James Baker

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 first blog from INTO THE WOODS Observing Director James Baker.


JKP-151106-5749(Now), in a far off Kingdom (The Royal Exchange; the rehearsal room to be precise), lived a young man (James… don’t laugh; I am young). It was his first day going Into the Woods… (sounds so wrong)… I must be careful not to lose [my] way” or in my case have them make a tannoy announcement for the person you’re meeting for your introduction to the Observer Monday’s scheme to find her say, “you’re early”… and have that great sense of “yup I am… 5 minutes” then to realise you were so over eager you’ve arrived an hour early to the stage door! Lesson, it’s better to be early than late… though being on time could prove as useful. Being early did allow me to breathe, grab a coffee and prepare myself for the meet and greet. Walking into a room with such a huge team involved, a breath was what I needed in order to compose myself for the day ahead.

JKP-151106-5759After a brief introduction to the day which entailed setting some ground rules for our role as an observer, we then went into an informal meet and greet. Though I love a good old meet and greet, it became very apparent that I didn’t really have a role that had any intrinsic relevance to the actors nor the creatives. I have to clarify what I mean here by example so not to make this sound a negative comment. “Hi, my names James… I’m the director”… gives you a clear way in when getting to know the company and an ice-breaker. In this instance I found myself muttering pleasantly and saying Hi when necessary and explaining what the Observer Monday’s scheme is and in turn why I was there constantly reassuring the actors I was there to observe the process, not them.

JKP-151106-5772Lots more happened… introductions, welcomes and some ice-breaker games; the morning had a ‘company feel’ about it… but I’m interested in sharing useful practical help via this blog… as James Lapine, writer of Into the Woods states, “[I’d like to be an] Objective observer to pass the story along”. That way, I’m able to understand, emphasise and reflect but most of all be objective in this process... and be stress-free allowing me to be attuned to listening with my ears, watching with my eyes and feeling with the hairs on my arms (don’t underestimate this as an important sensory reaction – it’s what our audience use).

JKP-151106-7874Following an inspired and supportive welcome from Sarah Frankcom, Artistic Director and a Health and Safety brief etc. from Company Stage Manager Lee Drinkwater (who is a comic genius by the way), the Designers (Design by Jenny Tiramani, who is also a comic genius) and Lighting (Ciaran Cunningham) spoke about their vision and the Model Box was presented (here I’ll remain quiet! Come see it – but I’m beaming with a grin as I write this). When the creative team spoke, everything made sense… every choice… every opinion. It was rooted in the script and it was serving the script! However, some crucial things to note here was how open, transparent and organic the process was. It was clear that all of the creatives, via many production meetings and hours spent with the material and each other had come to one cohesive vision, but Jenny’s love of allowing the actors to have options in regards to costume was refreshing… she had ideas… but these weren’t concrete! This way of working I believe leads to a more honest and truthful portrayal of the world and the people that exist in it – and this is how I like to work. Then came the read through. During the read thorough Matthew Xia, Director, asked the cast not to worry about ‘acting’ it… as he said they’ll discover the characters during the process. Matthew said he didn’t want to interrupt as he wanted to hear it. I share this approach and the reasoning behind it. The first read through for me is crucial; it’s the starting point – the foundations for which to build on. I think it’s dangerous to guide this – let it be! And he was right… it was a raw but fizzing read-through!

JKP-151106-7883That concluded day one. Matthew handed us all a little bit of light reading; they were essays; dense but rich in fuel for thought. Admittedly my brain whirred reading it – highlighting everything I thought relevant or interesting. The first one was written by Stephen Sondheim himself titled Into The Woods (1987) and the other Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine – A Tale to Tell by Stephen Banfeild taken from the book A Study of Sondheim (1991). Both were interesting reads and a way into the world of Into the Woods and Sonheim and Lapine’s original vision! Go read them. One day over and…

“Another moon gone…”

Day two, back Into the Woods I go! There was a brief introduction from marketing followed by the cast deciding who they would like to represent them for Equity. This was then followed by a group warm-up led by Puppeteer and Dance Captain, Rachel Goodwin, to which they followed the warm-up with praise and clapped to thank Rachel. Then, Julian Kelly, the musical supervisor led a vocal warm up. This is where I became putty… this is where I became inspired! I remember a conversation with Matthew where he asked me why I’ve never directed any Sondheim. My reply was simple. Sondheim is complex, he’s a genius. It demands a musical expert; a Musical Supervisor or Director capable of unpicking these complex scores; you can’t wing Sondheim, you have to know your stuff… and boy did Julian know his stuff. 

