Published on 02 April 2024 in Career

Making the step From Stage to (small) Screen: we speak to the directors

From left to right, directors Hannah Quigley, Oscar Toeman, Eleri Jones, Fumi Gomez and Sean Glynn smilingly pose on set.

We recently partnered with Stage Directors UK, ScreenSkills and Lime Pictures to create From Stage to (small Screen) — an opportunity for theatre directors to gain practical TV directing skills — funded by the David Fraser and Andrea Wonfor Bursary. 

Over two days the training saw four directors — Hannah Quigley, Fumi Gomez, Oscar Toeman and Eleri Jones — visit the set of Hollyoaks, learn from the experienced drama director Sean Glynn, and each get a chance to shoot a scene with the cast.

We spoke to Hannah, Fumi and Eleri about the ways that stage directing prepared them for the set, the experience of shooting a scene for themselves, and why this project is so important. Read about their journey from Stage to (Small) Screen below!

Why did you apply to the stage to small screen training?

Hannah Quigley: The opportunity to apply came at just the right time. I was already beginning to explore routes into directing for TV through a mentoring programme with Screen Skills and TripleC DANC, and had some experience making short documentary films alongside my theatre directing career, so I felt the timing was right for me to take the next step to gain invaluable hands-on practical on set experience. I love the stories told in television drama, and particularly the social issues that are tackled in continuing drama, and hope to be able to have a directing career that includes those. These opportunities are quite rare, so I knew I had to seize upon it.

Fumi Gomez: There just aren’t opportunities for directors, particularly from theatre, to make the jump into TV. Even just in general, there aren’t a lot of pathways for directors right now. So, when I saw this opportunity it looked like it was something that was meant for me. 

Eleri Jones: I applied because my career thus far has always sat across theatre and screen work. I did a film degree originally that had elements of theatre. I’d grown up doing theatre. As an actor, I did both. The experience of actually having the chance to try it out in this way was a really exciting prospect for me. I also really loved Hollyoaks - I grew up in Chester. So, for me, it was a super relevant place to try that out. 

Tell us about your first day of the course, where you went through the script, visited the set and met Hollyoaks director Sean Glynn. What were your first impressions?

Eleri: I didn’t really know what to expect to be honest, because I thought, “How can you cover everything in 2 days that you need to know?” So, I thought it would be quite introductory. It ended up being quite hands-on, which was fantastic. The first day was a series of talks and workshops with Sean. We also walked around all the sets of Hollyoaks. So, we were able to see people working, then we were given a script and were told, “All of you are going to be shooting this tomorrow.” We were each going to shoot with the same actors and the same crew on the second day. We also had some time on the set to explore, thinking about angles and blocking. Having that quiet time in the environment to think about how we were going to shoot it was absolutely invaluable. 

Hannah: I felt very fortunate to be learning from Sean Glynn, the director who led the training, someone with a wealth of experience and who was as interested about our experience as theatre directors as we were about his as a director for TV. He shared lots of invaluable information about the process of making a continuing drama and it was great because we were also able to have useful time on the set to recce and prepare for shooting our scene. 

Fumi: I didn’t know Hannah, Eleri and Oscar before, but it was really cool to actually meet other directors who came from a theatre background, and who also had experience in film and TV. It’s always great to meet people and get talking about the actual craft of directing. Maybe it‘s because we all come from theatre, but the vibes were really good! We were all there to learn, and the energy was really exciting.

What struck you as the biggest immediate difference between directing for stage and TV?

Hannah: Both follow a process and structure of creating, but the biggest difference is the continual repetition of that process throughout the day. That difference is one of the many aspects of TV that excites me about directing for it.

Eleri: I think the thing that I found most different is working for a show with a style that already exists. So, although you want to put your stamp on it, you’re very much delivering something that has a look that works already. You’ve got creativity within that, but there’s much more of a structure that has to be consistent with an ongoing series. That was a really fascinating journey for me. 

Fumi:  I think the main differences have to do with the managing of time, and what you use that time for. For example, in theatre I spend five weeks rehearsing with my actors, we have conversations, we talk about life, we talk about what the scene is about. In TV, you can’t really do that. Obviously, Hollyoaks actors are super-talented and they know the characters very well, so you don’t really need to ask them: “What is your objective?” because they know the characters more than anyone else. It’s just different. The time that I would usually spend in theatre for my actors is dedicated to something else, like how you want to get the shots, or the logistics of your creative vision.

Was there anything you felt that your stage experience had particularly prepared you for?

Eleri: I think the main thing has got to be the focus on story and working with actors. Having that background in theatre, your starting point is the story, the characters, the drama, the tension and the subtext, and even if the language is different — screen language is shorter and more succinct, with fewer monologues normally — you’ve still got to have that very to-the-point analysis on set with the actors that you only meet there and then. So, I think coming from theatre that‘s a really natural process, but you just speed it up a bit. 

Fumi:  I love a script, so I’d say everything that has to do with script analysis, and everything that has to do with where the characters are coming from, and what is happening in the scene. I think in theatre we take a lot of pride as directors in doing that. Also, I come from a movement and dance background so doing the blocking felt very comfortable, especially because it's not a black-box stage where you have to invent — “You‘re in the kitchen and this is where the sink would be.” It‘s all actually there. Another thing would be directing and talking to actors. I feel incredibly comfortable with them, and I think that is mainly because I come from a theatre background. 

