Educating Rita: The Bakehouse Theatre Is Getting Schooled

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The impact that educators can have upon the lives of their students has been a fertile source of inspiration for dramatists: 'To Sir With Love', 'Dead Poets Society', 'Dangerous Minds', to name a few.

'Educating Rita', unlike those high school dramas, explores the relationship between a male tutor and an adult, working class female student at an Open University.

As a two-person play set entirely in the tutor’s office, the director’s role is pivotal.

Director Nathan Quadrio schools us on his approach to the piece.

How do you think the themes of 'Educating Rita', such as the pretentiousness of academia, the search for self-development and the role of class in society apply to the world of 2016?
Power is one of the few universal themes that is apparent in almost every work of literature and theatre ever created and that is represented in the class struggle in 'Educating Rita'. Plays such as this have a universal quality and that’s what makes them successful as they are revived again and again. At its heart, the play is about self-empowerment and creating the freedom of choice. Initially, Rita believes she is attempting to educate herself but really she is trying to rise above the limits of her class and place herself in a situation where the she can choose between opportunities. Russell rewrote some of the show in 2003 and added a monologue about the 'got-to haves' in the world as people search for meaning in technology and physical purchases. In this way the play is more applicable than ever. To me, 'Educating Rita' is about a person who summons the courage to take a leap of faith into a world that always told them no – that will always be universal.

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What do you admire about Willy Russell as a playwright?
In rehearsal we spend so much time going over the script with a fine-toothed comb and identifying our own personal ideology within the show. Russell’s writing is so dynamic and alive with subtext that both Rita and Frank are complex and fully realised from the first second they step on stage. 'Educating Rita' specifically is beautifully cyclical with dozens of repeating themes throughout as both characters grow and complete their individual journeys of self-empowerment. The most important thing for me personally is the multitude of levels that he presents to the audience. People who view his work can enjoy the play on a surface level and still be moved by its message. If we look further though we can identify the myriad of complex layers that underpin the show and really make it a success. It allows readers and audiences to enjoy it emotionally but also intellectually – that’s the key to Russell’s success.

How much does your production of 'Educating Rita' draw upon the original production, the film starring Michael Caine and the 2010 revival?
For this production we’ve really gone back to the text and are letting that drive the character choices throughout. The play is so dense and filled with wonderful subtext that we hardly need to look anywhere else. James and Lauren are both huge fans of the original film but are dedicated to creating their own interpretations of the performances. From the performances to the set design, we’ve really tried to build this production from the ground up to make the most of what the script and show has to offer. It is inevitable that comparisons will be drawn to the other productions – notably the film – but we’re all working towards servicing the play as best as we possibly can. You have experience on both sides of the stage, as an actor and a director.

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How does your experience as an actor inform your approach to directing?
I’m not sure how much my experience as an actor has informed the way that I direct. Creating a production like this is very much built from the life experience brought to it from all the team. I’ve been in a few plays and love seeing some of the fantastic productions that are happening around Adelaide but my theatrical work has primarily been in musicals. I enjoy musicals because they bring that extra dimension that brings a production to life. It’s this idea that I try to bring across into my direction. These characters are so vivid and energetic that my direction needs to be dynamic to make the most of their spirits. I think I also view the stage – and the movement of the actors on it – from an almost choreographic perspective. Working with levels and balances of movement and stillness really work to make a visually and aesthetically appealing production.

Casting is very important in a two person play; tell us what both actors bring to the production?
James and Lauren were always the two actors I wanted for this production. When I first read the play they were the ones who instantly came into my mind and we all worked hard to make our schedules work. They are incredibly focused, hardworking and insightful actors and that’s exactly what we needed for the short timeframe of this rehearsal period. I worked with Lauren as Mary Poppins and she was phenomenal but it was her performance as Tracy Lord in 'The Philadelphia Story' that sold me on her ability to play Rita. She has this magic ability to reveal a character’s deepest insecurities and humanities without losing the strength the part needs. I’m very excited for Adelaide audiences to see her as Rita. James and I both grew up in Adelaide’s Northern Suburbs so 'Educating Rita'’s tale of rising up the social/educational ladder speaks to both of us. He is a phenomenal actor who really knows how to get into a role and his experience in both the amateur and professional theatre world brings so many different viewpoints into the rehearsal room.

'Educating Rita' plays at the Bakehouse Theatre from 10-14 January.

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