than just me.

Last week, me and my fellow scholars gave a little talk about our experiences so far on the scholarship. We’ve all done different things, but we all talked about the incredible value in being able to genuinely learn as we went, rather than having to deliver prescribed outcomes. I’ve been able to rewire the machinery of my practice and map career routes I never thought I’d be able to take, without having to deny my artistic curiosity and background. There is NO WAY I’d have achieved this if I knew I was going to have to show some work-in-progress or pass an exam at the end of it – I’d have been way too focused on what I had to do, rather than actual learning. At the talk, Emma mentioned how hard it was to protect the non-outcome-focused nature of these scholarships. I’ll talk to anyone who’ll hear me about why that needs protecting.

I’m into the last few months of my scholarship now. There’s a lot of practical and intellectual graft, emotional steel and a shed-load of train journeys that’ll need to go into pushing my visibility as a director. But as I said back in May, right at the start of my scholarship: I need to get over it and make my story more visible. Because I’ve got a voice and a career in this business – and I want more different people to influence our culture not just at the margins, but all the way through.

Thank you BOV Ferment for awarding me time, space, money and support to push towards this. I can’t think of anything else like these scholarships. Here’s to the next cohort. Hope you guys run with it.

Tanuja Amarasuriya is a director, dramaturg and sound designer, whose work has been developed and presented nationally and internationally including at the National Theatre, Bristol Old Vic, Seattle International Film Festival, Manchester Royal Exchange, Battersea Arts Centre and BIOS (Athens). She has worked with playwrights and theatremakers including Dipika Guha, Selina Thompson, Sam Halmarack, Eno Mfon, Raucous and Timothy X Atack, with whom she co-founded Sleepdogs.

The Cherry Orchard – Creating the Key Image

Ahead of the run, we caught up with photographer Seamus Ryan to find out how he captured the lead image for our upcoming spring spectacular, The Cherry Orchard.


It was late October last year when Richard Brett, the Graphic Designer at Bristol Old Vic, got in touch about shooting the lead image for their upcoming production of The Cherry Orchard. I was delighted, as I had already had the privilege of working on Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Grinning Man in 2016, so I knew an exciting collaborative and creative project lay ahead. What I didn’t predict was that by the end of the shoot I would also become something of an expert in the international trade of exotic fruit and vegetables.

Richard already had the bones of the concept for the image. He knew from the director, Michael Boyd, that the play would be full of humour and sadness, as it addressed the social tension between the two leads and the play’s key theme of change. We discussed the possible layout and the colour palette. Preparing for a photoshoot is an all-consuming process. All sorts of disparate elements and people must come together to form the final image. In this case, the talented team from Bristol would provide costumes and make-up. A time was found in the busy schedules of actors Kirsty Bushell and Jude Owusu. Apart from designing the lighting, I was to source the set and props. The shoot was less than a week away but everything was coming together nicely. What could possibly go wrong?

I first sensed we might have a problem after checking all the usual places for cherries. My local supermarkets and fruit stalls were devoid of them. I extended the search to more specialist fruit suppliers like Harrods and Selfridges. They too drew a blank. I was told the season had ended in late August so supply was very limited. Mild panic began to envelope me. How can we do a shoot for The Cherry Orchard without a cherry? As a last resort back-up, I went online and ordered some fake cherries. They were hat decorations and bound to look dodgy but I was confident we would not need them. London is one of the culinary capitals of the world and I had a new lead…

At 7am on a wet Wednesday, I met Gary Voight, owner of Elsey & Bent, famed purveyors of exotic fruit and veg and based for generations in Borough Market. If anyone could find me a cherry, this was the man. He gave me hope, as he had heard there might be some cherries flying in from Argentina that night. He would personally call on all his contacts at New Covent Garden Market at 4am the next morning. In the meantime, a friend of a friend in the fruit business also agreed to trawl the wholesale markets. He also had word of South American night flights. There was nothing more I could do but wait.

