Interview with Charlotte Westenra: At the Crossroad of Politics and Theatre

Written in August 2016

There was a girl who aspired to become an actress. When her mother took her into theatre, the little one felt so angry, tightened her fists, and promised to herself “I could do that”. While she fell in love with acting so early on, she was confused in school when realizing that she had no talent for it.

It was after this frustration that the young dreamer, Charlotte Westenra, found her true passion in directing. Graduating with first-class honours for Drama at the University of Manchester and trained at Augusto Boal’s Centre of the Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio de Janeiro, she gradually established her career as director and dramaturg.

Talking about her actress dream, she giggled, “I hate it! I hate it! Sometimes when it’s the opening night, I sit in the audience, and I have stage fright occasionally on behalf of the actors where I start to sweat, my heart will beat faster and I don’t know my next line!”

However, as the old saying goes, “a good director is not necessarily a good actor”. This is especially true for Westenra. She is recognized with numerous awards for her work, including a 2006 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre as associate director to Nicolas Kent for Bloody Sunday – Scenes from The Savile Inquiry. With Gladiator Games, she received a nomination for a 2006 Whatsonstage Theatregoers’ Choice Award and another nomination for a 2007 Olivier Award for outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre. Waiting for Lefty was a finalist for 2003 James Menzies Kitchin Award for Young Directors (BAC).

Westenra’s father, Leonard Whiting, is an English actor, best known for his Golden-Globe-Award-earning role as Romeo in the 1968 Zeffirelli film version Romeo and Juliet, Theatre bridges between them: “Sometimes we sit around and discuss Shakespeare together. We’ve had arguments over silly things. So occasionally we do get into heated debates,” she said. “I was really proud of him and I’ve got pictures of his stills from some of his films.”

In the early stage of her career, she was Resident Assistant Director at the Donmar Warehouse and directed Kiss of the Spider Women and Lower Ninth for the theatre, as well as working as Associate Director to Michael Grandage for Frost/Nixon and to Jamie Lloyd for Piaf. “If you want to be a director, you cannot underestimate how important it is to get into other people’s rehearsal rooms. I learnt so much working with them, and I learnt from really observing some of the best directors and what their practices were.”

Westenra is currently directing Shangri-La, a full-length play discussing the dilemma of tourism development: in the Himalayan foothills, there is a place renamed ‘Shangri-La’, where the locals are forced to choose between protecting their heritage or exploiting it to make a living. “You like your minorities like your pandas – picturesque, cuddly, endangered, helpless. But I refuse to be a panda. I refuse to go extinct. I want to live, to live well, to live like them,” says a character of the play.

The playwright and historian, Amy Ng, was born in Australia, brought up in Hong Kong and is currently based in London. Westenra made acquaintance with Ng during an interview at the Old Vic. “I am drawn to historians personally. History is a really good grounding for any theatre director, because it asks you to examine the world of the play, to look at politics, to look at how society interacts.”

The play was open in Finborough Theatre on 12 July and will run until 6 August. It receives a 4-start review on WhatsOnStage as “funny and compelling”. Westenra said, “We are selling quite well and the audience has been really positive,” adding, “The selling is obviously very important if you are doing a fringe theatre. It’s like every penny counts.”

To put Shangri-La on stage, Westenra and her team have overcome many obstacles. The casting posted a great challenge at the beginning. “There are no Tibetan actors working on spotlight,” she said. The theatre was also an issue. “Finborough, which is one of the smallest theatres [50 seats] I’ve worked in. How can we use our imagination to convey these different locations? The simple answer is, we started very much research, looking at what authenticity was and what it meant in the play.”

Two new musicals directed by her are now under development; Here by Kate Marlais and Alex Young which won the 2015 S&S Award “for my promising unproduced musical of the year” and The Wicker Husband by Darren Clarke and Rhys Jennings which won the inaugural MTI Stiles and Drewe Mentorship Award.

Westenra revealed, “With the Wicker Husband, we’re going on a writing retreat in France next month. Sung lyricists are working with me, the writer and the composer to look at the structure and how the narrative goes from book into song. And Here is also going into workshop.”

Asked to compare plays and musicals, she joked, “It’s much more fun to direct a musical because you only have to be in half the amount of time.” She believed essentially they are similar in terms of collaboration: “Theatre is all about collaborating with your designers and collaborating with your actors. If you’re working on a musical, you also get to collaborate with a musical director and a choreographer.”

She expressed her affection for the upcoming musicals, because they would break the typecast she had been given: “What happens is the work I get offered is often very political because I’m very passionate about it. But, I need to broaden my horizons. The Wicker Husband, for example, there’s definitely a social message in there which is about communities and how we treat each other. But at the same time I think it’s got a really broad appeal and it’s a family show.”

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