Interview with Paulette Randall

In 2000 playwright August Wilson told the New York Times that “I wanted to place this culture onstage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us in all areas of human life and endeavor and through profound moments of our history in which the larger society had thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves.”

Troy Maxson the protagonist in August Wilson’s Fences says ‘I didn’t know I could do any better’. Director Paulette Randall might not have had a burning desire to act when she graduated from Rose Bruford but she certainly knew that the creative world was where she was meant to be.

Running a theatre company like any business has its challenges. A number of actors have made the jump to running theatre, from Shakespeare and Moliere to Debbie Allen and Cate Blanchett.

Randall cut an impressive swathe through Clean Break and Talawa Theatre Company - her vision, grace and energy providing much needed new perspectives – she wanted to further develop her own creative style, to create performances and leave the fundraising to others.

With a much heralded return to the West End with the transfer of Fences, which she directs, Paulette Randall is keen to show not only what she can really do but to remind us that black theatre should be one of the most vibrant areas in the cultural life of the nation.

What are you working on at the moment?

PR: ‘Fences,’ which is about to transfer to the West End. It is very exciting. I think the West End needs something like that in it and I am glad that it is me. I am very proud of that production. I’m thrilled.

Yes it’s lovely, it’s funny how life turns out. I guess if you hang in there and keep working away eventually it will happen. That is a lesson to be learnt, I mean, I don’t know, it is just a lovely thing to happen and I am glad that it is something different as well, because it shows the length and breadth of what I can do, so that is really nice.

Your last foray into the West End was with 5 Guys named Moe, which saw your name disappear from the credits on opening night. Do you think that at the time it was inexperience or maybe other responsibilities that were being expected or were situations being foisted upon you?

PR: It was slightly inexperience, I was very young and they were being bullies, you know, the choreographer and the vocal arranger were being bullies, not just me; they were bullying loads of people. So yeah, I would have acted differently, what I would do now really simply is that I would have sacked them, seeing as I hired them. But it just did not occur to me at the time, as that was not the way that theatre worked for me. But you know, you learn. There are many ways to skin a cat. You find another way to do it because the work was good; the vocal arranging was beautiful the choreography was fantastic. But I would find another way of doing that, if that were my decision. So you think, I want to keep hold of the work, the quality of that work. So it’s about learning stuff, yeah when I revisited it with Paul Medford who choreographed it this time round. We did it at Theatre Royal Stratford East and at Edinburgh that was great so I got the chance to do it again. With Paul playing a very different role, but he was fantastic we had a great time.

Paul Medford is returning to the West End later this summer (as Mr. Beauregarde) in Sam Mendes’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

PR: Yeah. I mean, in truth, as well, you grow as a human being and hopefully you learn from your experiences so you can use that in the future, which is something that I have always tried to do. OK, so that happened, I have to ask myself, where was I culpable in that and also what can I do to make sure if this thing appears again how would I deal with it differently, and make it more successful.

What made you choose this occupation?

PR: It wasn’t as if I had a burning desire to do anything. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Back then, in those halcyon days you could get a grant and I thought, right, OK, if I get a grant then I could do this, as I quite enjoyed doing theatre at school. But it wasn’t because I had a burning ambition to be an actor. The truth of that is that I have not stuck to any one thing. I trained as actress but by the end of my final year I was interested in writing and I had begun to do that. And then I started writing, then I had a play done as part of the young writers festival at the Royal Court. Then I thought, oh right, I’m going to be a writer now. But then in rehearsals watching the director, I thought oh, no. I quite like what he is doing. So then I got a bursary to train as a director. So I never had a burning desire to do anything. But the interesting thing is, I guess is that, I was clearly supposed to be in that world, you know. Maybe not specifically as an actress but that world was there for me.

Where did you train and how long did it take?

PR: Funnily enough the year I went to Rose Bruford there were 5 young black women in one year, which was quite extraordinary. We were all studying acting. I think that out of the 5 of us, Bernadine Evarista, who is a novelist and myself are the only two who are still ‘creative’.
Which is probably, I don’t know what the figures are for the amount of students that go through drama school regardless of colour or sex, however many the numbers that go through and drop out, but out of the 5 of us its only Bernadine and I.

When you first started out you co-directed Michael Ellis’s play, Chameleon, with Alby James at what was then The Oval House and then went on to direct Jacqueline Rudet’s Basin upstairs at the Royal Court.

