Ola Ince is a British theatre director. In 2010 she graduated from Rose Bruford College with a first-class honours BA in Theatre Directing.
Ola was the Finborough Theatre’s Resident Assistant Director and Senior Reader in 2011, as well as a Rose Bruford Directing Bursary recipient. She received the Borris Karloff Bursary in 2012, which allowed her to train under Sacha Wares. In 2015 Ola became a BBC Performing Arts Fellow and Resident Associate Director at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre. She went on to win the Genesis Future Director Award in 2016 and chose to direct The Dutchman at the Young Vic. Ola also directed Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 at the Gate Theatre in 2018. She is Artistic Associate at Lyric Hammersmith and Theatre Royal Stratford East.
Ola is currently programming a season of radical and experimental work at the Royal Court’s third space, The Site, until January 2019. She will also be directing The Convert by Black Panther star and Tony-nominated writer Danai Gurira at the Young Vic from December 2018.
Travelling through space and time
PC: What is theatre?
OI: Theatre, for me, is storytelling with conversation attached: a story that you get to talk through, that you get to question. Theatre also is my only form of activism and it’s also a chance for me to travel and to be a detective. As a director/practitioner, I use it as a way of travelling through space and time.
PC: Where do you place your role as a director in relation to all the other creatives?
OI: I think that I am their facilitator: I enable different conversations to happen. I also, depending on the project, give everyone an aim, I don’t want to say ‘vision’, I give everyone an aim. So if I think theatre is storytelling, I’ll say, “We’re trying to tell this story everyone, so let’s all move in this direction.”
PC: How about with actors specifically?
OI: It’s always, for me, about giving everyone a joint vocabulary, so that I’m not the only person trying to make the art because that is really boring. That’s what I mean by facilitate, it’s really important that I go, “Let’s all adopt a language, let’s all know where we’re trying to get to, then let’s get it together.”
PC: How do you create a joint vocabulary?
OI: I get everyone together as a group to sit down and read the play. We’ll all dissect the play together, looking at things like objectives and actions and units – I dissect and digest a play quite dramaturgically. I create a document that I share with the actors, the assistant director and sound, lighting and set designers. Everyone has the same document, which breaks down the play, moment to moment. There’s nothing cryptic or secretive, it’s literally a shared document, a shared vocabulary.
PC: Do you just do that thinking at the start or does it build up as you go?
OI: I do one document in advance and then I update it as we go. I like showing how my brain works, but only with people that need it. The creative team definitely need it, especially when it’s something quite experimental. It’s about giving everyone a similar platform to start working from.
One, to many, to one again
PC: You’ve talked about the loneliness of the director in the early stages of working on a piece – how does the loneliness of the director fit with the collaborative act of theatre?
OI: Collaboration means different things for different people, but, for me, collaboration is everyone being on an equal footing and feeling able to chip in. Not forever though! There’s a time when it becomes unhelpful and there are too many voices. There needs to be a funnelling action where everything comes in and it becomes lonely again.
I suppose the loneliness makes you hungry to meet everyone else and it becomes very exciting. You’ve been working away, you’ve taken a lot on and you want to share it. It’s quite cathartic and exciting when other people take your ideas further. Then you go back to being lonely again and it resting on your shoulders again. I suppose that’s the process of going from one, to many, to one again. If you all start off together I think it can be less productive and less rewarding.
Time: commenting on the world then and now
PC: How do you use time to support and create meaning in your productions?
OI: I’ve learnt that I’m a workaholic and it’s a little bit dangerous because I will use everyday – it doesn’t matter what day it is – if I’m on holiday or it’s bank holiday Monday – I’ll be working. I think it is really important to slowly drip feed my brain with information so that I have time to digest it. I don’t always want to have impulsive reactions, sometimes I want things to marinade.
Another way I use time is documentaries. I love documentaries, they’re a massive resource. I try and find a documentary in everything and anything. I also visit the British library a lot and listen to a lot of music and watch a lot of films to learn things. Once I’ve done that preparation I take time to distil it before selecting certain things to share with the people that I’m working with.
Timing is key in the rehearsal room because you want to share what you’ve found but you also want the actors to find things in their own time so that it’s organic to them and not all imposed.
In almost every production I’ve ever directed history is very important. There are a lot of timelines involved to understand the context of what you’re performing and how you’re commenting on the world then and now.
As a facilitator it’s all about timing I suppose, the time you chose to start and finish a day, the time you chose to start certain collaborations.
