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Postgraduate at Oriel College assistant director to Sir Gregory Doran

It is not everyday you find yourself rubbing shoulders with the former Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Sir Gregory Doran has been called “one of the great Shakespearians of his generation” and has collaborated with actors such as Patrick Stewart, David Tennant, Antony Sher and Judi Dench. But despite his impressive credentials, Imogen Usherwood-Bliss, a postgraduate student at Oriel College, seems completely at ease: “He is really, really nice. He has banned us from calling him ‘Sir Gregory’ so we just call him ‘Greg’. He is a lovely man, who has been so incredibly generous with his time.”

Sir Gregory is the Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at the University of Oxford. The post is attached to St Catherine’s College, with a new chair appointed each year. This is the first year a visiting professor has decided to direct a student production (The Two Gentlemen of Verona) as part of his tenure. “I knew as soon as I saw the announcement, I wanted to be involved,” says Usherwood-Bliss.

Usherwood-Bliss, who is doing an MSt in creative writing, has an impressive repertoire of theatre experience. During Hilary term 2024, she wrote and directed a play that debuted at the Oxford Playhouse’s Burton Taylor Studio called ‘Bucket List’. Bucket List will be at the New Wimbledon Theatre Studio in June for a night before its two-week run at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

“I wanted to do a master’s so I could really focus on my writing, get advice, support and mentoring. I picked the course at Oxford because it encompasses all genres of writing, not just plays,” she says. The two-year part time course also meant that Usherwood-Bliss had enough time to write. She is currently writing a novel which revolves around the themes of privilege, deceit and the consequences of our actions as part of her degree.

Usherwood-Bliss applied to Oriel because of its thriving post-graduate scene and the mix of a friendly but historic atmosphere appealed to her. The best part of College for her is the library. “There is a specific desk in the main part of the library balcony that overlooks Third Quad, which is my favourite,” she says. She also adds that when she was not living in Oxford during her first year, she appreciated how flexible the College was with accommodating her needs and ensuring that she always had a base to work and study from at Oriel.

One of two assistant directors working with Sir Gregory, Usherwood-Bliss has learned a lot over the past few months. She describes how the he approaches the idea of a monologue: “He told us not to think of it as just a long speech, but understand that when a person who starts talking, they just keep talking, whether it is because they want to fill the space, don’t realise someone else may want to interject, or don’t know when to stop. It makes the monologue more active and you realise that the other actor who isn’t speaking may not be just a passive listener.”

Sir Gregory’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona is set in the modern day, and encompasses high-society balls, Formula One racing and performers in drag. It is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays that Sir Gregory was yet to direct. “It’s very glitzy and glamourous. And it’s about young people – the idea of leaving home and going out into the real world and realising it is a lot messier than you think,” says Usherwood-Bliss.

Incorporating a real dog as part of the cast came with its own challenges but Usherwood-Bliss is full of praise for the cast and crew who have taken it in stride. “Everyone has been so brilliant. I feel really lucky to be at the heart of it. This project has been a defining part of my time at Oxford!”

You can watch The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Oxford Playhouse from 15 to 18 May 2024.