My studio was a blur of activity as we prepared for the arrival of our stars, Kirsty and Jude. Although they had both been cast for the production by Michael, they hadn’t actually met each other til the shoot. The instant chemistry between them was inspiring and infectious. Two great acting talents riffing off each other, full of ideas, wit and creativity. I knew straight away that we were going to get something special. I also instantly knew that I really wanted to see the real thing on stage in Bristol. From the many variations we shot on the day, one final image was chosen. It now graces the walls of the theatre and train stations, features in national and local press, and is the cover image of Bristol Old Vic’s season brochure. It will be seen by thousands and I hope will serve the play well. I couldn’t be happier.

At the heart of the image and central to the poster’s communication are 47 of the most ripe and succulent cherries one could ever wish for. Lopakhin, played by Jude, holds one up as if symbolic of his new position. A cut-glass bowl is full to the brim, suggesting the orchard outside. Well, not really. It turns out we picked the one week of the year when not a single cherry was available to buy for any amount of love or money in London. My search was in vain. Instead, with some skilful stalk painting by Richard, we used the fake ones that had arrived the day before the shoot and surprised us all by being so convincing. Indeed, they were so realistic that people kept reaching out to eat them. Now that the image is out there and has a life of its own, I no longer view them as fake cherries. Instead, in the spirit of good theatre, they have embraced the role of real cherries and like all good actors will be staying in character throughout the production.

The Cherry Orchard opens at Bristol Old Vic on 1 Mar and runs til 7 Apr. For more information and to book tickets, click here.

Ferment Fortnight Preview | #oneplaything

Ferment Fortnight kicks off its biannual explosion of work-in-progress and scratch performances from 24 Jan. Here, Mufti Games Director Malcolm Hamilton discusses his upcoming performance #oneplaythingCatch it at the Loco Klub, Wed 31 Jan.

Malcolm Hamilton

Tell us a bit about yourself…
I’m Malcolm, I’m a theatre maker who specialises in play. For the past few years I’ve been using known games-like hangman and rock paper scissors- to make shows or engage people in ideas. This last year I’ve been a Leverhulme Scholar with Ferment and I’ve been concentrating on play theories and thinking. I’ve been running play activities and been using play in other contexts, like heritage engagement and housing consultation.

What are you presenting at Ferment Fortnight?
It’s a talk, and experiment and a play session. There will be some performance and we’ll play together. We’ll use play to explore a story and we’ll look at some problems our society has with play. I’ll invite you to think about your own play, and give you something to take away too. It’s about giving value and celebrating tiny, everyday moments.


What inspired/influenced your piece?
Last year, I was invited to a meeting of playful people in Leeds. It was the first ‘on the road version’ of the Danish play festival ‘Counterplay’. As a result of some relatively light street interventions, some very big conversations happened. We all got very excited. It was the pinnacle of a year consciously exploring play and #oneplaything is a sharing of that year.

What does the work that Ferment do mean to you?
I’ve just been supported by Ferment for a year so it’s had a massive impact on me. My confidence has built, I’ve been able to explore new things and experiment with space to think. I’ve built some really strong new relationships and been able to focus my work enabling me to move forwards in a stronger, more disciplined way. I’ve been hanging about Ferment since the beginning and it’s been a great way to try out ideas and see great work in the early stages. There are some shows seen that have gone absolutely nowhere. And they’ve really stuck with me. Because as you watch, a tiny bit of that show, form or idea will help that artist develop, and if they hadn’t had a chance to work that out, they might still have one leg stuck behind a wall scratching their head, rather than dancing on the clifftops. And the good thing about dancing of the cliff tops in this context, is that we all get the chance to dance too.

What would you say the audience can expect in three words?

Ferment Fortnight takes place at Bristol Old Vic 24-25 Jan before moving across the city to Watershed and Loco Klu from 26 Jan-3 Feb.  For more info and to book tickets, click here.

The Cherry Orchard – Week 1

Rehearsals began last week for the first show in our ‘Year of Change’ season, The Cherry Orchard. Here, Assistant Director Evan Lordan gives us a first behind-the-scenes glimpse at how this vivid new production of Chekhov’s masterpiece is finding its feet.

