Heather Carroll - Observer Mondays Director - gives us an insight into the first week of rehearsals for Queens of the Coal Age, directed by Bryony Shanahan


First day of rehearsals - I’ve got sweaty palms, my packed lunch is in my bag and I have about a million names to remember. I’m heading into ‘Queens of the Coal Age’ rehearsals to observe Bryony Shanahan who is an Associate Artistic Director at The Exchange which is really exciting for me as an emerging female director.


We start with an epic meet and great with the cast and creatives of the show, members of the New Vic, as the show is a co-production between the two theatres and the Royal Exchange Team. As we went round the circle I was amazed at the sheer amount of people that were in the circle. Bryony spoke about how it was great to be reminded about how many people are involved in shaping, creating and supporting the show. As the room dispersed Georgia Lowe, the designer alongside Bryony talked through the model box. As they spoke through the design I had a million questions in my head about the relationship between designer and director like who pitches what first?, do designers like other creatives have a ‘style’?, does the theatre have to veto ideas for budget/capability reasons?.. I scribbled away in my notebook to ask these at a later time.


After lunch was the table read with the cast, producers and creative team for the show. In projects I have worked on as an actor I have hated the readthroughs - I always feel completely disjointed. I get cold sweats at the idea of sight reading because of my dyslexia. But when I listened to the cast read ‘Queens of the Coal Age’ I knew I was listening to something quite special, the actors made the characters come alive. Once the read was done you could feel the energy in the room. The Company then discussed questions raised by the read, or discoveries anyone had made. Bryony then led an exercise to get the actors out of their seats and into the minds of the characters with a series of questions where the cast had to decide whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, and to what extent by physically moving from one side of the room to the other.

Image of Queens of the Coal Age rehearsal, Royal Exchange Theatre


Jenny Jackson the Movement Director came in on Thursday morning and led a physical warm up. One great thing was as an observer I felt like I’d be on the outside of the process looking in but Bryony as a director really involves every person in the room so I was cracking out my best cobra with the rest of them. Jenny talked about opening our bodies out in different kinosphere’s, grabbing thoughts from all around you which got me thinking about working in the round. How do you as a director plan for that? Not only in direction for sight lines, but also in design. There is literally nowhere to hide. Jenny and Bryony worked together to guide the cast through the movement and ‘language' of the first sections of the play. I watched as Jenny gave the actors different things to play with - unifying their breath, weight of movement, creating a language between the characters without them having to speak.


One of the main reasons I wanted to observe a piece with Bryony was because as a director she’s very vocal for her want of collaboration in rehearsal rooms. I wondered how this would work on a piece of new writing - does she act as a dramaturg as well as director? Whats her relationship with the writer like? Who has the final say? Maxine Peake, the writer, came in on Thursday when the cast did a second readthrough. I observed how her and Bryony collated notes at the end of the read, almost symbiotic rather than with a hierarchy between them. Maxine’s parting words before she went off to perform a matinee was make the script your own, anything you might say instead of what I’ve written say, and if it doesn’t sit in your mouth right change it. It was interesting to observe that neither Bryony nor Maxine saw the script as something that was to be adhered to to the letter and that as a Company everyone’s opinion was valid. The script was to grow and develop within the rehearsal process just like the characters.

Image of Queens of the Coal Age Rehearsal, Royal Exchange Theatre


One of the jobs Matt Hassall, Assistant Director, had been in charge of was collecting research for rehearsals - creating a wall of images surrounding the events of the show alongside a booklet of further research. This covered the social, political and economic times in which the show is set. I’ve never been part of a process that has been based on real life events in which we were able to speak to the actual people the play was based upon. On Thursday afternoon the real ‘Queens’ came in to speak to the Company. Bryony led a Q&A with them about ‘Women against Pit Closures' and how the strikes/the movement affected their lives and community. It was brilliant to see the cast and ‘Queens’ be able to chat and draw upon their real experiences. Maxine and Bryony during the creation of the script had spoken to the women multiple times and it really added a new weight as to what this piece stands for.


I walked into Week One slightly anxious of what to expect and without any definitive questions in my head as to what I would want to learn. But as soon as the process began I found myself writing down more and more questions that I didn’t know answers to which is both scary and exciting. I learnt that as a director you don’t always have to have every answer and aspect mapped out from the first minute. That actually being present in the rehearsal room is probably more valuable. Collaborating doesn’t just end with your actors which may sound like a daft comment but writers, designers, movement directors, DSM all have valuable knowledge and experience which could shape a piece. I also observed the plethora of tools that a director can call upon; research, design, music to help the cast, and themselves, find the feeling of a piece. I’m already raring for Week Two.

Queens of the Coal Age runs 28 June - 28 July 2018, Theatre

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