After graduating from Mountview’s MA Theatre Directing course in 2017, Denzel Westley-Sanderson’s career has gone from strength to strength.
Starting out as part of the resident directors’ pool at the Almeida Theatre, Denzel has since worked on a number of schools’ projects across London with the Donmar Warehouse, co-directed Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert (2020) at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and associate directed two productions at the National Theatre – Dick Whittington (2020) and Small Island (2021).
Most recently, Denzel was awarded the Royal Theatrical Support Trust’s (RTST) Sir Peter Hall Director Award. As a result of this, he will be directing a production of The Importance of Being Earnest which will be staged at Leeds Playhouse in September this year, before touring across the nation with the English Touring Theatre.
We spoke to Denzel to find out more about his journey into directing and what audiences can expect from The Importance of Being Earnest …
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Denzel Westley-Sanderson and I am of mixed heritage: Trini, Jamaican and English. I am a theatre director.
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now.
The role of a director is not one that you necessarily know about when first watching theatre. How did you find out about directing, and at what point did you decide to make directing your career?
It was at Coventry university that I first discovered directing. I was doing my undergraduate degree for theatre and professional practice, which involved a lot of self-lead devising work and started to realise that I enjoyed creating the work more than performing it. From there I directed my first show (The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco) and knew I wanted to build a career in directing.
You’ve worked across a range of genres – new writing, musicals, opera, devising, dance theatre … Do you find that working across genres allows you to challenge boundaries at all – for example, using what you’ve learnt from devising when directing new writing? Do you have a favourite genre of theatre to direct?
Yes, it allows me to be bolder with my decisions and mix genres together. For example, in Earnest, I’ve taken elements and inspiration from musicals, such as an overture, and used that to add another layer and style to the opening sequence. I don’t think we should be restricted by the disciplines. I wouldn’t say I have a favourite genre, although I do have a soft spot for plays! I love how you can really get lost in the text and dialogue.
So, this May you won the RTST’s Sir Peter Hall Director Award – congratulations! What does winning this award mean to you?
Thank you! It’s such a great stepping stone and has allowed me to transition to larger-scale work, and has given me a platform to be heard as an artist within the industry.
The Sir Peter Hall Director Award gives you the opportunity to stage a play at Leeds Playhouse which will subsequently go on a national tour with the English Touring Theatre. You’re based in London – do you find it different at all directing productions for regional theatres?
It’s something I am conscious of; however, I always try to make work to the best standard no matter where that work is going. With any show, I really try to think about the different types of audiences that will watch, and how I can make them feel represented.
Specifically, you have decided to use the Sir Peter Hall Director Award to direct a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. This play was first performed in 1895 and written by Oscar Wilde. What made you want to direct this play? Are there any particular elements or themes in the play that excite you?
Earnest was a real challenge, which is what initially excited me about it. The text is very dense and layered, with many hidden meanings, allowing me to explore themes such as sexuality, gender, class, and race. It was a joy to bring out these themes in different areas of the production; from casting (gender swapping Dr Chasuble) to using the theme of Race to explore black joy within the piece.
In some ways, The Importance of Being Earnest can be understood to be “quintessentially English” – which perhaps makes it particularly well-suited to a tour with the English Touring Theatre. What does “being English” mean to you? And are you reinterpreting the “quintessentially English” nature of the play in your directorial choices at all?
To me, being English is a part of my family history, my grandfather on my mother’s side fought in the war and I’ve spent my whole life here. Yes, I am reinterpreting what “quintessentially English” means by looking at the play through the lens of black Victorians. It’s a forgotten part of British history, and it’s been a joy to explore and uncover the lives of these forgotten people and highlight all the beautiful people of colour who were living and working in Victorian Britain.
You only graduated from Mountview in 2017, but are already making waves in the theatre industry. What advice would you give to new directors starting out?
Everybody’s path is different but believe in your creativity and challenge yourself and your ideas. Do not be afraid to make mistakes and venture outside of your comfort zone.
Are there any directors whose careers have inspired you? And, on a related note, are there any milestones you’d like to achieve in your career in the future?
Everybody I’ve worked with in the industry thus far has inspired me in one way or another and helped me grow as an artist, which I am forever grateful for. In terms of milestones, I’d love to one day run a venue, but for now, I’m really focused on putting my work out there and promoting diversity in the industry, not only on the stage but also behind the scenes. I think it’s important that different voices are heard and given space.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU?
- A book you have to have in your collection? Different Every Night by Mike Alfreds
- A song / album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? Destiny’s Child – Happy Face
- A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
- The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance or concert)? FAME – I’d never stepped foot in a theatre before, so it really opened my eyes and I just remember being in that space was so exciting to me
- What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? Sad, Mad and Glad all at the same time has been the casting for Disney’s Ariel. I’m sad and mad that people are upset over a black woman playing a mermaid, but I’m so glad she has been cast and what this does for all the little black and brown children who have a new princess.
The Importance of Being Earnest plays at Leeds Playhouse from Monday 5th-Saturday 17th September 2022, before touring the nation with the English Touring Theatre. Book tickets and find out more here.