As 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 fifth blog from ANNA KARENINA observing director Stephanie Bain.
Sitting in the gallery in preparation for the tech run gave me a great view of the various tech desks; sound, lighting, stage management, that had colonised the banquette spaces and were holding multiple, 'on cans' conversations - a cacophony of overlapping, garbled instructions that resembled a translation booth at a UN conference. Through this noise, I noticed Ellen giving instructions calmly and clearly, but also taking a back seat for a while and allowing the stage management team to get on with their job of running the tech.
Having had little insight into the work of the costume team since seeing the character drawings on the first day, the transformation of the cast from their rehearsal sweatpants to the glamorous monochrome costumes was startling. It struck me that the ideas of mixing contemporary fashion with a hint of period, which had been spoken about in that first production meeting, had created a timeless quality that fitted perfectly with the way Ellen and the company were telling this story.
The aspect of the tech rehearsal that most surprised me was the amount of directing the scenes that still continued through this rehearsal. I had imagined that the tech run would be a cue to cue, with the acting playing very much second fiddle to the requirements of the tech, so I was surprised to see how effectively Ellen used the moments of hiatus whilst lighting changes were being programmed to give small notes and to run scenes with those changes. These snatched moments were a reminder that the scenes are still very new in the space, but it was in some of these moments, when the restricted time meant giving one simple, clear note to try, that the scenes really lifted. One example was an early scene between Oblonsky and Vronsky, which had been a bit of a struggle in rehearsals. In a brief pause for the tech programming, Ellen led a run through of the scene asking the actors to try it again with more movement and intensifying the stakes between the characters. The scene really came alive and I wondered whether it was the pressure or the freedom that came from fitting in a sneaky rehearsal that had helped.
In rehearsing the prologue it was clear that clarifying elements in the performance was vital to the smooth running of the tech, as the intentions with which the characters entered affected the pace of the prologue and therefore the timings of the tech. Ellen talked about the importance of the actors keeping a sense of constant movement in the prologue and listening to each other in order to ensure that they were not awkwardly waiting for one another. I think the decision not to set the entrances or assign particular props to each actor was a good one as it forced the actors to authentically listen and respond to one another rather than pretending spontaneity.
Finding moments of connection between different characters, both real and symbolic, has been a constant search in this rehearsal process and during the tech, more possibilities for these moments seemed to be appearing and some interesting spatial relationships were developed in order to reveal the subtext to the lines - Oblonsky talking to an imaginary Anna whilst her eyes are locked on Vronsky.
I noticed that lots of Ellen's notes to the actors in the tech related to raising the stakes of each moment, intensifying the fear, frustration, amazement that the characters felt. I questioned whether it was because this is the natural point in the rehearsal period where this needs to kick in, or whether the transfer from the rehearsal room to the space, with the lights, sound and costume adding their own intensity, means that it becomes more noticeable when moments in performance don't rise to meet that change.
Watching the press night performance was a very different experience. No notebook in hand, I tried to absorb the show as an audience member uninitiated in the challenges, decisions, and joy of the rehearsal room. This was fairly easy and I did find myself caught up with the story and carried along with the characters. Despite having watched a number of runs, I was surprised when the ball began and had bizarrely expected the interval to fall in a different place, which is surely testament to how Jo, Ellen and the company have managed to create a fresh, vibrant play that challenges and surprises the audience. The starkness of the staging, the haunting qualities of the sound and the intimacy with audience struck me as something different on stage, even though I had listened to discussions about all of these elements. The horse race near the end of Act One, which was technically complex and hadn't been performed fully in any of the rehearsals I had seen, was far more shocking than I'd imagined and conjured up all sorts of contemporary echoes that I hadn't thought present when I'd read the scene or seen it marked out. Yet, at the same time the knowledge of certain decisions that had been made in the rehearsal process did mean that watching the press night performance felt like the culmination of all I have discovered, been surprised by and reassured by through the Observer Monday's opportunity. Though, in these blogs, I have been focusing largely on Ellen's role in the rehearsal process, Observer Monday's has been a great opportunity to take a peek into the work of a whole team of highly-skilled, dedicated people who have created an original, resonant take on a powerful story.