JKP-151106-7885He is incredible. He made the music inform all the warm-ups; structures, style and complex sequences were embedded into the vocal warm-up… this is how it should be done! He expertly handled this and as such, the cast instantly handed them his trust. This is vital; this is the difference between an ensemble breaking or uniting. Having trust and belief in the people engineering the production and guiding you through the process is paramount! Julian also is an expert at working with actors. He elicits, inspired, praises, guides and thanks them for their commitment; “Loud and wrong” he explains is better than to be unsure and not recognising weaknesses. He uses the piano to guide them… a cliché saying but he lets the music speak. That is his mouth piece, that’s the language of choice… and as Jonathan Tunick says in the essay A study of Sondheim, it’s “one big song” - so I say why not use the piano as the communication of choice; the mouth piece so to speak? The cast, or now ensemble, went through the opening number which consists of many parts. Julian advocated that he’d prefer fidelity and detail rather than to cement mistakes and ideas… the layering is important; it’s a journey just like the play. After, Matthew called the cast to a short circle name game. He was right. They’d all spent nearly two days with each other and didn’t really know each other’s names. This game was quick, entertaining and useful – it broke tensions and made everyone connect… as well as call each other by the right names. Matthew then called a short break.

JKP-151106-7893Upon returning Mathew called the cast to do some table work. First he showed them the mark-up; a visual depiction of the ground plan of the set and brought their attention to changes in the script. He asked them if they’d done their reading from last night’s homework and asked for interesting points to be discussed. A stimulating conversation regarding the essays ensued and so people’s knowledge bank grew. Then he wanted to extract the facts directly lifted from the script and adamantly requested no conjecture! It became a game of who could sneak conjecture past him… to which he won! No one could. He wanted them to pull out Place, Time, Environment and words ‘we are unsure of”. It passed with much debate and they worked through scene 1 before it fast became the end of the day. He asked them to compile series of lists; I know this as the three column list… He asked them to list What I say about myself, What other’s say about me and what I say about others. The fourth column he asked them to list uncontrivable facts. I use this column to list conflicts or lies…. Characters are humans… therefore they lie too… Matthew may call this conjecture (giggles)! This, he said was vital to tomorrows rehearsals and kindly asked all to complete it that evening. One day over and…

JKP-151106-7961“Another moon gone…”
I’m going to conclude each blog with my notable learning points…. many I know/use but I should highlight how they were used in Into the Woods and how valuable they are.

Learning Points:

1. Characters – always think of the 5 W’s: Who am I? (Character) When is this? (Time) Where am I? (Place) What do I want? (Objective) And Why do I want it? (Motivation)… then How… how do you ‘choose’ to get it? Choice is a massive theme in Into the Woods.

2. Let the process dictate the product… this is important to me. A rigorous process will always mean a solid product!

3. Praise… the rehearsal one can be one of fear, but a safe rehearsal room normally is more conducive of a productive one! No one is excluded. In this case it was praise for the designers. Matthew promoted this sense of praise as did Julian.

4. Always serve the script (Author and their work) – you are the vehicle to realising their talent as I always put it!

5. Build the Team – I live by this principle. If you bring together the right people for the right job, they’ll take care of the product. All you need to do is guide them. Matthew has done this perfectly!

6. Don’t rush past the detail – have fidelity!

7. Be an expert – know your stuff

8. Always make sure everything is relative to what you are doing – constantly add value and enrich the journey

9. Use research to give knowledge to the room

10. No conjecture before lifting the facts – imaginary circumstances can only be added once they know the facts to inform them of their choices.