Joseph Houston owns half of the award-winning Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester with his husband William Whelton. This November, after three years of owning the regional venue he is making his directorial debut with a production of the American play Proof.
“It is a story about father-daughter relationships, sisterhood, the power of love, and the nature of genius,” Joe says.
It’s a modern play about a young woman named Catherine who is the daughter of Robert, a mathematical genius. Having inherited his mathematical brilliance, she is also haunted by the fear that she might also share his debilitating mental illness.
“The play itself is written so well. The relationships are so clear and it feels so real,” he says. “You believe these relationships with such clarity but at the same time there is this real darkness that runs through the play as well and it all unravels with Catherine’s relationships with these individuals.”
It’s a beautifully complex play about relationships as Catherine is also dealing with the reappearance of her sister Claire and a new-found connection with one of her father’s former students.
Tackling many tough themes, Joe emphasises how you always have to approach mental health tenderly. “We aren’t just dealing with mental health but we are dealing the mind of a genius,” he says. “We’ve all done lots of research of people high up in their field and how that affects their every day life.”
“There are bits in the play where we see Catherine argue with her dad and he thinks about things so logistically. Even when he is in an argument he isn’t really speaking with his heart, it is always with his head.”
Since opening the Hope Mill Theatre three years ago it was always Joe’s passion to direct. Even before the Hope Mill he had done a few jobs here and there. “It’s been a whirlwind three years and I found myself thinking ‘I have a theatre and I can create my own opportunity but I haven’t done it yet.’ I felt like it wasn’t my time for a while, I didn’t want to feel like I had a right to direct a play because I don’t think I’d earned it. We’ve had so many amazing directors through our door and I wanted to feel like it was the right time,” he explains.
“I started looking at different plays and someone recommended Proof to me. They said ‘it’s about mathematics’ and I thought I’d hate it but I just couldn’t stop reading it. I can’t explain how real it feels and how natural, it’s amazing how the maths part of it just integrates into life.”
When Joe and the creatives auditioned over 60 northern based actors, so many of them came into the room and said: “I’ve never heard of this play but it’s amazing.”
I’ve seen the Hope Mill Theatre transformed in many ways to hold numerous musicals and plays. It’s a really versatile space that feels intimate. Proof is staged three sided, with the whole show set on a porch with the audience are wrapped around it.
“It’s a really conversational piece, it’s easy to just sit there and have a conversation but the audience really need to feel involved,” Joe says. “I think there is something atmospheric about Hope Mill and the piece combined with the set design just marries up so well.”
Ultimately it’s a human story told in a really human way about families and relationships. “I think when you leave this show there is a real question abut how we tackle people that you feel are suffering from mental health.” Joe explains. “The character of Catherine, there is nothing diagnosed there, but we just see her spiralling down. In every day life I think you see people like Catherine that aren’t in a very good place and I think the importance is seeing how the characters relate to her and respond to her.”