Victoria Firth - Observer Mondays Director - gives us an insight into the fourth week of rehearsals for Happy Days, directed by Sarah Frankcom



I’m fortunate to have a one to one chat with Sarah Frankcom where I can follow my curiosity about what is going on for her when she is directing and how she manages the process whilst leading a major regional theatre. It wasn’t an interview so these aren’t quotes from her but more what I took away from a very interesting chat.

Sarah manages her schedule by bookending her time with the actors with work with other members of the creative team - the Assistant Director, Movement Director, line work, sometimes wardrobe fittings etc. This means that the production is progressing for a full day but she joins them from about 11am till 4pm.This allows her to take Royal Exchange meetings and deal with other business at the beginning and end of the day. She also sometimes takes meetings over the lunch break. This stops in the last week of rehearsal when Sarah brings her full focus to working on the production.

I asked Sarah how much research she does in preparation for a rehearsal. It seemed on day one a tremendous amount of thinking and working on the text had been done. Surprisingly Sarah says she does less now than ever before after consciously changing her practice a few years ago. She now has more confidence and trust about following what happens in the rehearsal room and making the work there rather than coming in to make a pre-set vision. As a result Sarah has the Assistant Director and the DSM follow the text so that she doesn’t have to look at the script and so can watch the actors and see what they are offering. Although she approaches working with actors differently, depending on the type of play, she generally works more with what the actors are discovering than with research.

She gives time to working with actors on their characters ‘back story’ but she is less interested in finding a clean through line and more interested in the human contradictions that come up – although back story does give the actors something emotional to draw on as does play in rehearsal. The early work in rehearsal exploring imaginary scenes and interactions between the characters, physicalizing memories is an important building block for the liveness of the final performance. Dress up and play gives the actors something physical they can reference. Experiences that are only made for this piece. She says you can feel it in the performance when the actors have been able to be free in the rehearsal room.


Surely on a play like this which is so well documented she must have seen other versions or looked at other videos and designs? No Sarah doesn’t really reference what has gone before. She sees it as imperative that the design and vision for a production reflects why it has been chosen to be done now and in this theatre, in this place. Why are we doing it? is the most important thing to inform the process.

This rationale is a lynch pin in the programme at the Royal Exchange and therefore in which plays Sarah chooses to stage. The time of a single Artistic Director directing the old repertoire, the classic canon of texts, is coming to an end, to be replaced by an increase in new writing and new theatre forms. Younger audiences are highly culturally literate but perhaps not as literally literate or interested and this will drive change. There needs to be a real clarity now about when to stage one of these plays and why.

I find this an exciting vision of the future which will crack open a lot of the norms of who gets to make work, what stories are told and who theatre is for.

A commercial reality remains though, Sarah reflects that the challenge for regional theatre now is to discover truly extraordinary artists. Those whose productions have a ‘game changing’ impact that then enables the work to transfer to other theatres. Theatres need the commercial return from the transfer of productions.

The scale of both that challenge and the opportunity it might present stays with me for some time.  

Happy Days runs 25 May - 23 June 2018, Theatre

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