Marianne Elliott
Photo by Ana Cuba

Marianne Elliott: “You’re there to change lives”

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Short Profile

Name: Marianne Phoebe Elliott
DOB: 27 December 1966
Place of birth: London, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Theater director

Ms. Elliott, in what ways are you thinking about language as a stage director?

Well, first of all, the actors and I we talk a lot about each line. We will try lots of different things around a single line. I’m quite into objectives, but I’m also quite interested in subconscious objectives — when the characters themselves aren’t really aware of what they’re doing, which can influence how lines are said. You can start with a mathematical understanding of what you think the character is doing in a scene or the way… But then sometimes you try it on its feet and it feels very weird, it feels wrong, it doesn’t feel like it hits the right musical notes.

What would you normally do in that case? Change the wording?

Rarely would I ever change the words unless I would bring that up with the playwright. Even with my new production, Company, where I’ve changed the gender of the main character from a man to a woman, I’m not changing any of the words. It’s very important to me that we are very respectful of a playwright’s work. So you’re looking for a tone or a feeling and once you hit that, then you start working backwards, working out why they’re saying the lines the way that they have. For example, Tony Kushner, who wrote Angels in America, has parents who are very musical so I think that he works in a way which is rhythmic and musical, possibly more than he realizes! So when you start working on that, it becomes a whole other beast, it’s more than just words on a page.

“I love poetry and I think you can absolute have poetry within a script.”

How does that work when you’re adapting a novel into a script? Is the transition easier because you have a framework to work with already?

Actually, it can be more frightening because it’s a looser canon. On War Horse, for example, which was adapted from the novel by Michael Morpugo, that was really difficult to adapt because it was all from first person perspective, the horse is talking directly to the reader. That was a really difficult thing to work around. But every script has its challenges.

Apparently the script for Angels in America contained some particularly cryptic passages.

Yes, the writing is extremely demanding! In some ways, it’s great because it challenges the extent of your capabilities. But you know, Tony Kushner asks for magic quite a lot in the scenes. Like a Bible comes out of the floor, or Prior is in heaven and he gets a blessing from the angel and the stage direction says, “He floats back down to earth back into his bed.” (Laughs) We talked for months and months and months about how Prior could actually float back into his bed. We ended up making the floor rise up while Prior was lowered down through a hole in the floor! It took weeks and weeks to rehearse… So, when you’re practically having to work out how to do things like that, that’s quite hard because in some ways, the play is written as a dream.

Where did your interest in the written word come from?

I went to Hull University and at the time, I didn’t think that the drama department was particularly good so I used to sneak into the English lectures because they were taught very well. There was a lecture on American literature, one on female literature, there was a lecture on Shakespeare… That was my intellectual food! (Laughs) I love poetry and I think you can absolute have poetry within a script! For example, I think Angels in America really is an epic poem. And I suppose I didn’t quite realize until relatively recently quite how important the word is to me, and how many layers a word can have.

Especially in the English language.

Exactly, a sentence can be constructed in a million different ways and that, the formulation of that sentence can tell you so much about the character. So, my respect and admiration for writers and for the written has grown as I’ve gotten more experienced. What I’ve done over the years is I’ve studied and studied and studied the text so that I get to understand why the characters are speaking in a particular way at a particular time, why they’re using those specific words.

“Theater is a particularly difficult medium but it’s a powerful one because it’s live and it’s ephemeral and it changes every night.”

Is it true that you show up to writing sessions armed with huge notebooks full of diagrams, charts, and comments for the writers you’re working with?

(Laughs) I do spend a huge amount of time on the text, yes. I do a lot of what I call darkened room prep which basically means me in a darkened room — although I’m not literally — with a torchlight looking at a text very, very closely, and trying to understand every beat. I read it and read it and read it and sometimes make drawings or make images or talk to the designer about films that I feel have got something to do with the piece. Then I would read the script always from each character’s point of view… And then these days, I will always nowadays do a storyboard so that by the time the designer and I got to the end, we know exactly how each piece moves visually. It leaves a lot of room for the actors and the lighting designer, but we just sort of have an understanding of how things get into place and how things are going to leave.

The publisher Gerhard Steidl said that he owes much of his success to the fact that each book is highly individual, and it often comes down to his attention to detail.

For me, every detail is touched through to the very, very Nth degree. I’m extremely conscientious! I suppose I’m driven by the fact that I think theater can change lives. It can! And it can mean profound things to the audience. Sometimes it doesn’t and sometimes you fail but I think that’s the objective that I always start with: you’re there to change people’s lives profoundly. And it has to be really good! I think there’s a very fine line between deathly boring theater and really good theater. It’s a particularly difficult medium but it’s a particularly powerful one because it’s live and happening there and it’s ephemeral and it changes every night. But you have to just keep working hard at it and never take anything for granted! Keep going, keep going, until it’s as good as it possibly can be.