Carrie Cracknell is the latest in a line of directors moving into opera from other genres. She has the kind of CV worth reciting. At 19, as a history student at Nottingham University, she co-founded the theatre company Hush Productions, whose first show toured New York and London. She went on to study directing at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and, in 2005, won a Fringe First award at the Edinburgh Festival. At 26, she and Natalie Abrahami were appointed artistic directors of the Gate, the small but prestigious west London theatre whose previous heads have included Thea Sharrock and Stephen Daldry.
In 2011, Cracknell became associate director of the Young Vic, and last year directed a much-praised new version of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. She is now 32 and directing her first opera: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck for English National Opera, which opens at the Coliseum next week (our meeting takes place in the cell-like Coaching Room A of ENO’s north London rehearsal space). When I get home after the interview, I open an email from the Royal Court, England’s foremost theatre for new writing, announcing Cracknell’s appointment as associate director.
Her list of achievements is certainly impressive but Cracknell also seems to posses that rare gift of instilling in those around her some of her own immense drive and enthusiasm. When I ask her what makes a good director, she cites qualities such as “a combination of instinct and craft”. But I suspect her real achievement lies in motivating others to take their work as seriously as she takes hers.
Did she always want to direct? “I tried to act a bit at university, very unsuccessfully,” she laughs, shaking her head at the memory. “I felt out of control because I didn’t know what was happening on stage.” She soon realised that directing came more naturally – or, as she puts it, “making up an imagined world and trying to persuade other people to come with you”.
She hasn’t been afraid to go out on a limb. At the Gate, Cracknell became known for blending dialogue, movement and sound. She was inspired by Belgium’s theatre culture – “they don’t have the same legacy that we have in the UK of the division between text and movement” – to make the Gate a place where emerging directors could explore theatrical form.
She happily admits that her experimental approaches had “different levels of success” (her 2010 dance-theatre piece Irregular Breathing, based on the transcripts of emergency calls, got mixed reviews) but she maintains that innovation and the freedom to fail are crucial. “Work in this country can get quite neat – well-delivered and driven by success – and often it becomes quite sterile,” she says. “The most exciting theatrical experiences always have a wildness to them.”
When I ask whether she has a trademark “style”, she replies: “Most directors evolve an aesthetic, which is representative, of course, of your taste and your perception of the world. I’m interested in female protagonists. I still feel like we live in a culture in which the stories of women are secondary to the stories of men.”
And before I’ve even broached the subject, she is on to feminism, shared parenting and women in the theatre. These are timely concerns: a recent study revealed the stark gender imbalance at play in English theatre. At the country’s top 10 subsidised venues, women account for just 38 per cent of actors, 24 per cent of directors and 23 per cent of creative teams. This does not reflect the audience: Ipsos Mori polling figures from 2010 showed that women made up 68 per cent of theatregoers.
It can be difficult to balance any demanding job with parenting. And, as Cracknell (married with two children) puts it, when “the product happens at night time”, that balance is even more elusive. The barriers are not just practical: the disparity also reflects society’s expectations of gender. Although things are shifting, Cracknell believes “there is something considered unfeminine or distasteful about women having strong expressions of power. There can be an anxiety about being considered arrogant.”
Working on A Doll’s House, which famously ends with Nora leaving her husband and children, Cracknell was shocked to realise “how little had changed, particularly in the way we perceive women and sex, and the way we understand female power to be so closely linked to looks”.
Her thinking was informed by British feminist Kat Banyard’s 2010 book The Equality Illusion, and with playwright Nick Payne she is devising a piece based on the book for the National Theatre, its aim currently being to have an all-female ensemble. “There are some really specific ‘now’ questions about men and women – about having children, about how that relates to career, about what we believe family to be – that no one’s quite getting stuck in to,” she says.
Rarely do people in the arts tell you they’re in it to change the world. But for Cracknell, “anything we can do to open out the way we perceive sexual politics is really exciting because it feels like, ‘why would we be making any form of culture if we weren’t trying to express what we want the world to look like now?’ ”
Although she began her career directing new plays – and that will be her focus at the Royal Court – Cracknell has made her name reinterpreting classic texts. At ENO, she is setting Berg’s 1925 opera in contemporary Britain. Wozzeck is a soldier newly returned from war, struggling to process his experiences and negotiate his old life.
It is, in Cracknell’s reading, about “whether you can step outside of the life that has been set up for you”. She explains: “Wozzeck has a very strong feeling that the world doesn’t understand that it’s difficult to be good, to be moral, when you’re in poverty. It struck me that this resonates with where we are now, with a working class who feel completely disconnected from the political elite.”
The opera’s concern with rehabilitating ex-soldiers is similarly topical, given the British army’s long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wozzeck, Cracknell says, has been “a complete gift” as a first opera to direct: “there aren’t any wasted arias or moments where you don’t know what’s happening. Every note moves the story forward.” Opera has “tested different muscles” for Cracknell, with the tempo of the action being dictated by the music – not the director. But, she insists, both theatre and opera have similar imperatives. “[It’s] really about telling good stories,” she says.
‘Wozzeck’ is at the Coliseum, London, from May 11 to 25