Meeting David Thacker: A Life Immersed in the Dramatic Arts
Spending an hour in the company of award-winning director David Thacker offered undeniably valuable revelations from his life spent immersed in the dramatic arts. His impressive curriculum vitae and star-studded collaborations have lent themselves to several decades of industry insights, behind-the-scenes anecdotes and thoughtfully cultivated philosophies on the art of directing.
Thacker has built a career on the screen and stage. In addition to a vast body of theatre directing — notably focused on the works of William Shakespeare and Arthur Miller — Thacker has adapted plays to cinema for the BBC and served as artistic director of the Duke’s Playhouse and director of The Young Vic Theatre. The Olivier Awards named him “Best Director” and awarded his productions “Best Revival” (for Pericles in 1991) and “Play of the Year” (for Broken Glass in 1994).
Despite Thacker’s prestige, he is as noticeably unpretentious as he is bright and affable. As the subject of a round-table press interview run by international student journalists, he reveals a presence defined by a sense of humor and a systemic approach to group dynamics that he later proves to be a window into his directing process. Prior to the start of this conversation, as students trickled in, it becomes clear that the seating layout wouldn’t suit the event. As the first in a series of free-spirited movements, Thacker immediately leaves his place at the head of the table, not particularly attached to the construct of a speaker’s podium, and joins the students in arranging a mess of stacked chairs and desks into an intimate space for conversation. Just as one might imagine, Thacker, is a hands-on director, unafraid to enter a stage’s active space to re-block set pieces and rearrange actors. Once satisfied with the new layout chairs, he announces to the group, “It’s Tetris gone wild all over again!”
The classroom becomes a mirror to Thacker’s rehearsal process; he notes the fearful silence of students unwilling to ask the first question, and instead posed his own, “What do you want from me?” He goes on to explain that he asks the same things from his actors from the moment the backstage journey begins, he says, “Usually they want leadership and what people want is leadership married to collaborative involvement.” For Thacker, not only are actors lifelong students, but so is the director. He frames the classroom experience as a quintessentially human one: the fear of failure, the difficulty of introductions, the awkwardness of building trust and even the measurement of one’s own success.
Though much of his work has been dedicated to William Shakespeare, he admits a tumultuous relationship with the Bard, “I feel a sense of dissatisfaction or relative failure when I direct a play by Shakespeare […] what I’ve come to realize is just in attempting to climb Mount Everest, you won’t get to the top but the intent might get you quite a long way up it.” This notion of a personal best – the most any one person can do – dominates his approach. First days on Thatcher’s set include an introduction to his motto, “Let’s not worry about being a better production of King Lear than that person’s or that person’s or that person’s. Let’s just think of it as our best production, the best production that we are capable of doing at this time and in this place. Not in an abstract sense.”
A good actor, as defined by the ability to fully commit to each new director, is both a gem and a mystery for Thacker, he says in one long breath, “How people survive being an actor I have no idea. I don’t understand how they can spend their life having to be subservient, repressed, treated as if they have no brains — treated by the very profession, the insecurity, the inability to earn money to have family and children […] You have to have a certain kind of personality to cope with it.” Though he expects a lot from his performers, it is a similar loyalty that he expects from himself as a director to the playwright that leant well to his connection with Miller. Once the rehearsals hit the stage, Thacker said: “If the actors perform it well — understanding the playwright’s intention — and if the designers are imaginative and sympathetic to what the playwright is trying to do, then the production will be fine, broadly speaking.”
Working with Arthur Miller was a particularly noteworthy opportunity for Thacker who considers a creative team’s collective ability and willingness to commit to the fullest understanding of a playwright’s intention to be a keystone of a successful production. Not only has Thacker directed more of Miller’s plays than any other director, he also had a close and deeply influential relationship with the playwright. According to Daniel Rosenthal’s The National Theatre Story, Thacker directed six of Arthur Miller's plays and produced two between 1985 and 1993 at the Young Vic theatre during his run as their Artistic Director; he was described as the one who was "[Doing] more than any of his peers” to keep Miller “In the forefront of the English-speaking theatre."
Although Shakespeare is inherently less accessible than Miller’s works was during the many years of their friendship, Thacker’s approach in relating to plays is consistent, he explained, “I pretend William Shakespeare is in the room with us […] Even if it’s a play that has been done a hundred [times]. How would you do it if it’s the world premiere? And how would you do it if it’s the world premiere for this people, in this place, of this time?” He added, “Every play is different, of course, but the general principles — I would say — stay the same.”