SBainAs part of our ongoing commitment to nurture, support and inspire local theatre-makers, the Royal Exchange Theatre are able to offer directors based in Greater Manchester the opportunity to observe the journey of a production through rehearsals with our Observer Mondays Scheme.

Here is the second blog from ANNA KARENINA observing director Stephanie Bain.


My first observing rehearsal was a rather sedentary affair, due to the nature of a read through, so I was eager to see how the company had been developing the scenes in the space over the previous week. Therefore, it was great to kick off with a movement based warm-up, lead by Wilkie, who guided the actors to explore some basic principles of Chorus work and counterbalance. This work seems crucial for Ellen’s concept of the piece which involves so much coincidence and complicity in the action. It was clear that Wilkie’s work was helping the actors to develop their ability to listen physically and responsively to each other and that this allowed the subtle connections between characters to emerge more organically when rehearsing the scenes.

I found myself focusing on how Wilkie allowed exercises to run on their own, whilst feeding in hints about the importance of balance over strength in the counterbalances or the necessity to commit fully to the desperation and urgency of keeping the counterbalance connection. These notes were given in a gentle, non-intrusive way, which allowed the actors to hear the direction, but not to be brought out of the sensitive atmosphere that had been created. Wilkie’s notes were very perceptive, picking up on the perfect means or moment to develop the exercise further. Once the actors had begun experimenting with moving from one counterbalance to another and creating a flow, I noticed that they tended to fall into the same patterns of rhythm and wondered if experimenting with varying the rhythm might help break that and provide opportunities for more relationships to develop. No sooner did that thought emerge, than Wilkie put on some music, which had exactly that effect – though it was once more accompanied with the astute note to be wary of letting the music dominate the movement.

The smooth transition from warm-up, ensemble movement, into the specific movement used in the scene that Ellen wanted to work on, enabled the actors to take the co-ordination and complicity that had developed between them into their work on the scene, which spoke of clever planning between the director and movement director.

My observing day had fortuitously landed on the pin in the calendar for rehearsing the Act One ball scene. The scene is complex with multiple things happening at once in terms of text and movement and with a number of little stories coalescing in the scene. Ellen’s process for rehearsing this began with improvisation to get the overall shape of the scene and how the text and movement might be integrated. Once she had seen this shape, she then rigorously marked out the scene moment by moment, questioning where the audience’s focus would be at each point as the action shifts between characters in an instant. This process of improvising a loose shape, then watching for where the detailed direction needs to be seemed like a particularly effective way of handling a complex scene.

An element that hadn’t immediately occurred to me, also appeared at a number of points in the rehearsal – the ways in which certain directorial choices aid the telling of a story adapted from a novel. In choosing bold, theatricality at moments, which in the novel are written realistically, Ellen was able to use the specifics of performance (including the audience’s heightened suspension of disbelief and awareness of visual metaphors) to bring some of the more symbolic elements of the novel to light. Ellen and the actors also discussed how the choice to allow characters’ physical presences to linger onstage after their scenes and so bleed into other scenes, is also a theatrical way of mirroring the experience of reading an epic novel, in which readers have the sense that characters lives are continuing whilst they are reading about someone else. These conversations provoked me to further consider the challenges and the possibilities that adaptation offers to a director.

ANNA KARENINA runs in The Theatre from 19 March - Sat 2 May. It runs in reportoire with THE ROLLING STONE which runs in The Theatre from 21 April - 1 May.