Sarah Richardson - Observer Mondays Director - gives us an insight into the final week of rehearsals for Frankenstein, directed by Matthew Xia

OBSERVATION ON REHEARSAL WEEK 5 OF 5 MAR 2018

It’s tech week. Rehearsals have shifted down to the module and an additional team of people are now in attendance; designers, technicians, stage managers, members of the Young Company. Elements of the set are in place. The ropes of Walton’s ship, which the designer showed us in miniature during the design presentation back on Day 1, hang from the grid, drawing our eyes upwards. They completely, beautifully change the feel of the space. Actors start to drift on stage dressed in their starting costumes. They compare dresses and wigs (there are a lot of wigs). It’s fun to see this layer of characterisation added.

ROLE OF A DIRECTOR DURING TECH WEEK

Matthew takes a back seat as the Company Stage Manager explains how the tech is going to work and what the etiquette is before giving the cast five minutes to orientate themselves in the space. Last week rehearsals were moving along at quite a lick as sections were run and re-run but this week the pace is totally different. Progress is slow as logistics are worked through; when should someone be given a cue to enter the space from outside the module? how should items of set be manoeuvred? Matthew makes use of pauses in the work to give small acting notes but otherwise he steps back, other people need the time to do their jobs. As I watch I wonder how hard it is for a director to hold on to a sense of how the production is working as a whole when such small sections are being worked on. I also wonder how hard it must be to spot things that you want to change but not have time to work on them.

Inside Rehearsals Frankenstein, Royal Exchange Theatre

HOW A DIRECTOR WORKS WITH A LIGHT AND SOUND DESIGNER

Another area I’ve been focusing on during my time observing rehearsals is how Matthew collaborates with the other members of the creative team to integrate elements such as light and sound into the production. The sound designer has been in several rehearsal sessions testing out tracks and effects and although the lighting designer has also been in rehearsals it’s not been possible to try out any lighting states until this week. Yet lighting plays a huge part in this production, from creating the iconic lightning and sparks of electricity which bring the Creature to life to the sudden blackouts which will create the tension and jump scares Matthew referenced back on Day 1. I’m interested to see how this final layer will heighten the action created in the rehearsal room.

The lighting team and sound designer work from desks set up at the edges of the stage but Matthew moves around throughout the sessions, constantly changing seats to observe the action from different angles or to talk to people about adjustments to the lights, sound or set. At one point he asks a member of the creative team “Can you help us with this moment…?” He wants to intensify the atmosphere of the moment and the two of them work together to test different solutions. I’m struck by how Matthew doesn’t move on from working on this moment until what’s realised on stage matches the vision he has for it, even though the tech schedule is tight and there is a pressure to keep moving forwards. But it’s important to him, and for the production, that this moment is right.

I visit the module again at the end of the week to observe the second dress and the first preview. As I catch up with the team I discover that some big cuts have been made to text, set and action. Making large cuts so close to the first previews surprises me. If I’m honest I don’t know that I’d have the guts. At this late stage there’s a risk of cuts not settling in time for the first performance but as Matthew explains if you know something’s not working it’s better to get rid of it sooner rather than later. Like taking off a sticking plaster; quick and sharp is better than slow and with hesitation. It’s a bold way to work and although the first preview is bumpy by press night it’s clear that these brave calls were good ones. They have freed up the production. It motors along as a fantastic pace, with light and sound working to great effect to create Matthew’s vision of a fractured, fevered nightmare.

The production has come to life, and it’s been such a privilege to observe it happening.

Inside Rehearsals Frankenstein

REFLECTION

There were several things I hoped to gain from being Observer Mondays Director for FRANKENSTEIN. One was to see how a director communicates and realises their vision for a production to the many varied groups of people they work with during the making of a production. Another was to better understand how to pace rehearsals and effectively move through the different stages of that process.

From observing Matthew directing I feel I have gained a set of practical tools and exercises to use in my own work; using research and design references in sessions when characters are worked on for the first time, giving actors physical tasks to help make sense of complicated scenes, setting up storytelling conventions and devices and ensuring that they are adhered to throughout. I admired the depth and quality of questioning that took place in the room; about the play, its source material, its relevance to our lives today. I aim to integrate similar conversations into my work from now on, no matter what length of rehearsal period I’m working within. There were also some lovely details I observed that I am just going to totally nick from Matthew like his explanation of a stagger-through as “where we fall over the roots and bump into the trees”. I’ll be using that one in my rehearsal room, for sure.

The main thing I will take from this experience though is the need for a director to be bold and brave. Matthew set out with a clear, ambitious, bold vision for this production of Frankenstein and through asking interesting questions, being uncompromising on quality and making brave calls in difficult moments he achieved it. And he achieved it whilst also being collaborative, open and generous towards the other people involved in this process. Which is how I always aim to work and from observing rehearsals for Frankenstein I will now also aim to be artistically bolder and braver too.


Frankenstein runs 9 March - 14 April 2018, Theatre

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