Belfast woman brings play with full frontal nudity to a stage near you
Rhiann Jeffrey (23) always wanted to be a stage director and is set to make waves in her home city with her very first production, as Stephanie Bell reports
It can take years of hard slog - often for little money - to become a stage director, but just months after graduating, Belfast's Rhiann Jeffrey has already found herself stepping into the role she has dreamed of since she was a little girl.
And what a challenge she faces, with her very first professional production Mydidae - a hard-hitting play never seen here before and which boldly tackles the sensitive subject of miscarriage and includes full frontal nudity.
In fact, the show on which the 23-year-old will be cutting her teeth is recommended for an audience of 18 and over and comes with the warning that it contains full frontal nudity, strong language and scenes of a sexual nature.
Mydidae will be making its Irish debut as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast International Arts Festival and was written by Bafta award-winning Jack Thorne - famous for the TV series Skins and award-winning drama This is England, among many others.
He is currently working alongside JK Rowling, helping her write Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for the West End, to be released next year.
Mydidae is one of 18 premieres that will showcase as part of the Belfast Festival and is produced as part of Prime Cut Production's Reveal programme and the BBC fellowship, both of which help develop emerging artists.
It was the BBC Fellowship - now sadly in its last year - which Rhiann was awarded after graduating from Queen's University, Belfast last year with a degree in drama.
The opportunity has allowed her to be mentored for the year by Prime Cuts artistic director, Emma Jordan. In this notoriously hard-to-break-into industry, it is a dream opportunity for any aspiring theatre director, but even Rhiann wasn't expecting to be entrusted with her own production so early in her career - and such an emotive one at that.
She says: "Getting the fellowship was like gold dust. There aren't many opportunities for emerging artists in Northern Ireland and it was absolutely brilliant that the fellowship was awarded to a couple of us from here.
"I'm very, very lucky to be given this opportunity at all and at my age it is incredible.
"It is a platform to showcase my work, which hopefully will get me work for when the fellowship ends in November.
"For me, directing is what I really want to do, but I know it is notoriously hard to get into, so to be directing my first professional play so soon is just amazing and I am so grateful."
Any first production is bound to be a challenge and Mydidae offers it in buckets because of the unique nature of the play and its contents.
It is the story of two ordinary people set entirely in an ordinary bathroom, on what is a not so ordinary day.
The characters Marian and David expose more than just skin in this most intimate of settings.
Taking its name from a cosmopolitan family of flies, Mydidae invites the audience to become flies on the wall and witness the unravelling of love in the face of guilt and grief.
Thorne's play subtly explores issues surrounding child loss and the effects it can have on a relationship - issues which resonate long after the curtain falls. The show premieres one week after National Infant and Pregnancy Loss awareness day.
Rhiann picked the play herself to direct and knows she has taken on a huge challenge.
She says: "Emma told me to go and pick a play to direct myself and I must have read 30 or 40 and I came across Mydidae, which I had never seen before, and when I read it I fell in love with it. It is a two-hander set in a fully functioning bathroom and will be something which is really different for audiences here.
"For the couple, it is a year on from the miscarriage and while they deal with the aftermath of that, it is not the main part of the story - the story is about the relationship and there are some really beautiful moments in it and I think it also shows how important communication is in a relationship."
The nude scenes have been a challenge for Rhiann as much as for the two local actors, Matt Forsythe and Julie McCann Maxwell. Stripping off completely for stage is something which Rhiann says is essential to the story line.
She has helped the actors to prepare by taking them to body confidence classes and still life drawing classes.
She says: "The play is set entirely in a bathroom and in my opinion the nudity is wholly functional and necessary to the story and not gratuitous at all. It is a naturalistic piece of writing and the nudity features when the characters are in the bath.
"It was a challenge for the actors and I have set up different things for them to get over their shyness about taking off their clothes on stage, which has made a difference to them. It is a very intimate setting and it is a rare opportunity for the audience to see and get an insight into a relationship in that way.
"It is something different and not something that you would usually see in Belfast and it does push the boundaries and to get that chance to push the boundaries is for me a bit scary and I think it's a challenge for everyone involved."
Rhiann, who is from Belfast, is a natural talent who developed a love for singing and drama while at primary school.
She got involved in school productions and local drama groups and at 16 applied for Musical Theatre School in London.
She was offered a place but decided to stay and study for her A-Levels.
It was while working for her degree in drama at Queen's that she realised directing was where her heart really lay.
"For many years I've known that I wanted to be involved in theatre, but I didn't know what avenue I wanted to go down," she says.
"Our course at Queen's was quite academic and we covered stage management and production management and all aspects of theatre and that made me realise that I wanted to do directing. For me, it was about having creative control and seeing the play through all the characters' points' of view, rather than the view of one character, as the actors see it from.
"I am really ambitious and I think if something is challenging - which a career in directing will be - that if you have the drive and work hard you can achieve what you want.
"It is not a profession where you can sit back and wait for opportunities to come to you, but one where you have to actively seek work and I know it is not an easy road to go down.
"Having this opportunity with the Fellowship and working with Prime Cuts Reveal programme and being mentored by Emma has been amazing for me.
"Working on my first professional production is really scary, but it has been exactly what I hoped for and I have actors to work with who are really committed and as emerging artists everyone is in a similar situation and it is exciting for all of us.
"We all really care about the play and the way in which we are trying to do the show.
"It is definitely rare for someone at my age to be given this chance, but Emma came to see a show I directed at Queen's and that was one of the reasons why she offered me this chance."
Emma Jordan says: "There are very few opportunities for emerging artists in Northern Ireland, and even less money.
"The Reveal programme gives these artists an opportunity to explore their own ideas, develop their craft and, in the case of Rhiann Jeffrey, direct their first professional production with the mentorship and support of experienced artists and facilitators.
"This production is entirely produced, directed and designed by early stage theatre artists and in this current stagnant arts climate it is a beacon of hope for the future".
Mydidae opens at the MAC on October 20 and runs until October 25. Tickets are on sale now at: www.themaclive.com. The play is Produced by Stephen Coulter, Costume and Set Design by Cait Corkery, Sound Design by Marty Byrne and Stage Management: Ciara Nolan. The production and associated outreach activity is made possible through funding provided by Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Performing Arts Fund, Belfast City Council, Paul Hamlyn Foundation.