Before I begin my first blog covering the first day of rehearsals, I have a confession to make. I violated the terms of the Observer Monday agreement for directors, by sneakily observing a Tuesday morning rehearsal as well. I hope you will all forgive me for my transgression and I hope that the fruits of this Tuesday morning help to contribute to understanding the development of this production of ‘Twelfth Night’!
The first week of rehearsals for ‘Twelfth Night’ have taken place in London, at Graeae Studios, and after travelling down on the Sunday afternoon and spending the night at a hotel, I met up with the production’s assistant director (Andy Routledge) as we walked to the rehearsal studio. It was a great chance to meet and talk to Andy about working at the Royal Exchange and about this upcoming production of ‘Twelfth Night’ as well as a great way to assuage my nervousness about this first day – ‘it’s everyone’s first day’, Andy reassured me.
One of the interesting ways to explore a director’s practice is to think about how these tensions are mitigated on the first day and how relationships within the company are developed and explored from this first starting point. In total, there were approximately twenty-six people in the room – including Jo, the director, Leslie, the designer, Kay Shepherd the movement director, Lee, the company manager and the assembled cast and stage management team. After an initial round of introductions running around the assembled group, we immediately moved onto a getting-to-know-everyone game which everyone took part in (including myself), where in pairs we would relate our life story to our partner before having to present their story to the group as a whole afterwards.
What was great about this process was the way in which Jo engaged everyone with it; regardless of what capacity they were involved in with the production. It not only helped immediately attach names to faces but also allowed us access to people’s previous work and personal lives from the very beginning. It was this combination of engaging everyone and also presenting to the group as a whole that coloured a series of rhythm games we all undertook afterwards (switching pairs with each variation). The atmosphere was exciting, fun and incredibly collaborative and a brilliant way of defusing any potential tension or embarrassment while setting a solid foundation for the company spirit needed to make ‘Twelfth Night’ an exciting and unique production.
After this series of games, we gathered round for Leslie’s showing of the set model and of the costume design ideas for the show – Jo actively encouraging us to not sit distant around tables but to crowd further in to see the model together. Without giving too much away, what will be very exciting about this production in visual terms is how unlike expectations of ‘Twelfth Night’ it will be, while remaining firmly rooted in the text itself. Through the model showing, Leslie and Jo described the creative ideas and processes that had taken root, with key words being thrown out like loss, storms, knots, of order and disorder together and most significantly, time. It is a design in which the audience will find themselves in a position very similar to the shipwrecked Viola on the shores of Illyria – unaware of what this world will contain, both excited and threatened by its potential.
After lunch, the cast began a read through of the play, but with a bit of difference. Jo intentionally wanted them to read a role other than their own one, regardless of gender – a tactic to help the cast gain a greater understanding of the play as a whole as well as giving them the chance to hear their role being performed by someone else. This was a tactic I found really fascinating as it gave them a chance to listen and hear to what their own character says and what people say about your character - this really opened up the play to strong critical discussion as the read-through progressed.
Through the afternoon’s read-through, the company only reached Act 1 Scene 4 – they would read the scene through once and then go back to discuss it, analysing the language, tone and position within an understanding of the wider play. It was fantastic to see how eager the cast were to engage in this discussion and it ranged across a wide variety of topics, from the historical conditions of the play’s writing and performance, the intricacies of Shakespeare’s language through to historical and contemporary ideas of gender and performance. While progress through the play was slow, it allowed the whole company to truly flesh out every moment and every scene from the play.
What I haven’t mentioned though about the read-through though was just how funny it was! This wasn’t just an academic exercise in understanding Shakespeare, but a chance to hear and find the comic heart of the piece, particularly in the Act 1 Scene 3 with the first appearance of Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Maria. Anyone concerned that this might be an overly-serious, overly-academic production of ‘Twelfth Night’ need not fear! In fact, this initial read-through exposed one of the key things about the play – how it is more than just a comedy without sacrificing being funny at any time.
As I admitted, I also managed to sneak in to observe the Tuesday morning’s rehearsals, causing mild confusion to many given how effectively I had introduced myself as the Observer Monday participant the previous day. The day began with a movement workshop led by Kay Shepherd, which involved initially warming up before moving on to workshops built around reacting to one another’s movements and following a leader (building from in one continuous line to smaller groups) and then developing short improvised movement narratives around the key words ‘storm’ and ‘shipwreck’. This was a great improvisatory exercise that specifically engaged the whole cast in one of the early scenes of the play (Viola shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria and the Sea Captain’s recounting of the events) that we had read the previous afternoon.
Through this, Jo drew on the discussion and questions they had had regarding this scene and invited the actors to physicalize it, to find and build a narrative through movement to explore these themes and this opening scene. As the groups developed their narratives, they drew further on the Captain’s description of the shipwreck and the questions it raised – Sebastian’s survival upon the mast, Viola reaching the shores of Illyria and whether or not they appeared to see the other drown. The cast brought so many dynamic elements to these physical narratives and the level of creativity and willingness to contribute was incredibly high and they were in themselves a joy to watch! Furthermore, Jo made clear how pursuing this physical interpretation of a scene works wonders for recognising just how mobile and physical Shakespeare’s language is and how important it is to keep that sense when speaking it.
The final part of this workshop incorporated music into this process. Here, one team would provide the soundtrack to the other group’s performance, which allowed me to see some of the actor-musicianship of the production at work. Out of the cupboard emerged a trumpet, a euphonium, a guitar, a violin and an accordion and the actor-musicians (alongside the actors who contributed to the sound world vocally, with breath and through the percussive potential of the floor) improvised and played with what the sound world of this tense shipwreck environment might be. It was a fantastic way to end this development workshop as suddenly these physical narratives took on an even more affecting and alluring quality with the addition of this improvised music. My experience previously as a director has often focused on music so I am personally very excited to see how the relationship between the play, the cast and the music will develop from this point!
So from just a day and a half of rehearsals there was such an amazing amount of collaborative creative energy expended from all involved (and so much to process). Apologies for the extra-size first entry but I am particularly thankful for being allowed in for that extra day and a half given my interest in music and the chance to share that further!
I cannot wait to see how this production will develop further!
Twelfth Night runs 13 April - 20 May