He ends 2017 with an Off West End Award and a multitude of successfully directed productions. Daniel Perks wonders where Niall Phillips gets his energy from:
It’s always exciting as a theatre journalist, reviewer and blogger to discover new talent, to see a production and find the next generation of creative performer. In my experience, spotting a great actor or writer is much easier than spotting a great director – I often need to see different examples of their work before I note them as a talent to look out for. Not so with Niall Phillips.
Niall’s work jumped out at me from the moment I heard about it, long even before I ever saw it. And this was mainly due to the fact that all of a sudden, he seemed to be involved in every production I came across:
I think I’m addicted to work. I can’t ever stop. The Unmarried and Olympilads played at the same time – I was running from rehearsals at one into the other, it was manic. I had a day off afterwards and then went into rehearsals for Turkey. But I love it, I feel twitchy if someone asks me what I’m doing next and I don’t know. I love that feeling of constantly working – when I work, I learn more.
I have this obsession about filling empty rooms with hearts and souls and laughter and tears
Seeing Niall in every production may be a slight exaggeration, but it was more than a coincidence that his name cropped up in multiple features that I conducted for Miro Magazine over the last few months.
I interviewed Andrew Maddock, the writer of Olympilads, around the same time that I interviewed Lauren Gauge, the writer and lead performer of The Unmarried. The former production opened Scott Ellis’ first fully programmed season as Artistic Director of Theatre N16; the latter went up to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017. Both were met with critical acclaim; both were directed by Niall:
The main thing is for me to make work that I’m proud of, for my friends, family or people I respect to think that it’s good. Recognition is a weird thing – I don’t really know how to deal with it.
There is a certain expectation from people who come to the venue [The Hope Theatre] that we as a creative world have to meet. There’s always a pressure going in when the last show there got five stars, or won all these awards, as well as the pressure that I put on myself to always be better. Pressure is healthy.
It’s all about believing in yourself without being arrogant – I work really hard at what I do
Niall’s last directorial project at The Hope Theatre was Turkey, which is nominated for two Off West End Awards 2017, including Best Director for Niall himself. It was the debut production for writer Frankie Meredith; she is now the latest Writer In Residence with Niall’s production company, Lonesome Schoolboy Productions:
There’s a lot of horrible people in this industry and they’re the people I want to stamp out. You need that nurturing and that support from each other. That’s why we [Lonesome Schoolboy] do this – not because we think we know more, but because we want to make the world a bit better for everyone. It’s why Frankie is the Writer in Residence – she’s new and exciting and we can nurture that talent.
Kenneth Branagh said,
“If you’re not learning from every project, then why are you doing it?”
To make your head even bigger?
Bullshit, I don’t want to do that – I want to test myself and see what’s new
I’m interviewing Niall in the pub just below The Hope Theatre. We’re full of sugar and caffeine, my dictaphone breaks and I fumble for a replacement while Niall verbally bounces around the room with all the energy of a playful puppy.
The more I speak with Niall, the more I realise that working on so much is a way to harness the endless energy he seems to have. His determination not to be bored, to keep going, is a major facet to his success:
I was bored of waiting for the phone to ring – that’s where Lonesome Schoolboy came from. We first put on a new writing night, On A Spree – the name is based on a song from a hardcore band, all about letting go and not letting people tell you what to do. I love that idea – creating and not worrying about failure.
The dream job for me is running around in a rehearsal room with tracksuit bottoms on, dealing with human beings. That’s what I want to do forever.
In rehearsals, we normally do 2-3 days of table work, but then I have to get up and run around. My rule is that you can never fail – just try it out. The reason it’s called a play is so that you can play.
But I think you have to be a perfectionist. The first rehearsal chunk is all about playing, being sloppy and messy. But then there’s a shift in my head, where I realise that the show actually has to happen.
Full of energy, easily bored and running around all the time – it makes me wonder whether Niall ever has to turn work down. The risk of having so much dedication and passion is the fear you take on so much and aren’t able to cope with the demands that running multiple productions can bring:
The play’s the thing – if it’s not good enough I’m out
It has to make me feel something. The first play I ever read was David Eldridge‘s M.A.D. – I was sat reading it on the sofa and I burst into tears. If my heart can’t go into it, I can’t really be passionate about it and there’s no point doing it – that’s why I work with people like Frankie, Lauren and Andy.
I’m worried about mental health all the time. If I’m always learning and pushing myself, I won’t get too in my head – I’ll do things because my heart tells me to.
I live on my own with my cat, Dr Pinch, and we do a lot of reflecting together… I’m not even joking about the name – when I got the cat, it used to run into things all the time. There’s a play called The Comedy of Errors – you might have heard of it, the writer’s pretty well known – with a character called Dr Pinch who does the same.
I’m lead by my heart, not my head – that’s why I think it’s an addiction
Niall touches on a poignant topic for the theatre industry at present – the need to openly discuss mental health and highlight the pressures that an industry focussed around performing can bring. It’s refreshing to hear him openly speak about how important both self-reflection and passion for the craft are.
Even an individual as busy and boisterous as Niall recognises the need to take some time for yourself. It’s the first thing that he talks about when I ask him what his dream future in 10 years’ time would be:
First of all, happy – my mental health, my family, my niece (who’ll be 11 by then – she’ll be reading Chekhov). I want everyone to be proud, that’s the big thing for me.
The dream is to keep going forward. I want to see a build – looking at my CV now, I can see that happening. But I want to keep going up, go into the bigger venues. I’d love to run my own theatre… although maybe not, because I look around and it looks fucking stressful. I couldn’t do the paperwork.
I want to be a full time working director between the Hampstead Theatre, the Royal Court and the National Theatre. Then every now and then I can come back to do some fringe theatre, because then I won’t turn into a dick.
Fringe is mental