Edinburgh Fringe People

The Director: Emma Jordan from Prime Cut

Published on Friday 17 August 2018

We’re talking to people who perform or work at the Edinburgh Festival each year to get their perspectives on what performing or producing at the world’s biggest cultural event involves, and top tips on how to get the most out of the experience. This time, we are talking to director Emma Jordan.

Emma is Artistic Director of Belfast-based theatre company Prime Cut and this year has also directed one of the shows it is presenting at the Fringe, the one-man play ‘East Belfast Boy’. She has worked with Prime Cut for two decades, as Artist Director since 2007, and has experience as an actor and a producer as well as, more recently, a director.

We spoke to her about her role with the company and as director of specific theatrical productions.

TW: What does being a director on an Edinburgh show involve?
EJ: This is the third year we have had a show at the Fringe and each time it has been very different. This year it has been quite challenging, probably because I am used to having the luxury of a three or four day tech to get a show up and running. This year we had a four hour slot, and whilst we don’t have a set, the lighting and sound cues are quite complex. So most of all I would say that being a director at the Fringe requires a cool head, an optimistic outlook, and serious teamwork and communication.

TW: Talk us through the show you directed this year. What is it about? What did directing it involve?
EJ: ‘East Belfast Boy’ was developed with a group of young men from a working class Loyalist area of East Belfast. The project was led by a brilliant theatre maker and community activist, Fintan Brady, and the story of Davy – the protagonist of the play – is a reflection of the stories the young men shared during this process.

I think there is a real authenticity inherent in the writing, which is reflective of the process in which the play was developed. I hope that audiences leave feeling that they have been given some insight into the experience of a young man who they might have previously judged.

There has been a lot of discussion lately around the lack of working class voices and stories in contemporary theatre. I think that ‘East Belfast Boy’ bucks that unhealthy trend. It is an authentic story of a disenfranchised young man who is trying to find his way through a morass of circumstances and who is attempting to grapple back some control.

It’s heartbreaking but also hopeful. How do you take back the power over your existence when your society has never given you any traction ?

TW: As the director on the piece, most of your work happens before the Festival starts. How much do you need to be in Edinburgh itself?
EJ: I think it’s very important to be present at the Fringe. It’s such a great environment to meet other artists and producers. I think that the atmosphere of the Fringe is unique and I love the vibe at Summerhall. You never know what new collaborators you might meet and connect with, so there are always two strands at work, the play you are running and the cementing of relationships with your colleagues from all over the world.

TW: How does directing an Edinburgh show compare to directing shows outside the Festival?
EJ: I think you lose a bit of control when presenting at the Fringe, but that is balanced by the opportunity to present your work to one of the most dynamic audience bases in the world. It’s also hands down the best fun!

TW: Is directing a new script different to working with a known play?
EJ: I think it is different in that one’s approach can be more open and flexible depending on your relationship with the playwright. With new work it is always in flux, which is exhilarating, whereas often times with published work the script is an immovable object with which you have to dance. They are both great challenges – and that’s the name of the game.

TW: Is directing a one-person piece different to directing a show with a bigger cast?
EJ: I think that it is much more difficult for the actor than the director. I am always very aware of the pressure on an actor working on a one-person show, there is no let up. I’m also aware of their energy levels and try to be sensitive to their needs.

TW: As the director, one of your roles is putting together a cast and creative team. How do you go about doing that.
EJ: I am a very lucky woman. I have an amazing group of artists with whom I have worked with over the years. I work a lot with the brilliant set and lighting designer Ciaran Bagnal, who is an artistic associate of Prime Cut, so that’s usually my starting point.

Sometimes when you look at a script you know exactly who you want to work with, and at other times you are starting out on a whole casting adventure. I like working with casting directors if it’s a big show – it’s always super to have two pairs of eyes if the scenario is complicated – but if it’s a smaller cast I will audition myself.

The longer you work in the business the wider your knowledge base and understanding is of the people who you want to work with.

TW: Let’s talk about your career – how did you get into directing as a career?
EJ: I have always been passionate about theatre and as a teenager I was lucky enough to have brilliantly inspiring teachers who brought us to see some great work and a great group of friends who were as sure as I was that we wanted to make our careers in the arts. I started out as an actor, then as a producer, and I started working as a director in my late thirties. There was never a plan, and I seem to have worked in most aspects of theatre-making through the years, but I am delighted to have found myself in a role I love doing.

TW: Tell us more about PrimeCut and your role there.
EJ: Prime Cut is an independent theatre company based in Belfast. It started in 1992 and was led by a brilliant team of artists who wanted to make international work for audiences in Northern Ireland. I have been with the company for 20 years and have worked in many different guises, most recently as its Artistic Director since 2007.

The company has three main strands to our work – artist development and mentorship through our Reveal Programme; community engagement through a participation arts programme in the North of Ireland; and our professional productions.

I am happy to say we have had a bumper few years with lots of international touring and a swathe of awards, culminating in four Irish Times Awards in 2018 for our production of ‘Red’.

TW: As Artistic Director, what role do you have in the company’s other shows, ie where you aren’t the actual director?
EJ: I am passionate about helping create an environment in Northern Ireland where new work and artists are nurtured and developed. Prime Cut provides lots of opportunities to platform new talent and I am always there as a support role. I am pretty good at standing back and letting people get on with their jobs, but am there if and when advice is needed, or to provide a shoulder to cry on, or simply when someone wants to share a pint with and chew the fat.

TW: What advice would you have for anyone considering a career as an director?
EJ: I regret not having the space to make mistakes and experiment – I was thrown in at the deep end – so I would say throw caution to the wind, move towards what frightens you the most, and most importantly be kind.

TW: What advice would you have for anyone directing a play for the Fringe for the first time?
EJ: Bring a raincoat! See lots of work from people you don’t know. Be prepared to fly by the seat of your pants and always remember, nobody died.

TW: What advice would you have for companies considering taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time?
EJ: Work with people you trust. Maximise the opportunity by making sure the right programmers and producers get in to see the work. Be prepared to lose money. Get a good marketing plan in place before you rock up. And know it’s a jungle … go for it with a heart and a hand.

‘East Belfast Boy’ is on at Summerhall until 26 Aug.

LINKS: primecutproductions.co.uk