Glass meets director Ola Ince – theatre’s rising star

WHEN Ola Ince was little, she would organise various trips to Jamaica for herself and her cousins – off they’d hop, duvets and all, onto her bed. Her mother has always described this as her “early directing years,” yet she disagrees. Instead, recalling it as “more of a gradual process,” Ince reveals to me the exact instance she knew that theatre directing was the career for her – a moment in her secondary school drama lesson when she was asked to devise a scene with four other students, “somehow, I became the director. I was really proud of what I made and whatever ‘that’ was, I knew I wanted to do it forever”.

With muffled sound and frozen screens – a phenomenon we’re slowly becoming accustomed to – myself and Ince met like any other interview in this, dare I say it, unprecedented time, through Zoom. Sitting in from what I can only assume is her kitchen, Ince greets me with a warm smile while finishing off the remainders of her breakfast – laughing, we both acknowledged how bizarre our new world is.

Ince at home during the directing process of Unprecedented

In a haze of new rules and regulations due to the coronavirus, reality has stopped for almost everyone – some people working-from-home and some furloughed, all waiting for the go-ahead to return to normal. Yet, for theatres, the lockdown may not be as simple as a pause in production.

Last week Southampton Nuffield Theatre announced that they have gone into administration and with most theatres across the UK not being due to fully re-open until Spring 2021, many more venues, actors and crews’ futures could be at stake. Ironically, the appeal of the theatre – having hundreds of bodies packed into an enclosed space sharing a communal experience – has become its greatest threat.

For Ince, the current confinement means 3 postponed productions: Is God Is at the Royal Court, The Narcissist at Chichester Festival and Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theatre. Hopeful for these to resume in 2021, the 31-year-old director indicates how it has “wiped-out” her whole-year plan, although seeming fairly pleased by the idea too, “since lockdown, I’ve been thinking about what a healthy work-life balance is and as a director, to pay your bills, you are really lucky to have jobs back-to-back, but at the same time you have to be careful not to burn-out,” she says.

Using this time-off, Ince has stepped-back and reflected on her flourishing career so far, “up until recently I was the international associate director of Tina Turner: The Musical and that, alongside doing shows like The Convert and Poet in da Corner, was really tiring because I travelled so much but couldn’t afford to be fatigued because I had to use my off-time to prepare for other productions.”

Acting on this chance to rebuild herself and her work, Ince compares the contrast between pre-Covid-19 vs post by questioning what theatre will be like when it re-emerges, “there is a lot of talk about how people will be paid, if only established artists will survive and how audiences will want to interact after the virus.”

Starting with Romeo and Juliet, Ince has been thinking about what it will mean post-corona and how she is going to adapt a story, that has been told time and time again, to fit in with our current society.

Director Ola Ince

Growing up in Norbury, south London, Ince’s own theatre-experience was limited to one or two trips to the Panto each year with her mum – it wasn’t until college, studying at the Brit School, that she became an independent theatregoer. “My love of theatre comes from my love of storytelling opposed to productions,” she tells me, though also clarifying she would never want to delve into the career of a playwright, “I love to drown myself in information like watching loads of documentaries or reading tonnes of books.”

With narrative being at the forefront of her directing process, Ince focuses on strong themes throughout her body of work. Her first play Gun Fingers, that she wrote and directed as part of her A-Levels, focused on the glorification of violence within media and film.

A more recent endeavour of Ince’s, directed behind the bars of her front door, is an episode for BBC Four’s Unprecedented, a series which was written and filmed at the beginning lockdown which “responds to the radical way we have seen our world change during the coronavirus pandemic.” Ince, alongside a cast of four others, digitally directed Viral (written by James Graham) through Zoom, a story depicting three teenagers who use lockdown to come up with the next big viral craze.

“It was fun – one to tell the grandkids,” Ince laughed, explaining the unfamiliar process, “they took me on tours around their houses so I could pick locations and they’d do dress-ups for me.” This way of directing was different from anything Ince has ever done before, but being so early on in lockdown meant it was “a great distraction as we were making art together,” she says. Although, if she were to be asked to do it now, 4 months in, she would find it more difficult as she’s “a bit more jaded by it all.”

Ince digitally directing Unprecedented’s Viral

With our current political landscape, it would go amiss not to ask Ince about her views regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. With British theatre being a scene where access and white privilege are continuingly being examined, opportunities for black creatives aren’t equal to their white peers.“I think that the cliché, which maybe isn’t a cliché at all, that you have to work twice as hard to get anywhere when you’re a black person is true” Ince says considering the times she has felt bias due to her race in the industry, “it is very frustrating to only be recognised as someone of colour as opposed to just an artist.”

There is a common misconception that everyone in the arts is liberal, “they hide behind their well-informed well-intentioned rhetoric,” says Ince, who feels as if there should be an inquiry into leaders’ biases, “I think a lot of people would be shocked to who runs the institutions or who sits on the boards of them and why certain decisions are made because a lot of the time it’s about tokenism.”

Ola Ince at her home during Lockdown

 “I feel like I have always been talking about these issues especially in my work and so it would be great if I could stop talking about those issues in my work,” Ince explains while addressing the current protests and the awareness they are generating, “It is really brilliant that the whole world seems to be paying attention right now, but I think it’s sad that it has taken so long. I’m angry that a lot of people seem surprised that racism exists in 2020 – it’s a such a privilege not knowing it was there.”

However, with lockdown looming over us Ince believes that this could mean time for actual change – with many incarcerated in their homes, distractions are no longer an option and we have no choice but to face the facts – “what that means is that people are starting to understand that racism is not just a problem for BAME people to deal with. It is a problem for everyone to try and solve and especially white people with their privilege – it feels like it might actually be a fresh take. I really do hope that people take note and actually make a change and it’s not just fashionable.”

In the foreseeable future, Ince says she is going to use the remainder of lockdown to home in on new skills and think about the direction of her career. When she was younger, directing plays is all she could see herself doing, however, as the years have gone on, it has moved from plays to musical theatre, to her now thinking about new possibilities. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what it might be like to work in film and TV,” she says, quite surprised by the idea, “I guess it’s just another form of storytelling.”

by Molly Denton