Sir Peter Hall and Lara Foot

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 5)

Embarking on the second cycle of the Rolex Mentor Protégé Arts Initiative, Sir Peter Hall had a logical, coherent plan. His agenda for the year included several of his specialties: among them Shakespeare (As You Like It, for the first time in his career), Harold Pinter (a revival of Betrayal, of which he directed the premiere in 1978), and opera (La Cenerentola, the Rossini version of Cinderella).

Wasting no time, Sir Peter summoned Lara Foot to rehearsals for his production of Shaw’s Man and Superman even before the programme had officially begun. But Sir Peter soon began to develop an intriguing theory about his new associate. “My hunch,” he said within weeks, “is that Lara’s really a primary creator. Not an interpreter or a ‘re-creator’, though she can do that, too. Writing plays, making films – that’s where she belongs.”

Sir Peter Hall and Lara Foot

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 5)

An interview with Lara Foot early in the mentorship

What interested you most about participating in the Rolex Arts Initiative?
The thought of having a mentor. I knew it was the right time in my life to learn and see things differently as well as the idea of connecting with international artists from different disciplines.

Have you ever had a mentor before?
Yes, a man named Barney Simon, in South Africa – though it wasn’t something formal like what I have right now with Rolex. Barney gave me guidance when I first started out as a director. He was interested in my work and made me curious about the humanities.

What do you hope to get out of this collaboration?
It’s very open. We’ll see where it will lead. In addition to guidance and writing, what I want most is a dialogue about theatre. In South Africa, we’re facing big questions: where should the theatre go after democracy? What stories should we tell? During the year, I will be watching Peter Hall direct some of his plays in London. And while I’m there, I shall also see lots of plays – this is the opportunity to immerse myself in theatre.

Sir Peter has recently seen my work at The Gate Theatre in London. This was one of the most fantastic experiences I have ever had.

He was very encouraging about my writing, which is inspiring. After he saw my work, our dialogue progressed into new dimensions.

We have plans for him to visit Cape Town when I direct a Pinter. This will be the cherry on the top!

So far, what is the best part of being a Rolex protégée?
The fact that people recognize my work and they believe in me. This is an amazing opportunity for me to get a sense of the bigger picture of theatre. I have also had the opportunity of making good contacts. Sir Peter is keen for me to meet as many theatre people as possible.

What was your first impression of your mentor?
I found Sir Peter Hall warm, kind. Our first conversation was fascinating, challenging, vigorous as well as exciting. He is undoubtedly a giant of the theatre.

How do you think your work is similar to or different from your mentor’s?
Sir Peter Hall deals more with text than with image. He looks for meaning between words, and I’m interested more in space. We both are fascinated by the way a story unfolds, and have respect for good writing. And we both really like actors, and are fascinated by them.

Do you think that Peter Hall’s guidance will change your approach to theatre?
It already has. He has confirmed in me the need for form in the presentation of great works. The desire to explore colloquial dialogue has finally been banished from my thoughts, and I will now look towards form and poetry.

Sir Peter Hall and Lara Foot

A year of mentoring

New horizons (Chapter 3 of 5)

London Debut
Tshepang, the 70-minute, one-act play that brought Foot to life for Sir Peter, is her first original drama. Such an experienced reader of scripts as Sir Peter could recognize the potential of such a property instantly. From his hands, it quickly passed into those of Thea Sharrock, a former assistant who was just taking up the reins as artistic director of The Gate, London’s self-appointed “home of international drama”. Sharrock pounced on the chance to present it as the opening attraction of her tenure, for three weeks beginning in September 2004. The scheme fell into place in six weeks: the twinkling of an eye.

Unsuspected discoveries
At home in South Africa between stints with Sir Peter, Foot found herself guided by his example. In workshops with students from disadvantaged backgrounds, she began experimenting in a new vein, abandoning her previous improvisatory practice (“making plays on the floor”) to focus on structure, form and rhythm of language and scenes. “I surprised the students,” she said. “I surprised myself.”

