‘People now trust that my ideas work’: is this Australia’s most acclaimed theatre director?

Kip Williams has revolutionised the stage with his use of ‘cine-theatre’, in shows such as The Picture of Dorian Gray and Jekyll and Hyde. Ahead of his take on The Tempest, he talks about his fast rise

This was supposed to be a one-on-one interview, but Kip Williams has company. “This is Tilly,” he says.

Tilly shares the 36-year-old theatre director’s Potts Point apartment and has a minor but memorable role in Williams’s Sydney Theatre Company hit production The Picture of Dorian Gray. He apologises for Tilly’s interruptions. “She’s hungry. She loves anything chicken!”

Tilly, by the way, is Williams’s two-year-old pug. He holds her up, legs akimbo like chopsticks.

“While I was writing the script, EJ [the show’s star, Eryn Jean Norvill] would come to my apartment and read the latest draft and she and Tilly got on like a house on fire,” Williams says. “There was a moment where Tilly was on her lap and I said, ‘I think the duchess should have a pug.’ She ended up in the show and she gets a vocal reaction from the audience every night.”

As well as creating a minor stage career for his dog, Williams has been busy upending just about all expectations an audience may have around what a live theatre production can look like. Starting with an innovative staging of Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer in the Sydney Opera House in 2015, Williams has refined and extended the use of live video in theatre, to the point where he is its leading exponent, experimenter and champion.

His most recent film-theatre hybrid, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a staging of the Robert Louis Stevenson story performed by just two actors, enjoyed a sold-out Sydney run and will feature in the Perth festival in February 2023, followed by Adelaide arts festival in March. And his hugely acclaimed adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which Eryn Jean Norvill plays every role, has been programmed for an unprecedented third Sydney season in 2023, then Auckland arts festival, before it heads to London and New York.

Actor Eryn Jean Norvill appears on a big screen above live actors on stage
Eryn Jean Norvill as every role in the STC production of The Picture of Dorian Gray, 2020. Photograph: Daniel Boud

As in Dorian Gray, Williams’ Jekyll and Hyde largely dispenses with traditional scenery. Instead, visuals are created on the fly with performers working simultaneously in front of the audience and before on-stage camera crews. That video is then instantaneously fed to large LED screens that can be moved in all directions, allowing for multiple images, live image manipulation, split screens and powerful closeups on actors, who are often playing multiple roles (Norvill plays 26 in Dorian). For the performers, being in a Williams production requires an absolute synthesis of stage and camera technique. He calls it “cine-theatre”.

“My snapshot is that it takes the best of cinema and the essence of theatre and combines them into a new space where you can see the juxtaposition of those art forms,” he says. “I want audiences to get lost in that blurred area between film and stage.”

At its core, Williams says, film plays off the idea of the camera as an arbiter of truth. Theatre, by contrast, is pure artifice. “I love theatre because of its embrace of the artifice of the storytelling. Cinema, more often than not, says to you: what I’m showing you is real. But theatre, even in the most naturalistic production imaginable, is not real. The audience is sitting there making it real, imaginatively active in every act of theatre. For me, theatre starts with that imaginative leap – and I want that leap to be massive.”

Not all of Williams’ productions are cine-theatre. Much of his work for the STC, which he has led as artistic director since 2016, has been more conventionally staged, with no cameras and large casts: his epic adaptations of Australian author Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South and Playing Beatie Bow; his productions of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, Louis Nowra’s The Golden Age and Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica.

The use of live video is always something inspired by the text rather than imposed on it, Williams says. “A lot of the stories I’m drawn to tell explore that tension between the interior and exterior worlds and how people navigate between them,” he says. “The way we have multiple authentic selves that we present in different circumstances … and the way in which we have the ability to conceal behind some kind of mask.”

Scene from a production of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at the Rosyln Packer Theatre, Sydney.
‘A lot of the stories I’m drawn to tell explore … [our] ability to conceal behind some kind of mask’ … The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney. Photograph: Daniel Boud/STC

Williams came of age professionally in a time when several high-profile directors were exploring the possibilities of live video in theatre. “A lot of the live video productions I saw when I was younger seemed to be responding to the anxiety of the times – to 9/11 and surveillance culture, to the voyeurism of the internet,” he says. “The cameras were often hidden, the screens were often an addendum.”

All that changed when Williams unveiled his Suddenly Last Summer in 2015. It was an enormous risk at the time, Williams says, in part because for the first 30 minutes, save for a brief appearance from actors Robyn Nevin and Mark Leonard Winter as they crossed the stage, the audience watched the play unfold on a screen, behind which the cast was performing to camera.

Williams found it hard to convince people that his separation of audience from actor would work. “But to me, it always seemed quite simple: there is always a live performer at play, there’s never a moment where someone isn’t acting for the audience. It’s being made right there in the moment. It has the same transience as theatre,” he says. “There was one moment where I had the cast running under the stage and my production manager was saying all the time, ‘Just pre-record it, the audience won’t know.’ But I always insisted: it had to be live.”