Model showing 15 Jan 2017 The Cherry Orchard_cropped_GS

This week has been a massive journey; through the life of Anton Chekhov, through Russian History and through The Cherry Orchard. Day 1 and a room full of about 30 people – Bristol Old Vic and Royal Exchange Theatre staff, technicians, costumes makers, dressers, stage managers, producers, sound designers, lighting designers and the cast – meet for the first read through of the play in Paddington Arts, London. Everyone is lovely, but few people know each other and there is an excited, nervous energy in the room. I find it quite comforting to see others in the room seemingly as awkward as me! We take a break from the ‘getting-to-know-yous’ and get our first glimpse at the model box and how designer, Tom Piper, plans on transforming Bristol Old Vic’s auditorium. I don’t want to give too much away at this stage, but this is going to be a pretty unique and very special experience for the Bristol Old Vic faithful.

Then we get down to brass tacks, reading the script. On Day One we are not expecting too much, but despite that it is truly compelling to hear the characters of The Cherry Orchard coming to life.

Usually production meetings are not a source of great excitement, but here the most pressing point on the agenda was the need to find a magic specialist who could help us with some of the unique quandaries presented by this play. Not your usual day at the office!

Director, Michael Boyd, speaks with great passion about Chekhov. He is a true aficionado and an absolute fountain of knowledge with regard to the life and times of the man. It becomes apparent that as much as we will be reading The Cherry Orchard, we will be reading the author and his life as a way of interpreting the words on the page and what his intentions were, and what our intentions will become.

Michael studied in Russia, speaks Russian and has worked with Rory Mullarkey on this translation – because they both felt that while there have been worthy English ‘versions’, they wanted to create as true a translation of Chekhov’s words as possible. Rory has been working with us in the room all week and it has been incredibly interesting and useful to hear what choices had to be made in terms of finding the best words to give the actors in lieu of direct translatable words and meanings. Russians speak in a far more direct way than most of us in the UK and both Rory and Michael wanted to champion that blunt attitude, that unique way of speaking and the speech rhythms contained in the original Russian. The faint-of-heart need not worry however; this is still one of Chekhov’s most poetic, subtle and lyrical plays.

Most of the work this week has been going through the text with a fine-tooth comb, which this text absolutely deserves. It is so rich with meaning, beauty, ugliness and truth that after a week we have still not investigated all four acts, but not one minute of our time has been uninspiring or wasted.

The Cherry Orchard opens at Bristol Old Vic on 1 Mar and runs til 7 Apr. For more information and to book tickets, click here.

Ferment Fortnight Preview | In the Dark

Ferment Fortnight kicks off its biannual explosion of work-in-progress and scratch performances from 24 Jan. Here, Bristol based artist Hannah Sullivan discusses her upcoming one-on-one performance In the DarkCatch it in our theatre, Wed 24 Jan.

Hannah-Sullivan- In the Dark.jpgTell us a bit about yourself…
I am a Bristol based artist, I moved here after graduating from Dartington College of Arts in 2009. I have been making work in the city every since, included previous pieces shown with Ferment ‘Echo Beach’ and ‘With Force and Noise’. I am a member of Interval, an artist-led network of performance makers in Bristol based above St Nicholas Market.

What are you presenting at Ferment Fortnight?
I am presenting a small one-on-one performance I created for a dark basement whilst on residency in Taiwan in 2017. The performance was generated out of time spent exploring the dark hours, reading a brilliant dark text ‘in praise of shadows’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, and the experience of living with a very generous family who welcomed me into an unknown place without much shared language.

What inspired/influenced your piece?
I began thinking about the dark when I read an article by Jeanette Winterson called ‘Why I adore the night’ – read it here.

This text changed my perception of the dark months of the year, and instigated the beginning of wanted to make some performance work that presented the positive qualities of darkness.

What does the work that Ferment do mean to you?
I am sharing this piece at Ferment to find out whether it has a life outside of the context of the residency in which it was made. I am very keen to continue making work on the subject of darkness, and looking forward to learning whether this piece should be developed or whether it is the beginning of a series of small explorations. Ferment allows me to experiment with this very early stage work, this is something that Ferment has offered to several of my pieces. Being given the space to explore in this way is completely essential to discovering the potential of what the work I make can be.

What would you say the audience can expect in three words?
Dark, slow, sweet

Ferment Fortnight takes place at Bristol Old Vic 24-25 Jan before moving across the city to Watershed and Loco Klu from 26 Jan-3 Feb.  For more info and to book tickets, click here.