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Strong Yet Feminine Profile: Josie Rourke, Theatre and Film Director

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Strong Yet Feminine Profiles are a series of interviews, showcasing ambitious women who are striving to follow their passion. Many are working full time and pursuing their dream on the side, some have already taken the leap, and share their experiences (the good and the bad!).

Any career decision is difficult, but making a leap into a different field, in order to pursue a true passion, has to be one of the most inspiring stories. I know, for me, hearing stories like these were crucial to bolstering my confidence when considering my own change in direction.

Sally Lane Jewellery is designed for exactly such Strong Yet Feminine women…the fierceness of the edgy triangle jewellery is the perfect accessory to these confident, go get ‘em ladies...all power to you!

Josie Rourke, Catherine Tate Film Director

“If we are perfect, we will never the change the world.”

Josie Rourke, Theatre and Film Director

Josie and I were introduced through a friend and I was delighted when not only did she wear my new collection for her opening night of her last show as Artistic Director at The Donmar Warehouse, but she also agreed to chat to me about her journey from directing plays at Cambridge Footlights to her debut film directing role on Mary Queen of Scots earlier this year. We discuss the perils of perfectionism and how throwing yourself into a situation can often lead to the most successful outcomes.


S: I read somewhere that you often do your best work when you don’t know what you doing?

J: Yes, when I’m incompetent [laughs]

S: What is about that? I’m fascinated because I’m not great at making mistakes and so I don’t lightly enter into situations rife with the possibility, but I also find my best work can come from these situations. What is about this environment that works for you?

J: Sometimes the energy of needing to solve something makes you incredibly creative, it allows you think laterally. Sometimes a hard wall of a problem, in art anyway, can be a really beautiful thing; you can perform a 90 degree turn, and do something that you would never necessarily have thought of, if you hadn’t encountered an impediment. 

I’ve made a lot of work in the theatre under a particular time pressure. I’ve worked on a number of shows that were programmed and announced and sold before they were even written. So the hard deadline of that can be quite thrilling!

Tell me more about your relationship to perfectionism [Josie has flipped the interview!]

S: I’m getting better at not being perfect, but I do like things to be done very well. I spend often far too much time on the detail of things when it isn’t always necessary. I don’t like to be wrong and I don’t like making mistakes. It’s why languages are an issue for me because I struggle to put myself out there because I want it to be perfect. Even though people would likely understand me with my imperfect French, I often would just rather appear as if I know nothing, which is ridiculous. I am getting better! I think it stems from my family where it wasn’t really a household where making mistakes flew easily; we would often tease each other for making a mistake or saying something silly, and it’s only as I have pondered it as an adult that I realise that had an impact on me.

My husband is the complete opposite and will just get stuck in from the offset (on our first visit to France together this year), and he’s only starting learning properly from the beginning of this year whereas I studied it at A level. I have definitely learned from being around him, to appreciate that no one else cares and it is all in my head, but the effects linger, for sure.

J: That’s interesting. If you’re a theatre director, you have to be an amazingly attentive listener and really observant watcher of what people are doing. You become very, very aware of how sensitive people are to “non-verbal signifiers”. If you’ve not heard that term before, it’s kind of self-explanatory - it’s something your body does to transmit information about how you feel. For example, if we want someone to stop talking, we often shift our weight, or cross and uncross our arms and legs. On your upbringing, I think sometimes people simply don’t realise that their face is registering a kind of disgust at something we’ve said. It’s so easy to create shame and the difficulty is to know how much of that shame came from you, and how much was generated by the parent or family member. Because we become ashamed very easily.

I think there is a tendency for girls toward being perfect, neat and complete with what they’re offer, and there is a tendency to reward boys for being wild, and flippant and extravagant. So I think it’s very hard for girls sometimes. It took me a long time to stop myself from being perfect. Often my work is still called meticulous and I sort of like that but I also don’t like it. 


S: Why don’t you like being called meticulous?

J: Because it tricks you into a kind of creative behaviour where you think if you attend to every single detail you will get the outcome you want and that isn’t always the case. Because I think if we are perfect, we will never the change the world. And I think that if you’re going to be in charge of a camera particularly, you are meant to be challenging modes of seeing, and because they are so heavily established within a male game.

S: So, would you say you were also a perfectionist as a child? 

