Thu 14 Dec 2023

Chi-San the Shadow…

Chi-San Howard is the Movement Director for A Little Princess, our Theatre by the Lake Christmas production in 2023.

We sat down with Chi-San on her lunch break before the show opened here on Friday 17 November, 2023 and asked her some burning questions about her role in our World Premiere Christmas production… A Little Princess!

How did you discover the job of a movement director and what got you into it?

I came across movement directing via an interview with a movement director explaining what job their job was, so maybe someone listening will have the same revelation that I did!

I’d been doing theatre making for a year or so with a friend and then I stumbled across an interview online with a movement director which was literally ‘What is a movement director and what they do?’ Everything she said was all the stuff that I was interested in when it came to theatre, and I was just like that sounds brilliant that sounds like it’s for me! At the bottom of the interview, it had a link to the course at drama school that she’d done so I clicked on the link, read all the requirements, and thought I could probably blag it. There was a couple of things that I was a bit unsure about, but I thought well why not go and see. They had an open day, I went and applied that year and I got in!

That was it and it was one of these things were like I arrived, and I started the course, and I was like this is this is the right move this is the right thing!

Chi-San in rehearsal with the cast of A Little Princess © Chris Payne Images

How old are you when that happened?

I was 24 and I had not heard of the job before then, so I came across the interview in a kind of roundabout way.  I was looking at Choreography MA’s and I thought that might be the route because the theatre that I always enjoyed was very physical.

That was the thing that made me really excited most of all, things like Frantic Assembly.

I think I had assumed that you had to have this like dance degree but the Movement MA was a directing and teaching MA. It’s at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and is the only one of its kind there are other Movement MA’s but I don’t know if they’re still being run. I think Guildhall School of Music and Drama had one that specifically for teacher training and LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) used to do a diploma in it and they would take one person each year in very different structure. So this is the only focused Movement MA as far as I’m aware.

Chi-San and Melina Barnett during rehearsals © Chris Payne Images

How many years have you been a Movement Director?

I’ve been a Movement Director for seven years now, pandemic notwithstanding, my years get a bit hazy when I have to take in the pandemic so it’s about seven years, I graduated in 2016 and I started pretty much straight-off the bat.

Do you still love it and why?

I still love it… I love it because nothing is ever the same, movement isn’t always theatre based it can be circus, fashion…

One of my favourite fun-facts is the Met Ball that Vogue hosts every year, they release this little video of all the people as they arrive and there is a movement director credited on all of those clips.

So you can do anything, there are movement coaches on films they had movement specialists on the Harry Potter films to come up with all the wand movements and movement specialists on the Marvel films to look at how superpowers manifest themselves. They have movement coaches on things that are about historical figures, like The Crown and the Elvis film and Bohemian Rhapsody more recently, both had the same Movement Director, Polly Bennett.  So there’s all sorts that you can find yourself doing, there’s a real variety that comes with it and of course every piece of theatre is different and every ask varies. I think writers are becoming more and more ambitious as a result of presence of movement directors because they can start to write like mad stuff like Miss Amelia dancing with the cat.

Victoria Brazier (Miss Amelia) and Malcolm the cat dancing ©The Other Richard

You get that real joy of collaboration between yourself and a puppetry director like Marc Parrett, you both work from a language of movement, just the conduit is different and that’s really fun and you get to work really closely.  There’s also always a dialogue between you and the sound designer (Arun Ghosh) and the lighting designer (Joshua Pharo). This is my third show together with Josh so it’s really fun to get together and go ‘if I do this’ and ‘you do that’… ‘Liz (Director) keeps laughing at me because I’m obsessed with this thing that we’ve just put in quite last minute, which is Dufarge (Jonny McGarrity) blowing a kiss to Miss Amelia (Victoria Brazier). I just wanted to have some music to help ease the scene in a bit and then Josh added a magical kiss light and suddenly it’s like this tiny candle of an idea has turned into a magical moment.

Jonny McGarrity (Monsieur Dufarge) and Victoria Brazier (Miss Amelia) © The Other Richard

This is one of my favourite moments in the whole show, we’ve been rehearsing for 4 weeks but this little thing that we put in at the last second is my favourite bit!

Do you have anyone in the industry that’s your hero?

Imogen Knight is someone who I’ve followed really closely, and I think her work’s incredible artistically. I think she makes really interesting decisions about what she works on and why she works on them. She has a very clear and distinct voice, I know her when I see her work. I would always talk about my old tutor, Ayse Tashkiran, she’s been around a long time and she is so enthusiastic about nurturing the next generation of movement directors but also like ensuring that there’s more academic writing around movement and that it’s being recognised in the history of theatre. She’s one of the first people to write book about it.

The title of movement director is relatively new it’s kind of the last 30 years, but the presence of movement specialist has existed much longer than that.

One of my fun-facts says that the Royal Shakespeare Company was co-founded by a movement director, Michell Sandini, who was a contemporary dance choreographer and was brought in to help set it up. Shakespeare writes dances and movement into everything he does. Imagine Macbeth switches with no specialist movement and Midsummers Night’s Dream, which now famously at the Globe, ends with a jig no matter how many people have died on stage. It’s a thing among Movement Directors, ‘what are you going to do for your jig?’ The role of movement director hasn’t always had an official name and for a long time there’s been a lot of refusal and difficulty around getting recognition with people not being sure what to call it because it’s not necessarily dance. For example, this show, A Little Princess, has dance in it but not everything I’ve done on this is dance.

I remember we had a class on like all the different things that movement directors have been called before they were called movement directors. There was one where they were called ‘Shadows’. Movement Directors, as a presence in theatre and movies, have been around since the 1920s and 30’s!

What’s does the future for Chi-San look like?

One of the joys of theatre is that you do a job that you love but what that can mean is that like we’re not best at boundaries and work life balance because it doesn’t always feel like work which is lovely! But there’s a real thing as well like when you make your hobby your job and then you like know what’s my what’s my hobby.

The future is looking to finding balance, so working on shows that I love and care about.

So that it’s quality over quantity. The first 3- 4 years I did anything and everything to get as much experience as I could, you know for just a packet of crisps and a Ribena!! So being more selective means you can come and really give your energy to a show that you’re you know you’re giving your best work because you have the energy. This is not a physically gentle job it’s long hours and a lot of problem-solving. I always joke that part of being a movement director is partly a fancy problem and an artsy furniture removal service. So it’s important to make sure that the work you do is your best work, that for me is now the focus, now that I’ve built my experience and now that I’ve done lots of different things, I can really focus on what excites me, the kind of stories I want to tell and the kind of places I want to be, the people I want to work with. Theatre by the Lake being one of those jobs because you’re not easy to get to and it’s a real concerted decision to be here. You can’t get too stressed up here, you can walk out, take a deep breath, appreciate that the World is much bigger than me and my play. It’s also great for inspiration as well, we were watching a dog chase a bird and were able to use that in the play when the cat chases the bird.

Was there anything else that you wanted to add about the show?

So, for me this show is surprisingly funny, you think of A Little Princess and if anyone remembers the film from the 90’s, its quite beautiful but very earnest and all about magic. This production still is all of that, it’s so beautiful, so magical and everyone in this is hysterical, the amount of times the rehearsal room has fallen apart because someone has found a new way to deliver a line.