WATCH WHAT HAPPENS:
In conversation with Helen Tennison, Theatre Director

"Redroofs was a place that allowed me to grow and be free, and get to know myself in a way that I can't imagine anywhere else having done. I feel it's very supportive and accepting, and that's a lovely thing to have, and have had, and still have" - Helen Tennison, Theatre Director 

Floated Image Helen at Redroofs

Helen Tennison became a student at Redroofs in 1989. She looks back fondly on her time at the school, reminiscing on the beautiful building at the Littlewick Green site which was once home to legendary 20th Century actor Ivor Novello and now houses the Redroofs summer schools.

'Dance classes are my main memory. And I remember doing loads and loads of plays and loving it. Feeling like this is exactly what life should be, doing those plays', she recalls. 'Redroofs was a place that allowed me to grow and be free, and get to know myself in a way that I can't imagine anywhere else having done. I feel it's very supportive and accepting, and that's a lovely thing to have, and have had, and still have'.

The school has expanded over the last thirty years, however Redroofs remains a family business, continuing to provide a vibrant space in which young Redroofians are encouraged to nurture and excel in their creativity.

Since her time at Redroofs, Helen has built an inspirational career as a theatre director, working across the globe with her work which focusses on classics, new writing, site-specific theatre, devising and physical theatre. Theatres may have been dark for the past year, however Helen's expertise has been in high demand.

'This week I opened a show in America and then yesterday I was doing auditions in Vienna, and I've also been working on a show in the UK. I think that one of the things about the pandemic is that I wouldn't have been able to work in three different time zones in one week. There's a lot of theatre that's moved online, so the show that I've just done in America is entirely on Zoom. It's like a whole new performance genre'.

"Without even realising it we are aiming for something we think we should aim for, rather than what we really want to aim for in our hearts"

Though the pandemic has confined Helen to her laptop and her London base as of late, her career has taken her across continents. Working with companies and academic institutions worldwide, she currently holds an Artist in Residence post at the University of South Florida.

Helen made the decision to actively seek out international opportunities after discovering her passion for travel in her first job out of Redroofs, working as a dancer on a cruise ship. 'I loved being at sea, and I loved travelling. Somewhere in my 20s I was just sort of assessing where I was at and what I was doing. I was thinking about how often in the industry we choose our work. Without even realising it we are aiming for something we think we should aim for, rather than what we really want to aim for in our hearts'.

'I made it a rule to always say yes to work abroad and to seek out work abroad. And I have worked everywhere', she continues. 'I love seeing new countries, learning about the local cultures, and learning more about how theatre is made differently in different countries. I think that's influenced the work that I've made as well'.

"It's the little moments of magic that capture something bigger about what it means to be human"

As a director, Helen has a primary focus on devised theatre. Devised theatre is when ideas, themes, ambitions, aims, and concepts, rather than a script, are used to shape a piece of theatre. The piece is rehearsed through improvisations and discussions, and collaboratively the company starts to create something really special.

It is the collaborative nature of the devising process that drew Helen in, where the actors' ideas and input are an integral part of the process. Originally an actor in a small touring company, Helen found herself naturally steering the overall direction of the company's work, eventually taking herself out the pieces to concentrate on the directorial aspect. 'From there, other people just started to offer me jobs. At a certain point it became hard to balance touring with the directing opportunities that were coming up, so I made the decision just to start focusing on directing'.

Floated Image Helen in Rehearsals

She thinks back to her training at Redroofs, considering the way in which the triple-threat training aided her career. 'I think what I got from Redroofs was really strong craft. I had a whole range of skills. I was never a strong singer, but it's surprising how much singing I did in my career as an actor, which I wouldn't have been able to do without that training, and it is necessary', she explains. 'It was easier for me to get employment, and it made me more flexible as a performer'.

'All that understanding of all different types of theatre is really useful as a director, as well', she continues. 'I feel like I know how to make experimental work that is still accessible and still entertaining, and I think that's because I have that more traditional background that's enabled me to bring those things together. I think that's really important. My understanding of that is based on my time at Redroofs'.

It’s no wonder that Helen is itching to get back into the rehearsal room. Describing her favourite part of the job, she explains, 'it's when you're in a rehearsal room and suddenly there's something in the way that the storytelling is happening that's really moving and magical and beautiful and couldn't happen in any other way. When it's something that is bigger than you expected, or more exciting than you could ever have thought of on your own. The little moments of magic that capture something bigger about what it means to be human'.

"I think theatre does change people's lives. Art changes people's lives and is necessary for a healthy functioning society"

In addition to directing professional theatrical productions, Helen also has a long history working in community theatre, which she recalls stemmed from the first ever lesson she taught as a favour for June Rose, the founder of Redroofs, while still a student at the school.

'June asked me to teach my very first class, which was when I was at Redroofs, and I covered for somebody teaching a part-time evening drama class. I absolutely loved it, then I just got really into it. As a teacher you direct productions, so that sort of led me towards directing as well. I started to direct community productions at the Belgrade; that was really extraordinary, and there was such a creativity I found there. Your aims are different in community theatre. I found more room for experimentation in community theatre than I'd previously found in professional theatre'.

She talks passionately about her route into community theatre and the impact of the arts on individual lives and greater society, adding, 'I also found the process of creating community theatre extraordinarily rewarding. I think theatre does change people's lives. Art changes people's lives and is necessary for a healthy functioning society, and in community theatre you meet that more directly, so you see the impact of theatre on people's lives and the ability to transform'.

'I found the process to be very open and supportive and non-competitive, and just rooted in really strong, positive values of empowering people and making people happy and sharing positive, joyful things with the world. So that was very inspiring for me, and I have aimed to take those qualities into the professional work that I make as well'.

Helen's commitment to education and outreach has led to work with refugee groups, youth groups, drama schools, prisons, and running projects for those who struggle with their mental health. Dedicated to sharing knowledge, Helen created Theatre Foundry in late 2018, an initiative which runs workshops to support emerging actors and creatives. 'I think when people learn theatre skills they're not just learning theatre skills, they're learning more about themselves as people', she states.

"Find the kind of work and the place that fulfils you. Follow the path that makes you happy, rather than the path that you think is going to impress other people"

Floated Image Helen in Rehearsals

Since her years at Redroofs Helen has worked across a huge range of theatrical environments and made an impact on many lives. 'Different things make sense at different times', she explains. 'My understanding of what theatre is and what I'm interested in in theatre grows and changes, as do the opportunities around me'.

To young Redroofians who are excited by the prospect of a career in the theatre industry but unsure whether it is a feasible industry to enter, she expresses, 'It absolutely is a viable industry, totally, as long as you're willing to remain flexible and work hard and be resourceful. I feel that I've consistently made work, and I've consistently worked doing what I believe in'.

'Your career is really really long, and people's careers don't go in a straight line. I think careers are kind of a bit wavy and a bit circular. Be really open to that so that you can take any unexpected opportunities'.

'I think making your own work is essential. I think it's empowering, and I think it helps you find your own voice and it helps you build networks. Jump in, don't wait until the perfect time, you have to just start because there are a million reasons not to do it. There will never be a good time to do it, and you'll never have enough money. When I started I got free rehearsal space from a local day centre for people with disabilities and in return I'd give them free workshops. You can always find a way around it'.

To young creatives dreaming of a future in the theatre industry, Helen's final piece of advice is as follows:

'Find the kind of work and the place that fulfils you. Follow the path that makes you happy, rather than the path that you think is going to impress other people'.