From Miranda to Mosquitoes, Nickie Miles-Wildin talks to Kate Lovell about her rocketing career in directing and her current role as staff director at the National Theatre.
Beginning her career as an actor, Nickie Miles-Wildin met Graeae’s Jenny Sealey whilst performing a one-woman show up in Edinburgh. Connecting with the disability-led company back in 1998 opened up doors, or perhaps provided ramps where there once were ladders. Since then, she’s performed in the Paralympics opening ceremony as Miranda, worked on making playful theatre in in unusual places with Kazzum, performed across the UK in numerous prestigious venues and been heard in many radio plays.
But, at a certain point, Miles-Wildin “got bored with the limited roles being offered and what I had started to feel as an actor, I loved rehearsals but not performing. You do want those challenges of playing Ophelia in Hamlet or having some new writing, something to get your teeth into.” Over the past few years, Miles-Wildin’s focus has shifted to directing: “I think I’ve found my home in directing and creating.”
And the theatre world surely agrees given the impressive career arc Miles-Wildin has forged since putting her energies into directing. The year started for Miles-Wildin with assisting Sealey on House of Bernarda Alba, before moving straight into working as associate on Ramps on the Moon’s mid-scale tour of Tommy, the rock musical.
Both shows had captions, audio description and British sign language creatively integrated into the production, no mean feat for a director: “Anyone can direct a show, but can you direct a show that’s got all these other layers? Come on, that’s the challenge.”
Hot on the heels of her time with Tommy, Miles-Wildin got that dream call, or rather email, inviting her to work as staff director with Rufus Norris at the National Theatre on Lucy Kirkwood’s new play, Mosquitoes. Though Miles-Wildin is keen to explain her journey, which is not all about a lucky break but perseverance, including having the guts to “send that email”, referring to her decision to write to Norris following a four-day workshop intensive where she had got to know him and connected with the theatre.
Working on a show outside of the disability arts arena and in such a well-resourced venue was a big shift for Miles-Wildin:
“It’s been amazing to work on a show where you have six-and-a-half-week rehearsal, then you have five days to tech it, then you have six previews, and then you have your press night, so all of that is an absolute luxury. You’ll be sat in the rehearsal room and it might come up that you need a certain prop and it’s literally there within five to ten minutes, a day at the most, there’s none of this having to wait to see if you can hire it from someone. It’s just a massive machine, and it’s been a real privilege to be part of that and to see how the other half work, as it were.”
But, it hasn’t been without its challenges, Miles-Wildin explains:
“There are a couple of themes in [Mosquitoes] that go against my beliefs as a disabled person. Within the first week of rehearsals we were having the general election in the country so I was able to use my beliefs as a disabled woman to educate the team here about personal independence payment, cuts to benefits and stuff like that. We’ve had conversations in the rehearsal room and…sometimes as a director you just have to go, well that’s my belief but actually, this is a play.”
Miles-Wildin also describes feeling like “a traitor…my mates can only come and see the show on certain days, there isn’t that option to come whenever. Knowing that that option isn’t there is quite frustrating.”
But Miles-Wildin astutely acknowledges that it’s no crime to the disability arts cause to be developing herself, and that we need disabled people moving up to artistic leadership positions, particularly in venues without a pre-existing culture of making disabled-led work.
“I’m here and I’m learning lots, and I’m always thinking about what can the National Theatre do for me? What can I do for the National Theatre? And by what can I do for the National Theatre, it’s about, everyone needs help in making things more accessible, or learning how to find the next Deaf or disabled actor or director or writer. So, it’s about looking at taking things I’ve learnt − particularly from Ramps on the Moon and Graeae − that the National Theatre need to learn as well. I think I take that wherever I work.”
Miles-Wildin’s next adventure is as resident assistant director at the Royal Exchange Manchester, a post she takes up in October. She says of the venue: “it’s an amazing space, it’s brilliant, it’s like a Tardis that’s been put in the middle of a Victorian dance hall.” There, she will have an opportunity to direct her own show. She hasn’t yet selected her text, but knows that plays about relationships and people are her directorial forte.
“I’m keen to look at new writing, and potentially classics – I’ve always wanted to direct Hamlet set in a nightclub and put a spin on that from a disabled perspective. Whatever show I end up directing as part of my role there, I know that Deaf and disabled actors and creatives will be involved.”
Whatever Miles-Wildin decides to explore in Manchester, the importance of the opportunity to creatively experiment for a disabled director is key:
“Hopefully being at the Royal Exchange will allow me to actually get some of my ideas out. It is that lack of an opportunity; we can’t just get into pub theatres or fringe venues because they’re not usually accessible. It’s about having that platform to put work on, to know we can do it. Or, when we cock things up, how do we make it better, because you learn from your mistakes.”
Having grown up in arts-starved Gloucestershire, encouraging young talent is incredibly important to Miles-Wildin, and she offers advice drawn from the wisdom of experience to aspiring disabled theatre makers:
“It’s really important just to immerse yourself in theatre, whether that’s going to the theatre, or if you want to go into directing TV and film, watch lots of that. I think you understand it by doing it − ask if you can go and observe other people’s rehearsals. I think that’s a really valuable thing to do. Go for it, keep writing those emails, asking those questions and don’t be afraid because I think there’s always someone out there doing it already; find those people out, get their advice.”