The National's treasures: Nadia Fall and Polly Findlay interview

As they take the helm of shows in the South Bank venue's biggest auditoria, the hotshot theatre directors talk about beating the odds in a tough industry

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Theatre directing is a notoriously unpredictable career, so it’s instructive to talk to two younger practitioners who have defied the financial and artistic odds to make it work. Nadia Fall and Polly Findlay are two of the brightest talents in British theatre and both started out as assistant directors at the National Theatre. They got there by differing means, Fall via a strict Asian upbringing and Findlay as a former child actor, but this winter sees them at the helm of shows in the National’s two biggest auditoria. Dara, directed by Fall, looks at the bloody history of the Mughal Empire in India, while Findlay’s Treasure Island is the National’s big-budget family offering. I met up with them to talk about their career paths so far, as well as their hopes – and fears – for the future.

Fiona Mountford: You started out at the National as assistant directors. Do you think it’s the best training model?

Polly Findlay: I think from a pragmatic point of view it’s excellent. The thing that was invaluable about working here was understanding the whole ecology of a building in a way that is extremely useful when you come to the point of putting together your own pieces of work.

Nadia Fall: I think it breaks that kind of mystique of scale, being able to be an assistant with lots of people in the room. Here you do actually get your hands dirty, you don’t just make coffee. You do get to rehearse the understudy company and do an understudy version of the play. I think that’s invaluable and I certainly learnt loads.


Is there a danger in being an assistant director of getting ‘stuck’, of not having the confidence to take that final step to directing your own work?

NF: I don’t think it was a question of confidence, it was a question of getting a bloody break.

PF: The peculiar challenge of being an assistant is that it’s very different on every job you do. As an assistant, part of what you have to do is a kind of conjuring trick to work out exactly where it is you’re going to be most useful without anybody necessarily telling you that.

While assisting, what’s the single production or director you learnt the most from working on/with?

PF: Assisting on War Horse and understanding what a huge journey a piece of new writing in the Olivier [auditorium, the National’s largest] undergoes from the first day of rehearsals to the press night. I found myself falling back on that particular experience over and over again during the course of doing [Treasure Island] in particular.

NF: Nick Hytner. I learnt a hell of a lot from him and it took me a while to concede that. What he does looks so bloody simple, but it’s extraordinary.

To what extent was theatre in your backgrounds?

PF: It was something that everybody in my family has been interested in. [Findlay’s brother is an actor]. The other thing was that I started acting professionally when I was at school. It was such a big part of my growing up. It was always my ‘other’ life, so the experience was about shifting from my real life to my ‘other’ life when I left university.

NF: I did drama at school and loved it and I had secret longings about being an actor. My parents were disgusted by the thought of any of that, especially my father, who is the strict Asian father who wanted me to be academic and traditional and get married and have children. So no. I didn’t know what a director was or anything like that until really quite shockingly late. It was more a mirage of theatre in the distance that I kept going towards.

What’s the most useful piece of professional advice you have ever received, and from whom?

PF: Nick Hytner said, ‘Don’t try to be successful, try to be good’.

NF: That’s a nice one. I wish I could remember who told me this, but on one of my moany days when I was thinking ‘I might as well work in Waitrose’, they said, ‘You should just keep going because people do lose faith and get weary and give up and then some people stick around and keep doing it, so it’s about the stamina of being an artist’. That’s good advice.

A theatre directing career is a tough one, both financially and otherwise. Has it ever felt too difficult to achieve?

NF: It has felt really difficult. I have felt as though I can’t afford to do this, I can’t pay my bills, I’m sick of asking my parents for money. I’ve got a kid, [and have also thought] maybe I’m being really spoilt by wanting to do this and maybe I should just grow up and get a normal job like other people.

PF: I would completely agree with that. Just the mere fact of not knowing what you’re going to be doing, generally speaking, after the next six months, forces you into a pattern of life that at some stage you would quite like to transcend. The inherent insecurity of the job is creatively bankrupting as well, because you spend so much of your energy trying to work out where the next pay cheque is coming from.

Michaela Coel in 'Home' directed by Nadia Fall (Ellie Kurttz)

When was the moment that you thought, ‘I can make a living from this’?

PF: I’m not sure that’s ever happened! [Loud guffaws all round].

NF: I often think ‘This show could be your last show’.

PF: You’ve got to have a bit of a sense of ‘I might never get to do this again’, otherwise your full heart wouldn’t be in it. That’s the difficult tightrope you walk, because of course you lose sleep over whether or not the next job is going to turn up, but at the same time it means that when the job appears, the energy with which you attack it has a certain kind of velocity. I wish it were possible to have one without the other, but sometimes I wonder whether it isn’t.

Do you know what you’re doing beyond these shows?

PF: For the first time ever, I know what I’m doing for a year.

