Jack McNamara is a theatre director. Through the plays he helps bring to life on stage, Jack has helped to open eyes and capture imaginations – a feat that he is going to continue with his upcoming direction of the previously unpublished The Word For Snow, by US novelist Don DeLillo.
With the debut performance of The Word For Snow hitting the stage at the London Literary Festival next week, we spoke to Jack about his career so far, why theatre excites him and what it’s like working with DeLillo.
How did you decide that directing – rather than writing or acting – was for you?
When I first started I was intent on being a writer-director, maybe inspired by the filmmakers that I worshipped who all seemed to be one-man armies. I still do write. But there came a point when I began to see the creative possibilities that opened up when you directed someone else’s work and freed yourself of the pressure of authorship.
At the moment, I do a lot of devising and structured improv with my company Future Ruins, which I suppose is somewhere between writing and directing. Acting has never been a focus for me. I did a bit casually when I was a student but I have occasionally had to stand in as an actor in my own rehearsal rooms recently and the results have been invariably awful.
What do you think makes a good play?
Hard to say, as it is all about taste, and mine happens to be a little unusual, as The Word For Snow might demonstrate! All plays have different merits, but I suppose an audience tends to respond to structure. I remember directing a production of Pinter’s Betrayal at the Nuffield Theatre and, while I know he is a wonderful writer, I found the language quite bland on the page. However, once we got into rehearsals it soon became clear what a beautifully constructed piece of work it was. It had a kind of invisible architecture that went way beyond the words on the surface of it.
If you had to pick just one – what’s your favourite play? Why?
I really like The Balcony by Jean Genet. It’s a big, strange totally impractical play to stage but packed with beautiful images and ideas. I have never seen it, so it exists in a perfect form in my head!
Because I spend most of time thinking about theatre and making it, I don’t know if I would describe it as a ‘love’. I love novels and I really love music, but I have no interest in working in either of these media. Instead, the novels and music I love inspire me to think about theatre. I am completely fixated with the possibilities of putting things onstage. It’s a strange relationship and I am in it for the long haul, but is it love? Who knows.
Beyond GCSE/A-Level Shakespeare, some people may not really have that great an experience of the theatre. Why, in your opinion, is it as essential art form?
I think what is exciting is that the shape of it can change so much from one production to the next. Arguably a novel is best experienced in book form (even the Kindle tries to replicate this) and film is often at its best in a cinema. There is no such thing as an ideal theatre environment, so it has to reinvent itself each time. This is what makes staging so interesting for a director, and therefore for audiences. There are barely any rules beyond the requirement of some kind of spectacle meeting some kind of audience.
What advice would you give to budding theatre directors?
As a budding theatre director myself, I am in no position to dish out advice! The best advice I have received from other people has always been about listening to your instincts, being rigorous in the way you work and being open to influence but not too swayed by what other people think.
What advice would you give to people looking to break into theatre more generally?
Again, I can’t offer any wisdom. I suppose at this point in my career, I find the most important thing is to really aim to make great work and, after that, try and make sure it gets seen. I think it’s easy to get caught up in the idea of knowing the right people and mixing in the right circles. Unfortunately this is part of the deal, and some of your efforts have to go into making these connections. However, it shouldn’t become an artist’s priority. The basic aim is to try and be great at what you do and make sure enough people get to see you doing it.
DeLillo is ultimately a novelist and therefore more inclined to write something and then release it into the world, without necessarily accompanying it the way a regular playwright would. He is a true artist and has been very trusting, generous and supportive for the six years that I have known him. It’s refreshing to deal with someone who has purely artistic interests –he never shows any regard for status or profile. He trusted me some years ago to direct the first UK production of his play Valparaiso, when very few other people would take a risk on an unknown. I had absolutely no credentials behind me but he gave me the rights purely on the merit of my ideas –which says everything about him. I since met him in New York and have kept up a correspondence with him mainly by letter and phone.
What can the audience look forward to, and what appealed to you about this production?
The language in The Word For Snow is absolutely dazzling. With DeLillo, every sentence is perfect. It’s a play about language so the written words are that much more important.
However, we knew that we couldn’t present this work simply as a spoken word event, even though it is a part of the London Literature Festival. The ideas in it are big – about the way that climate change will affect language – and we are really going for it with our staging! We will be flying in live musicians over from Italy, incorporating stunning film projection and working with a full chorus. Our cast contains some of the most exciting actors in the country, including Thomas Grube, Stephen Chance and Jasper Britton.
The London Literature Festival will be running until 12th July. The Word For Snow is on between 10th-12th July; for more information and to book tickets, click here.