I can't quite believe it's week four already! Because of the Bank Holiday weekend, this week my observer day is a Friday, which means not only is it week four, it's the end of week four! All that is left now is tech week. I wonder how everyone's nerves are holding up?
I make my way straight to the module. The floor of the set is in and has transformed the space. The full company has been called and actors are sitting in clusters in one section of the house seats chattering and joking around. Stage management staff are constantly popping in and out and the atmosphere is excited, a little nervy and overall, pretty upbeat.
Today, the full creative team are here. Sound Designer Peter Rice and Lighting Designer Jack Knowles both have tables set up on the edges of the performance space with laptops and reference documents arrayed across them. Set and Costume Designer Fly Davis sits in the house seats opposite director Sarah Frankcom and Movement Director Polly Bennett sits next to Sarah with Assistant Director Andy Routledge on a front row, so all three can easily consult.
The plan for the day is to rehearse the last two scenes and then do a full run of the second half of the play. The penultimate scene is a biggie - it is the final showdown between Blanche and Stanley. Obviously work has already been done on the scene but when we reach the dramatic climax, the previous choreography goes out of the window as Fly, Polly and Sarah pool their collective talents to conjure an entirely new rendering of the scene. It is a great example of how creative collaborators who are confident in their skill base and role within the team can flow together, pooling ideas and instinctively leading and following at different moments in service of the best idea. The need for ownership of the idea is not important, what matters is finding the moment that most effectively serves the play. It's a joy to watch this and the final results are extremely effective, bringing together the symbolism and structural components of the set, with dynamic movement, all of which serves the overall reading of the play that Sarah is seeking to present.
One of the things that has stood out to me repeatedly in this observation process is how valuable a commodity time is in theatre-making and how limited an amount of time the standard British four week rehearsal period really is, especially for a play of this stature. Inevitably, by week four, the reality of this is exerting a level of pressure on everyone involved and it is useful to observe how different people handle this.
Particular actors who have bonded with each other become more physical, giving each other little hugs of support, there is a little more messing about in 'the wings' as humour provides an outlet for pressure, individual actors who are natural extroverts vocalise their worries more and those who are natural introverts recede inward further, drawing back and slightly isolating themselves from the group. None of this is unusual but being being able to observe these dynamics without feeling responsible for holding it all together is a rare gift. Sarah, for her part appears fairly relaxed and focused. The bottom line is that she has too much to do to let pressure get in the way.
One particular interaction is revealing in terms of the kind of decisiveness that is necessary for a director at this level, arguably at any level. We have just one hour of rehearsal left and we have yet to start the run. As Sarah tees up the company to begin the run, the Stage Manager confidently interrupts to point out that there is no longer sufficient rehearsal time left to complete it and Equity contract requirements mean that the rehearsal must end when scheduled, “You're going to have to stop at a point where you won't want to stop”. Sarah digests this unappetising fact. She is swift to respond, and after brief consideration, positively suggests that we run just the last two scenes, consolidating the work of the day. She manages to make what could have felt like a bum note feel like a positive and better idea, and I actually believe her. This is a massive skill. The role of the director in handling pressure and maintaining the morale of the company, especially at this stage in the process, cannot be underestimated.
In the context of morale setting, it is interesting to see how Sarah approaches giving notes at the end of the run. Whereas her note giving in rehearsals has been specific and detail focused, if appropriate coming in close to a particular actor to connect with them one-on-one and deliver the note, her notes now are very top level and almost more of a team talk. She thanks everyone for their incredible hard work, acknowledges the challenges of the piece in regards to the tension between naturalism and non-naturalism and encourages the cast to trust the style of the piece and go with it. She reminds the company that they still have a whole week of tech time left to continue to iron out awkward details and gives them a specific and active focus for the first full run tomorrow. Everyone is requested to decide what they want to get out of it, one things that worked and one thing that was difficult. They will be sharing their experiences after the run.
There is still a fair way to go but as in politics, so a week is a long time in theatre. From the privileged glimpses I have had and the exquisite rehearsal moments when everything suddenly comes together, I am confident that this is going to be a knock out production.