On week 4, the call from stage manager sent via email states that rehearsals are going to be taking place on the main stage called the Module. I think the Module must be the bigger space on the ground floor [ed note. the main theatre has had the nickname ‘The Module’ for decades, because it looks a bit like the Apollo Lunar Landing Module!]. I have been to the Module many times before to see some innovative pieces of theatre. This time I am curious to explore it a bit more. Royal Exchange Theatre has two spaces. A studio and a theatre. The theatre features a seven-sided steel and glass module that squats within the building's Great Hall. It looks a bit strange at the first glance, but if you go to the café bar next to it on a sunny day, you will enjoy the spectacular reflections of sun shining through the roof and the three glazed domes. The theatre will look more like a modern temple and it can be true because it has a section called The Angel Wings (right across from The Rivals Café).
This is a theatre-in-the-round and is surrounded on all sides, and above, by seating. It can seat an audience of up to 750 on three levels, making it the largest theatre in the round in the country. (Thumbs up if you too didn’t know this.)
I walk around the stage looking for Nickie to seek advice on where to sit and she asks if I feel better. I had a cold on the first few days of week 4 and had to rest at home. She tells me that almost all cast members got the flu and the bug is going around very fast. I see some of them have knit hat and jumpers on.
I see that the stage is set and ready. Things look different (more serious) on stage. That maybe explains why some actors have their scripts in hands. When you memorise a text, you memorise the space and surroundings too. Moving to a new space can be a challenge and you might have to keep hold of the scripts till you’ve adjusted to the new space.
Jenny the movement director is the new member. She gives the cast a good warm-up which ends up in a jazz dance and I see some of the actors join in with harmony as if they have rehearsed it a hundred times that brings smiles on our faces and God I wish I was allowed to record this.
More new faces in the room, I guess they are tech people and I see some actors talking to small microphones attached to their sleeves. They work on a scene from Act 2 and a jazz music plays in the background when Uncle Ben enters the scene and it gives him a strong sense of character.
Directing a play in a round stage is tricky and has its own pros and cons. Some of the actors will have their backs to the audience. When one of the actors speaks with their face down, I can hear very well as I sit near the stage, but I think of the people who would be sitting on the second gallery. What if they can’t see the actor’s face? Later on, when I sit upstairs, audibility does not seem to be a problem. The actor has a soft, deep voice and they speak from the diaphragm. They can project well enough to compensate the distance or blocking.
The other thing is the shape of the stage. In the round stage there is no upstage/downstage/left/right, and we have to envisage them. Over the course of rehearsals, Sarah keeps moving and positions herself in a variety of spots around the stage and sometimes repeats a scene to decide which entrance /exit works best. Sometimes there are many actors on stage and it is tough to decide and to space them out so they will not block each other or audience for a long time. I assume she will use lighting to compensate for the blocking.
Death of A Salesman is a realistic play. And it is naturalistic because it portrays Willy Loman’s losing struggle against socioeconomic forces beyond his control. The story hinges more on the characters than the plot, and there is a lot of work for actors to go through different emotions and feelings to make the characters believable. Sarah wants them to believe everything they do and I remember her notes for one of the actors: ‘it is ok to be vulnerable, because of the volcanic nature of the play and that something has got to blow.’
At the end of week 4, It seems that the show is cooking and the parts are coming together faster.
I return to the Module on Monday afternoon excited to see new changes. There can’t be too much as I have missed only two days. I am told that they want to run the second Act. There seem more people in the room today, I guess they are stage technicians.
Sarah asks me to go upstairs. She wants to test if the play reaches up ok. We sit on the first row in the first gallery. Things look different from up there and I have a panoramic view.
The second Act takes about 70 minutes. With the dramatic elements (light, background music and sound effect) added to the play, a new atmosphere is created. I enjoy it and I don’t really feel the time passed as I am a bit nervous, but absorbed in the acting and in my head, I am thinking about the whole process and where they started and how far they have come to present so fantastically. I have witnessed their effort, their self-criticism and frustration (once one of them started dancing when he missed his line which I like to call a frustration dance) and now I am witnessing the outcome.
At break times when there is less pressure, I get a chance to talk to the cast and learn about their work and previous projects. I feel like they are my friends and I want them to do really well.
Sarah and Nickie keep taking notes and after the run, we all leave the Module (as the Queen Margaret team need the stage for their performance) to go upstairs to the rehearsal room to listen to the director’s notes and actor’s feedback. Work finishes at 6pm.
I go back to Module again on Friday afternoon as I like to see more of the final stages of the play. Luckily, they want to do a whole run of the first Act. We go to the first gallery and this time I choose a different spot.
The Act runs smoothly and hardly anyone needs help remembering their lines or entering/exiting the stage and it seems they know their cues really well. At the end of the run, when we gather downstairs, Sarah expresses her satisfaction and asks us to move to the rehearsal room. In that final hour, she gives notes and talks about the psychology of Willy or the facts that makes a character speaks in the way he/she speaks.
My Observing is coming to its final phase and next week would be my last week and the final stage of the play’s production.
Death of a Salesman runs 11 October - 17 November 2018, Theatre