SBainAs 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 third blog from ANNA KARENINA observing director Stephanie Bain.


This week heralded the mid-point in my stint as Observer Mondays Director and, as such, I caught up with Matthew Xia to discuss how the experience has been so far. This was useful in helping me reflect on what I’m learning. Matthew questioned me about what has surprised me in the rehearsal room and whilst my answer was rather blathering and incoherent, I’ve found this question to be an interesting way of looking at this week’s rehearsal room experience.

So what has surprised me?

Theatre is often described in terms of magic; conjuring up imaginative worlds, casting a spell over the audience, but what has surprised me the most is that directing a large scale production like Anna Karenina is not some arcane mystery and, although it certainly combines many different skills, is also quite intuitive. This realisation came about through a shift in tactics in how I was approaching observing. For the first couple of weeks, I had been watching Ellen, Charlotte (Assistant Director) and Wilkie (Movement Director) to see how they directed moments, organised rehearsals, communicated amongst each other and interacted with the actors and I’d been noting key decisions and small observations. This week, I switched to trying to watch the rehearsals as a director and think about which moments I would want to respond to, to clarify, to push further. It has been equally interesting to see when my silent thought processes have mirrored those of the creative team and when they have been different and I think it’s a sign of my growing confidence that I’ve moved from ‘of course they’ve said something different because my idea was completely daft’ to ‘oh that’s a different way of looking at that moment.’ Overall, the demystifying of the rehearsal process, which Observer Mondays allows is encouraging and is helping me to trust my own intuition.

With a text that is so rich and layered as Jo’s adaptation, I’ve gained a great insight into working with text, which stood out this week as we looked at a couple of psychologically complex scenes in which the characters wants are continually changing, and their lines and actions often seem to run counter to what they want. We looked at a scene between Anna and her sister-in-law Dolly, in which the actors had to be clear what their character wanted, but be aware that because the character couldn’t express these wants, they had to talk around them. It became clear that in scenes like this, actors often have lots of questions for the director and ensuring clarity in performance means going through each line, each turn in the argument of the scene, and working out what is being revealed and what concealed and why. The rigour of this investigation is both hard work, but also incredibly exciting when a line reading just clicks and makes complete sense for the characters and their relationship. 

I’ve no doubt that the process of transferring the discoveries made in the rehearsal room, to the specific nature of the theatre space will equally illuminating – the module awaits!

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.