INTERVIEW: Theatre director Hal Chambers #ArtistsInRetreat

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Hal Chambers Zooming in

During the coronavirus lockdown Herald arts finds out how local creatives are dealing with their downtime. Here Hal Chambers, assistant director on the RSC’s The Comedy of Errors, which is currently scheduled to take place in the autumn.

Tell us about what you do, and how you got started.
I am currently the Assistant Director on The Comedy of Errors. I work closely with the Director, Phillip Breen and company to help create the production and then maintain it throughout the run. Obviously that production is on hold at the moment, so I am involved with various other RSC projects being made online. We are all working in new, unprecedented ways. It has been a hell of a ride!
I acted a lot at university and my love of Shakespeare and storytelling grew there. After leaving university I set up a theatre company in Brighton which focused on devising original, puppetry based-theatre. Having worked the fringe circuit for a bit we eventually took our work out to professional venues around the UK.
I then trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and the National Theatre Studio. I’ve now been in the industry for 12 years, having directed a lot of work around the UK. I have especially enjoyed making work in the regions, as you get to know the audiences really well and the theatre is the hub of the entire community. Over the years I’ve had a lot of experience working in drama schools directing training actors, which I find invigorating. I have also worked with young people extensively so the work has been very varied and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’m thrilled to be working at the RSC, especially in this historic moment.

Where are you spending the lockdown, and who are you with?
I’m in Crystal Palace with my wife and my cat. We bought our first house last year and it’s actually been really nice spending some quality time in it and exploring the local area in a bit more depth. There are some amazing green spaces nearby and we have really felt connected to the area. We have made good friends with our neighbours. We live on an estate with a beautiful shared garden, on some sunny days we have all been sat together (at a social distance) chatting, so it’s been quite social really! The whole feeling is a bit like living in a holiday camp. In fact, we have a lake just round the corner which completes the holiday camp feel!

How are you staying connected with the outside world?
I am now a disciple of Zoom! I live online, as we all do. I think I’ve adapted quite well. In recent weeks though I have managed to start seeing a few friends in the park or outside in the garden. My wife and I have even fitted in a couple of trips to the beach which felt very exciting and refreshing. Swimming in the sea is one of my favourite hobbies.

Are you managing to do any kind of work?
The first couple of weeks of lockdown felt pretty surreal and it was hard to get motivated, yet since then I’ve managed to keep a routine and be pretty creative to be honest. I created a couple of short films in isolation as part of the RSC’s Midsummer Festival celebrations and have also been pretty busy working with the RSC directing and facilitating various different online projects.
I lead lots of games in rehearsals for example and have made some of these into videos for families to play along to at home including Bin Ball, Count to Twenty, Mafia, Fives and Four Square, so they’ve been keeping me busy!
I’m so used to rehearsing on Zoom that frankly it’s going to be very weird when we all get back into the rehearsal room together. I won’t understand why the acting company aren’t in little boxes anymore!

What are the upsides and downsides to being in lockdown?
Although the last few weeks has had many challenges, I’d say there’s actually been quite a lot of upsides to lockdown. I feel more connected to my friends, perhaps more than I ever have. There has been a never-ending conveyor belt of phone calls and FaceTimes. A friend of mine and I started a song exchange: we’d send each other a song every single day of the lockdown. I now have three months on I have a seriously good playlist of new tunes in my Apple Music account.
Obviously, there’s plenty of time to spend with my wife which is never going to get boring and lots of time to connect with my family. Like everyone I’ve done my fair share of quizzes too.
But yes, there are some big downsides as well. It’s hard to be a theatre director without being in the rehearsal room with people. It does work online but it’s not quite the same. You don’t get the same rush of energy that you get when creating work with other humans in a room and I long for that desperately. Weirdly, I even miss the commute to work and certainly miss the drink in the pub after a productive day. I guess this whole time is made us think about how we live our lives. Do we live them too quickly and intensely? It has reminded me that I need to allow more time to enjoy the simple things in life and appreciate what we have.
And obviously I’m missing the RST company, but we’ve been really well connected via various projects and a brilliant WhatsApp group so when we eventually get to make the shows in Stratford that positive and collaborative spirit will surely endure.

Do you have any cultural recommendations for keeping entertained during the isolation?Film: My favourite film was Queen and Slim. It both thrilled me and shook me up. It was, on the one hand, a dazzling study of the modern blackness, but at the same time a wildly entertaining road-trip movie. It was actually made last year but with what’s been going on with the recent Black Lives Matter movement it felt incredibly important for the current moment. It was full great performances, with an evocative soundtrack and it was directed with swagger; I would recommend it to anyone.
Book: I read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini which was a stirring story about two young boys growing up in Afghanistan. I didn’t know much about the history of the country and it made me see it in a new light.
Music: I suppose the soundtrack to my lockdown could be the new album by The 1975 – a hugely eclectic record, full of lyrics about isolation and the way we live online, which felt very timely. My wife and I first listened to it as we walk throughout Crystal Palace park with our headphones on in a kind of ‘silent disco’. We had a boogie and even managed to buy a pint in the park’s cafe. It was the closest thing I will get to being at a festival until 2021!

Any other tips for not going stir crazy?
Try not to watch the news too much, limit your time on Twitter, have a schedule for your day, and MAKE STUFF. It doesn’t matter if the art you make it crap, just make! And support each other; my composer friend and I set each other a deadline to get our creative ideas off the ground, which helped us get motivated. Also, enjoy the time off and do what you need to do to have fun. I have LOVED exercising each morning which is not something I do in normal life – big thanks to Joe Wicks for getting me moving! I’ve also enjoyed getting more into craft beer in the evenings.

What will be the first thing you do when self-isolation is lifted?
A pub. A cold beer. A group of friends. What a glorious image.
A live music gig. The buzz of the crowd.
Watching a play, surrounded by smiling faces.
Basically anything with human connection at the heart of it; I bloody miss PEOPLE!

What help would you like to see being given to the arts community?
Theatres are doing what they can to stay afloat but they need financial support from the government. Social distancing and theatre-going just doesn’t add up. We need theatre back so, as Hamlet says, it can ‘hold a mirror up to nature’. There is so much to try and make sense of at the moment and we need stories and shared experiences to be truly human again. If there isn’t support soon many of the amazing theatres that I have worked for across the country will looking at collapse. Some of these theatre companies are at the epicentre of their community and as loved as the local football team. If they collapse then those communities will be bereft.

What lesson would you hope mankind could learn from the coronavirus catastrophe?
The virus has made us realise that all of our fates are intertwined and I’ve found that very powerful. The Western way of living can make us have a narrow focus sometimes and this whole period has made us look outwards. So, let’s be kinder to each other because we are all living in this crazy world together. We need each other.

To find out more about the RSC’s Family activity programme and try out some of Hal’s rehearsal games, visit www.rsc.org.uk/events/family-activities