The Armstrong building at night is another world – tap dance filters through the ceiling like a rhythmical hailstorm, accompanying the A Capella harmony section who are warming up as they crouch along the floor of the corridor, whilst I catch blurred moments of different dance practices through the door windows of study-spaces.
With the band’s brassy jazz reaching my ears from somewhere below floor-level, I’m here to meet Holly Chinneck, Director of the upcoming NUTS musical The Addams Family, and before the interview I’m invited upstairs to watch the dance rehearsal. Without any spoilers, I will say that I cannot believe that the two main actors were taught to tango less than twenty-four hours before I saw them. Watching students in tracksuits and gymwear inhabit the characters of Morticia and Gomez so flawlessly, whilst one drags the other across a Seminar-Room carpet, is definitely not something I’ll see again. It made me intrigued to chat to the visionary behind this – Holly – and very, very eager to nab a front-row seat on the 28th February.
Lucy: Holly, thanks for finding the time to talk to me. My first question’s basic: why directing, and why now?
Holly: As an actor, you always offer your visions to people, so there’s always a bit of director in everyone, but this is a nerve-racking thing. But I thought: I’m going to Uni and this is where the opportunities are. I’d seen other people directing and thought, I just want to do it, one time. In NUTS, we do one musical in each of the semesters. In some ways a musical is easier and in other respects it’s much harder.
L: Talk me through the pros and cons there.
H: It’s harder because you’re directing a larger amount of people, and because you’re looking for people who can act, sing, and dance, so you’ve already got a narrower pool for casting, and also because it normally has this buzz around it. The musical always sells out. It’s easier because my responsibility as a director is “thirded” already: I’ve got Sam (Choreographer) and Sarah (Musical Director) on board, as well as me. I’m the boss, but they’re both really creative talented people.
L: You’re the boss – let’s take that apart. What kind of decisions are you responsible for?
H: We’ve all got our domains, but everything has to be run by me first. Sam will send me a video and I’ll say: they need to exit from here, this person needs to do this at this time, I need this sound effect. You look at the ensemble there in their gym gear, but I have to look at that and see a live band too, smoke machines, UV lights, costumes, everything.
L: Why Addams in particular? Is there anything about the story you connected to?
H: The thing about Addams is it brings these characters that everyone knows to life in a way that they’ve never seen before. People know the characters, but don’t know the musical. It’s also… there’s singing, and dancing, but no smiling. The actors have to reverse all the things they’ve been taught. It’s like “You are dead, from the grave – but be funny.” It’s so hard to get right. With something as niche as this, if someone’s not doing it exactly right, it’s just so close and yet so far off.
L: What exactly were you looking for?
H: Kooky, crazy, but lovable. You want the audience to be on your side but you’re also totally ostracised from what they are.
L: And what is that human element that the audience can invest in, whilst they face this world?
H: Everyone’s got that bit of crazy inside of them. Everyone puts out this perception of themselves on social media but when people let themselves be weird, they automatically go: Let’s do more of this! There’s a line in the show: “What’s normal for the spider is a calamity for the fly.”. This weirdness is what’s normal for these group of people, and I want to find our middle ground.
L: Has being an actor affected how you direct others?
H: I do understand how difficult it is to learn lines or not connect with material but I have to crack the whip. The thing I’ve found hardest at times is not being a member of the cast.
H: Because I want to be involved, to wear the costumes, to be everyone’s best friend too, but the job I have to do is different. I have to monitor whether they’re taking responsibility. I’m playing a role here as much as they’re playing a role on stage, for these three hours of rehearsal. If you can’t hit a note, that’s fine. If you’re not trying, that’s when I’ve got a problem.
L: It sounds like a lot of it is interpersonal but I’m guessing there’s a huge logistical side too. Tell me more about all the different roles you take on as a director.
H: I’m a stand-in cast member – if someone’s not there I’ll sing a harmony, I have help but I oversee costumes, I’m thinking about our budget, props, set, lighting design, projections, seating, smoke, things you wouldn’t even think about. You’ve got to create a world.
L: How would you describe your directing style?
H: I really try to create positive energy. I’ve been in shows where I’ve wanted it over and done with, and shows I haven’t wanted to ever end, and that’s the difference. It’s a hard musical to sing and dance, and no-one wants to feel stupid, so that friendly atmosphere is so so important. That’s why it’s so good to support your friends – theatre people love having others inflate their egos and tell them they’re great, because through six weeks of rehearsals they’re getting told “This isn’t good enough. This needs to be better.”. When they eventually hear “That was perfect,” and get given their confidence back like that, it’s the most amazing powerful thing.
L: Obviously this takes up a lot of your mental space at the moment and it must be stressful. Do you have any strategies that you use to keep a balanced life and peace of mind?
H: I think everyone starts with a strategy, but honestly, it just goes down the drain with something like this. During everyone’s exams it was hectic as anything but we’ve organised the leadership so that our rehearsal time is shared out and I’m the kind of person who always has about five jobs on the go so I like being run off my feet – it’s when I’m most productive.
NUTS’ The Addams Family opens at Northern Stage on Friday 28th and Saturday 29th February – Get your tickets now!
Last modified: 19th February 2020