“I’ve never worked with a revolve before.” Interview with the director of F*ck the Polar Bears

On a rainy Wednesday afternoon we whisked F*ck the Polar Bears director Caroline Byrne away from the rehearsal room to have a long old chat about the play.

Caroline is Irish, serious about her work, funny about herself. She’s excellent company. As we sit down in the Library bit of our Café Bar she worries that we’ll disturb the people silently tapping away at their MacBooks, we assure her it’s not a quiet zone, besides if there are any aspiring directors around us they’re in for a treat.

Caroline Byrne

Caroline Byrne

“With an auditorium like the one here at Bush there is a real invitation to explore non-traditional configurations or ways of presenting theatre, which is to my taste” Caroline begins, “so that everyone in the room gets an experience that’s wildly different from the person across the room.” This will be the case for F*ck the Polar Bears more so than usual even for our flexible auditorium; for the first time in the Bush’s history there will be a revolve on stage.

“I’ve never worked with a revolve before either” Caroline laughs, “the Bush has never had a revolve. None of the actors have worked with one. The movement director has never worked with a revolve before either.” Our laughter gets a bit wilder, “we’re all newbies to a revolve”. Yup! So why is this revolutionary (do you geddit!?) staging important to the play?

F*ck the Polar Bears Rehearsals, Bush Theatre 2015. Photograph by Helen Murray

F*ck the Polar Bears Rehearsals, Bush Theatre 2015. Photograph by Helen Murray

“The revolve is definitely integral to the concept of how [designer] Chiara Stephenson and I have designed the world of the play together” she explains, “the whole issue of perspective and point of view is a big thing in relation to the subject of the issues being explored in the play.”

The play explores how we are collectively and individually not really dealing with climate change. Caroline says that after first reading the script this is one of the first things that struck her, “I knew about fracking but I hadn’t done a huge amount of research, I mostly knew about it in relation to the US, but I didn’t really know about it in the UK or Ireland”.

But a play about how we continue to ignore the environment is perhaps not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. “No one wants to go to plays where these issues are presented really explicitly” Caroline agrees, “I was interested in the ways that the characters were embodying practices and attitudes without being aware of that they were.”

What else immediately struck her after having read the script? “I’m always interested in form and content and how the play is told, how the questions in the play unfold. I was initially struck that the play takes place over the one weekend, and how the shape of a weekend influenced Tanya’s train of thought. I feel like a weekend goes: Friday night you’re full of relief, even excitement, and Saturday’s got a lot of activity about it and Sunday is a bit urgent or even a bit depressing – gearing up for Monday. So that was the first thing I was thinking – structurally, how is it written? What is going on with time, and then space, in this play. And, of course I thought it was funny as well!”

Caroline discloses that she’s never directed comedy before; one of her most recent credits is Eclipsed on at the Gate which was set during the 2003 civil war in Liberia. “I’ve heard the saying that you should direct a tragedy like it’s a comedy and a comedy like it’s a tragedy and I’m definitely going down that route. I’m drawn to tragedies! I really took that advice home.”

F*ck the Polar Bears Rehearsalls, Bush Theatre 2015. Photograph by Helen Murray

F*ck the Polar Bears Rehearsals, Bush Theatre 2015. Photograph by Helen Murray

The rehearsal room walls for F*ck the Polar Bears are covered in huge timelines – what are these about? “Part of my process is I try to figure out in a forensic way all of the off stage and on stage events that happen to the characters” she explains, “and in the first week of rehearsals we tracked through the timeline of the whole of the play. In this play, there are so many significant things that happen off stage and those events need to be found in the actor’s bodies when they come back on stage. There are 80 entrances and exits in this play, and they’re all informed by things that happened to people off stage.”

The rehearsal room seems like a really kinetic space, walking in there one morning we caught the cast chucking a ball around while arguing over Great British Bake Off, and as documented in Helen Murray’s beautiful rehearsal photos they routinely do a Body Balance session together led by cast member Susan Stanley (who plays Serena, a character who is in training to become a Body Balance tutor!)

F*ck the Polar Bears Rehearsals, Bush Theatre 2015. Photograph by Helen Murray

F*ck the Polar Bears Rehearsals, Bush Theatre 2015. Photograph by Helen Murray

“I approach everything physically” Caroline says, in fact they’re in week three of rehearsals and only just beginning to speak exact lines. “My ideal is that the actors never have the scripts in their hands” she goes on, “we’ve been doing a lot of para-phrasing, a lot of improvising, and a lot of feeding the actors’ lines… we’re definitely in head territory now when we’ve really been in body territory for the last few weeks.” It can be demanding on the actors to work this way which is why she calls week 3 “the crunchy week”.

But there’s also a lot of warmth in the room and we wonder if a lot of this comes from Caroline’s close relationship with designer Chiara Stephenson? “I love working with Chiara” she exclaims. How did they meet? “My husband was reading an article about Es Devlin saying who her biggest inspirations were, and one of them was Chiara. And I thought I must contact this lady, I’d love to meet her. And so I managed to get her contact details and we met up for coffees and were chatting quite a bit and I was directing a play at the Gate and sent it to Chiara.”

What makes the relationship special? “I love working with people who identify their issues and concerns with representation and really interrogate the scripts with me. She never says yes straight away and I kind of have to win her over. I talk her into the material and she talks me into beginning to imagine it. It’s a lovely relationship.”

Do they ever argue about the direction the design is going in? “When we started working on F*ck the Polar Bears I was in America and she was here and we were texting each other – images, ideas. We were having mini battles where we clarify what’s the best approach and then we get into just throwing things in there and thinking about what we love. It’s great – I love that.”

“I’m quite a visual person; I’m really inspired by art – history, composition, architecture and special dynamics inspired by text. I like to take little clue from the text and expand them. I think that the world of the play needs to be alive, not just the set for actors to be in, and Chiara is a world designer.”

Caroline says she’s looking forward to technical rehearsals, the period where the actors get on stage and lights, sound and, of course, the revolve are integrated with the actors. What does she like about tech? “It’s the challenge of separating yourself slightly from the actors and having an overview of the production, looking at it from almost how it began with the model box. You become carer of the production again, that’s always a really nice thing because it’s exciting for us all. It’s like a little present after a lot of hard work.” She grins, “It’s also terrifying.”

It’s about time that we let Caroline get back to the room but before she goes we ask what advice she would give to theatre directors who are at the early stages of their career. “I’ve loved all of my assisting jobs and I’ve learnt so much from them, I’ve worked with Tim Crouch, Christopher Haydon, Jonathan Munby and all of their practices, attitudes, approaches, I’ve absorbed them” she says. “But my advice to aspiring directors would be to assist a bit, and then cultivate your own practice and then maybe assist again. It’s easy to become a full time assistant director, I think. It’s hard to say no to nice jobs. But the relationship between studying and applying it needs to flow. You have to develop your own your own taste.”

And with that we say goodbye. We’ve got a bit of a Caroline-crush and can’t wait to see what the company have been working on.


F*ck the Polar Bears runs from 11 Sep – 24 Oct here at the Bush. Find out more about the play here.