“My queer heart is full” – Assistant directing the Modest R&D

Evie Osbon writes about their recent experience in the rehearsal room with Middle Child and Milk Presents at the National Theatre Studio, developing new show Modest.

Hey – I’m Evie (they/she)

I had the best time working with Middle Child and Milk Presents for the R&D week of their new show, Modest by Ellen Brammar. As a Genderqueer, Nottingham-based, early career theatre maker/director, it was personally and professionally a gift to work on:

  • celebrating queerness (tick)
  • championing regional theatre makers (tick)
  • supportive, collaborative, welcoming (tick, tick, tick)

It was my first time assistant directing for the National Theatre Studio as part of the Kindling scheme, nurturing early career directors to develop their practice through assisting established directors. 

Any nerves and ‘need to prove’ was quickly washed away when, on our first morning, we did a check-in led by co-directors, Leo Skilbeck and Paul Smith and, although I can’t speak on behalf of everyone, it felt that we were all genuinely heard.

Everyone would share their pronouns each morning, which is inclusive of gender fluidity and acts as a gentle reminder so that no one is misgendered. Open to my suggestions around varying the check-ins, I led some breathing exercises and grounding techniques to encourage a ‘self’ check-in, ahead of sharing feelings and checking-in with others in the space. 

Two favourite check-in examples: 

  • If I were the weather, I would be…
  • If I were a drink, I would be…
Four performers wearing overalls with hoods contort around each other as they paint a large square upright canvas

The R&D cast play with paint in the National Theatre Studio. Photo by Evie Osbon.

A little intimidated by the assignment of assisting two directors, I fulfilled a variety of roles including ‘vibe assessor’, time-keeper, researcher and collaborator, navigating the requests and needs of both directors.

Thankfully they made this pretty easy, because what a duo Leo and Paul are: respectful of each other’s skill sets, boundaries, ways of working and access needs. This harmonious partnership set the tone for the most non-hierarchical rehearsal room that I have ever been in. One that I hope to replicate in my future projects.

Phrases I observed that encourage collaboration and equality:

  • I would like to offer…
  • Could we try…
  • Let’s test/explore…

I was able to flex my creative muscles and use a range of skills on this project. I directed a monologue that was performed in the work-in-progress sharing at the end of the week, entrusted to work one-to-one with a performer, discussing context, subtext, characterisation, exploring body language and movement. I also carried out research including checking historical dates and finding music from specific time periods. Lover of spreadsheets – no irony – I was also thrilled to fill in a scene tracker to help track the characters’ journeys, clearly showing when they were on and off-stage. 

As we unpacked the first wave feminism story of painter, Elizabeth Thompson, examining scenes, characters and intentions with a queer lens, we used music to celebrate queerness, compiling a collective playlist that served as backing tracks to warm ups, improvised scenes and movement exercises. I will definitely use music in this way in the future.

Overall, I will remember this R&D week for its playfulness and its celebration of process over outcome.

My queer heart is full and inspired. Thanks for having me!

Modest is a Middle Child production in collaboration with Milk Presents, developed with the support of the National Theatre’s Generate programme.