NF: For the first time in my life I have a little bit of choice. I still have that kind of hoarding tendency that my mother has with food and [want to] say, ‘Let’s do all of them’, but of course it’s not physically possible.

PF: The ability to say ‘No’ has only really become concrete in the last 18 months.

NF: It’s still really excruciating.

PF: I know, it makes you feel terrible. But sort of brilliant at the same time.

Are you interested in running a building one day?

PF: It certainly has been something I’ve been interested in doing [she was interviewed for the artistic director job at the Almeida Theatre, which eventually went to Rupert Goold]. At the moment, having worked in Germany last year, the direction I’m interested in is trying to work more internationally.

NF: Yes, if it was the right building at the right time. Not a building that is necessarily already fine, but one that has the potential to make really interesting work. If you’re running a building that is your baby. [It has] to come at the right time, because [at the moment] I have an actual real baby!

Do you think that things are getting easier or harder for young directors now?

PF: I think it’s harder. There’s been a very real and obvious impact in terms of the cuts.

NF: The cuts happened during the time that we were still assistants, so I could feel the pinch when they happened. Even small pots of money that I used to be able to apply for to make small pieces of work on the Fringe were gone.

PF: I feel increasingly that there seem to be very few opportunities where already existing institutions are able to take a risk on younger practitioners. I’m on the board of the JMK Award [for young directors], so I find myself having a lot of conversations with young directors. I think there are certainly people who are going for that award now for whom it seems like some kind of last chance and that feels not right.

NF: These opportunities are so few and far between that you can’t wait for an award to make a piece of work. You just have to try and make it.

Polly Findlay's 'Treasure Island' runs until April at the National Theatre (Johan Persson)

The issues of gender, cultural and class diversity in theatre have never been more relevant. If there was one thing that could be done to encourage diversity in those areas, what would it be?

NF: I don’t think, for the kind of young person I was in the community I was in, that people realised these jobs and opportunities existed. I know it’s a cliché, but education. This is a hugely successful industry, the arts, and for all the cuts there are opportunities.

PF: I think the thing that would make a difference is a properly organised pay structure. For example, if it carries on in this way, we won’t have too many more leading female directors because actually you’re not paid enough to justify the childcare.

NF: The only reason that I can do this job is because I get free childcare from my parents. That is a fact. It’s not cost-free, that. It comes with a lot of life consequences. That’s one of the reasons, besides learning, that staff directing here is so good, because you’ve got a regular wage. That was a lifeline for me, for years.

PF: There is something about the way the pay structure works which implies that everybody doing it is a privileged middle-class person and that has to stop because we won’t rectify the balance in any of the areas you’re talking about.

Is there any particular type of theatre that you’d like to do more of?

NF: Feature film! No, [I shouldn’t say that], I’ll never work again!

Is film something that interests both of you?

PF: Yes.

NF: Definitely.

PF: I know what I’m doing for the next year and after that I would be interested in trying to find something to get my teeth into.

NF: In order to really pursue a new thing like film, I’d have to put theatre down for a while and I said I would, but it just doesn’t work like that. Theatre is so all-consuming.

What’s the single most challenging production you’ve directed so far?

PF: This one!

NF: This one! People always say that!

PF: This one makes me feel like I’m on The Apprentice and I’ve got no idea.

At what point do you get a sense that a production is going to work?

PF: You don’t really see what you’ve directed at all until the first preview. The introduction of the audience to the equation is the thing that makes you conscious of what you’ve done. It’s like a terrifying meeting with yourself.

How do you feel about being described as a ‘female director’?

PF: I haven’t done an interview in the last five years where somebody hasn’t asked me about my gender. I find it confusing.

NF: It’s not as if you’ve ever been a man.

PF: The idea that being female means you’re part of a genre, rather than representing the mainstream, is completely extraordinary.

NF: The generous thing to say would be that people are trying to get hold of who you are. But it’s really lazy shorthand now.

What single piece of advice would you give to a young person who wants to be a director?

NF: I would say to do it. Be braver than I was. It took me so long to say, ‘Mum, Dad…’ There were loads of people saying ‘No’.

PF: I would say that even through that struggle [of starting out], try and hang onto the fact that the moment where you are driven only by the thing you want to do is a golden period.

NF: Someone starting out has got that unique access to something very individual and that is kind of the Holy Grail.

PF: As soon as you’re part of a theatre, you’re part of an ecology and you have to be aware of your place within that ecology.

NF: Also you’re light on your feet, so even though you’ve got no money, for the first couple of times you can beg, borrow and steal to make it happen somewhere. It’s exciting and you’ve got the energy. You’re forever trying to recapture that feeling.

Treasure Island runs until April 8, Dara runs from Jan 20 until April 4. Fiona Mountford chairs a Treasure Island Platform with Polly Findlay and adaptor Bryony Lavery on January 16th at 5.30pm, National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000,