As I weave once again through the well dressed workforce of Manchester to the now familiar Royal Exchange stage door, I'm feeling expectant. A lot of ground work has been laid, it's time to start digging deep. This is where things should get interesting!
Today just Maxine Peake and Youssef Kerkour have been called. The aim is to work through the one-on-one scenes between their respective characters, Blanche and Mitch. I observed some of these scenes being explored last week, so a chance to revisit them is great as I'll get to see how their characters and relationship have developed and deepened.
As with previous rehearsals, the structure is simple, we begin with a line run, followed by table talk if it is a new section (there is less of this today) and then working the scene on its feet. It's a bit of a slog of a day and both actors and director Sarah Frankcom have to stay focused and grit it out. With every creative process that produces something of worth there has to be a part where everything is to some extent in free fall. Where the various elements and layers of what you are making have to jostle together, push up against each other and sometimes crash into each other is an ugly and dischordant way. It gets messy.
One of the particular challenges in this production is the tension between the approach to the acting which is naturalistic, broadly Stanislavskian (for the buffs) and the overall approach to the production, which is non-naturalistic and conceptual. Finding the right relationship between these two elements is important, and sometimes tricky. For example, at one point Youssef asks what distance he should be maintaining with other sections of the set when those sections are not 'in play', and how he should 'open' a door handle? If this was an entirely naturalistic play, the appropriate distance would be more obvious and there would probably be a door handle. Later on, Maxine tussles with a tricky section involving multiple props, as the non-naturalism of the set and staging clashes with the script and the order in which those props might be handled in more a naturalistic version. Sarah answers Youssef straightforwardly and patiently finds staging solutions to the props question. Although these are only relatively small moments in the overall rehearsal, they highlight how hard everyone is working to achieve the right balance. The actors are having to incorporate a lot of information into their imaginations that may run counter to their characters' first, 'natural' instincts in order to maintain integrity to the style of the production as a whole. Sarah, for her part, has to work equally hard, anticipating these kind of crunches as much as possible, so as not to waste precious rehearsal time getting stuck in them.
This week I'm delighted to be able to come in for a second day to observe rehearsals in the module itself. It's exciting to be inside this iconic space as part of rehearsals rather than a paying punter. The floor is marked up with numbered arrows pointing towards the relevant exit/entrance doors and the various zones of the set have been reproduced, in some cases with the actual set. A front row of banquette seats has become the props table.
Observing rehearsals in the actual performance space helps me to get a better grip on the staging challenges of theatre-in-the-round as I no longer have to use extra mental energy imagining the doors and seating blocks. The rehearsal I observe also has a larger number of actors called which makes it easier to see placements on stage that work and don't work. Whether it comes from training, experience or has been specifically articulated in rehearsals I haven't observed, when actors face each other they automatically stagger their placement so as to enable a clear sight line from either side of the house. Obviously it is a reversed picture but each side of the house sees the face of at least one character. The notion of a stage picture in many ways has no relevance in theatre-in-the-round and instead the focus is on creating dynamism and movement in the space. It is also seems harder than in an end-on staging situation to guide the audience's focus at any given moment, as everyone is seeing the action from a different vantage point. This also makes transitions particularly challenging as unlike in an end-on scenario where you might pull focus to one area of the stage in order to 'invisibly' introduce a new character from another, it is harder to pull the focus of the whole house in the same direction because they are all reading the stage differently. I don't think I've yet worked out the solutions but at least I'm getting a bit clearer on some of the specific challenges.
It is around this point in the day, as I am getting slightly lost up my own backside with these musings, that Sarah kindly, and a little unexpectedly given how much she is juggling, appears in the seat next to me and shares a few insights. As if sent by the theatre gods to bring me back down to earth she whispers, “This play is all about learning lines” which is very pragmatic, and true. She goes on to explain how she sees her role at this point, which is essentially to facilitate very different actors getting what they need at the right points. The challenge is to achieve this when the different actors all require very different things. At this point she has to jump up and respond to a moment evolving on stage. I can see what she is getting at though. Some of the cast for example, will only really embed their lines if they physically play them in character, which can be quite time intensive. On the other hand, some have come to rehearsals with almost all their lines learnt, yet require a different kind of investment from Sarah to open their delivery up to new dramatic possibilities and interpretations. Neither is necessarily right or wrong, they are just different and an experienced director like Sarah knows this and is constantly trying to balance the competing needs of a varied cast. So far, my observations haven't necessarily revealed any mysterious, magical tricks that set a director at this level apart, it's just that they do the things we all try to do as directors, extraordinarily competently and generally much quicker!