An Interview with Maria Aitken

Tony Award-nominated British director Maria Aitken returns to the Huntington this spring to direct Educating Rita. After its U.S. premiere at the Huntington in 2007, her production of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps continued to Broadway and is still playing Off Broadway. She is also an acclaimed teacher of High Comedy and an actress, having performed in more Noël Coward plays in London's West End than any other actress. (She is also remembered by many for her role as John Cleese's wife in A Fish Called Wanda.) Aitken spoke with Artistic Professional Intern Vicki Schairer about her career and preparing for Educating Rita.

Everyone here is excited to have you back at the Huntington. What made you decide to come back?

    Because I had such a good time there doing The 39 Steps and I have complete confidence in the backstage and administrative workings of the place. I also like good old-fashioned proscenium theatres with a loyal audience! In fact, I might not have bothered to re-read Educating Rita if the invitation hadn't come from the Huntington. I had forgotten what a good play it is. The film undermined it for me.

You have worked extensively both in England and the U.S. What are the differences between working in the two countries? Do you have any stories about "culture shock" over the course of your career?

    People who work in the theatre have a shared ethos that is a country of its own. But, if pressed, I'll admit I've come to think that American actors are more disciplined and willing. Of course, there are some extraordinary British actors, but it's a myth that we have the edge over Americans. The only culture shock I've had has been over the union demands of some of the Broadway stagehands. [For The 39 Steps,] a crew of 5 in London was represented by a crew of 14 in New York. It may strangle straight plays in New York in the end.

What do you look for in a play as a director?

    I have no rules — my response is always physical — I "see" it and "hear" it as I read. If I don't, then I have nothing to offer. Recently I have done either plays with the complexity of conjuring tricks or plays with huge casts. With Rita, the joy and simplicity of two people and one set was very alluring. No tricks, all back to basics.

What is your favorite part of the directing process?

    The rehearsal process, working in a room, has always been my favorite part, both as actress and director. As an actress I wouldn't have cared if the curtain had never gone up, and as a director I hate leaving the family to become a voice in the dark in the auditorium during the tech part. But I do now feel pride in the actors when the play is running and I am largely superfluous. When I first directed, I loathed that cut-off from them, because I had always been part of a company as an actor.

What creative tools are you employing to develop your approach to Educating Rita?

    One advantage I bring is my nationality and my clear memory of this period in education in Britain. So I will bring the actors some novels of the period set in Northern universities and some film clips — and they may have to put up with some anecdotes about my own teachers at Oxford.

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