As I trundled up the steps into the truly epic Royal Exchange Theatre on a chilled wintery Monday morning, I had a belly full of butterflies and brain burning with Questions:
• Who in the room carries the brunt of the Creative responsibility for a theatrical project?
• How do the writer and director mitigate their creative relationship; how much license does the writer give the director with their work?
• What are the difficulties in translating a narrative across artistic mediums?
• Do you give actors direction first or do you let them play first and then step in?
• What are the greatest tools to bring dialogue to its greatest potential?
• Throughout the rehearsal process, how much of the time is the director acting spontaneously from instinct, and how much of the time are they employing a rigorous technical approach?
• Is this a false dichotomy?
• What are the best ways to transition from one scene to another in a non-disruptive fashion?
• With set design, what is too much and what is too little?
Naturally, I knew that many of these questions did not have concrete, universal answers, but probably vary from piece to piece. However, I was excited to see how at least one artist, Jennifer Tang, tackled these obstacles. One thing I quickly noticed was that Jennifer’s rehearsal space was to be a calm and safe environment with no imposing sense of hierarchy, such that even I, someone there to merely observe, felt as welcomed and included within the project as anybody else. That being said, it was clear that this director had a strong handle on the project, and that this team were in safe hands and on the road to somewhere great. In this sense, the first answers I received were to questions I hadn’t even asked!
• Is the task of a director a purely creative one?
Certainly not! Pastoral concerns and the creation of the tone of the room also lie within your job description.
• What is the best way to go about doing this?
By actively making the company's wellbeing a priority and not oppressively demanding authority.
Following a pleasant meet and great and read through, we dived into the text and started properly rehearsing the play. It was here that my questions really started to be answered. Jennifer’s first port of call was to, in the presence of the writer and with the full involvement of the cast, subject the text to the rigorous technical process of Facts and Questions.
For those unaware of this method, it consisted of the cast reading the text aloud in their respective parts in page long chunks, after which the team would speak out any facts that might have been revealed or questions that may have been provoked. After having done this for a scene, the cast would jump up into a circle of chairs and, without direction, perform the scene as they felt to do it.
A lot about the creative process of making a play was revealed to me, here. As aforementioned, In-Sook Chappell was in the room. Naturally then, my initial thought was that Facts and Questions should be a simple process, as any questions should be able to be answered in seconds by her. After all, she wrote the play, and must therefore know everything there is to be known about it. However, this was not so. When a question was posed, In-Sook did not always come out with an answer, and sometimes was as active in striving to discover something unknown as the rest of the cast!
This truly astounded me. What had become apparent here, is that a play was not what I thought it was. A play was not a completed, defined piece that merely needed to be ‘put on’ by a team of cast and creatives. It was not an architect’s blue-print that has every specification pre-defined such that a project manager merely needs to follow the instructions to ‘make it’. Rather, it became clear that a play is a two dimensional object. By doing facts and questions, the team weren’t merely uncovering something that was already there in the writer’s mind, but they were actively formulating a deeper context for the piece there and then. They were turning a two dimensional object into a three dimensional one, together.
In this sense, everybody had a hand in everyone else’s role. Prior to this opportunity I was already an admirer of In-Sook’s work, and it was clear that yet again she had produced a truly engaging text. However, that text was alive in the room, and although she wrote it, the writers and the actors were changing it, amending it and expanding it with her. Likewise Jennifer was very much in charge and guiding the whole process. However, she would ask the actors and the creatives for their perspectives on key elements of the production such as lighting sound and blocking, not to mention the fact that when scenes got up in their feet, both In Sook and the actors were free to share opinions about how the scene should be.
All this gave me answers to my initial few questions. Every single individual within that room left their egos outside in the wintery chill of the Manchester climate. As a result, the atmosphere was truly collaborative and the roles were not rigidly defined but partially shared. There was no tension or protectiveness but everybody was free to just be creative and committed to collaboratively making this piece the best that it could be.
Week 1 was a blast, and I learnt much more than I could have expected. I can only hope that answers to more of my questions will come next week!
Mountains runs 22 March - 7 April 2018, Studio