Following Relish Theatre’s sell-out, five star shows at London’s Park Theatre in 2020, the LGBT comic drama Time and Tide, about a struggling Norfolk community, returns to its home shores. Ahead of Time and Tide’s debut at Norwich Theatre on 29 Sep, we spoke to director, Rob Ellis, about his journey into directing, his favourite places in Norfolk and how to make theatre eco-friendly.
Hi Rob, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a theatre director, producer and dramaturg from North Yorkshire, based in London. I’m the Producer for Iris Theatre in Covent Garden, and the Executive Director of Relish Theatre. I’ve also directed plays for Relish, including Time and Tide.
Can you tell us about your experience with Relish Theatre?
I founded Relish Theatre for the same reason many independent theatre companies get formed – to take work to the Edinburgh Fringe. Over the years, we’ve really been able to focus on what we want to do with our work. We want to see new writing, from early-career artists, and we want to make sure that work is engaged with by as large and as diverse an audience as possible. We also create our work sustainably – it’s how we produce all our shows now, and we run workshops on Sustainable Theatre-Making all over the country.
How did you become a director?
I think University (I went to UEA for my BA and MA from 2010-2014, where I met James, who wrote Time and Tide) was a very formative experience for me in terms of what I learnt about myself personally and creatively. I originally thought I would be a writer, but quickly discovered I didn’t have the patience. My BA was in Scriptwriting, but I stayed at UEA to do the MA in Theatre Directing. The great thing about UEA was you had so much opportunity to create work – you get so much practical, hands-on experience, you could walk into any rehearsal room and have a decent shot at making it work. I wouldn’t say I really started my directing career until I moved to London and started assisting other Directors – it was invaluable to watch how other people do it, particularly how you talk to actors. That’s a real art.
What’s the average day in the life like as a director?
This is quite a difficult question as I wear so many hats – I’m sometimes not sure where my producing hat ends and my directing hat starts. I would say the weeks before a rehearsal process are a lot of meetings and a lot of reading and re-reading the text. I like to make sure I’m a little underprepared going into a rehearsal space – I think walking in Day One with a clear idea of how things are going to happen, can be a little limiting. You want to leave space for play, for chances, for new ideas.
A typical rehearsal day for me starts at home. You have the most responsibility in a rehearsal space, you are the driving force behind the day, the time, and you have your team’s expectations in your hands. In a nutshell, make sure you eat a good breakfast. I like to make sure I’m in at least an hour earlier than the call time – sitting on set, with a cup of tea, listening to a podcast, I really like to make sure I’m grounded in the space. From there you have your rehearsal day – you might be doing table work, staging, exploring design ideas, or noting runs. What you need are lots of breaks, and lots of cups of tea, they’re very important. It’s also good to make sure you’re checking in with your team throughout the day. On an R&D we ran last year, we made sure to check in and out before every session, and it really created a great atmosphere to create work in. You need to feel supported, so you can support your team.
Once your day is over, it’s really important to switch off from work. We sometimes forget this is a job, and you need to make sure you leave work at the door. Take your dog for a walk, do your laundry, or sit back and watch some TV and just forget about the day. It will be waiting for you tomorrow.
Do you think it is important to tell local stories?
100%. I think locality is many things – it’s easy to engage with, it’s exciting, it’s fun, and it’s communal. Theatre is by and large a shared space, and that means you sharing something with your audience. An audience that can engage with something they recognise and have lived experience of is incredibly powerful. It’s driven, real and breath-taking. You should do loads of things locally! You should shop locally, eat and drink locally, and explore the hidden parts of your local area. It’s your home and your community.
Have you been influenced by anyone or anywhere in Norfolk for the show?
The play is very much set in a fictional cafe on Cromer Pier. I lived in Norwich for five years, but that’s nothing on James, who’s lived here their whole life! They’re a proper regional trinket! I’m aware of how the play fits into the Norfolk landscape, but for James, this is a play about home. The cafe is based on the Wells Deli in Holt, so it really feels like a lived place onstage – it also owes a lot to the sights, sounds and smells of Sheringham, a town I loved to visit when I lived in Norwich.
Would you be able to explain the show and what give us an idea as to what audiences should expect?
The show is about a cafe that is closing due to chain hospitality moving into the local area. We wanted to interrogate the damage that occurs when communities lose these independent businesses – for many they are the lifeblood that holds the area together. It’s also about celebrating the people that work in them – we wanted a show that celebrated the lives of cafe workers and bakers. They have far more exciting stories to tell than your politicians or royals. It’s also about lost love and learning to leave the place you call home – I like to think they’re very accessible ideas for an audience, but perhaps never quite imagined in this way. Audiences should expect to see a little bit of their lives, hear local areas name-dropped, hear the much loved (and very difficult to master) Norfolk dialect. They might see characters they recognise, or they might be in the play themselves!
Time and Tide has only four people in the cast. What’s the difference between directing a smaller and slightly larger cast?
Largely, it’s about time and process. With a smaller cast, you can really interrogate, and explore and delve, and use that intimacy to create something really unique. You can absolutely do this with larger audiences as well, but I would be lying if I didn’t say directing larger casts requires a lot more people and schedule management than you would like. I just like being in a rehearsal space usually!
We hear the show is travelling in an electric car thanks to our partners GRIDSERVE Car Leasing. Do you think it is important for the theatre to be green? If so, why?
Theatre, by design, is about building something and tearing it down later. If we kept all the sets from every show we ever worked on, there would be no storage in the world, ever. Theatre should be leading the charge in terms of creating change, from this angle. Sustainability, reusing and repurposing, and, my new favourite word, upcycling materials to create your work, needs to become common practice.
There have been huge swathes of change within the industry, with motions such as the Theatre Green Book being a really clear model for venues, organisations and productions to work from. But if we’re talking specifically about electric vehicles, looking at how you can measure your energy usage, where you can lower it, how much you can be in control of it, how you can influence others to measure it for you – these are all really important practices we should be introducing into our spaces. The common misconception is that the show has to be about sustainability to make this happen – just make whatever show you like, but make it sustainably. Let that be your messaging!
Are there any shows that you would love to direct?
There are too many to name – I tend to always want to direct the one I’m reading, as I’ll get really into it, and start imagining how you might achieve certain moments. But I’ll give a really boring answer, and it’s just as I’ve come off producing an outdoor Shakespeare for the last three months – Romeo and Juliet. I’ve never done it, it’s my favourite Shakespeare I haven’t directed, it’s the one I’ve seen the most. For my money, it’s also one of the funniest comedies ever written, and I realise it’s highly regarded as a massive devastating tragedy. It’s just so comical – there’s so many jokes, and it has the best supporting cast in a Shakespeare, and they always get cut. Not in mine – justice for Peter, justice for Potpan, justice for Friar John!
Have you got a favourite place in East Anglia?
It’s really hard not to say standing on the coast at Sheringham, with your chips and the sea lapping around your feet. But if we’re talking about where I was happiest, it’s probably in the living room of my student house at Friends Road with my best mates, who have been my best mates for the last twelve years, and who made me the person I wanted to be. I think it’s the people that shape an experience more than the place – that’s also quite a good segue to Time and Tide, as that’s probably the whole point of the play, so I’m quite pleased with that answer!
Time and Tide debuts 29 – 30 Sep, with further performances being shown 18 – 23 Oct. Having been nominated for 2 Off West End Awards (Best Supporting Performance and Best New Play), book your tickets now for this fantastic critically acclaimed show… before they sell out!