The Woman in Black: Articles

The Articles section includes articles and interviews with the creators of the original production of The Woman in Black - the author Susan Hill, the adaptor, Stephen Mallatratt and the director, Robin Herford - as well as other relevant articles. Click on a link in the box below to access the relevant article.

This interview with Robin Herford by Joshua Wright was published on Broadway World on 1 February 2024. It looks at Robin's career and his experiences with both Alan Ayckbourn and The Woman in Black.

Robin Herford: 2024 Interview

What inspired you to become a director after starting your career as an actor?
I had directed a couple of shows while at University in St Andrews, but didn't really know what I was doing. I trained as an actor in Bristol, and after three or four years of my professional working life, I began working as an actor with Sir Alan Ayckbourn and his company in Scarborough. Alan believed that most people had the capacity to do more than one thing, and presided over a company which included actor/writers, actor/designers, actor /directors, carpenter/lighting designers, composer/musicians etc.... In my first interview with him I had expressed an interest in directing, so he encouraged me to explore this by offering me a play, of my own choosing, to direct in the next season. That seemed to go quite well, because the next thing he offered me was the opportunity to become his Associate Director. I would direct 40% of the productions, he would direct 60% of them: we would jointly select The Acting Company: we would jointly commission the new plays, I would still act when I wanted to, and I would gradually be introduced to the mysteries of running a theatre. All on a salary of $100 a week! I assure you, it was a bargain!

Can you share some insights into your longstanding collaboration with Sir Alan Ayckbourn?
I had started working with Alan as a jobbing actor on a 5 month contract in 1976. Ten years later, he asked me to take over his beloved Scarborough company as Artistic Director for two years while he went to The National Theatre in London to direct four productions there. So the first thing I learned from him was trust. Trust was also at the heart of his directing technique, which, as an actor, I was lucky enough to observe at very close quarters in his rehearsal room. Don't be afraid to let the actors take the lead - even if they may take you into unexpected areas and uncharted waters. The director is there to enable the actors to be the best they can be, and then get out of the way. He provides the smoothest possible conduit between the text and the audience. If the actor can find his performance by himself, rather than have it given to him by a director, so much the better. It really helps to have been an actor yourself. You can genuinely empathise with all the different processes involved in getting to performance. You can sense when an actor need his confidence boosted, and when he needs to be reined in. Alan started his professional life as an actor, too. His help and immense influence was always at arm's length. He never spent a minute in my rehearsal room, but he was endlessly supportive. "Find out for yourself by doing it yourself."

What was the process of commissioning and directing The Woman in Black like in 1987?
The commissioning process on this show was fairly last-minute. I had planned my final season of plays as Artistic Director, but then discovered I had a small amount of money left in my grant budget. This had to be spent!! So I decided on an extra production at Christmas, and asked Stephen Mallatratt, who was then my Associate Director / Resident Playwright to write me a ghost story for Christmas. The grant money would only pay the salaries for a maximum of 4 actors, and the set and costumes couldn't cost more than $1400! Also, we would perform it in a tiny space that doubled as the bar/restaurant, seating only 70 people maximum. Stephen was NOT impressed by his restrictions, but suggested to me that - despite featuring about a dozen characters - Susan Hill's novel The Woman in Black, might be a suitable vehicle for adaptation to the stage. He then proceeded to write a brilliant scrIpt with only two speaking characters.

How has your experience been directing the play in different countries like Japan, USA, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand?
Directing this play all over the world has been extraordinary and has taught me so much both about theatre and about directing. Fear is a universally registered emotion, and this play is scary!
It's not about blood and gore and horror, but is a tragic and very human story of loss and grief, and how these emotions need to respected and accommodated. We tell it simply, we tell it truthfully, using rough theatrical magic, and the extraordinary power of actors and the play speaks to our common humanity. Whether in Mumbai or Tokyo, Auckland or New York.

Is there anything that's needed to be adjusted in the presentation of the play for all the different countries its been presented?
Not really. You sometimes have a different starting point. For example, in Japan, where there is a fairly widespread acceptance of the existence of the "spirit world", audiences are very ready to accept the possibility of "seeing a ghost" - whereas in Western countries, like the UK or perhaps Australia, a more skeptical approach is expected. The nature of the play is such that both approaches can be accommodated, but even in the same country, Individual audience behaviour can vary enormously. Some audiences will be extremely vocal throughout, laughing and screaming. Others sit and just listen in silence, experiencing it in their own way, and expressing their appreciation at the end. There is no correct way of responding.

How do you feel about the success of The Woman in Black, the second longest-running play in the history of British Theatre?
I feel immensely proud and immensely fortunate. I was in the right place at the right time, and the stars conspired. The magic carpet ride that this play has taken me on, I could have never imagined. I have learned so much, and it's not done yet! Something I feel particularly proud of is the way young people have responded to this play. In the UK, we play to a huge number of students and young people, many of whom pursue an interest in performance, and even a career, sparked by this play. It gives me great hope for the next generation of theatre makers and appreciators.

Why must audiences come and see the show?
So many reasons why you should see it. Because you will not forget it. It will haunt you. It
celebrates what live performance can achieve. It celebrates the art of the actor. It relies on very simple things to create its effects. The phrase" two planks and a passion" might have been coined with this play in mind. Everyone loves to be told a story. Finally, there is no shame in sleeping with the light on after watching this play.