Alumnus Kip Williams hits the big stage

23 May 2012

Kip Williams is making his directorial debut with the prestigious Sydney Theatre Company. [Image: Grant Sparkes-Carroll]
Kip Williams is making his directorial debut with the prestigious Sydney Theatre Company. [Image: Grant Sparkes-Carroll]

The drive from the University to the Sydney Opera House is a short one. But for Kip Williams, it represents a long, exciting journey in his budding theatre career.

Williams, who graduated with a degree in media and communications just three years ago, will make his debut as a director later this month, in charge of the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas.

Willams' stellar trajectory is easier to comprehend when you meet him: the 26-year-old exudes a maturity and air of calm assurance that belies his youth. Although his time at University ("which I loved," he says) provided a foundation for his theatrical ambition, it offered barely a hint of what was to come. He completed a Bachelor of Media and Communications but didn't take any performing arts subjects, although he did perform in SUDS, the University's dramatic society.

"I loved semiotics, but I wanted my undergraduate degree to be an extension of my passion (for these subjects) in high school and also a foundation for literature and history." So when he graduated in 2008, "I knew I wanted to go into theatre and storytelling."

Williams applied for the NIDA director's course and was surprised to be accepted, after three interviews and having to cut short a trip around Europe with friends. Although he was the baby of the course (most of the six students were in their thirties), he made an immediate impression. The Victorian Opera asked him to work as an assistant director on The Turn of the Screw and after a second, honours year at NIDA, he was invited to direct a production at Princeton University in America (word had spread from his final year show at NIDA).

In 2011, his first year out, Williams found himself almost too busy. The Victorian Opera gave him more work, Andrew Upton from the Sydney Theatre Company invited him to assist as director on The White Guard and Gross und Klein. "Andrew has a very open approach to the rehearsal room. It was a great theatrical conversation, with inspiring mentors," he says. "Being an assistant director is less about taking specific actors and helping them, but more about "standing back and seeing the wood from the trees, looking at the production as a whole."

At the same time, the newly-formed Australian Chamber Opera also approached him to help on their new production. "I found myself double-booked," Williams smiles. "By day, it was the STC and at night I would catch the bus from the Wharf to St Andrew's College and rehearse with the Chamber Opera till 11pm, then get up and do it again." Later in the year he came back to assist Richard Cotterill direct the STC's production of Loot, and also found time to direct a music video for a band called Guinea Fowl.

Fortunately, he was not too busy to accept a special offer when it arrived. Upton, the original director of the upcoming production of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood, was held up on the European tour of Gross und Klein, and asked Williams to take over on the celebrated 1954 radio drama which invites the audience to listen to the dreams, hopes and fears of the inhabitants of a fictional small Welsh village, Llareggub ('bugger all' in reverse).

In the STC production, which opens at the Opera House Drama Theatre on 26 May, Williams is working with a cast that includes Jack Thompson, Sandy Gore, Bruce Spence and Drew Forsyth - all legends of Australian theatre. Holding authority over actors like these has not been an issue. "It's not within my personality to feel like I have to assert myself," he says candidly.

"The biggest question is to find a theatrical equivalent to radio. I go back to my first experience as a child, when a parent or grandparent would sit on my bed telling me a story. That is the sort of immediacy I am after."

Williams says he has opted for simple gestures and props that suggest a sense of place and interaction rather than define them. It's the voices that are core of the play, he adds. "It's about allowing the audience's imagination to fill the space."

There is, of course, the ever-present elephant in the room when it comes to Under Milk Wood. Will the cast speak in a Welsh accent, recalling the famous performance by Richard Burton? "My father brought over a DVD with a recording of Richard Burton doing the play but I told him I didn't want to watch it," Williams explains.

They will be speaking with Australian accents. "Welsh is limiting and there is a tendency to caricature," he says. "And I think that Australians respond well to the humour of their own idiom and sound."

Under Milk Wood opens at the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House on 26 May, and runs until 7 July.

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