True and free expression
PC: Jazz has been a big part of your upbringing, how do you go about discovering the different layers and combinations of rhythm within a play?
OI: Jazz is kind of in my DNA now because I was literally blasted with it from birth, so I’m not necessarily great at dissecting it, I just take it for granted. But a lot of the work I’ve been doing as of late is text-based and text has a prescribed rhythm in the punctuation. A lot of the time it’s less academic work and it’s more about releasing an actor or a performer so that the rhythm is clear and can be played out. If you can get them to really obey and listen to the punctuation then rhythms emerge. Text also describes how things should move as well and that becomes another layer of rhythm: the body might be doing one thing and the voice might be doing something else. Then, you might want to accent something within the play using certain music that you think helps release it even more, and that’s the third layer. The involvement of the audience and the way they need to hear it, or the space they might need, is like your fourth layer. As time goes on the rhythms just keep on emerging and become more and more nuanced.
A lot of that rhythm is unlocked in the sense of it. So sometimes it can even work backwards, where I’ll be working with a playwright and they’re getting in the way of the music of it: a sentence is way too long or they’ve over written it and there’s extra beats. It works both ways because if something is really authentic and true then the rhythm is there, it’s alive in it. It’s not a science for me, it’s more of a feeling. And that’s like jazz. Jazz has become, for me, true and free expression and any good play is that.
PC: How does that unscientific, true and free expression fit with the more scientific, mechanical process of units and objectives in that early stage?
OI: The rigid structure means that I have such a clear foundation that I can do whatever I want and no one can get lost. I mean you can get lost but it’s okay because we know what we’re aiming for and we know what the ground feels like and we can build back up from there. We can always go back to that when we’re riffing. It also means that all of the airy fairy free-form ideas are rooted in something factual and real. Rather than just going: “It should be blue and I don’t really know why.” Instead I can go, “Blue comes from that film I watched ten weeks ago and that reference that I read about in the British Library.” Those two things support each other otherwise I’d be too much one way or too much the other; they balance each other out.
PC: How do you give your productions a clarity of intention?
OI: It’s about framing. That can be about the music I choose or it can be about casting. There is a production of Twilight that could have been with six actors but Ellen [McDougall] and I chose to do it with one actress. I also chose to make her an actress with dual-heritage and I chose to make her a young actress. I thought that was a different comment, that’s a way of framing the world of the play – she’s both white and black, she’s both British and Canadian and she’s talking about things that she has inherited rather than things that she has lived through. So I’m making a comment about a younger generation and how they’ve been affected by a generation twenty-five years ago. It became a completely different play to the one that Anna Devere Smith wrote, which was about the here and now – her present.
Another way I framed that production was by putting it in a pink room with a tea break – I know that pissed a lot of people off because they wanted to escape and they thought that that wasn’t what theatre was – But I wanted them to really look at that world.
PC: How do you make sure the framing you do doesn’t alter the intended meaning of the play?
OI: The playwrights are so good that I can’t break it. Also, I’m so thorough with my research that I’m always making sure that I’m not getting in the way of the spirit of the work. I make sure that I read every play that the writer has ever written and I’d read every interview that they’ve ever done so that I feel like I really know them. By the end of all that research I feel like I know them so well that I’m speaking on behalf of them rather than just totally going, “This is my idea!” Again the research and preparation work gives that foundation so you always know why you’re taking it there in relation to what they’ve done originally.
Trying to change the world
PC: How would you sum up your system of working?
OI: I think I’m very simple. I start my process with lots of research and it’s all very instinctive initially. So far my research always begins with responding to a play via imagery. I have about ten photography and art books and I flick through them. I make a mood board but I don’t over think it, I choose the images that speak to me about that play. Then I leave that alone. Then I go to the British Library, I go on the internet, I listen to music and create another pallet of information. I filter all that through me and after a while I start making decisions. I start building structures and record them in those documents. I then start meeting people according to those structures, which become my aims. Through those structures I’m able to know what I’m working towards, what story I’m trying to tell and what conversations I’m trying to have. I then create together with the other people and we just slowly start to distil something into a shared vocabulary until it becomes a production. It’s all about being transparent so that we all know what we’re working towards. Then the production is presented to an audience and that audience teaches me more and again we distil. Ultimately, I’m trying to share a story that promotes conversation but also one that tries to change something because it’s about politics to me – I’m trying to change the world. Obviously some people say, “Urgh, it’s just a play, it can’t change the world!” But I believe it can.