February 17, 2009

Spotlight on. . . Michael Gaunt, Director

Last weekend, we closed our production of Sheridan's The Rivals, during which process the cast had the privilege to be directed by guest director from the UK, Professor Michael Gaunt. We want our patrons and prospective students to get to know the director whose unceasing pleasantness and Restoration Theatre expertise charmed and awed us all!

Michael Gaunt was trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London and King Alfred’s College (now the University of Winchester), and has been working all over the UK as a professional actor and director for over twenty years. In addition to over fifty film and television appearances, he has performed in the theatres at Malvern, Nottingham, Norwich, Guildford, Edinburgh, and Bath, and has also acted at Leeds, Plymouth, Farnham, Chesterfield, Dundee, Bromley, and Palmers Green. In London, he worked at the Little Theatre Club, Comedy Theatre, The Haymarket, and Shakespeare’s Globe. He has been the principal of the Guilford School of Acting, the Birmingham School of Acting, the Director of Drama at The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and a visiting professor at the University of Central England. He is a Fellow of The Royal Society for Arts and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, a committee member of the Society for Theatre Research, and a consultant for the Council for Dance Education and Training. As a director, he has been responsible for some seventy productions and has directed at Dundee, Palmers Green, Oval House, the Edinburgh Festival, the University of Surrey, as well as a number of productions that have toured the UK. He has also directed productions in Santa Monica, Amsterdam, Moscow, Hong Kong, and Brussels—where he was awarded a gold medal for his production of The Merchant of Venice.

We had a few questions for Professor Gaunt as he directed the production!

Many of your actors have commented on your familiarity with Bath, where all the action of the play takes place. How has this expertise specifically served you as you directed this production of The Rivals?

I have been interested in Bath since I was a young man because of its incredible history. Of special interest to me is the Theatre Royal which stands in Old Orchard Street, although it is no longer a theatre, and The Rivals was performed here in March 1775 two months after it opened in London. The streets in the world of the play are the same streets that Sheridan walked in and they are still there today. We can still see the family house in the Royal Crescent that Elizabeth eloped from with Sheridan. Most of the places referred to in the play are still there and can be found on the city map. It is easy to imagine Sir Anthony exercising his gout through the bustling streets and his son Jack trying to elude him as he makes his way to Lydia. This awareness helped bring the play alive during the rehearsal period.

What has been your experience working on this British play with American actors, and have there been any new challenges or new insights gained?

The experience of working with American actors on this play has been an extremely good one. When the play was written, the American and British people to a large extent shared the same play repertoire in their respective theatres and they often saw the same actors on both sides of the Atlantic. The Douglass/Hallam theatre at Williamsburg, VA was such a theatre in the eighteenth century. The actors at Regent have moved easily into the style and language of The Rivals and the challenges have been few as we have worked together to lift the play off the page and on to the stage!

This production was designed to feel like a true Georgian Theatre. Can you expound a bit upon what this means and give us your take on the significance of historical accuracy when directing a period piece?

The design concept is based on a real Georgian Theatre in Yorkshire that was built in 1788. The theatre has not been altered and is still in active use. Georgian theatres were not large and probably seated four or five hundred people in the pit, boxes and gallery and they were near to the actors. Thus an intimate style of performance that reached every section of the auditorium was possible and the performer’s every look or nuance of speech was potentially accessible and had meaning. With reference to the significance of our choice of historical accuracy, or rather the illusion of theatrical accuracy, we should state that clearly no contemporary production can replicate a performance of more than two hundred years ago, as present day theatres are not equipped to do this – for a start health and safety regulations would prevent it! We no longer have actors with the same level of stage experience, for example, a good Georgian actor would normally carry between forty and fifty roles in his or her head and be able to play them at almost a moment’s notice, sometimes in more than one play in an evening. But imaginatively we can try to connect with the playwright’s concept, as opposed to the director’s modern concept – how was the play conceived and how is this revealed in the play’s text? What was the writer’s experience and awareness of the life of the time? What do we learn of people’s beliefs and fears, pleasures and hardships, privilege and poverty and the heart beat of the time? What is contained in the life of the play that is different to our life experience today? What did the writer introduce into the play that would appeal to the Georgian audience and bring them to the theatre? What might appeal to an audience today and bring them to our theatre? And so in this production of The Rivals we hope that our audience will empathize with these moments of fun from another time. That they will be amused by the personalities of these characters from the past, and the extraordinary situations they find themselves in: whilst relying, as much as we can, on Sheridan’s creativity and wit to carry the day.

As someone outside the immediate Regent community, what compelled you to accept this position and come to Regent to direct this show?

Some twelve years ago I worked with Dr. Michael Kirkland in Pennsylvania and we have remained good friends and colleagues ever since. When he told me he was joining Regent University, a Christian University, I was at once intrigued to know more. Over the years we have met on both sides of the Atlantic. Last summer we spent a rewarding day in Bath, exploring the streets and architecture together and enjoying coffee at the Pump Room. I have been invited to direct four acting workshops at the university during their Modular weeks over the past four years and each of these has been a rewarding experience. This year I have been invited to direct The Rivals which I am honored to do. I know some of the cast from the Modular Weeks and have quickly got to know the actors I am working with for the first time. They are, without exception, friendly, bright, and talented young actors. The production team has also been extremely welcoming and it is a pleasure to work with them as the rehearsals came together. I enjoy the special atmosphere on the campus and I have found Regent University a calm and peaceful place in which to work with the next generation of actors.

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