PR: That’s the plan isn’t it? The plan is it to progress things along so that you don’t make the same mistakes hopefully. You might make some new ones. But not the same mistakes, as you grow and develop. It is good to know that nobody died if a mistake is made. The way that we are kind of led to believe that if you make one mistake that’s the end - that is rubbish. You can learn a hell of a lot from making mistakes. I’m not advocating that people go out and be stupid but we should learn from our mistakes.

Do you think there is equality in the workplace? If not then why?

PR: Of course there isn’t and the reason why I can say that so easily is because we are only another microcosm of the real world that we are in the bigger world. So of course there is inequality, sadly. There are two things, there were certainly more smaller black companies, but they were always small scale and secondly politically then, people felt that it was right that black people were producing and directing their own work. Whereas now, because we are so PC anybody can do anything. Except it doesn’t quite work in reverse for me, ‘cos I’m not approached to do white work, as it were, but white practitioners can do, can direct black work.

You have yet to direct an episode of any mainstream television series or continuing television drama e.g. ‘Eastenders’, ‘Holby City’, ‘Emmerdale’, though you have the experience and credentials, does the lack of those types of creative opportunity affect you?

PR: I can’t let it affect me, I can’t. Because, I have to keep going. Because, I believe that we have a right to have our voice heard.

You put a lot into pursuing the work of August Wilson, you had a particularly strong relationship with him. You have the exclusive rights, for want of a better expression, to produce and direct his plays in Britain. Have you found or maybe you are still looking to pursue a particular strand, that celebration of the black British experience. Is there a writer that you feel could be Britain’s August Wilson, who is perhaps writing in that direction or a handful of writers that you feel are progressing in that direction?

PR: That’s the dream, and that’s the desire to do exactly a cannon of work like that but from here. I think we have got the writers. The thing that they do brilliantly in America is they invest in writers. So, you know, and the country is big enough. So that August was able with his director to work and develop that piece and then take it out on the road, and on the road rewrite and change and do all of those things. It’s that level of investment that produces that quality of work.

They do that here, but it does always seem to be about the sink estate ‘the endz’, almost exclusively there seems to be a thirst for the deeply urban experience not about the broader experience.

PR: But I still don’t think that they do it to that depth. What was fascinating about all that earlier British stuff was that there was quite a lot of work that was a reaction to our situation here, and that was fantastic and there was a response almost immediately. If you look back to the work of the 60’s and 70’s that was a response to coming here having come from somewhere else.
People have to have the desire to want to tell those stories and also be enabled to tell them.

It’s not just the immediate experience, it’s also the historical people like Ira Aldridge, he was not the only one or the only contributor and we should be allowed to tell those stories. But also they need to be funded and they are not in quite the same way.

What advice would you give to others wanting to get into (your field of work)?

PR: Do it, do it, just do it but know that it might not be easy, it will probably be a struggle but do it because if that is what is in your heart, your guts and in your soul then you have to, you just have to go with it. If you have a burning desire to tell a story or to enable a story to be told you just have to do it, it is wonderful. I am so thrilled that I do what I do; because of the buzz that you get from being in a rehearsal room in the theatre is just fantastic. So yeah, I think that if you want to do it you just have to. And hope that your family will still feed you and all those things that are important.

Do you think that potential creatives should also be made aware that they need to have a grasp of the administrative side and an understanding of the politics of the profession, that perhaps they should be trained in an approach of how to deal with it? as a lack of this type of knowledge coupled with a limited capacity to cope with it can often result in situations getting out of hand and productions being joepardised.

PR: Well, that’s certainly the case with me because even when I was working in television I am much more of a creative producer, rather than a sort of financial one. I guess there is no harm in it if you have a leaning for it, I don’t and also I have no real desire to. I just want someone to find the money for me so that I can do what I want to do. I’m really not interested, which I probably should be but I am not. So, I am being honest with you. I think if you have an understanding and a leaning towards it, then great, ‘cos it will help to understand but it won’t get in the way if you don’t.

What is the favourite part of your job? And least favourite?

PR: I don’t know because it changes. I guess its being in a room with fellow artists, with those actors and working with the designer and all the other creatives, I guess it is that whole process of putting that play on where you start and where you end up. It is just, it’s the best.

And the least favourite or the most challenging? sometimes they are one in the same!

