Week 2, the tables have been cleared away, the floor is marked out, it’s time to get moving. People gather in the rehearsal room; director Matthew Xia, the stage manager, members of the cast, the movement director. The atmosphere is jovial as people catch up on each other’s weekends but also slightly tentative. This morning will be the first time the scenes are put on their feet.
The first unit to be worked on is a monologue, a letter spoken aloud by the character who has written it. Matthew sits down with the actor and shows them the set design for this scene. “This is your world,” he tells them and when they raises a question about what objects and equipment might be in this space Matthew references a documentary about explorers that he watched whilst carrying out research for the production. A conversation follows in which Matthew and the actor talk through the scene and to establish how long the character has been in this space and what is going on outside of this space at this particular time. They discuss whether or not this is the first letter the character has written during their voyage and Matthew suggests that if it is the first letter it will raise the stakes of this unit so maybe that’s an idea to hold on to for the moment.
Matthew then moves on to asking the actor what their character’s super-objective is (their overall objective through the play) and what their objective is in this unit (what the character hopes to achieve in this moment). The scene is read-through, whilst sitting, and Matthew suggests splitting the monologue, which is quite a long chunk of text, into sections by thinking of the different facets of the person the character is writing to and placing them in different sections of the audience; an anxious reader, an inquiring reader and so on. It’s a useful note and will help the actor to address more of the audience, an important consideration when working in the round. Then it’s time to get up and walk the scene through. The actor asks Matthew if he has a preference for the pathway he takes around the stage as his character addresses these different readers. Matthew’s reply is that “there are a few options…,” and together they explore these options with the actor walking through the unit and Matthew interjecting with “Can we try…,” or “I wonder if there is another way…,” or “I loved it when…,” Together they back and forth through the unit and there is a sense of collaboration on both sides, an openness to try out different ideas to see what works.
Work on this unit ends with Matthew recapping the story of the unit, as he sees it, and the actor running the unit in the space to consolidate the work that has been done. Matthew gives the actor a note to think about (to find ways of simplifying his character’s movements and shifts around the stage) and everyone moves on to the next unit. This first unit has taken just over an hour to work through. In later sessions units are worked through much quicker but when working on a unit where we first meet a character Matthew takes his time, talking with the actor and them questioning about their character and the situation. This helps to ensures everyone is working in the same ‘world’ and that the units will sit well with each other when put together. It’s a little bit like working on a jigsaw.
In the afternoon work starts on Unit 8, a complex scene in which Victor Frankenstein has his first waking dream. These waking dreams are something that happen repeatedly throughout the play and are integral to the style of this particular production so Matthew spends quite a bit of time getting this first one right as it will set the ground rules and conventions for the rest of the play. In Unit 8 we see Victor’s present and past at the same time, with characters from both of those time-frames appearing on stage simultaneously. It’s important that the actors understand which timeframe their character exists in but also that this is clearly communicated to the audience so Matthew and the actors spend a lot of time working out who can see who, who can hear who and who’s talking to who and in which timeframe. Together they talk through the reality of the unit for each character. The movement director steps in at a couple of points to help the actors find effective ways of communicating shifts between timeframes and finding clear and direct pathways across the space.
By the end of the session a unit that seemed complicated on its first reading is feeling, and looking, much clearer for everyone in the room. Again, just before the end of the session the unit is run from start to finish to consolidate the afternoon’s work and Matthew talks briefly about finding the emotional and psychological truth of what’s taking place. But, he reassures the actors, that’s not something that he is looking to nail down at the moment. What he aims to establish with these first sessions is broad brushstrokes. There will be time to work on the finer details later.
• Keep referring to the world of the play. Continuing to reference design ideas and research material helps to maintain a sense of the world the characters are inhabiting.
• Look for ways of breaking up text with physicality. Large chunks of text can be made more active by finding a logical reason to address different physical spaces.
• Work it through together. Sometimes having everyone up on their feet slowly plotting a unit through step-by-step is the best way of ensuring everyone understands exactly what is going on.
Frankenstein runs 9 March - 14 April 2018, Theatre