As part of our ongoing commitment to nurture, support and inspire local theatre-makers, the Royal Exchange Theatre are able to offer directors based in Greater Manchester the opportunity to observe the journey of a production through rehearsals with our Observer Mondays Scheme.

Here is the first blog from ANNA KARENINA observing director Stephanie Bain.


After a romantic Valentine's Day spent shivering in the cold as I shuffled along the banquette ticket queue for Wils Wilson's vibrant, violent production of Scuttlers, entering a warm rehearsal room for the first day of observing Anna Karenina rehearsals was particularly pleasant. I started the day with a brief chat with Associate Director Matthew Xia, who will be mentoring me through the Observer Mondays process. We spoke about how I might use the experience of observing Ellen McDougall to answer some questions I have in my own practice; e.g. how to structure a rehearsal process and create an open, fully present atmosphere in the room in order to balance playful, investigative, collaborative work with the need to make strong creative decisions. It's an incredibly useful opportunity for a developing director to observe a more experienced director as a way to reflect on their own work.

I was also particularly keen to use the Observer Mondays to get a sense of how the creative team as a whole work together on productions of a larger scale than I am used to, so it was great to kick off the first day with an introduction to the entire Anna Karenina team from the props team on the hunt for smashable crockery to the costume department designing contemporary, costumes. I had a chat with Suzanne Bell from the Literary department; both marvelling how Jo Clifford had condensed a huge novel with a knotty glossary of unpronounceable character names, into a fast paced, energetic and very funny script, which offers up so many possibilities for Ellen and the company. It was also great to meet the Movement Director Wilke Branson. My background and current work is in physical theatre and so I'm interested in watching the dynamic between Wilke and Ellen in rehearsals and the way in which his work will feed into the piece.

I admired Ellen's choice to skip the common first day convention of showing the model box of the set design and to jump straight into a table reading of the play, as this meant that the excitement and energy bubbling up from meeting new people was transferred directly into the reading.

More crucial work took place around the table when we scoured the text to determine the time of day, the location, the weather and the atmosphere of each scene. I was particularly interested in how Ellen led this process of asking questions about the text in a way that was investigative and curious. 

The way in which the questions about the text were managed seemed inherently connected to Ellen's conception of the rehearsal process as opening up a space for the actors and director to play together as collaborators and to work out, as an ensemble, how this story will be told. This particularly appeals to me as I work this way in my own practice and know that it takes lots of courage to give that space, so it's inspiring to see a director working this way on a larger scale.

Once the play had been read and the different character's voices had echoed around the space for the first time, the company were treated to a peek at the model box of the set design. Listening to Ellen and the designer share the explanation of the model, it was clear how much discussion and collaboration had gone into designing a set that allowed both for the practical elements of transforming the space into the play's various locations, but also the more subtle, symbolic elements that might work subconsciously on the audience's imagination.

I was lucky enough to stay behind for the post-rehearsal production meeting. Working with technicians and technical requirements, even on a small scale, has always slightly unnerved me, due largely to my own technical ignorance, but this meeting served to remind me how vital it is for the director to communicate clearly with the various production teams working on the show to ensure that everyone is moving towards the same shared vision. This meeting of negotiation and problem solving was another example of what has, perhaps, emerged as the running theme of my first day as observer; flexibility and collaboration.

ANNA KARENINA runs in The Theatre from 19 March - Sat 2 May. It runs in reportoire with THE ROLLING STONE which runs in The Theatre from 21 April - 1 May.