Finding the story:
An interview with director John Doyle
by Rick Pender
John Doyle has been artistic director at several regional theatres in the United Kingdom, where he has
staged more than 200 professional productions during a 30-year career. Trained at the University of Georgia in the United States, for the past 10 years Doyle has been associate director of the Watermill
Theatre, a 216-seat performance space in the English countryside of Berkshire. There he has become known for his unusual approach to musical theatre which features casts who are both actors and
musicians, accompanying one another while simultaneously playing roles. His 2004 staging of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd moved from the Watermill to London's West End in 2005 (first to Trafalgar
Studios and then the New Ambassadors). In November 2005 he re-mounted Sweeney on Broadway, with Michael Cerveris playing the "demon barber" and Patti LuPone as his pie- baking accomplice, Mrs.
Lovett. For Doyle's next project, he moved to the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park to reinvent Sondheim's Company with a cast led by Raϊl Esparza again with actors who sing, dance and provide
their own musical accompaniment. In March, before Company opened, Doyle sat in a rehearsal room in Cincinnati to discuss his ideas and his recent work.
Do you have a name for your approach?
"Actor-musicianship" is the term that's used in the U.K. for a sort of shorthand. I think it's a multi-skilled way of telling a story it should probably be called "all hands on deck."
When did you first get the idea to stage musicals in this way?
It grew out of economic necessity. I was working at a regional theatre in the early 1990s where we
couldn't afford an orchestra. In those early days, performers sat with their music stands, got up and acted and sat down again. The music and the scenes weren't integrated. What I've tried to do is to be
more honest with it as a story-telling form. Now we don't differentiate between naturalism and a slightly anarchic way of storytelling. It's been a long evolution. It's not just about how many rules you
can break it's what you can do to take traditional structures and challenge them without negating or devaluing the original material.
Has there been resistance to your approach?
You'll always have people who are going to say it's wrong, people who are more fundamental about how things should be. And that's fine. Hal Prince's incredible production of Sweeney Todd was the best way
for that group of people to do the show at that moment in time. It's now a different time, a different group of people. Sweeney Todd is a masterpiece, a classic, and you can approach it all sorts of
Why has your Sweeney been so successful?
My approach creates a great ensemble. It gets back to what theatre is all about; it gets back to why
people perform. The honesty of the relationship between the actor and the audience is key: We're telling you this story. We're not pretending. We're all in the same place at the same time. We want to
break through the fourth wall. We're actually here together, the actors and the audience. It's back to basics people are attracted to the simplicity and the honesty of the storytelling. I always say, "Let's
go to the beginning of the story. Let's look at how the choices we make can best inform the story." It was a great challenge to me to find clarity in the story. That's my job, bottom line. That's what I do for
a living: I'm a storyteller.
How did the Cincinnati Playhouse approach you, and why did you choose Company as your next production?
[Producing Artistic Director] Ed Stern came to see Sweeney Todd in London and invited me to Cincinnati. As we discussed possibilities, we agreed that Company would be a good idea. The fact that
it's quite contemporary was important: It's easy to see how the cast might carry musical instruments around with them. There's something modern about it, and that challenges audiences in a different way.
I was also interested in Bobby's exploration. We all have that sense of "stuckness" at certain times. We need to think outside of our box, something Bobby has difficulty doing. I don't start knowing how it's
going to end up. I explore day by day. Of course, I get to know the piece and, of course, I work out what I want to try to say. But sometimes I don't even work that out until I'm in the rehearsal room.
What do you look for when you audition performers?
They have to have musical skill, of course. You talk with your orchestrator about the key instruments
that are needed. A piano? A double bass? A [drum] kit? Is it a string-led show or brass? Of course, the performers have to be actors. In a funny way, singing is the least vital skill because it's character-led.
The voice that comes out has to do with who the character is. That's how you sing. But the most important thing is the chemistry of the cast. It's all about taking the ego out and finding people who
will give themselves to the telling of the story.
What's different about the rehearsal process?
We usually start with about a day of music. Then we split. In the morning [Company orchestrator]
Mary-Mitchell Campbell works in the other room doing the music, and I work in a separate rehearsal room on a scene. In the afternoon we come together. The tune we worked on in the morning [is the
one] we'll explore in the afternoon. Actually the staging grows out of that. I don't use the word "blocking" because it suggests having it all worked out and I don't have it all worked out. You can't
have it all worked out because the bag of tricks that's available to you it would be too hard of a jigsaw puzzle to work it out beforehand.
Your production of Sweeney gets down to the show's psychological core. Is that what you're seeking in Company?
I think the themes will come across in different ways. We're only beginning to find that out in our first week of rehearsal you do a bit of work on each couple and you start to work out where they fit in
[Robert's] mind, what they are. At this point it will be more of a psychological journey. I'm interested in the musical theatre form, but not in the traditional musical theatre way. How can we, in the time that
we live in, take the musical theatre form and transform it? It needs a new language.
Are there particular themes you'll explore in Company?
The central ideas become stronger with everyone onstage: Nobody ever leaves the stage. Because they are the orchestra, their sense of "company" becomes more omnipresent. They are constantly
there. They play for each other. I think that's all going to help the sense of what Company is. How we all affect each other all the time that will become more clear.
What does your approach mean to you as a creator?
In the past I've said it was my task to take the Broadway out of the Broadway musical. Of course, now
I'm doing a musical on Broadway, so I'm sort of eating my own words. My approach is almost more acoustic, in a sense. It draws you in rather than coming out to you. There is a more poetic, elegant
way we can tell a story, without the expected clichιs of the musical theatre. I have no intention of denigrating other approaches; mine is a very alternative approach. I don't want to be some pompous
British person saying, "This is how you guys should be doing your musicals."
I approach a musical much as I approach a play. I don't see it as musical theatre performers versus
legitimate performers. I want us all in the same playground at the same time. Then we ask the audience to join us, too to really listen. That's something modern audiences are not very often asked to do.
Everything is pushed at them rather than, "Come in! Come 'round our fireside."
Maybe we don't have to be naturalistic. Maybe we don't have to do it in a way the movies can do
better. Maybe we can address the audience directly. Maybe we can use our skills to take people outside and inside, even if we're standing in the same place and not moving. That takes trust. And it
takes time. You can't build an ensemble in a week. It takes a long time to find what we want to say together. I don't mean my approach to be the new way. It's just a way. That's all this is a
pragmatic problem-solving way. I won't let go of that, even if I have access to a much bigger resource: I still want the process to be how I find the story.
is the managing editor of The Sondheim Review. This article was originally published in a slightly shorter form in the April issue of American Theatre.