J: Yes, well my mother used to say I was relentlessly aesthetic, so I think I would always obsess with ways of seeing and how my world was seen. I used to do displays for the street in my childhood bedroom window. I would make little odd displays of things I’d cut out from magazines and objects I’d found. I was always like that.

S: So even then you were concerned with how things were presented!

J: Yes, also facing outwards, rather than inwards to the room. Yes, I was always fanciful. My parents were always just massively supportive, they never said I couldn’t, they never said don’t, never discouraged me. They were wonderful. Couldn’t have been better. They were endlessly fascinated with my little projects as a child so no, I’m incredibly lucky.


S: And you have a brother, is that right?

J: Yes, one brother who is a lawyer, he prosecutes minor fraudulent insurance claims on behalf of big insurers.

S: Quite different!

J: Yes, very different.

S: Were you very different as children?

J: Yes and I feel a bit bad for him because I recruited him into my little plays and schemes.

S: [Laughing] Is he older than you? I used to do the same thing with my older brother playing shops.

J: Yes, but only by 20 months so we were very close, and we still are. He is funny, like really funny. I try to be as funny, but my friends say: ‘No he is objectively funnier than you’. It is lovely to see him become a father, which will be a year tomorrow. It’s been a huge and beautiful thing.

S: Do you see each other much?

J: Yeah. We just all went on holiday together, she’s incredibly cute. I mean I know I am biased but she really is cute. I’m aware that I am now showing you baby photos.

S: That’s fine, I love a baby photo. Yes, she is super cute. [lots of cooing]


S: So, tell us more about the lead up to directing your first play at Cambridge.

J: I was in my first play in 6th form, my school didn’t do plays but my sixth form did. So, I was in a play for the first time when I was doing my A levels. I was genuinely awful at it but I was very interested in it. The ideas I was having were director’s ideas really. I was in college and found myself sharing a room with a lovely girl, whose mum was an actor and dad was a director and she was very encouraging and we applied to co-direct a fresher’s play together, and that is what got me started.

S: So it was a bit of luck, but mainly you just have having the drive to give it a go?

J: Yes, it was a bit of luck and quite a lot of “side” to use a Northern phrase. Boldness, I suppose. I’d never done anything like it before and just thought it would be fine. It was but I don’t know what made me think it would be! Maybe just watching someone else doing it and thinking: ‘okay I can do this’.


S: And is that the same for the courage it took to move from theatre into film too? Seeing Sam Mendes do it?

J: Definitely. Seeing Sam do it. Seeing Phyllida Lloyd do it. Many British directors do it. And also the world has changed so much, there is so much information online now on how to set up a shot, or how to work technically. When people asked me how I learned it, I say: ‘There is a surprising amount on YouTube’. You can’t wholly teach yourself but you can learn a huge amount through study. That was really helpful for me. I spent many a weekend watching endless clips of people explaining how not to cross a line, or what different lenses do. I just spent half a day researching different film formats and also the history of colour in film. There is so much information online, it is amazing.

S: I couldn’t agree more. I built my website with no experience thanks to the internet and am so inspired by that can-do attitude. 


S: I wanted to talk about the changes you made in theatre with regards to all-women casts; is that kind of work now starting to be done by men too, or is it still being led by women?

J: People were already doing it, but the reason it made such an impact at the Donmar is because of where we were doing it, and how determinedly we did it and that we turned it into a trilogy and built this venue for it. That we were doing a trilogy, people just gave it a bit more cultural seriousness. We borrowed some To see it at the Donmar and that gave it a certain rebellious quality, but also a certain cache. And that was also Dame Harriet Walter’s energy and commitment, to all three plays and Phyllida Lloyd’s vision was quite amazing.


S: Is there something you still feel like you want to do in that space, with regards to promoting women?

J: I think I’m always am yes. I mean in a way I want to make this film with and for Catherine Tate because she is incredibly funny and really brilliant. She is an astonishing figure. She is massive female comedian, and that is quite a rare thing, particularly for a character comedian, to have such a sort of a purchase in our cultural imagination. There is a populist thing which I think is really important to look at as well, because to some degree theatre will always be to some degree elitist, but just in a big funny commercial film in which women are being hilarious and telling their stories, so yes I’m always thinking about what to do next in that space.

S: And this is why I was very happy to have you wearing the jewellery because you are an inspiration to us all, and I hugely admire your work. Thank you so much.

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