Hannah: There are so many elements of theatre directing that are transferable to working in TV — from the skills it takes to collaborate with a range of people that all bring their talents and experience to tell stories, to the ability to support actors in unlocking character and emotions, which then forges that believable and truthful connection through the screen to viewers. Making it believable, truthful and so that the viewer cares are all things that I think about when directing theatre, and these are the same for TV.

So day two – the shoot! How did that feel?

Hannah: I was excited - to work with the cast and crew on a scene from Hollyoaks was an invaluable learning opportunity. I am so grateful for it. My energy felt very focused, focused on the job in hand to tell the story of the scene, and to put into practice what I had learnt. 

Fumi: The second day was my absolute favourite. I think it’s one of the highlights of my year, being on set with the team, having my vision, and working with the actors that I‘ve seen for years on the small screen. 

We all had the same scene and a one-hour slot to shoot everything. It‘s like this big machine that you just get into: the crew is ready, the actors are ready, and then you come in with a proposal and everyone is there to help you create your vision. I was really nervous because I’m an indie filmmaker, so usually my teams are really tiny and I‘m operating the camera myself. So, having a whole team, it becomes almost like a choreography. I hope in my future productions I get a crew that works so quickly and so efficiently. I now aspire in every shoot to get even slightly close to that level. 

Eleri: I think everybody did it in a different order, because we also had an opportunity to shadow one of the directors who was working on one of the other units as well. Some people went and shot first and then spent time shadowing. I spent time shadowing first and then went to shoot my scene, which really relaxed me into thinking, “Oh, okay, I do have some idea of what I’m doing.“ In terms of even just the basic rhythm of blocking, showing and shooting - if you haven’t seen that process before, I can’t imagine how scary it is, because I was nervous, and I had seen that before. Getting onto set, you’re encountering a group of actors who have already done this scene twice and there’s a pressure there to do something different or interesting, but the cast and crew were all so welcoming and supportive. I was conscious of sticking to time because I know that with the best will in the world, once you’ve got something, you’ve just got to move on, and not have that chance to just try it again for performance. It’s just not quite like that in telly, is it? 

What do you think was the most important thing you learned?

Fumi: Probably actually understanding what the structural organisation of continuing drama is like. So, I didn’t know that on the same day they have different scenes from different episodes being shot all at the same time. It’s just fascinating to see how productive and time efficient everyone is, and the value they place in it. Not a minute is wasted!

Eleri: I think for me, the edit was the most interesting part of the two days, in terms of being able to sit back and look at what you’ve shot, and also understanding that an editor is going to lay their hands on it first to cut you a version that you‘re then going to tweak and make changes to. I then understood why I did or didn’t need certain things on set when I was presented with them, and knowing how to pick and choose the storytelling through the edit then helped me massively when I then went back to direct. 

Hannah: There were so many useful tips, learning opportunities both from observing, listening and practically directing, it’s quite hard to choose. From ensuring that you use both monitor and live performance in case the frame size is not capturing something important to the storytelling, to how to ‘scaffold’ your shot from where your first camera set up is in relation to your next, in order to use your time effectively to get the shots you need to tell the different beats of the story. Finally, a really useful question that I learned to consider is about whose perspective or whose story you’re focusing on. This happens naturally in theatre, but in directing for screen and the choices you make for your shots, it’s key to have that clarity.

Why is it important that directors are given the opportunity to transfer skills between the disciplines of stage and screen?

Eleri: I mean, it’s absolutely essential that these opportunities are out there in the industry. I never would have been able to have the chance to direct my own TV episode if it wasn’t for this scheme. It’s about being able to use a different set of tools, which are actually just a version of the tools that you already have. Unless you’re allowed the time and environment to put those into practice, it’s incredibly difficult to chase two different careers and make that transition work for you. On top of that, the opportunity to be guided by such a talented and experienced mentor gives you an in-between step that’s really unusual, and so crucial. 

Hannah: Writers, actors and many roles transfer their skills and experience between stage and screen and it should be no different for directors. I think the disciplines have continually learned from each other and have only benefitted from that. The ecology of freelance creatives is such an intertwined and interdependent ecosystem, we are stronger together - so opportunities to explore those relationships I believe can only help society, and the telling of our stories.

Fumi: I think there is a need for shows, stories, and ways of working that are a lot more accessible and representative of the world that we're in. I’m not saying that theatre is perfect, but I do think that there are some career steps and processes in theatre that are just a little bit more clear. I think sometimes it‘s a lot more difficult to move into a TV career if you don‘t come strictly from a screen background. 

A lot of us start from theatre because there’s something accessible about it: a big space, an actor, audience... technically, that is all you really need. With TV, it’s the next step. You bring in technology, and the accessibility is different. The storytelling, though, is what we have in common. Right now, with the industry going through hard times, we need to remember that we‘re all essentially storytellers and all deserve to see ourselves represented in the world – and on TV, the most visible medium of all. 

Photo: Hannah Quigley

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