Sat on the train to Manchester this morning, I re-read the script and thought of all the ways it could be staged, all the possibilities for casting, blocking, allocating lines. I also thought of how excited I am to be gaining a front row seat to the process.
From all the Observer opportunities I was most interested in How My Light is Spent for several reasons;
I'm really interested in the process of taking a new text from page to stage and the relationship between Director and Playwright and particularly interested in how to stage new writing.
How My Light Is Spent is a new production written by Alan Harris and recipient of the Bruntwood Prize Judge’s award. As such, this is the first time the script will be realised on stage, to reach this point Alan has worked through drafts and Liz Stevenson, the Director, has led several workshops to develop their ideas ready for the version they are working with now.
I was interested in the work of Director Liz Stevenson as a successful female and Northern voice and her approach to a script which will connect audiences with the current social and economical climate through themes of being out of work, finding a place in society and in many ways loneliness.
With this in mind, it's off to the first appointment of the day, a meet and greet at the theatre.
It's a large group of co-production partners, Exchange staff and creative team who introduce themselves and their roles on the production, we have a chance to look around the studio theatre and talk through the plans to transform the space for what will be an intimate production with two actors, who never leave the stage.
With a bit of time before the next session I had a great chance to talk with Andy Routledge the Assistant Director. He's currently sharing his time between Twelfth Night (which will open in the main space a week before) and How My Light Is Spent.
He gave me an insight into the work that has been done so far on the production and the role of the assistant director. He's been busy studying the script as research and created a great mood board containing pictures of all the references made by the characters. Everything from a Samsung Galaxy mobile phone to suspension bridges. This is a really useful tool to have in the rehearsal room to allow everyone to access the world of the characters.
We’re then over to the rehearsal studios for the first session with the cast.
I was invited to join in the process as Liz led the team through an introductory activity of q&a’s where we listened and answered questions of our own experiences. The questions include everything from discussing our worst job ever, to sharing a time when we felt most isolated. This allowed the team to start thinking about the world of the play and reflect on the the prominent themes and experiences of the characters.
To follow, we watched an episode from a Channel 4 documentary Phone Sex Secrets, as a way to research the job of sex phone workers. Much like the script, this seems to be two-sided and shows both humour and sadness as it follows the lives of 3 women at various stages in their career.
At 4pm Liz welcomes the wider creative team for the first read through of the script, its clear that although the themes are tough and often tinged with sadness, there is also lots of humour and tenderness and there is a real buzz of excitement about the production.
As the lines of text are unallocated to characters, it was interesting to see how these were delivered by the actors, they decided for the moment to approach these alternately and make discoveries along the way. Speaking with Liz and Alan afterwards, it seems like they will play with this in rehearsals to see what affect it has if different actors deliver them.
The day ended with a model box viewing. Not wanting to reveal too much at this stage, I’ll just talk about the approach to design. I learn how lighting is going to play an important role in telling the story and exploring the characters growing invisibility. There will be a real juxtaposition between bleakness and magic.
After being welcomed into a busy first day of rehearsals and hearing about the plans for the production, I hope to gain greater insight into the relationship between writer and director when approaching a new text, I'm really interested in how the roles of narrator and character will be developed in the rehearsal room. I'm also interested in how the director will choose to introduce technical aspects into rehearsals to explore the use of lighting in the storytelling.
Returning to the rehearsal room on day 3, it was clear that a lot more work had taken place already. Movement director Polly had worked with the cast the previous afternoon and they had begun splitting the text into sections and units. This is something which continued today. In doing so the events in the play were recorded on a timeline and Alan was able to make changes to the text in the moment, through discussion with Liz.
For the start of the process, having the writer in the rehearsal room seems to provide a great opportunities to assess why and how the text has been written, why a particular decision has been made, and a chance to talk through where an idea has come from. There is a great balance between making discoveries in the room and preconditioned choices about the characters and their lives.
The first part of the day is spent continuing splitting the text into sections and smaller units, then recording a timeline of facts about their characters. This can then be considered when the actors develop further understanding of their characters.
It's particularly interesting to see the way Liz works in the rehearsal room, taking great care to keep work fresh by punctuating table work with physical activities (and the odd group game of square ball). She also allows the actors space to play and try the text in new ways.
As the staging is traverse, there has already been some work around ways to engage with the audience and the effect of proxemics to each other, the afternoon is spent rehearsing small sections of text in several ways to consider space and relationships.
Whilst playing with the actors in the space, once again the wider team are encouraged to be present in the space and its clear to see the directors ideas steering the activities whilst welcoming input from the actors about their roles.
These first few days have felt very much about discovery, defining exactly what is meant by the lines, and making offers for characterisation and the rules of the stage. These 2 days have allowed me to gain a real insight into the process of staging the production but also of all of the work that is undertaken before we even enter the rehearsal room to ensure the text is ready.
I’m really excited to see the next steps and next week can’t come quick enough.
How My Light Is Spent runs 24 April - 13 May