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 third blog of five, from the SCUTTLERS observing director Naomi Sumner.

Day 4: 19th January
Lets work it out

This week’s task is to work through each scene of the play in order, make decisions about blocking and making sure each moment is clear to the audience. As the actors work in the space I notice that Charlotte the Assistant Director is continuously changing her position in the room, observing the work from all angles. Scuttlers will be performed “in the round” which presents the double challenge of making sure audiences members have a good view of the action no matter where they are seated and the actors having “nowhere to hide.” Progress seems slow as Wils and Eddie clarify each hand signal, meeting of eyes and physical reactions on a moment by moment basis making sure the whole story makes sense.

I also observed part of a fight call between two actors and it was fascinating for me to watch how Eddie “built” the fight move by move. The actors start slowly, gradually increasing the tempo as they become more confident with the choreography. They work for nearly an hour perfecting a fight sequence that will be over in less than in a minute in performance.

Back in the rehearsal room I watched the actors playing the roles of Joe and Susan tackle a challenging scene where they have an intimate conversation in a public space with people constantly passing through. Wils was keen to reinforce that in the world of the play there is no privacy, people literally live their lives on the street. The focus of the two actors was challenged as Eddie sent other cast members through the space on different journeys and they didn’t know when they would be interrupted.

The actors are not the only ones being challenged by this constant movement. Gareth the DSM is meticulously noting each characters journeys through the space on a diagram and Charlotte alternates between filming sequences on her ipad and making notes in her script. Today’s lesson is that being an assistant director is about understated ultimate efficiency what will tomorrow’s be?

Day 5: 22nd January
“There’s a huge amount to remember.”

This afternoon I met the vocal coach, Joan, who is helping some of the cast members get to grips with a Manchester or Lancashire accent. It’s another reminder of how much attention to detail and how many experts it takes to produce a high quality theatre production.

In the evening Eddie works with the ensemble adding layers to the choreography they have learnt in previous sessions. There is a lot to remember as the dancers swap partners several times, change directions and are doing different movements/rhythms at the same time. When one person expresses their frustration at not getting the movements right Eddie’s response is perfect, “It’s meant to be hard.”
The ensemble and core company work together on a scene where the gang mock and torment a passer by. Older male cast members learn a small speaking role and each is given a turn to perform. There is a fantastic energy in the space, everyone is enjoying the work and buzzing. The volume level in the room rises and everyone discusses the work with the people around them. It’s interesting to watch how Wils and Eddie negotiate working with a large group of excited people who lack the discipline of professional actors to achieve results in a short amount of time.

Earlier in the day I sat in on a conversation between Wils, Eddie and Charlotte where they were talking about how to give each ensemble member a “moment to shine” or feel valued by taking on a responsibility such as dance captain. There is genuine care to give everybody the best possible experience. At the end of rehearsal, Wils thanks the ensemble for their hard work acknowledging that they’ve done a vast amount of work. Directing isn’t just about having a creative vision it’s knowing how to get the best out of the people you’re working with. I’ve noticed that when Wils wants to give direction to an individual actor she comes literally alongside them and speaks quietly rather than having a conversation the whole room can hear.

Charlotte’s lessons in organisation go to a whole new level today. She has the huge task of compiling the ensemble member’s availability throughout the run and individually casting each show. Her colour coded spreadsheet is impressive yet intimidating. There are days when I wish I could do Charlotte’s job but today I am quite glad I am not her.

Day 6: 24th January
Taking it to the streets…

Today was a very exciting day for the Scuttlers cast and crew. Firstly, in the morning the ensemble had rehearsal on stage for the first time. A lot of time was given to orientation and getting used to the space. There are a lot of questions – it is hard to fully understand the space and visualise our set when it is still set up for Little Shop of Horrors. It’s amazing how the space is transformed for each production and to think how different it will look in a few weeks’ time. The excitement is building across the team as we all realise we are one step closer to opening night.

Wils had the group practice crossing the space using choreography they already knew and finding “rest points” around the edges using what’s in the space to inspire positions. The ensemble are reminded to find different levels so they don’t block the audience’s view. Wils also gets the ensemble to sing a short song so they can hear their voices in the space.

After lunch the excitement builds as Eddie teaches the cast the choreography for a flashmob that will be performed in Market Street that afternoon. As I know some of the choreography being used Charlotte encourages me to join in. This was unexpected, I really did not think I would be performing on this placement! We have to work quickly as we only have an hour to put it together.
We head out in small groups to Market Street. I feel a bit nervous, a crowd is gathering sensing something is about to happen. I’ve never done anything like this before, am I about to look like a total fool in the city centre on a busy Saturday? Oh well at least there’s a lot of us and on a signal from Eddie it’s all go! What an adrenaline rush, the cast are buzzing afterwards sharing experiences and how they felt. For me it gave an insight into the excitement of being a Scuttler, the enjoyment of being looked at, the feeling of strength in numbers and taking over a space. So what may have been conceived as a marketing tool to begin with was also a great piece of experiential learning the cast can draw on to inform their performances.