There’s much to celebrate as theatres reopen with productions that faced significant delays from COVID. In addition to musicals, there are some thought-provoking new plays worth seeing in the days ahead. One such play is Anything Is Possible If You Think About It Hard Enough, presented by Small Things Theatre at Southwark Playhouse September 22 – October 9. Written by Cordelia O’Neill, it follows the relationship of Alex (Gemma Lawrence) and Rupert (Huw Parmenter), who are devastated when their baby is delivered stillborn. The play focuses on their grief and how they move forward through their challenges.
I interviewed director Kate Budgen to delve into the journey she’s taken with Anything is Possible and find out how rehearsals are coming together. Budgen regularly serves as a Connections Director for the National Theatre Connections Festival. She was Associate Director for Girl From the North Country, in both the Toronto and West End runs in 2019. Her directing credits include GUT (Guildhall School of Music and Drama), The Importance of Being Earnest (Watermill Theatre), and No Place for a Woman (Theatre503).
Which production has been your favorite so far in your career?
It’s tricky because I absolutely adore new writing. That’s where I get the thrill of it. I think the first show I did, which is not dissimilar in terms of style and size, is Bedbound by Enda Walsh. It was the first one I did out of my MA, in a little tiny room above a pub. [There was] a £50 budget and everyone scraping together to try and make it work. I find Enda Walsh’s language just the most extraordinary thing.
It was a really exciting process with the best actors. I had the best time. You’re at the beginning of your career and you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re driven by passion. They are all my favorite, I think though, when I’m doing them. They all have a special place in your memory.
Have you worked with Cordelia O’Neill before?
Yes, I was a match made with Cordelia back in about 2017. She’d written her second ever play and she was looking for a director after [getting] a slot at Theatre 503. A very good friend of mine, a mutual friend, said to me, “I’m going to hook you up because I think you’ll get on.”
I read the play and it was an extraordinary thing. I didn’t know what it was. We met and I immediately connected to the writing. Then in talking to her, I just wanted to find out more. We started our relationship on that play four years ago.
Then she said, “I’m going to write a play where a baby is the narrator. It’s about the loss of a baby.”
I said, “That sounds insane.”
She wrote this play, which we did a scratch session at the VAULT Festival in 2018. Then it went on a big change. With the big 18-month break in between, it feels like we’ve been working on it for years. We’ve become very good friends as a result, but also brilliant collaborators. I don’t want to speak for Cordelia, but I enjoy working with her. It’s an exciting relationship to have with a writer.
How do you approach difficult subject matter like in this play?
I suppose it’s [about being] curious but also respectful. If you’re telling a story, it’s your job to know and speak to people. Cordelia felt very strongly and for various reasons, this was a story she wanted to tell. We undertook a lot of research, talking to people, and listening to ensure that the story we were telling came from a place of truth. It starts at that point, and then at some point, the play has to take over. You can only do that once you put in the time and the research to gather those experiences. We were so lucky we had people who were willing to talk to us in a very honest way.
Do you find it a challenge to balance the serious and comedic elements?
Yes, I think that’s why Cordelia is such a brilliant writer. She is able in her writing—it’s clever and hard to balance the humor and the darkness. One minute we are laughing and the next minute, our hearts are breaking. That’s what you want as an audience member as well. [Otherwise] you can’t learn from it and that’s not what life is, is it? We find humor in the most unexpected places. Cordelia mines those moments, which then of course, makes the hard moments harder. The contrast serves the story and the people we want to make real.
Have you worked with Gemma and Huw before?
No, Cordelia knew Huw before. He came into the reading of the play during research and development. From that reading, we both agreed that he was just Rupert. The casting of him was quite easy. For Gemma, we went through a big audition process to find somebody who could not only bring her character to life, but also fit into what Huw was bringing to Rupert’s character. We knew very, very quickly that they work together well in the room. They are both wonderful, extraordinary, and brave.
Is the structure of the play linear or does it skip between timelines?
Cordelia enjoys giving us a challenge in rehearsal in that we spend half [of it] working out where we are and what time we’re in. She plays with form, time, and place a lot. It is a memory play. While we start after the couple have lost their baby, the play jumps back to the beginning of the story to chart the relationship of these two people. We bounce through the relationship at breakneck speed. The play sort of ends at the beginning.
Take us through the rehearsals and how you further explore the characters.
It’s been quite an extraordinary process because we had our first week 18 months ago. That was in March 2020, where we got together, read the play for our table work, and talked through character timelines. We gave them backstories with all this gorgeous and detailed work on who they were and the world of the play. By Friday of that first week, we were shutting down and in full-on lockdown mode.
We’ve had to keep that first week alive somehow for 18 months. Coming back to it now, we have only two weeks to rehearse. We had one day where we kept what we did in that first week and we revised. Then we jumped in from the beginning of the play. It’s been a very short, intense process.
We’ve had to prioritize getting it up on its feet and discovering it, perhaps before we feel it. The emotional truth of the play is so huge that if we spend all our time on that, we wouldn’t have a shape for the play. We have to start with an outside-in way with shapes and geography, where they might be in space, and then mine for the layers of truth going on in the scenes. We have to go one step forward and two steps back.
The news focuses on how strained relationships became during the pandemic. Do you feel that’s true and did it make your current examination of the play stronger?
Definitely. I feel like we’re all slightly different people and changed as a result of the pandemic. We can’t help but bring our collective experience of what’s happening to us into the room. On a subconscious level, it’s probably informing the work. In a more obvious way, perhaps we understand a little bit more about isolation and being with somebody in the same space without much choice in that. Also, I think without it being a COVID play, it feels like a play that we really need right now.
We’ve experienced various levels of trauma, grief, and loss in the last 18 months. We’re kind of emerging from that and working out if we’re ever going to be okay. That’s what this play is: it’s two people who go through something awful together and they try to work out if they’re going to be okay. It feels like it speaks to what we’ve experienced without it being like “It’s about COVID.” It’s very timely in that sense.
I know you’re still in rehearsals but what’s a great lesson you’ve learned during this production?
I grow every day through every project. I suppose the more you do it, the more trust you can have in your actors and as you get actors who trust each other, then less is more. As a director, sometimes there’s a need to share everything and overstate your presence when actually it’s [about] stepping back and trusting something that’s happening. Through this process, I’ve gone, “I’m just going to sit and watch.”
It’s not something you can always do, but definitely on this occasion I find it to be true.