The journey was emotionaljohannes hjorth

King’s Parade. 9pm. Tom and Ellie are on their way to perform in ‘A New Musical in Concert’ at the ADC Theatre. It’s windy.

Tom: “I wish someone would apply with West Side Story.”

Ellie: “Same, it’s my favourite musical.”

Tom: “Mine too!”

DING. A spotlight appears on them as they lock eyes –

– Sorry, no, this is not the start of a terribly meta (and badly scripted) musical about two friends deciding to direct West Side Story. This is the true story of two completely inexperienced actors who decided to take on the mammoth task of directing the second biggest show of the year, after the Footlights/CUADC Pantomime. I’d like to say it happened as a ‘DING’ movie moment, but in fact it took a couple of days of hysterical could we/should we-ing and um-ing and ah-ing before we decided to take the leap. There were many arguments on both sides of the equation, but the deciding factor was the ever trusted “why not?”

I’ll begin our emotional journey by referring you to the message I received from Tom one minute after I told him I’d sent in the application (incidentally, one minute before the deadline). It reads: “we applied for the LTM [Lent Term Musical] wtf.” Disregarding the statement of the obvious, this was a very apt and astute comment at the time. It’s not just ‘what the f***’ but rather, ‘what the f***?’ At this point, neither of us knew the first thing about directing, let alone directing and managing a cast of 25. Jump cut to me writing this exactly one week before opening night and it’s difficult to comprehend how we ended up here.

Making the transition from actor to director is in some ways a natural progression. You already understand the process involved in creating a show, just from the wrong end of the production line. You also have the distinct advantage of knowing what you like in a director, and, more importantly, what you don’t like. This has been reinforced in the other direction as well. As actors, learning how your cast take direction, and thinking about what a director is looking for has been invaluable. From casting, to blocking on paper, to the rehearsal room, I’m certain that the way we both approach performing in the future will be completely reformed. However, making the leap from always being told what to do to telling everyone what to do still seemed a daunting task. When we asked other directors, “what’s the first thing we need to learn?” they all gave the same answer: “Just pretend you know what you’re doing. The rest will follow.” Running a rehearsal, you can’t afford to be unsure. “I don’t know” isn’t a viable response when someone asks you: “Where should I stand?” From this moment on, acting and directing didn’t seem so different after all. So I made the decision to leave myself at the door and enter the rehearsal room as Trevor Nunn…

Our first big challenge wasn’t directing, however: it was scheduling. I can honestly say that the hardest part of directing West Side Story was scheduling a rehearsal for 25 cast members plus a co-director and musical director. Scheduling is like a giant black hole that consumes you for three hours before you realise you’re five minutes late to another rehearsal. We love our cast. But God do they do a lot of stuff. And that seems to be the eternal problem with such a brilliant bunch; with talent comes demand. It’s at these stressful moments that I’ve had to remind myself: This is amateur theatre, we are directing an amateur production of West Side Story, and you are not actually Trevor Nunn.

All of this becomes worth it, however, when you finally get into the rehearsal space and are allowed to do the only part of the job you thought you were signing up for: directing. With a spoonful of confidence and false pretence in hand we began the rehearsal process. Miraculously, nothing terrible happened. I’d spent so much time worrying about how I was going to direct each individual scene or line that I’d forgotten I had a cast of talented actors and a co-director who reinforced me, disagreed with me and kept me on my toes. I thought directing was going to be like teaching. In fact, all you really are is a facilitator. You’re the something actors can bounce off, the interpreter when the text is confusing, and the guide when an authoritative voice is needed. The feeling of getting a scene right, of gelling with an actor or explaining yourself with the most apt analogy that somehow makes sense to everyone is such a wonderful feeling, and one that I’d happily learn to love scheduling for.

Working as a directorial pair without a director-assistant relationship has had its own challenges: on the small matters that we occasionally disagreed on, there was never any hierarchy of authority to cut a knot between us. At the same time, we’ve learnt so much about each other from it – we’ve learnt to look after each other (we’ve had to with such a colossal task…), and more significantly we’ve learnt where our individual directorial strengths lie; often finding certain kinds of rehearsals lending themselves to one director or the other. Developing these working relationships is so exciting as it allows you to begin to see a future for yourself in the industry, in the knowledge that these people who you click with creatively won’t suddenly disappear once you graduate.

The reason why the Cambridge theatre scene can seem intense is because everyone is intensely in love with what they’re doing. Investing the hours and the energy that we do for ten days of performances seems so trivial to an outsider. Yet directing has given me more skills than my degree has managed in nearly two years. I’m a far more organised, dedicated, empathetic and confident person than at 9pm on King’s Parade when I um-ed and ah-ed over applying for a show. Cambridge theatre can feel exclusionary. But the thing I’ve learnt from this whole experience is that sometimes, you just have to ask yourself “why not?” and remember that nothing’s worth doing if it’s not at least a little bit scary.

And be Trevor Nunn. Always be Trevor Nunn.

West Side Story runs from Wednesday 9th - Saturday 19th March at the ADC.