Sophie Roberts on SILO, selecting work, and supporting women in theatre.
If you frequent first nights in Auckand, you will probably have seen Sophie Roberts around. As the youngest artistic director of a major New Zealand company at the moment, and the first female director of Silo Theatre, Roberts keeps herself in the loop. In her early thirties with big green eyes and short red hair, she is recognisable but not that approachable, and while often accompanied by extroverts, she herself is quiet. At drama school you learn that it is not the person that plays the king who persuades the audience of his power, but all the other characters who treat him like one. Roberts, I observe, is treated rather like a queen.
Silo has become one of the two leading theatre companies in Auckland, producing the best new plays, home-grown and international. While ATC’s core audience are middle-aged and older, Silo presents a programme ranging from the edgy to the delightful, bringing in audiences in their twenties, thirties, forties, and younger too. The Book of Everything has now been presented twice and toured around the country. It is one of those rare shows genuinely appealing to everyone from 10 to 110. It is also the reason there hasn’t been a new show at Silo for a while.
Actors hope Roberts will call. I have known one to cancel a holiday to attend a workshop with her. She is great, they say, she knows what she wants.
I have been allotted twenty minutes to talk with her, and I have everything ready ahead of time, but my little girl is at kindy having a photograph taken and though things should have been over by now, they haven’t. I sneak outside and hope, now things have run on, to keep running on a bit longer. Frankly, I am a little nervous. I dial Sophie’s number.
And she is lovely. Intelligent, of course, but lovely, and quite normal. Her voice is surprisingly warm and I kick myself. No one actually makes it in the world of theatre or film without combining talent with a good dose of courtesy and good humour. ‘What are you up to today?', I ask.
‘What am I up to?’ She echoes cheerily. She is going to watch some rehearsals for Medea. No, she isn’t directing that one, Rachel House is. Roberts read the script three years ago and it was so unlike anything she had ever read. ‘A feat of writing. It tips Euripides’ version on its head’. She asks me if I know the original. I do. (I saw it in London with Fiona Shaw, directed by Deborah Warner, and I wonder to myself later why so many women directors and writers are drawn to Medea: a women who kills her sons to have revenge on a faithless lover. She is the antithesis of most women’s experience.) In this new version by Kate Mulvaney and Anne-Louise Sarks, the focus is on the boys, locked in their room playing while their parents battle offstage.
I ask how they are doing. The boys are ‘amazing’. There are two casts, all handling rehearsals well and going to school. But how are they coping with the subject matter?
‘It sounds heavy’ she says, ‘but it feels so light and innocent in the room. It feels quite normal’.
That is all very well, I think, but when they get home and hear their parents argue maybe they’ll think they are for the chop next? Roberts laughs.
I catch sight of children running out to play. Drat.
Medea, cred: Jinki Cambronero
There seems to be quite a focus on women coming up. After Medea there is a ferocious all-woman, production about misogyny and the money markets, Boys will be Boys by Melissa Bubnic. I ask if this focus is intentional. ‘Sort of,’ she says, ‘I’m super aware of the global imbalance in theatre; women need more leadership roles in writing and directing.’ I assume by this that if she isn’t impressed with a woman’s writing or directing skills she wouldn’t hire them. Roberts has a natural talent for giving the right answers while not exactly pinning herself down.
On this occasion, she is doing the directing herself. Commissioning, handling tours, directing, still acting, supporting artists without getting emotionally over-involved and reading, reading, reading doesn’t seem to daunt her. She says she still has a lot to learn about being artistic director – the hardest thing being always thinking 18 months ahead – but she seems on top of it. She puts together a programme by keeping up with what is going on internationally, by reading a lot, and by staying in touch with all the agents. But Hudson & Halls, which she co-directed, and was one of the best shows of 2015, came out of a conversation with friend Kip Chapman.
I ask her if she is planning another directorial internship. She hopes to have an intern every year, if there is funding for it, and will start that process in a month or two. She would have loved to have been an intern herself. (Ben Henson is currently an intern at the ATC after a mere fifteen years’ directing experience). When you are starting out there is so little guidance, you make lots of mistakes.
‘Did you have a mentor?’ I ask.
‘No’, she says. Then, ‘Not an official one. Shane [Bosher] started giving me jobs later on but I learnt by making shows with my friends.’
It is rather heartening to discover that she started at the bottom making it up as she went along, like everyone else. There are so many opportunities to learn to act, and so few to learn to direct that one wonders if making it up as one goes along (while looking as if you are completely on top of it all) is a rite of passage for all aspiring directors. Try something, try something else, get there in the end. Perhaps what is more important is being young, ambitious, focused, with energy, charm, an eye for talent (and good scripts) and good people on your side. Roberts seems to have all of these in spades. I finish the call with my little girl pawing my knee and realise that only twelve minutes have passed. No self-deprecating anecdotes, no random observations, no time wasted, she gets on with it. She knows what she wants. I fill in the gaps.
Medea opens at the Herald Theatre on 16th June. Tickets can be found here.
Sophie Roberts / Medea