Having had such a positive experience in week one, I was keen to see what nuggets of wisdom week two would bring, and from my first few moments back in the Royal Exchange’s Swan Street rehearsal space it was clear that I was not going to be disappointed. Whilst week one was a week focussed on one specific task-Facts and Questions-by contrast, week two was to consist of a hybrid of activities: finishing off the last few bits of Facts and Questions, a cooking workshop for the cast at the actual restaurant in Manchester that provided the inspiration of the play, and the commencement of the blocking and staging process. The two primary learning points for me personally this week centred around the fostering and enhancement of a piece’s authenticity and secondly, yet further insights and reflections about the process a text goes through during the process of making a play.
As aforementioned, the cast went to a cooking workshop with a professional chef at Sweet Mandarin restaurant, in preparation for the live cooking they will be doing on stage. Here they observed Lisa Tse cook. To provide a bit of context, Lisa is the twin sister of Helen Tse, who is the author of SWEET MANDARIN, from which the play has been adapted from. Both the text and play recount the story of Lisa and Helen’s Grandmother, Lily, and the trials and tribulations she faced both in her earlier days in China, and after she had made the journey over to the UK. One key theme in the play is food, and the play depicts a deep passion for it permeating each generation within this family, alluding to the fact that this is what led Helen, along with her sister, to open the Sweet Mandarin restaurant.
Being present in this workshop was a significant learning experience for me. A simple sending over of the recipe would have been a simpler and more time effective way of learning how to create the dish that is to be cooked during the play, so why did not only the whole cast, but the director and writer go all the way over to the restaurant to witness Lisa cook it firsthand? Furthermore aside from watching the recipe for the specific dish being cooked in the play, why did we spend extra focussed time watching Lisa do simple things like chopping garlic and onions? Practicing doing it exactly as she did after having seen her do it?
The answer of course was because of authenticity. Watching Lisa cook gave us insight, not only into the recipe of a dish, but into the idiosyncrasies of a Chinese master chef; of someone who has cooking in their very D.N.A the way the characters in our piece do. A recipe would have told us how much onion to chop and how much soy sauce to add, but it would not have told us how our piece’s characters would chop an onion, or how many times they would sample the food whilst preparing it. Here I discovered that the devil is in the details. The purpose of drama is to depict people and their worlds with truth, in the hope that we as humans might learn from watching humans. In order for us to fulfil this purpose, it is vital that we observe and include as many of the individual, miniscule elements of the worlds we depict as possible.
Returning to the rehearsal space following the workshop, we continued working on the text. Whilst the cast went off to practice playing “mah-jong”, a Chinese game that is played during the play, In-Sook and Jennifer went off alone to discuss yet more edits to the text, based on reflections Jennifer had been making outside of rehearsal time. Thus, not only were the cast and creatives adjusting the text during their Facts and Questions process, but Jennifer’s own individual reflections were leading to amendments.
Furthermore, in a conversation I was able to have with In-Sook during one of the breaks, I discovered that In-Sook would also go away and make personal edits to the text outside of rehearsal time, based on any spontaneous ideas she might receive and that yet further, a dramaturg had worked on the text before it even came into Jennifer’s hands! Thus, whilst last week I discovered there were multiple hands in the broth, this week I discovered there were multitudes of hands in it.
For me, this is significant, as it shows that as a director, you do not have to start with a finished product in terms of the text, but are allowed to take time to significantly develop it even after rehearsals have begun.
Furthermore it demonstrated that the pressure is on the director’s back as much as anyone else’s to make the text the best it can be.
Two down, three to go! I’m sure next week will bring more revelations about the ‘up on its feet’ part of directing.
Mountains runs 22 March - 7 April 2018, Studio