June 18, 2018
Interview with director, francesca Gilpin
Francesca works as an Opera Director nationally and internationally. In 2001 she set up Opera by Definition and was its Artistic Director for ten years. In 2017 she was on the faculty of the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices in America, coaching young professional singers in stagecraft. She now mostly works as a Revival Director having revived productions for companies such as Glyndebourne and ROH both here and abroad.
How did you get into directing, and particularly opera?
Before I became a director, I’d had a fairly varied career in production. I’d worked briefly as a stage manager in theatre then moved to TV as a production manager at the BBC and rose up the ranks to become a First Assistant Director. During that time I had my three children and whilst the BBC provided all the statutory maternity leave, it became more and more difficult to sustain a full time job which required me to be away on location, early starts, late finishes and constant weekend work. The atmosphere was very male orientated and sadly there was also a degree of antagonism from women in the department who did not have children. There was a constant need to prove myself capable of doing the longest hours, almost as if having children made me less good at my job. It was then I decided to go freelance, so that I could have more control over when and where I worked. After a short stint as Production Manager at the Gate Theatre Notting Hill, I decided that what I really wanted to do was to direct, and started directing small scale theatre productions. I fell gloriously in love with opera while working on a production for the Brighton Festival and from there started directing for some of the smaller companies and as an Assistant at the big houses. I then set up my own opera company, Opera by Definition. I now work mainly as a Revival Director both in the UK and abroad.
What are the big differences for you in working across different genres, and do you have a favourite?
TV gives you the opportunity for re-takes, to edit and re-edit; you can shape the final piece until it is exactly as you had envisioned. In live theatre there is that wonderful (and terrifying) sense of danger – you have to learn to let go and trust your cast, and each performance is different and alive. Opera seems to me to combine all that is best in the arts – design, costume, light, movement, voice and music all in one work. There are of course big differences between straight theatre and opera both in the rehearsal process and also in how you direct the piece – when you work on a score, in addition to the libretto the music gives you so much information about your characters’ emotional journeys, but it also ties you in to timing and form in a way that words don’t – it forces you to be creative within a specific musical frame.
(How) have you seen attitudes towards women change over the years during your career?
There are certainly many more women working within the art form now than when I first started and I do believe that we are valued as much as our male counterparts in similar roles, but there are very few women at a senior level, whether as directors or leading our national companies.
When I started directing – both my own productions and as an assistant in the big houses – I knew only a couple of other women doing the same. At the time, I think I was so pleased to have broken into the industry (for that is how it felt) that I was unaware of the huge gender bias in favour of men. Now I see many more women doing the same thing, which is a big step in the right direction. However, and here is the crux of the matter, so many of us remain at the assisting, reviving and small scale directing stage. As the research shows, only 26% of Opera Directors in the UK are women. The number of female directors working at the highest level cannot be more ten or so. Why is this? We are no less talented nor less determined than our male counterparts. Do we have to create some extremely wacky concept or re-invent the genre to be taken seriously? Where are the women running the artistic side of our opera companies? This is an issue that needs to be addressed and women need to be supported and encouraged to be seen as equal to the task. The current zeitgeist encourages women to have a voice in the arts, to ‘sit at the table’, but we still have along way to go to make it a reality.
Have you ever considered your gender to be relevant to the challenges of your job?
I don’t feel that my gender plays a part in whether I’m offered a piece of work or not, but my ability to accept that work has definitely changed as now my children are adults I no longer have to consider childcare. I had to make tough decisions when I had small children at home and I know how hard it is for parents to be away from home for extended periods – and how very expensive it is to pay for childcare or travel with your family and set up home in a different city every few months. The very nature of our nomadic lifestyle, where little is done to recognise the needs of parents, makes working in this industry very challenging indeed.
Do you think the theory that women are naturally less authoritative than men is true? If so, is this just nature or is this something that is conditioned in us from early childhood?
No I don’t think it’s true at all but in general I do feel that women have to be much more careful than men about how they wield that authority, and that’s something that needs to change. Society has a tendency to cast women in leadership positions as aggressive or harsh whereas men in the same roles are seen as strong and decisive. Men in the public eye don’t get judged on their clothes or general appearance in the same way that women do, and that can undermine a woman’s authority and trivialise her role. You need a huge amount of self-belief to overcome this type of casual prejudice. However, as a director, you need to have a certain kind of authority whether you are a man or a woman, and it’s not an area where I have ever had any issues. We are all pretty equal once in the rehearsal room.
What do you think are the biggest barriers are for parents entering the profession, particularly for directors?
Oh there are so many! Starting out as a director, I had to take low-pay or no-pay work in order to hone my craft and develop my own way of working, which meant having to take non related paid work during the day and rehearsing evenings and weekends. That in itself meant long hours away from the family. As my career developed I had the opportunity to work abroad and that is tough on the children and on the parents…
Fees are often not enough to cover the cost of childcare, and there are no N/A’s for directors – we’re at every rehearsal so often miss out on the normal joys of parenting - school events, school holidays… even mundane things like dentist and doctor’s appointments become a logistical challenge.
In a business where there is always a plentiful supply of artist ready and willing, do you think changes should be made to make the industry more inclusive for artists with families and/or dependants?
Definitely. Being a parent should not be a barrier to working in the industry. I believe the big houses could do more to support parents particularly through scheduling and also by providing on-site childcare – it wouldn’t be so difficult….
As directors, we need the freedom to change our rehearsal calls and perhaps work with a different cast member than we had planned. We cannot completely predict how long a scene will take to work on, and we may need to make those schedule changes but we have a responsibility to think about the effect of last minute changes on parents and people with dependants, and how we can be flexible.
How did becoming a parent change or affect your job?
I already had children when I became a theatre/opera director. It was a constant juggling act – take a job or be at home to help with exam revision? I chose to take on smaller projects while my children were young so that I could be at home more and while I will never regret the choices I made, I do believe that my directing career stood still during that period.
What advice would you offer to anyone working in the opera industry who is about to become a parent?
Only work in this industry if you are prepared for long periods away from home, low fees, constant guilt about not being with your family and living out of a suitcase. If you are lucky enough to be working close to home, celebrate. If you are determined enough to cope with all this, do it! It is the most rewarding and exciting industry to work in and nothing compares to seeing your production come alive, from the initial concept to first night, with all that goes in between.