Actors Mark Leonard Winter and Robin McLeavy in discussion with director Kip Williams in rehearsals for Melbourne Theatre Company’s Miss Julie, 2016.
Actors Mark Leonard Winter and Robin McLeavy in discussion with director Kip Williams in rehearsals for Melbourne Theatre Company’s Miss Julie, 2016. Photograph: Deryk McAlpin/Melbourne Theatre Company

Suddenly Last Summer won Williams his first Helpmann award for best direction. His second experiment in the form, a production of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie for the Melbourne Theatre Company, earned him a second. Further investigations into cine-theatre followed in the acclaimed productions of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (with Hugo Weaving as the eponymous mobster) and Patrick White’s A Cheery Soul. By then, Williams had been the artistic director of Australia’s biggest, best-resourced state theatre company for two years, a position he attained as if on a greased rail. He was 30, just five years out of drama school and the youngest artistic director in the company’s history.

Yet there’s nothing of the enfant terrible or “boy wonder” about Williams. He’s quietly spoken, cherubic in appearance and far less comfortable talking about himself than about his work.

“I absolutely identify as shy,” he says. “To an extent, I’ve always had leadership positions in my life, from being a school captain, to being a director and now an artistic director. I’m not afraid of having to speak, but I’m not interested in attention – even with this story.”

His grandmothers were “the big personalities in my family”; his paternal grandmother is the actor Wendy Playfair, a star of the TV series Prisoner. “She’s one of the reasons I love being around actors,” Williams says. “I like listening and riffing off their charisma and the inspiration they can offer.”

Music was a major focus in the family, too; his uncle was half of the 1960s folk duo Sean and Sonja, his dad trained as an opera singer and his sister, Clemence, is an award-winning sound designer, composer and director. (She also frequently works on his stage projects.)

Rehearsals for Williams’s take on Julius Caesar at STC, 2021, seen through a video monitor
Rehearsals for Williams’s take on Julius Caesar at STC, 2021. Photograph: Kip Williams/Sydney Theatre Company

After studying at the University of Sydney, Williams was accepted into the fiercely competitive postgraduate directing course at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, aged 22 – the minimum age allowed.

His end-of first year show – a production of Samuel Beckett’s Not I– impressed his mentor, the actor and director Pamela Rabe. His graduating production, an adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, got him a meeting with the STC and an assistant director role on co-artistic director Andrew Upton’s 2011 production of The White Guard.

The opportunities kept coming. Later that year, the Swiss director Luc Bondy withdrew during pre-production of Botho Strauss’ Gross und Klein, featuring Cate Blanchett in the lead role. (At the time, Blanchett was co-artistic director at the STC with Upton, her husband.) Director Benedict Andrews stepped in and took on Williams as his assistant.

Gross und Klein headed to London and Upton – who was scheduled to direct a staging of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood at the Sydney Opera House – went with it. Williams was offered Under Milk Wood. He was only 25.

“There was no set design, the 10 actors had been cast but not told what roles they were going to do,” says Williams. “I had about six weeks to figure out how to direct a play that’s not really a play. To have so little time to prep when you are directing the likes of Paula Arundell, Bruce Spence, Helen Thomson and Jack Thompson at the Opera House … It was scary but I felt very lucky – like the understudy who gets to go on when the prima ballerina breaks her leg.”

A lucky break is one thing. Capitalising on it is another. “I was convinced it was going to fall to pieces,” Williams says. “But it went really well and that was strange, too. Because it was a success, there seemed to be this disbelief that I could have pulled it off at 25. No one quite believed I had directed it. I felt an intense need to prove myself after that production.”

He didn’t have to prove himself for long. In 2016, Upton and Blanchett departed as co-artistic directors of the STC. English director Jonathan Church was hired to replace them, then let go within six months. Thirty-year-old Williams was asked to take the reins while a replacement was found, then permanently appointed to the role later that year.

Kip Williams
‘Obviously, there are people who didn’t like Dorian or Jekyll. That’s totally fine’ … Kip Williams. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

Speculation was rife. Was Williams installed as part of an STC board coup? “Anybody who holds that opinion has never worked with me and seen how vigorously I stick to my guns and what a principled person I am,” he told me in 2016.

Six years on, he is very much still the face of the STC. “I don’t hear much push back regarding the work I do,” he says. “Obviously, there are people who didn’t like Dorian or Jekyll. That’s totally fine. But there is now a level of trust that my ideas work. The trust is a great gift, from the company, from the actors I work with, and from the audience. Now I feeI I can run at a pace and the audience is ready to go with me.”


Elissa Blake

The GuardianTramp

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