PR: Oh I don’t know you know! (laughs)
The least favourite what would that be, I am trying to think. Though, I just love it all, there is always something different. Whether it is the casting element of it or when you get to the technical rehearsal I love that too because again it changes, For the first time you are starting to see how it is all going to come together and how it is going to look. I don’t really have a, no, I don’t, I like it all. I really do, I like it all. I get more and more excited the closer I get to it opening and I hope that never goes away, do you know what I mean, and also because things change. You are on your own at the beginning, and then by the time you’ve done it you’ve got the whole cast, you’ve got a whole creative team, you’ve got the audience in and then it’s the show. It’s the play. But it starts off with just you sitting in a room reading a script, going can I do this? Is this the right thing for me? Do I like it? What is it about it that I like? What is it about it that I don’t like? So, that’s what I love that whole journey.

Do you feel when there is a time that you have to let go?

PR: Oh yes of course, of course and that’s always the hardest thing I guess, and the saddest. It’s not hard to let go but it’s actually quite sad.

How do you achieve a work/life balance?

PR: Oh, I don’t know if I have. I think that my life is alright, but you know, I sure that it could improve. But it is one of those things it is kind of the nature of the beast. This fabulous job is that it is all consuming so you can look through my diary and know when I am in rehearsal because there is nothing else in it. Because you know it is just all about that and about being available for whoever needs you.

It can be quite a solitary profession in a lot of ways.

PR: Yes it can be, but there are moments all the way through where you start off quite lonely then it all gets quite busy and quite fun and then there is much more team work going on.

Who or what do you find inspirational? Who inspires you?

PR: Actually my inspiration comes from my assistant directors that I’ve worked with, who are younger, who have got a different take on things, have got a different kind of energy, a different vibe. And that’s where I now get my inspiration from.
Years ago it would have been from people like Yvonne Brewster who was one of my first directors, when I was a late teen. But now I think it’s from people that I am working with who are younger than me who are inspiring me. Even though they are still on a journey themselves, but they are a great inspiration, and it’s lovely and the fact that they are there and they are doing it and they are hungry to do it as well is great.

Perhaps that because generationally they are not afraid to speak up and suggest ‘try this or try that’ whereas before they would have been so vocal they would have stayed quietly in the corner. There seems to be much more of a flow of information, between teams, it not so hierarchical.

PR: I think that there are more of them, that’s the thing. I was talking to a young director this morning who is about to do a rehearsed reading for Talawa and when I was out there, there was me and certainly as a female it was just me. So I think that they’ve got not a collective of them, but there are a number of them out there that are kind of doing it, and it is great.

For me, it was quite funny, because the next person to me as a female director was Yvonne Brewster and she had taught me. But there was nothing in-between. And then all my others, yes that’s right they were all of another generation to me. So this is great, that they’ve got each other in a way, well I am hoping that this is a great thing. I didn’t have it but I didn’t miss it because I didn’t have it. But I’m excited by them and going to see their work. They assist me on something and then I go and see what they do and it is just fantastic.

Do you find that a lot of the actors that you cast and work with are all trained actors from accredited courses or does it vary?

No, it varies. I mean look at Fences now, all of them are trained except for Lenny (Henry) he didn’t go to drama school. He is not a trained actor, this is his third play and he is fantastic.

So you keep an open mind who’s right for the part not necessarily where they trained?

Because you know, nobody can teach you how to act, you can go and train and you’ll be very good, you’ll have done all these plays and you’ll know all these tricks and techniques and things, but if you can’t act, you can’t act.

Lenny is studying for a PhD isn’t he?

Yes, although I do not know how he is finding the time (laughs).

In your professional experience, do you see a lot more of black and minority ethnic students coming out of drama school since your time?

PR: I see them coming out, but the worry is where they go. Because if things don’t change going back to what we were saying before about inequality, if things don’t change there is going to be a lot of trained out-of-work people. We have to encourage our writers, encourage those of us who work in other connected ways to just keep producing the work.

What is the next project for you that you can tell Female Arts about?

PR: I will tell you that I will be doing my first panto this year, I’m going to be directing a rock n’ roll panto in Stafford and it is called “Sleeping Beauty’. I’ve never done one of those before and it was offered and I thought listen, you might as well.

Marmite or Jam?

PR: Marmite!

Paulette, thank you for talking to Female Arts. Do you have twitter#, a website or URL that we can add to the interview?

PR: I am a Luddite and so have none of the above!

Paulette Randall directs Fences, starring Lenny Henry, at London’s Duchess Theatre 19th June – 14th September 2013. Tickets: 0844 4124659

© Pamela Jikiemi 2013.
Paulette Randall spoke to Female Arts on Monday 22nd April 2013

Read our review of 'Fences'

Paulette Randall was associate director of London 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, former chair of Clean Break and former artistic director of Talawa Theatre Co. YOUR FEEDBACK - Let us what you think about the visibility of black theatre on our facebook post:

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