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


Week Two and I’m excited to get back in the rehearsal room and see what happened whilst I wasn’t around. The company firstly chat about their trip to an actual pit, in which the Company went down to the belly of a mine. The group shared different discoveries about their experience - sounds, smells, the cold. Everyone agreed on how striking the daylight felt when they came out of the mine after 2 hours and what this must have felt like for the Queens after 5 days. Bryony then led a warm up with us all before giving the Cast some script edits that her and Maxine had worked on over the weekend.


Last week when I wasn’t around the cast had already begun to stage parts of Act One they were to continue with this process. The cast first went for a read of a scene and then Bryony showed them the model box to remind them of the world in which the scene was set. As the actors work Bryony is constantly moving around the space to make sure the scene is open to the world of the round. She lets the actors play - she asks questions and offers suggestions and then the actors through the scene again. The energy in the rehearsal room is something I really noticed, its relaxed, playful and full of offers - no suggestion is ignored.


Peter Malkin, the Sound Designer came into rehearsals for the first time this week. I managed to speak to him about his work. It was really interesting to see how his process as a creative works. He sat next to the DSM, Harriet, listened to the Cast work through scenes and would ‘drop in’ sounds trying out different things to see what worked. He said he tries to give a director options so they can direct him in what way they’d like to use sound in a show - whether this be literal sounds or underscoring. It was great to see the collaboration between him and Bryony as they’d discuss different suggestions and ideas.


After lunch Assistant Director, Matt Hassall, started setting up the rehearsal room as one of the character’s homes whilst the rest of us played a word association game together to warm up - which I can hand on heart tell you I was rubbish at. Once Matt was set up he explained to the Cast that they would be improvising a scene which we don’t see in the show but is the catalyst for the plays action. He’d gone to such details of having biscuits, cups of tea, a bin for tea bags etc to make the world of the improvisation real. It lasted for around 15 minutes. Bryony and Matt picked out moments that they’d noticed which added to the actors characters, their story, their mannerisms even. As an observing director is was really interesting for me to see Bryony and Matt give such weight to something that wasn’t the script; as in rehearsals sometimes you rush to an end product. I watched as the characters personalities and bond grew which then informed the scene they worked on next in the script.

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


I asked Matt if he wouldn't mind me coming into a Community Chorus rehearsal to observe what he worked on with them. Jenny used the same warm up and keepy up game that she used with the Cast. She later suggested the Cast and Community Chorus could possibly use these as a route to unify everyone together before shows. I thought this was a great way of making everyone feel like they all working together. Bryony then asked if the Community Chorus could humour her by singing a song from the show whilst Pete recorded it. It was amazing to hear the power of the men singing a song that is rooted in female empowerment. Jenny and Matt then started some devising activities - activities with mining motifs, to none at all, to moving as one and connecting. As I watched Jenny, Matt and the men work through different things Peter dropped in different sounds for them to play with or against. The room was full of collaboration and ideas.


I sat in on one of the production meetings the team were having. This was great to see as a new director. The meeting was run informally by the Company Manager who passed from department to department - sound, costume etc to see if they had any updates or questions for Bryony. It reminded me how many plates a director has to juggle – it’s not just about rehearsing some words and hoping for the best. Bryony has to focus on a multitude of aspects all at once but she’s so calm and pragmatic whilst keen to allow everyones ideas to be heard. One thing I noticed was her value of Georgia’s, the designer, creative voice as she ran anything affecting the design via her so not affect her vision of the show.

Image of Queens of the Coal Age, Royal Exchange Theatre


Thursday morning and the company is about to do a stagger through of Act One - called that because it’s just finding your feet sort of speak. You could feel the room tingling with excitement and nerves. The Stage Management Team and Alex, Georgia’s Assistant, had come to watch the stagger through. One of the actors commented that they hated this bit and Bryony reassured the room that this was for them to find the flow of the piece, put it all together not for a final performance. With this it began and it was beautiful - 2 weeks into rehearsal and you could see how special this show is going to be. Matt commented afterwards that you wanted to be part of the Queens gang and he wasn’t wrong.


This week I learnt how sound designers are really bloody talented people and can really help you as a director to create a feeling in a room and also give actors something to play with or against. A designer’s job doesn’t just end with creating a model box and saying copy that, but it continues throughout the process. Protecting someone’s creative vision that isn’t just yours as the director is key for collaborative work. And lastly, but not least-ly, you do have time in rehearsals to explore; whether this be with devising work as Matt did with the Community Chorus or improvisation which the Cast worked on. It all infiltrates into the finished show and makes it more grounded. Onto Week Three!!!

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

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