'Doing it for real is the biggest education' The Exorcist director reveals how he puts on a show

The Exorcist play in London, UK, has terrified audiences on the West End since opening last month – Mandy News head to the Phoenix Theatre to chat with seasoned director Sean Mathias about how it came together as well as offering advice to actors.

25th November 2017
/ By Andrew Wooding

The Exorcist play London THEEXORCIST

Sean, tell how you ended up directing theatre.
I’ve been in the theatre since I was a kid. I was in the National Youth Theatre and after that I was an actor. I decided I wanted to be more in control of my own fate. An actor is not, really, so it didn’t quite suit my temperament. I became a writer, was in love with being a writer and thought I would be one for the rest of my life. A play that I had written, A Prayer for Wings, directed by Joan Plowright at the Edinburgh festival, was coming to London and Joan couldn’t do it, so I did it. I directed it at the Bush, with the guiding hands of Jenny Topper and Simon Stokes.

It was weird, suddenly I went from being a nobody to being successful; I got offered work and it escalated. I was quite unhappy— I thought I wanted to be a writer. It was all I wanted to do, although the solitude was hard because I’m quite a personable chap.

I actually didn’t like the responsibility of being a director, initially. I resisted it and didn’t take to it naturally, but it seemed to take to me and I got offered stuff. I got better at it and then, as I got a little older, I started to take that mantle of responsibility.

You have to be quite patriarchal, although that’s a word that has got quite a bad connotation to it these days. You certainly have to be some kind of a captain, or a manager. Disciplining people, egging people on, encouraging them… I’m very lucky, I’m 61 now, I was at the Youth Theatre when I was 16. I was a professional by the age of 18 because I didn’t have any further education, so I’ve spent my whole life in the theatre.

Could you tell us a little bit about the run up to a show— you’ve got your play, your pre-production process, and your production. What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
It starts with a play and the chances are, you’ll want some revisions, so your first relationship is with the writer. Then, you hope to place the play with a producer, in my case Bill Kenwright at Birmingham Rep for The Exorcist, and then you assemble your creative team. Designer first, then lighting and sound.

With The Exorcist, we also have a video designer and illusionist. It’s quite a hefty team. It’s almost as big as putting a musical together. We got the dates of Birmingham very late in the day and I was very anxious we wouldn’t get the A team to be my collaborators, but we got them. We had to have quite a lot of meetings because it’s such a big production. I wanted the creative team to work very closely with each other— the illusionist needs to work with sound and, of course, quite closely with lighting and everything.

Then, you get onto the very important business of casting, or you’re doing it simultaneously. There are certain actors you make offers to, and you have to audition the other roles. I saw about sixty or seventy Regans in total. That was the hardest thing. Claire (Louise Connolly) plays Regan. She’s absolutely fantastic.

Once a play is set up as a production, what is your week-to-week like?
Once you’ve done that, you have to have meetings with the creatives every couple of weeks because you’re plotting your way through the whole script. In the case of The Exorcist we did a storyboard for it as well. Once you’ve fully cast, you get ready for rehearsals.

Each play is different— some plays demand a lot of research. For The Exorcist, I read the book and I read the play over and over to get ideas… and not get ideas. You have to get frustrated and get excited. It takes time. The excitement comes when you start rehearsals. Going into a rehearsal studio with the actors is a really big thing. I love that part of the process because you’re being very creative every day and nobody’s really coming to judge. You can feel free to fall and fail because you’re in a private enclosed situation.

Eventually we move to the theatre and put everything together, which is thrilling and very tough. In the case of this show, we only had three days. It was very tight. We have a lot of cues and a lot of movement. You never see the whole set. You only see one room at a time. It’s quite spooky the way each scene is in a different place and we go around the whole house.

Then it’s previews, which are a very intense period because you’re watching it with the audience and you’re learning where the audience attention waivers, what they enjoy and what they don’t enjoy. I then come in the next day and do work with the cast and creatives on things that I want to refine and polish.


