I come to this process as a ‘re-emerging’ director. Although many years ago I did a director’s training course it soon lapsed as I went into other roles and so I have a black bag full of theatre and life experience but my directing experience remains informal and ad hoc. I am interested to see what I can excavate of my previous knowledge and in particular to see how the director works with established professional actors and what it feels like to be directing under the auspices of a major regional producing theatre. The production I am observing is the absurdist play ‘Happy Days’ by Samuel Beckett. It follows 2 characters: a woman who in the first act is buried up to her waist and in the second act up to her neck - who talks almost constantly; and a man who is often out of sight and silent.
On the first day after a meet and greet, design presentation and Sarah Frankcom’s opening remarks I am struck by what a challenging play this is to stage. Firstly it is for the most part a monologue and one that contains many loops and repetitions. How do you learn it and remember where you are in the text? Secondly Beckett’s stage directions dominate the text and intersect between each line. How do you absorb and interpret the dual scores of language and action? Thirdly in this production the design calls for the monologue to be shown on TV screens above the live action. It feels like Sarah has the additional job of making this work for film as well as for the stage - although she advises the company to ignore the camera rather than see it as another audience to play to.
Sarah has chosen to emphasise the many stage directions on the page. In the blown up copy of the script she has had the stage directions put in bold. This makes me wonder which will be learnt first the words or the movements but the answer is neither. Sarah gives the first couple of days over to pure exploration. Background research on Beckett and the play itself is presented by Atri Banerjee the Assistant Director. Then there’s talk of each of the two character’s background in a good level of detail but also their relationship. The time period and setting of the piece is initially left open but even this is selected and named on day 2. Almost all of this backstory won’t ever be revealed to the audience but it gives the actors something to wriggle their toes around in – some ground to inhabit, maybe something to occupy questions that might detract from their focus or to satisfy their usual method. Most interesting to me it keeps the characters in this abstract piece real and human with everyday situations and feelings to relate to. They talk about class, what attracts you to someone, what happens in long term relationships, why people stay together. This investigation of human conditions appeals to my generalist background and the empathy and communication of it is why I want to be in the theatre.
Once all these things have been chewed on Sarah is keen physicalise them - a seeming contradiction for a play in which people don’t or can’t move around very much. But I can see that this process seeks to engage the whole body and stop these mammoth speeches being barren mountains to climb. The actors improvise meeting at a dance and through an imagined evening of dancing and drinking we see how their characters relate and the relationship they once had. It’s beautiful to watch and means their emotional and physical separation in the piece is immediately more poignant.
On the following day the ritual props called for by the writer are placed around the room so that in order to handle them the actor has to traverse the space. This separates out each moment. A lot of time is given to each exercise and there seems to be no panic about getting to the text. Sarah has divided the text (inspired by Beckett’s journals) into sections to find the feel and rhythm of each - both to make an imprint of each part and to find the musicality of the whole. After each section has been explored in movement the text is discussed with her asking after every line – what does that refer to? What is that about? It seems over rigorous but it draws out meaning that can be played into each line to enable what is often a fractured text to be more recognisable to an audience. It also means that the texture of the lines make distinctive layers - even when the same words repeat.
After the physical and verbal interrogation of each section the actors then learn it. Drilling the text and actions at the end of the day before moving on.
I don’t have much recent experience to compare to but it strikes me that this is an extremely considered process. A lot of conceptual thinking has gone into the vision and design. The artistic craft and ambition is clearly apparent. I can see that this is what will make the production great. To me it is at once a familiar experience - I feel on solid ground and at the same time a shocking realisation like waking up to an alarm. From my training and experience I do know some of these approaches and processes and remembering that is validating – and in another way I am astounded by how buried my experience has become. I have made abstract the ability to do this and missed the increasing sediment of doubt and slow erosion of my confidence. I have become over-awed by the thought of working on ‘well-made plays’ or working with ‘serious’ actors - imagining that ideas of text exploration or movement might be considered patronising, silly or indulgent. I realise now that my identity as a theatre maker has become over-adapted to my shrunken ideas and perceived scarcity of possibility and resources.
Pragmatically resources do matter and I’m frightened that the way the funding landscape is changing will eradicate full production processes of writer/director driven work like this. I also know that scarcity can be the mother of invention and survival creates new forms. But the trap has not been the scarcity of possible production resources but the scarcity of my creative identity. The self-permission to take your own artistry seriously, develop a vision, employ a craft, trust your instincts and work from a place of experience and confidence - which when ‘re-emerging’, and probably always, means being bold, owning your situation, finding out by doing and bringing your whole humanity to bare.
I’m learning a lot about directing - but I’m also learning a lot about myself.
Happy Days runs 25 May - 23 June 2018, Theatre