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Charlotte Westenra: Bringing Social Awareness to the Stage

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Charlie Westenra isn’t one to walk away from a challenge.  

Since her early days at the prestigious Resident Assistant Director (RAD) program at the Donmar Warehouse, Westenra’s diverse resume has showcased her ingenuity. As an up-and-coming director in London, Westenra has designed and incorporated elaborate canalways to recreate the city of Venice, wrangled hundreds of costumed guests in two interactive Secret Cinema presentations, and, as dramaturg of the Royal Ballet’s recent production of Strapless, was faced with the unique task of adapting the narrative of a novel into wordless physical movement. As she currently works with designers to decipher how to bring a wicker puppet to life, Westenra could feasibly be viewed as a creative “MacGyver” - a dynamic force who is called upon to find imaginative ways around theatrical boundaries.  

She believes a director’s success hinges upon “how strong their vision for production is, and also how well they manage to get other people to invest into the importance of what they are doing.” In other words, how well the director can passionately convey and sell an idea to her crew and, then, can subsequently sell that idea to an audience, night after night. Westenra certainly can sell - her passion is infectious. As she sits in a Cambridge classroom on a sweltering July afternoon, the enthusiastic director and dramaturg effortlessly holds the attention of 19 journalism students who eagerly hang on every word as she shares numerous colorful stories detailing her childhood, her recent works, and her plans for the future.

A successful Olivier Award-winning director who, insists she has “really… no talent for acting”, Westenra doesn’t agree with the belief that “to be a great director you have to be an actor first”, but understands the importance for a director to empathize with his actors and to realize they are his most important asset. Westenra has loved the theatre since childhood and comes from an entertainment-rich background. Her father, famed actor Leonard Whiting, whom Westenra didn’t meet until she was 12 years old and simply refers to as “my dad who makes me laugh”, is, perhaps, best known for his starring role in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film, Romeo and Juliet. Her mother, Valerie Tobin, often took her to see plays. After a panto performance, her mother noticed that Charlotte was angry, and asked what was wrong. “I could DO that!” Charlotte yelled. She began taking theatre classes, but, over time, frustrated with her lackluster performances, eventually became a director instead. Questioned whether she might ever try acting again, Westenra visibly shudders. “Oh no I hate it! I hate it!” She finds it “just terrifying to be in front of an audience” and has found her niche offstage. Though she insists there is “no key to directing…no trick”, she alludes there may be an underlying formula: Passion and Authenticity.  

The vibrant freelance director and dramaturg is currently helming the Amy Ng-penned drama Shangri-La, which opened at the Finborough two weeks ago and runs through early August. The play focuses on the realm of cultural tourism in China, and the struggles of a young woman who must maintain to help a community adapt and find its place in the modern, technology-filled world while catering to wealthy tourists who bring in revenue, yet demand an “authentic” experience. Westenra notes that “authenticity is absolutely the heart of the play” - not only as subject, but in the presentation as well. For Westenra, collective work was the key: “if you want to be a theater director, you only do it if you love collaboration.” While the play’s characters struggle to maintain authenticity for their clientele, Westenra paralleled the theme by working tirelessly with her crew to ensure the same level of realness was reached when re-creating the mountains and scenery of the Yunnan province.  

Authenticity also came into play while developing Gladiator Games, a gripping human-rights political drama based on the story of Zahid Mubarek - a British Pakistani teenager who died unjustly in a prison system governed by institutional racism. As Westenra and writer Tanika Gupta worked to bring the Mubarek’s harrowing case to life, the cast and crew became equally engaged in the boy’s story as well. “We really had a strong working relationship because we all believed in the piece that we were putting on.” The story resonated with the diverse audiences as well, who would often verbally admonish characters during performances. Post-show discussions allowed audiences and crew a chance to further engage on topics such as social justice and inequality. The emotionally-charged production ran for 10 weeks at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, and remains one of Westenra’s favorite things she’s done. 

Though political theatre and community outreach have become tenets of Westenra’s career, she also enjoys directing musical theatre, joking that it’s “more fun…because you only have to be in half the amount of time.” All kidding aside, the medium does lend itself to her love of collaboration. In August, Westenra travels to France with MTI Mentorship Award winners Darren Clark and Rhys Jennings to participate in a writing workshop for The Wicker Husband. Based on a short story by Ursula Wills-Jones, Husband is an unconventional piece combining puppetry, folk music and dance to weave the tale of an “Ugly Girl” and her understanding of the cruel world she lives in. Acknowledging the successful longtime run of War Horse, Westenra believes this production will attract a wider audience as well, boasting elements children can enjoy, as well as darker themes that appeal to adult viewers.

Still, Westenra cites restoration drama Venice Preserv’d as her greatest “passion project”. Though the play provided numerous logistical challenges for Westenra and her team, her enthusiasm bubbles over as she recounts reading the book and brainstorming to bring the interactive story to life - “It felt so fresh, and it felt so modern!” The central focus of production location still resonates with Westenra - when asked about her future plans, Westenra states she’s already planning to return to that medium someday, but keeps mum on the details: “There’s a few films I want to turn into plays…that I would like to do…more site-specific…”. No matter which creative path Westenra's ideas take her, her audiences had better be ready for an exhilarating ride. 

Later this month, Westenra will continue the workshop process, joining co-creators Kate Marlais and Alex Young in Leicester to hone the second act of their WWII-era musical, Here. Based on the life of German-Jewish exile Dada artist Kurt Schwitters, Here was the 2015 winner of the S&S Award for the "most promising unproduced musical of the year”. Westenra becomes animated as she describes the process behind works such as Here - her hands wave energetically as she recounts the collaboration necessary for musical theatre and relays how the addition of musical numbers to a script adds to the process (and to her excitement). “To be able to say ‘I have this idea but I don’t really know how to put it on stage’ and for a choreographer to just work out some steps in front of you and go ‘this is how we can take that idea and put it onstage’ - I just get such a buzz out of that.”