Kip Williams

ACT I. Open on Kip Williams sitting on a grey sofa in the very same office where he had his first interview with the Sydney Theatre Company. A wooden roll-top desk sits in the corner. Framed pictures of Kip’s past productions line the walls.

At the ripe old age of thirty, Kip Williams is the Artistic Director for the Sydney Theatre Company. It’s an impressive role for anyone, let alone the unassuming man sitting before me. I ask Kip if he grew up always knowing he would be a director. He pauses for a moment, before chuckling.

“My grandmother was actually an actress; and she would make me, my siblings and cousins put on shows for her in the living room. We’d be using the couches and turning them into ships, or raiding her closet to use her wigs and scarves and shawls to create all manner of different costumes.

Through my grandmother, that very naïve child’s play was transformed into something that was about the audience. It wasn’t just about playing with other kids, but about using that sense of play to create a world that other people would enjoy.”

Kip and I laugh at the image of the Sydney Theatre Company’s Artistic Director as a small boy, draped with colourful scarves and costume jewellery, imperiously giving orders to the other children. It sounds like a wonderful way to grow up; a family home filled with music, laughter, and fun.

ACT II. Enter Kip Williams, stage right. He is now a young man in his early twenties. He slowly walks across the stage, passing by buildings made of sandstone and steel.

Kip admits that despite his creative childhood, he never grew up thinking he would be a theatre director. He only knew that theatre was important to him.

“I specifically came to Sydney Uni because of SUDS. There was no other university in Sydney or Australia, that I knew of, that had a student theatre society that was as in-depth, rigorous, and expansive.”

His time at SUDS prepared Kip well for NIDA, where he came to a sudden realisation. In the past, he’d only directed plays that he had written. As someone with a passion to tell their story, he only saw the director as a facilitator of the playwright.

“But soon, I discovered that the director could be an originating storyteller. All of a sudden, all the different skills and passions I had for storytelling seemed to coalesce in a role that made sense to me. At that moment, I looked back on my life and realised that I’d always been directing. I just hadn’t given it a name.”

After two years at NIDA, Kip met the man who would change the entire course of his career. Andrew Upton (the Artistic Director of the Sydney Theatre Company at the time) had seen Kip’s production of The Lord of the Flies and asked for a meeting. Kip nervously turned up to a 20-minute interview with Andrew and Cate [Blanchett]. They ended up talking for three hours before Andrew held up a copy of The White Guard and asked Kip to consider a role as Assistant Director.

ACT III. Open on a group of actors preparing for rehearsal. Enter Kip Williams, stage left. He holds a sheaf of papers above his head as he strides towards the actors.

Kip ended up doing three shows as an Assistant Director in his first year, before becoming a resident Associate Director. Soon, he was working with Andrew on Under Milk Wood.

“About six weeks before rehearsal started, Andrew decided he wasn’t going to direct it. He was going to go on tour with one of our shows and I was going to direct it instead. So, there I was. A 25-year-old with six weeks to prepare a show for the Opera House, with Jack Thompson in the lead role. Doing that show was one of the most terrifying moments in my life.”

It was an uphill battle for Kip. Some senior cast members struggled with his young age. However, others saw his potential. “The cast was very good to me, especially Jack Thompson. Jack was incredibly generous. He said very publicly to the rest of the cast on day one of rehearsals that he was going to put himself in my hands and trust me to direct it.”

Under Milk Wood was a success. The next year, Kip was a Resident Director and directing Romeo and Juliet at the Opera House. The year after that, he was directing Macbeth with Hugo Weaving. In 2016, Kip, once more, received the opportunity to revisit the playwright that fascinated him.

“I first encountered A Midsummer Night’s Dream when I was about 13 years old. I immediately fell in love with Shakespeare; I was completed blown away by the language, the imagery, the universe, and the philosophy inside this writer’s play.

But I didn’t see it as a comedy; I found the play to be incredibly dark. Think about the opening scene where Hermia’s father threatens to put her to death. For me, that scene was so harrowing and frightening. Then you have the King of the Faeries who punishes his wife by making her sleep with a half-man/half-donkey. He seeks retribution through an act of humiliation.”

Kip’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream certainly captures those sinister undertones he encountered. In fact, as a result, The NSW Department of Education has recently moved the play from the junior syllabus to the senior syllabus, so students can study the darker themes of the play.

“That was one of the few moments where I’ve really stopped and gone… Wow. My work can have a lasting impact.

Shakespeare’s plays are an amazing canvas upon which society can probe itself. And for me, as a custodian of the ongoing interrogation of culture, having the opportunity to take those cultural relics and unpack and question and challenge them... I’ve been very fortunate.”

Kip will speak to The Bard, theatre and capital C Culture on The University of Sydney’s Outside the Square series. To be or not to be? How to be cultured: Shakespeare in the 21st century will be held on 17th August 2017 at The Old Rum Store, Chippendale Creative Precinct.

Kip Williams is a graduate of The University of Sydney (BA (MECO), 2009)

Article by Theodora Chan (BA, MECO 2010; BA, HONS 2012), Co-Founder and Content Director at Pen and Pixel.