Following her mentor’s advice
AfterTshepang, Sir Peter’s chief piece of advice to Foot came down to two words: “Write more.” It intrigued him to hear of a writing project she had in hand, working titleGravitas, the anatomy of a relationship between a man and woman who live in a village that is gradually sinking into the earth. “I’m not sure I like the story yet,“ Foot confessed while in a preliminary stage. “It’s inspired by what is happening around us, but I still don’t know why the village is rotting away.”

Sir Peter Hall and Lara Foot

A year of mentoring

In South Africa (Chapter 4 of 5)

A promise kept
Early on, Sir Peter had accepted Foot’s invitation to visit her on her own turf, though a question remained as to the timing. In March 2005, he kept his promise. Other beneficiaries were players at the Baxter, whom he led in a workshop onHamlet(an Everest they were due shortly to climb), and the general public, whom he held spellbound with a lecture on the right way to play Shakespeare. Foot responded as glowingly to these events as she did to the continuation of their private dialogue, with sessions on the formal (rather than psychological) qualities ofBetrayaland on Shaffer’s international hitAmadeus.

Two-way street
“I was talking subjectively, autobiographically, trying not to be in any sense prescriptive or to say: ‘This is the way you do it’,” Sir Peter reports. Foot was excited, too, to share the visuals she had been developing forGravitas, and to talk through the play’s evolving themes and scenes. They spoke as director to director, then, with hardly a segue, as playwright and director. In both capacities, Foot felt buoyed up with a new confidence.

Voice of encouragement
As for Sir Peter, he has found ample confirmation that her true place is with the primary creators.

“Write more,” he told her once again. “Playwrights are rarer, more precious than directors.”

Extracted from a chapter, written by Matthew Gurewitsch forUnique Voices, Common Visions,a record of the 2004/2005 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

Sir Peter Hall and Lara Foot

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 5 of 5)

Lara Foot talks about her year as a Rolex protégée.

What was your most important artistic achievement before you began participating in this programme?
I suppose it’s the writing of the playTshepangand my adaptation of theWays of Dying, a novel by Zakes Mda.

How did the mentoring year progress?
Peter and I started with dialogue and observation of his work. Then we went on to dialogue and observation of my work. After that we went further. He came to South Africa and saw the whole environment I work in. We spoke about the direction for specific projects of mine, including plays he has directed as well as a new play of my own.

What was the best part of being a Rolex protégée?
Time! Time to focus on my work. Also, receiving this honour raised the level of expectation I have for myself. That’s an important thing.

What was the single most important lesson or piece of advice your mentor gave you?
“You must write more!”

How do you think your work is similar to or different from your mentor’s? Was the similarity or difference a stimulus or a barrier to your relationship?
I felt like an artist who has only worked in watercolour who finds out you can also work with oil or with clay. You add more to what you know. You gain more skills than you’ve already acquired. The bottom line for me is that I’ve primarily worked with image and with the relationship between images and bodies onstage. Peter taught me to look at the relationships in words – to focus a lot more on that. Now I can concentrate on both at the same time.

Did you learn from your mentor any lessons beyond the practice of your art?
He’s a gentleman, and he’s really good with people, especially with the press. It’s not easy for me to speak about my work, to be articulate about it. And he’s so good at that. That was inspiring for me to see.

Can you describe in two or three sentences the most beneficial aspects, for you, of the mentoring year?
It doesn’t come easily to me to integrate with different international cultures. But a spin-off of the programme is that I made really good connections with people from different countries – in particular at the Gate Theatre in London. That’s a connection I think will be lasting.

Has your approach to theatre changed or developed during the mentoring experience?
Yes, it really has. Basically I’ve become much more responsive to form. And again, my expectations for myself have gotten higher. It’s given me more of a drive towards excellence.

Now that the mentoring year has ended, which direction will your artistic career take?
(Laughs!) Absolutely no idea!

Is there any other comment you would like to add?
When I was first chosen for the programme, I knew it was a great opportunity. But what surprised me is how much I’ve gained from it. It’s something I can’t measure or define, but I can tell how much it has affected me and is going to affect me. One wonders – without wanting to be sentimental – how to say thank you for this extraordinary thing Rolex is doing.