If an exciting new generation of young women theatre directors is beginning to emerge in Scotland, then Shilpa T-Hyland seems likely to play a leading role in that movement. She is the first-ever winner of the Cross Trust Young Director Award, set up to allow a young Scotland-based director to create a full production for Perth Theatre, with strong support from the thatre’s artistic director Lu Kemp and the whole organisation; and her new production of Zinnie Harris’s version of Miss Julie – Strindberg’s searing 1889 drama about a midsummer’s night encounter between the young mistress of a big house and her father’s ambitious manservant, Jean – is set to open at Perth next weekend.
“The way the award application process works is that you’re given a list of plays the theatre would like to do,” says T-Hyland, “and you pick the one that you find most exciting, and make a pitch about how you’d like to tackle it. I chose Miss Julie for a whole range of reasons, but mainly because it’s just a super-intense piece of drama, all set on a single night, about three people – Miss Julie, Jean, and his fiancée Christine – trying to reach one another in some way, and failing.
“I also absolutely love Zinnie Harris’s version, which is set in 1920s Scotland. That was a period, just after the First World War, when there was huge, intense debate about socialism, and women winning the vote, and it seemed as if the whole world was going to change; and then for a lot of people, that change just didn’t happen. And I think that has some resonances today; people are thinking, are we going to progress here, on issues like #metoo and social inequality, or are things actually going to stay the same, or even get worse?”
Born in London in the early 1990s, Shilpa T-Hyland arrived in Glasgow as a baby; her father, Paul Hyland, is a violin-maker and teacher, and her mother, Ranjana Thapalyal, an artist and academic. “We were always quite relaxed about names in my family,” says T-Hyland, “and at first I had both names hyphenated, which was a bit complicated, then I just used Hyland for a while. But then I thought, no, I do want to reflect both sides of my heritage, so I decided to use T-Hyland.
“My family isn’t particularly theatrical, although I was taken to theatre as a child. But there was obviously a lot of interest in the arts and music, and I was encouraged to do Saturday classes at Scottish Youth Theatre when I was at school. At first, I felt I might be interested in set design; then at the point of leaving school, I applied for various acting courses, but got knocked back from them all – which turned out to be quite fortuitous, really.”
T-Hyland went to Glasgow University to study English Literature and Theatre Studies; and it was while she was there, and acting in student drama productions, that a friend suggested they co-direct a show together. “And from the first moment I started directing,” says T-Hyland, “it just suddenly made a lot of sense to me. I knew that this was what I wanted to do; and now I’ve got no desire at all to be on stage myself.
“When I graduated in 2014, I set up my own company in Glasgow called Modest Predicament, and did a show called A Stranger Walked Into A Pub, which appeared in pubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh. But I felt I needed some formal training in theatre; so in 2016 I went to the RCS (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) to do their one-year Masters in Classical and Contemporary Text, which is a great course, and has such strong links to the theatre industry in Scotland.”
T-Hyland’s student placement as an assistant director, during that year, was on The 306: Day, the woman-focused middle part of the National Theatre of Scotland-Perth Theatre trilogy about the 306 British servicemen summarily shot at dawn for desertion or cowardice during the First World War. And in the last 18 months, since she graduated from the RCS, she has worked as assistant on some strikingly successful Scottish shows, including Blood Of The Young’s brilliant Pride And Prejudice* (*Sort Of) at the Tron Theatre last summer; as well as creating a successful Modest Predicament children’s show called The Dragon And The Whales, and working on a stage version of Daniel Defoe’s fascinating proto-feminist 18th century novel, Roxana.
Miss Julie, though, is T-Hyland’s biggest challenge so far; and she is conscious that she is tackling her first solo main-stage show in ideal conditions, with exceptionally strong support. “The Cross Trust Award is such a good idea,” she says, “and something that’s so much needed in the Scottish theatre industry, to help young directors make that step from just assisting, or creating their own small projects. I think there are still problems facing women directors in British theatre,” she adds, “particularly right at the top of the profession. I also noticed, in casting this show, just how much the decisions you make in that role matter – how you become a gatekeeper, and how the choices you make can really help or hinder things.
“So far, though, I have been very fortunate, particularly in being mentored by wonderful women directors like Wils Wilson of the Lyceum and Jemima Levick of Stellar Quines, and now Lu Kemp. And for the future, all I would say is that I want to keep on working, at this
work that I really love. I do have quite itchy feet, and I would like to travel and work in other places at some point. But I have a strong loyalty to Scotland, too; and definitely, Glasgow is home.” - Joyce McMillan
Miss Julie is at Perth Theatre from 14-23 February.