La Strada: The craft of taking an iconic film and putting it on stage in Leeds

A scene from La Strada, directed by Sally Cookson, at West Yorkshire Playhouse this week. PIC: Robert Day
A scene from La Strada, directed by Sally Cookson, at West Yorkshire Playhouse this week. PIC: Robert Day
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Director Sally Cookson has two major shows undertaking a national tour in the coming months. When we speak it is the night after she has opened Jane Eyre at the Lowry in Salford, ahead of its visits to Sheffield, York, Leeds and Hull.

There’s also the small matter of La Strada, a new stage adaptation of the Fellini cinematic masterpiece, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse this week.

The very simple and obvious question is, of course, how? How has Cookson managed to ascend to such heights in an industry which does not always provide the opportunities to female directors that it should – and also how is she managing to keep two major national tours running simultaneously?

“It’s incredible. I do feel very lucky,” she says, although it will become quite clear as we talk that luck, as ever, plays a very small part in the success of this increasingly in demand director. Hard work, perseverance and a distinct lack of caring what other think are the real ingredients in making Cookson the success she has become.

“I started out as an actor, so I know all about the huge periods of unemployment,” she says.

“But I feel really fortunate that, for the past ten years I have managed to work solidly as a director. I consider myself successful by virtue of the fact that I was able to sustain a career as a director, but also that I was able to work for the same company for that period of time, honing my craft.”

Cookson, who lives in Bristol and has done for the whole of that decade-long period during which she learned her craft, refuses to be beholden to the idea that London is the centre of the theatrical universe. While she recognises the importance of the capital, she refuses to accept it at the expense of all else.

While she had been working quietly in Bristol, directing with the Travelling Light company and learning her craft, it was a 2012 production of Peter Pan, staged at the Bristol Old Vic, that announced Cookson to the wider theatre world. The production transferred to the West End, made waves, and prompted Tom Morris, associate director at the National Theatre, to invite Cookson for a chat.

“He invited me to make some large scale work and, because of Peter Pan I was also invited to work elsewhere. There’s no getting away from the fact that once your work has been seen in London, then people will start talking about you – that strikes me as incredibly unfair. There are lots of talented directors around, but because they are working in the regions, they might not have their work seen.

“Directors, producers, artistic directors from London appear to not like leaving London and that really does have to change or the whole industry will stagnate.” What’s important about Cookson saying all this is that she is speaking from a position of having made strides into the industry, but she clearly has no intention of pulling up the ladder behind her.

La Strada is based on the Oscar-winning 1957 movie by Fellini – and Cookson was determined not to direct it. “The producer Kenny Wax asked me to work on it, but I could not understand how or why you would tamper with such an iconic film that is virtually perfect. The terror of the idea of even taking it on was enormous. What made it impossible for me to resist taking it on and adapting it was that my father was a huge fan of the film. He showed it to me as a child and I remember being captivated by it and by the central performance by Giulietta Masina. I had just worked with Audrey Brisson and she has everything that character needs; the curiosity, the charisma: she was what made me think that I could do something with this, that I could build something interesting around her with the story.” As with most of her shows, the piece is devised, a process which means Cookson gathers everyone in the room, actors, designer, writer, and creates the piece on its feet. “It is slightly terrifying to start from a point of not really knowing what something will look like. Whenever I recruit a new actor I always tell them that they are going to have to have nerves of steel. They all say they do, of course, but some fare a bit better than others.

“It always comes back to the narratives. I think if you have a fantastic narrative at the heart of what you do, then you can put something fantastic on the stage.”

La Strada, West Yorkshire Playhouse until April 29. Jane Eyre, Leeds Grand Theatre, July 31-August 5.