What Makes a ‘Harry Potter’ Director Tick
Posted May 10, 2018 5:09 p.m. EDT
Fans of director John Tiffany know that “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is only his latest bit of sorcery.
Since he marched onto the scene a decade or so ago with the dazzling “Black Watch,” he has also given us a decadent “Bacchae,” a swoony “Once,” a robustly lyrical “The Glass Menagerie” and a coolly feverish “Let the Right One In.”
There are some differences this time: He’s working on an enormous scale (“Cursed Child” is capitalized for Broadway at a Gringotts-busting $35.5 million) and he’s not only the play’s director. In collaboration with J.K. Rowling, the author of the novels, and Jack Thorne, who wrote the script, he dreamed up the story, which imagines a Harry aged from boy wizard to dad wizard. The show was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, one of them recognizing Tiffany’s emotive, cape-swirling direction.
On a break from rehearsing a new London cast for the show, Tiffany, 46, spoke about his influences. First and foremost: “People, really, because at the end of the day, who are you if not the people that surrounded you, influenced you, challenged you, angered you, made you furious with pleasure and joy and lust?” Many of his “Cursed Child” colleagues are friends he has known and worked with for decades.
Venturing beyond relationships, he discussed some of the music, plays and books that have shaped his style. (Reader beware: The section on music videos contains a small “Cursed Child” spoiler.) These are excerpts from the conversation.
Steven Hoggett (the “Cursed Child” choreographer) and I, we met when we were 14 and one of the things we bonded over was our absolute adoration of Kate Bush’s album “Hounds of Love.” It starts with a young woman going to sleep. She falls into a nightmare that she’s come back as a ghost. Then there’s a bit where she ends up in space looking at the Earth. “The Morning Fog” is the last song. She comes back and realizes how joyful life is. I didn’t think music could do that. I thought albums were just a collection of songs.
I never get star-struck. I never fanboy. Ever ever ever. But she feels part of my DNA. I had the absolute good fortune of meeting her when we were at the Evening Standard Theater Awards. I said: “I promise you I’m not a freak, I promise you I’m not a weirdo. I just have to say something: As I was growing up and listening to your music, it taught me something about storytelling and challenging form and really pushing boundaries, and that’s probably one of the massive reasons I’m a theater director.”
It’s set in Yorkshire, and I grew up in Huddersfield, which is a town in Yorkshire. Very rural, very kind of beautiful and bleak. There’s something about the landscape manifest in those two characters, Cathy and Heathcliff, that just makes me kind of ache for home whenever I think about it. That book has buried itself inside of me. I know it’s not perfect in the way that something like “Pride and Prejudice” is, but it gnaws at me even more because of that.
Weirdly, the thing that made me read the book was Kate Bush’s song “Wuthering Heights.” I was 15 going on 16 and wildly romantic when I read it, and I think because of “Wuthering Heights,” I still am. When I sold my flat in Glasgow, I bought a little cottage on the North Yorkshire coast. Whenever we go up from London to stay there, I’m just like, “I’m home! I’m home in Brontë-land!”
I was pre-med at Glasgow University. I was from a family who were of the mind that if you were clever enough to be a doctor or a lawyer, why wouldn’t you be? A friend of mine was studying theater, and he said to me one day, “I’ve got a spare ticket.” It turned out to be “Tectonic Plates,” directed by and starring Robert Lepage. It was the most radical and extremely entertaining piece of performance I had ever seen.
It had a beautiful, accessible story that would just jump from city to city, from continent to continent. There was one scene in a library in Venice; two characters were there. It ended with them saying, “We need to go to New York.” The light that had been shining on the books from the front moved so that it was shining from behind. And the books became the Manhattan skyline reflected in the Hudson River.
I was born again. I remember gasping. There was no sci-fi, there was no CGI, there was no huge automation. My work’s always searching for that moment.
‘The Glass Menagerie’
As a result of seeing “Tectonic Plates,” the next day I swapped from doing pre-med to doing theater and classics. My tutor at the time, somebody who’s been massively influential, a man called Alasdair Cameron — he very excitedly said to me: “Have you read Tennessee Williams? Have you read ‘The Glass Menagerie?'”
I read that opening monologue: “I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician.” And I was like, “You can’t do that! Theater has to pretend it’s real!” Because that was my experience of it. And then I went on to read the most beautiful story of the tragedy of this family. I was just forever changed. I just thought, “Well this is it.” It’s the most inspiring, illuminating, heartbreaking. It has never, ever let me down.
It all started with “Thriller,” Michael Jackson. That was such an event, that John Landis video. It wasn’t just an illustration, a lip-synced version. Channel Four here, if there was an event video coming out, like “Bad” or a Janet Jackson video or the George Michael video, they would show it at 11 o’clock on a Friday night. Well, me and Steven Hoggett would count down the hours after school.
Part of me wouldn’t want to watch them again now. They might be absolutely terrible. But at the time, they felt like heaven. I still get excited, going: “Oh, my God, the Pink video’s out! Janelle Monae’s new video is out!” Lady Gaga as well, and Beyoncé's videos, and Bjork — Bjork’s an absolute mistress and master — of the form.
Me and Steven always say that somewhere in our productions, there’ll be an acknowledgment of Janet Jackson. Certainly, Voldemort World in “Harry Potter” is “Rhythm Nation.”