MY STORY The Streetcar to Chelsea, and a plea for empathy

Last year Chelsea Walker won the Royal Theatrical Support Trust Sir Peter Hall Director Award, and part of her prize was the chance to direct a classic play in Southampton’s new city-centre Nuffield Theatre, a co-production with English Touring Theatre and Theatr Clwyd, and is back in Southampton next week after a national tour

You have chosen Tennessee Williams’s A Street Car Named Desire. Why?

I’ve not directed a “classic” play before, but Streetcar is alive and kicking and young and muscular. It speaks to me because of the way it explores toxic masculinity and the pressures we place on women. It’s rare to find a play that feels so completely contemporary and emotionally epic at the same time.

Main picture, Chelsea Walker in rehearsal with Patrick Knowles who playsStanley. Credit, The Other Richard

The play is 70 years old, and you have updated it. What is its context now, and how does it compare with that of 1947?

Streetcar rages against a community’s complicity in a stream of violence against women, and that couldn’t be more relevant to the conversations we’re having this year. Looking at the statistics: domestic abuse affects 1 in 4 women in the UK during their lifetime and 1 in 5 women experience some form of sexual violence. Reviving this play, it’s terrifying to look at how relevant it still feels.In 1947 Streetcar shocked its audience but it also captivated them with its poetry and expressionism – it was a call out for gentleness and magic and empathy for those society deemed to be “outsiders”. A plea for empathy sums up theatre’s role for me.

The award also means the production is fully funded. What freedom does that give you that you haven’t had before?

The award is designed to support a director to create a production on a larger scale than they have before. With Streetcar, it’s allowed me to be ambitious and bold, and it’s given me the chance to work with a brilliant creative team who have been very present during the rehearsal period.

Your most recent productions have been the well-received revival of Low Level Panic by Clare McIntyre at the Orange Tree, and Georgia Christou’s Yous Two which recently closed at the Hampstead Theatre. How does this experience compare?

I suppose there are two big differences. The first is scale – this is a much bigger project, on bigger stages with a bigger cast. The second is that this is such a well-known play. But as a director you can only really put on the production you imagine when you read the text. What links all three productions is that they spoke to me and I felt a compelling reason why I had to stage them now.

 It’s only the second production in the new Nuffield. Is that an advantage or not? 

Absolutely. I feel really honoured to be a part of its first season. The whole building has been very supportive of the work. And the space is stunning - the dynamic between stage and audience is quite special – there’s both an emotional intimacy and a sense of visual scale.

The play has been on a lengthy UK tour through before returning to Southampton in June. How hard is it to make the play fit these different venues, and are you visiting it on tour? 

Yes – I’m going to every venue to fit our production to the space. Each one is slightly different, but that’s the challenge, and Georgia Lowe has designed it to be able to fit each venue.

You are only the second winner of the award, the first since it was renamed in tribute to the late Peter Hall. What do you think winning it means to you professionally, and personally?

You only really learn to direct by directing, so professionally I’m extremely grateful for this chance to direct on a bigger scale. It’s difficult to find the people who’ll take those chances on you, and what this award has given me is three artistic directors to mentor me through it. Personally, it’s been a lovely confidence boost – it’s a hard career to navigate, there’s no “right” way, so to have an organisation put their trust in you is a relief.

You’re one of a significant emerging group of young female directors and artistic directors. Are we seeing the start of a golden age for women in British theatre?

I don’t like that term. First, it suggests that there are more female directors working than male directors, which isn’t the case. Secondly, a golden age is a limited time period – the female directors I know aren’t going anywhere. What I do feel is that we’re finding platforms to call out bullshit in this industry, and that inspiring women like Vicky Featherstone are leading us towards vital change.

Up to now, what has been the most significant experience in your career?

I directed Low Level Panicat the Orange Tree, that’s very close to my heart. If I’d seen it when I was growing up it might have helped me to understand some of the pressures acting upon me as a young woman. That’s why it’s vital theatres programme more work by female writers – don’t deny your audience the female gaze.

What will you be doing next, and would you like to run a building-based company?

I don’t know what I’m doing next, at the moment I’m just reading lots of plays and hoping one will bite. And - never say never – but right now, I’m more interested in directing plays than I am in running a company. 


A Street Car Named Desireis at Malvern Theatre until  April 14 then Bristol Old Vic 17 – 21 April; New Wolsley Theatre, Ipswich24 – 28 April ; Cambridge Arts Theatre1 – 5 May; Oxford Playhouse8 – 12 May; Theatr Clwyd, Mold15 May – 2 June; and NST City, Southampton  5 – 16 June


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