Naomi for Observer MondaysAs 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 second blog of five, from the SCUTTLERS observing director Naomi Sumner.

Day 3: 12th January
The difference between shooting and stabbing.

So today I put on my trackies and trainers and joined in the tough cast warm up – Charlotte the Assistant Director said it’s good for the Directors to actually experience how hard the cast are working and the demands we’re putting on their bodies. This understanding will inform your direction.

Halfway through I realise two things. 1) I’m grateful I don’t have to do this every day like everyone else and 2) the cast are going to be in the best shape of their lives by opening night, you should come and watch Scuttlers and make the sweat and pain worth it!

Rona, the writer, is in the rehearsal room for the next few days and today we go through the whole script, asking questions about the characters, clarifying relationships and character histories. To my right, Charlotte is recording the discussions in the form of several timelines for individual characters and the life of the gang. While a lot of this information will never be shared with the audience it helps the cast make their characters “real people” with emotional depth and strong individual desires. It’s interesting when an actor has made decisions about their character that are opposite to the writer’s original thoughts. This process highlights the importance of sharing these thoughts so people understand where others are coming from. At one point Wils says to the actors “We’re not here to make your decisions for you.” However, what this process does is help the actor make sense of their character and choices can be discussed or challenged based on the writer, director’s or other cast member’s interpretation. It’s a negotiation.

This process shows that at this stage the script is still a “live” document with changes being made and short sections being cut entirely. As a writer I find it interesting to think about what information is needed for a scene to make sense to an audience and what’s extra? As the creative team obviously get very familiar with the text it’s important to remember that the majority of the audience will only hear these words once.

Towards the end of the day there is a discussion about gang violence and the difference between shooting and stabbing. With shooting there is a sense of detachment, distance, minimal physical effort – it can be done literally with one finger. Stabbing is the opposite and in a strange way relates to the theatre making process as follows; Both require proximity, contact, physical effort and a potential struggle. But be it a shooting, a stabbing or a piece of theatre the event impacts on those who witness it and the surrounding community.

Day 4: 15th January
Meeting the Ensemble

The nine core actors will be joined by approximately 30 ensemble cast members to form the two rival gangs for “Scuttlers” and recreate the crowded atmosphere of Ancoats in the late 1800s. This evening I observed the ensemble rehearsal led by Charlotte the Assistant Director.

Chatting with some of the ensemble in the Green Room before rehearsal it becomes clear there is a wide range of experience. Some have performed as ensemble members before at the Royal Exchange leading to the opportunity to perform at The Globe while for others this is the first bit of acting they’ve done since school. Some are at drama school while others work full time.
The ensemble have been working together since before Christmas and it is clear from the energy in the rehearsal room that they really enjoy being together. During the warm up there is laughter and banter and Charlotte shows skill in encouraging 20+ excited people to focus on the work.

The group recap two short pieces of choreography. I am invited to join in and learn the steps. The warmth and openness with which I have been greeted by the core company extends to the ensemble too. My partner Casey is very helpful, going through the steps slowly with me and being very patient when I get confused. The dancing is a lesson in eye contact and spatial awareness – there are a lot of bodies moving in space at the same time. I find it interesting that several times Charlotte encourages partners to look into each others eyes for a long time before starting the movement and get past the “giggle phase.” While this kind of exercise is standard practice in performance training seeing some ensemble members struggle with this task makes me realise how rarely we do this in real life and only then in very intimate situations. Looking into someone’s eyes for thirty seconds is an intense, vulnerable experience.

Watching Charlotte tonight I realise how varied her role as Assistant Director is. As Eddie the movement director is away, she leads the warm up and teaches the choreography, distributes clogs and pieces of costume and liases with Wils about some rhythm exercises. she tries out with the Ensemble. By working together to create body and vocal rhythms it encourages the group to work as an ensemble listening and watching each other and overcome shyness of sharing an idea. Charlotte encourages a playful attitude – “it’s about being kids again and that’s healthy.” I realise as a theatre maker who works with people of all ages in a normal working week that I am privileged to play for a living.