Jess Rayner got a chance to speak to Living Pictures Founder Robert Bowman in the lead up to their latest production, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, coming to Sherman Cymru from February 6th.
Living Pictures Productions are a Wales-based theatre company who are focused on improving their knowledge of the theatre craft in order to approach conventional methods with a new perceptive. Established in 1999 with the goal of creating possibilities and initiatives for emerging and reputable directors to develop their understanding of both directing and acting, Living Pictures is an example of Cardiff theatre at its best. This year, they bring the play Sexual Perversity in Chicago to Sherman Cymru. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright David Mamet, the topical issue of sex is brought to the forefront in this critically acclaimed comedy looking at relationships and the many failed attempts in the search for love. I got a chance to speak to Robert Bowman, one of the founders of Living Pictures Productions to find out more about the play.
Firstly Rob, for those who haven’t heard much about Living Pictures Productions, can you tell me more about what the company does and stands for?
The company was first founded to continue both Elen [joint artistic director Elen Bowman] and my investigation of process. We were keen to keep finding out about the techniques of Stanislavsky and the techniques of other practitioners. We were inspired by the rigorous approach that most Russian theatre practitioners take when approaching their craft. We also wanted to add something to director training in the UK. We started a series of workshops that became known as Directors Acting. These consist of a prominent UK director coming in to lead a workshop for other directors and treating the directors as actors in order to increase their potential for learning by experiencing the work both intellectually and practically. And finally, we want to produce good, enjoyable work that is thorough, challenging and entertaining.
You come from an acting background; how have your experiences as an actor helped you manage the company and have they changed the way you approach your role as director on plays such as Sexual Perversity in Chicago?
My experience as an actor has really influenced how I approach directing. In fact, it was the reason I started to learn about directing. When working as an actor, I was usually disappointed with the techniques the directors were using to help the actors realise their roles, and also, sometimes I resented almost being taken out of the creative process.
So, I went into directing to try and influence the tone of the rehearsal room and propose certain techniques while working on a play. Techniques that we are often taught at drama schools and then are abandoned because directors have a very different way into their profession.
I think, first and foremost, I am an actor. For me, directing is a means to an end and I’m not really a ‘director’. So, Sexual Perversity in Chicago is a real experiment for me in trying to direct and be in a production at the same time. I’ve got a great young director called Nora Wardell being my associate director on this (she, by the way, is an actress as well) and I’m hoping that this will allow me to be an actor when I’m on the ‘floor’ working, and then have another to bounce off when having my ‘director’s hat’ on.
I want everyone involved to feel they have a voice, a say, in what we put on stage. When directing, I’m most interested in the acting and find any visual or heightened theatricality comes from me working the text with the actors. I’m not against heightened theatricality, but I don’t like seeing work that isn’t supported by some sense of artistic truth and ideally, coming from the actors.
The latest play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, is part of the ‘Process Plays’, exploring the techniques of Sanford Meisner. What was it about Meisner that most inspired you and in what ways did he influence the play?
Mamet trained with Meisner and you can see and feel it in the writing. I love the work of Meisner as it’s simple but very profound, and the more you do, the more it demands you to be truthful. He has very clear ideas about theatre, and although I might disagree with some of them, I would still say my work is heavily influenced by his work. My main teacher of the Meisner method is Scott Williams, who’s a fellow American, and is our ‘Meisner Expert’ on this project.
The play deals with sexual relationships in the setting of 1970s Chicago, what can audiences expect from the play?
They can expect to laugh, be entertained, hear some funky music and I hope, find connections with what some of the characters are going through. If they haven’t seen Mamet before, it is a fantastic introduction. The dialogue is fast, punchy, hard-hitting and, as I say, very funny at times. He brilliantly explores the differences in the sexes.
How does the American setting of Chicago transfer to Wales? Do you think the play will affect audiences in the same way?
I think so. It’s the same all over really. And it never really goes out of date. Women don’t really understand men and men don’t really understand women. 100%. I think what is different now is that men and women talk more about it, but I’m sure we’ve all been with people who still talk in a way of ‘us and them’. It still exists, and for me, the play hilariously exposes this. As well as bringing in some of the darker elements attached to men and women getting it together.
And lastly, what is it like being able to act in as well as direct the play; do you think you can bring a greater intensity having worked so closely on the play as a whole?
I am really enjoying it. Obviously, it has its challenges, though, but I will be interested to see where my performance ends up by the end of it. I’m originally from America and have lived and worked in the UK for the last 30 years, mainly playing British characters – me being the only ‘authentic’ American in the cast is having the most difficulty in getting the Chicago accent. But the good thing about directing and acting in the same production is it makes me ask the same questions of myself that I ask the other actors.