The Exorcist play london theatre THEEXORCIST
Claire Louise Connolly as Regan in The Exorcist

Tell us a little bit about how this specific project came about…
I was having a meeting with John Pielmeier, the author of the play, for another project. I asked him what he’d been up to and he told me he’d just done The Exorcist in Los Angeles and that they were assembling a brand new team to do it again. The next day, I got offered it, which was lovely. The producers are American and John Pielmeier had got the rights from William Peter Blatty, who wrote the book, so the whole thing was put together in America.

They asked me to do it on Broadway and I said I really wanted to do it but that I wanted to start it quietly in the provinces. It had already played in LA, so the idea came to start it in the provinces here in the UK. That was spring of 2014, so I’ve been on it for three years already.

When it came to the design, how did you or Anna (Fleischle, the designer) come up with it?
One of the biggest challenges is the bed, Regan’s got to be in the bed for a lot of the show. If somebody’s in a bed, the other actors are going to get upstaged by the person in the bed because it is in a more prominent position. The actual story is quite low key in that it’s almost filmic, with very real acting. Around it is this big production with a lot of energy and effects, a big soundscape and a lot of lighting cues…a challenge.

We also had to give a sense of the house, because it’s the house that’s so creepy. You need a sense of it while only being in one room at a time. So Anna (Fleischle) came up with this brilliant idea of having the whole set on the stage, most of which hardly ever moves. It’s not really automated. We didn’t want it to be slick in the way that a musical might be. We wanted it to be quite raw and quite gritty.

The difficulty of the set is getting the audience to look where I want them to look, so I have to get everything else in pitch black, and that’s quite a feat.

When did the technological aspect of it, the inclusion of video and things like that, come to mind?
When I took the play on, there were two things that were very daunting. One was the demon and the other was the exorcism itself. In fact, when we started to stage The Exorcist, I knew how I wanted to do the rest of the play but didn’t have a clue how to do the exorcism. It unfolded in the end because it’s got a particular structure that’s dominated by the ritual.

The other thing was creating the demon. I thought we were going to need help. So that’s where video came in, because the demon’s got to exist outside. There are scenes in Assyria where Father Merrin has been on a long-term archaeological dig and he comes back to America to do the exorcism. Father Merrin actually comes from a faraway land and it’s quite a chunk at the beginning of the film. We don’t have a big chunk, it’s quite short, but it’s a very necessary flavour to have. We used video for that.

We also go to a boxing gym, a confessional, a diner and a cemetery – four locations outside of the house.


The Exorcist play london theatre THEEXORCIST
The Exorcist play directed by Sean Mathias at the Phoenix Theatre in London

When you’re directing something for the theatre, you obviously have a front row and a back row, so how do you direct that for those two sets of audience members? How does that work?
It’s very difficult. Depending on the style of the show and what it is, I try to make it as real as possible in the rehearsals. On the whole I don’t talk to the actors about what happens in the theatre. When they come into the theatre, very often, in my experience, there will be complaints that from the audience that the actors cannot be heard and it might be too intimate. Even with great actors like Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, I spend three of four previews helping them to share that with the audience without forcing it out. It’s quite difficult. It’s a technique.

One of the things any voice teacher will tell you is that you have to think and you have to have your intention in your thought. If you have a strong intention, that can carry across. So when we get on stage, I always point out to the actors that there will be people sitting right up there. The Phoenix Theatre has very good acoustics. Aurally, it’s pretty similar, wherever you’re sat, which is great.

Is there anything else about The Exorcist you would like to share with us?
It’s a very visual production. There’s always something to look at. The story is very tight and it unwinds. The mechanism of the writing is very strong. There are also big moments, head-turnings and vomits and levitations and these things that people hope to see because of the movie. We deliver those things, so I think it’s a really good night out.

What advice would you give actors or directors out there that are entry-level and would like to one day do something in the West End or Broadway or anything like that?
Work, work, work. Take work, seek work, do work. Studying, knowledge and developing your intellect are all incredibly important parts of the craft of theatre but being in the workplace and doing it for real is the biggest education. Young directors often assist, but they want to develop their own stuff.

If you’ve got to beg, steal or borrow, put your own show on, because doing it is the way you learn. I get better from doing it, I’m still learning quite a lot as I go along and I’ve been in the theatre for more than forty years.