Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Stella Powell-Jones: Orlando

By | Published on Friday 29 April 2022

Last week – in our weekly show recommendations – we let you know about the imminence of Jermyn Street’s current production of US playwright Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’. 

Having written about it in the Three To See tips, I was keen to know more about the show and those involved in bringing it to the stage. 

The show is directed by the venue’s former deputy director Stella Powell-Jones. So, I arranged a quick chat with her to find out about the play, and a bit about Stella herself. 

CM: I suspect most readers will have an idea of what ‘Orlando’ is about – but just in case, can you tell us what story it tells?
SP-J: ‘Orlando’ is the story of a young, noble boy who longs to be a poet in the Sixteenth Century. Until it’s the story of Orlando, a nobleman in Constantinople in the Seventeenth Century. Until it’s the story of Orlando, a woman, who returns home to England to live out the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Until finally, the Twentieth Century arrives.  

CM: What themes does the story explore?
SP-J: Virginia Woolf wrote the novel as a love letter for and about Vita Sackville West. And love sits at the centre of the play. The play explores what it is to love – does it bind us or does it set us free?

The play also asks us to imagine what life would be if we could escape the confines of the time and the expectations we were born into, particularly – but not exclusively – with regard to gender.

CM: Is this adaptation of the book very faithful to the original text
SP-J: Yes, I’d say it is. It incorporates a lot of the text directly from the novel but even more than that, I’d say it honours the playful, wondrous tone of the book.

CM: What made you want to bring this particular play to the stage, and why now? 
SP-J: Well, it’s very special to get to work on a Sarah Ruhl play. Sarah writes so generously, she leaves so much room for director, designers and cast to really fill the space.

I really love the contrast between the scope of the story – hundreds of years, travel across continents, metamorphosis – and the fact that it’s all centred around one human life, Orlando. There’s something very juicy about that.

And I love shoving really enormous stories into the intimacy of Jermyn Street Theatre’s stage. And as for why now, I’m very grateful for a chance to spend time around a story that has wonder and indeed joy at the centre of it.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your approach to directing the play? What did you want to achieve?
SP-J: The show is such a call to the imagination. And I’ve been very lucky to work with such a talented team. With the designer Ceci Calf, costume designer Emily Stuart, lighting designer Ali Hunter, and sound designer and composer Roly Botha, I’ve worked to find out how much we want to give the audience, and how much we want to suggest.

I wanted to give the audience enough that they had a way in to delight in the light and the wit of the show, but I also wanted to leave enough to their imagination that they could have the fun of filling things in for themselves. Pollock Toy Theatres proved a really fertile ground for inspiration.

The human body is arguably at the centre of this story and gifted movement director Elliot Pritchard has brought such wit to the way bodies move in this show. 

CM: Can you tell us about your cast?
SP-J: Taylor McClaine has just graduated from The LIR in Dublin. They are an absolute revelation in the part and I can’t imagine making the play without them. It’s a lovely thing to get to give someone their first job.

Rosalind Lailey and I had collaborated very briefly together on a new play. I thought of her because of her multi-roling experience and then it was obvious she just got the wit of the play immediately.

Stanton Wright I’d seen in Tom Littler’s production of ‘Portrait Of Dorian Gray’ at Jermyn Street Theatre, and Skye Hallam had been at Jermyn Street Theatre before too, but it’s our first time working together. But I hope, not our last!

And Tigger Blaize was one of the first people I met for the project. It was one of those auditions when you go “oh he just has to be in the play” .

CM: Can we talk about you, now? Did you always want to work in the arts? How did your career begin?
SP-J: Yes, I suppose I did! I started out in New York where I got to have lots of improbable adventures, for example I got to run an abandoned warehouse with actors Emily Best and Sofia Barclay as a theatre dedicated to weekly rep. 

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far? 
SP-J: Well I love working at Jermyn Street Theatre. It’s been such a home to me and I feel so lucky to have been here when Tom Littler took over and I got to be a part of the transformation.

Other moments I’ve really treasured: directing the world premiere of Samuel D Hunter’s play ‘The Healing’ and getting to take Caryl Churchill’s play ‘Escaped Alone’ to the Brooklyn Academy Of Music. 

Working as associate director on that latter show, I felt hugely honoured that director James Macdonald trusted me to take care of the show for him, and the time with the cast – Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson – was basically a masterclass! 

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this? 
SP-J: I’m developing a new, surprisingly hilarious project about grief. Although I’ve been working on it since before the pandemic, it feels even more timely after the years we’ve been through.

‘Orlando’ is on at Jermyn Street Theatre until 28 May. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

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