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

Day 7: 26th January
A change of scene

Well this is a bit surreal – here I am taking part in a company warm up on the main stage at the Royal Exchange Theatre! I certainly didn’t expect to be doing this at the start of January but hey the other day Charlotte (the Assistant Director) convinced me to take part in a flashmob so I guess the lesson here is expect the unexpected.

So today opening night feels just that little bit closer as we move out of the rehearsal room and start working on the Main Stage. Throughout the day Dennis the sound designer and his team explore sound effects, cues and live music and towards the end of the day the house lights are turned off and we see the stage lit in various states. Rona, the writer is back in this week watching rehearsals to see if any last minute script changes/cuts need to be made. As an emerging playwright it has been fascinating for me to see how the script has developed since before Christmas until now and to know that it will continue to evolve until the first performance or even beyond.

The cast begin to work through the play in order and it quickly becomes apparent that their blocking and activity needs some changes to work in the larger space. Progress is slow to begin with as one change causes another. The cast guided by Wils and Eddie spend an hour working through the opening scene – their task made harder taking into account that it relies heavily on the ensemble who are not in rehearsal today. Wils sums up in a sentence how the day pans out, “If that changes then I think it changes that.”

Charlotte encourages me to keep changing my position in the theatre and view the action from all angles and levels. This is something she does as Assistant Director to check sightlines, volume, clarity and to make sure the activity on stage does not become static or exclude sections of the audience.

At lunchtime I have a catch up with Matthew Xia the Associate Director at the theatre who asks me how I have found the experience so far. He asks if anything has surprised me. My response is that while nothing about the rehearsal process has been particularly surprising or unexpected the company’s attention to detail and level of professionalism has made a big impact on me. I then take the opportunity to ask him what my next steps as an aspiring director would be, confessing that I don’t feel confident or experienced enough to apply for the assisting roles he sometimes promotes. He asks me, “Would you like to assist?” I say “Yes, absolutely.” His response, “Then apply, you don’t know what they are looking for. You’re on the right track.” *Insert smiley face here. As we talk further I realise Matthew is right, I have years of experience directing in a community/participation/youth theatre setting and while the context is different a lot of the skills are the same.


Day 8: 30th January

This afternoon I watched a run of the entire play minus the ensemble. This was the second time the cast had gone through the play in its’ entirety after a “stagger through” earlier in the week. As well as the production team there were members of the FOH team and other RX staff members watching too.

Charlotte suggested it would be best to sit upstairs to watch the run so I sat on the first balcony. From this level I could appreciate Eddie’s choreography fully and as an ex- dancer I enjoyed seeing the shapes in space. The stylized movement contrasts with Rona’s naturalistic dialogue creating a strange tension for the audience. They may be drawn into the story but they are still outsiders looking in – they are not “part of the gang.”

Watching the actors, it quickly becomes clear that the module is a challenging space to play, being in the round and also quite a “tall” space. Unlike the more traditional proscenium arch theatre in the module actors have to project everything “up” rather than “out.” What works in the rehearsal room does not always work in the space . The actors need to bring a lot of energy, pace and volume to the space – not easy on a Friday afternoon after a long week of rehearsals.

Looking around at the other people watching the word that springs to mind is “absorbed.” As the scenes play out they are being drawn into the world of the play – that is the skill of a good writer. Even without the support of lighting, a set and costumes the writer and actors have managed to create a “world with words.”

Of course for some of the people in the audience it is their job to watch the play carefully. I look around and see Wils, Charlotte, Fly and Eddie all intently scribbling notes. I wonder what they are writing – particularly Charlotte as Assistant Director. In the short break between halves I ask her what she is looking for.

Charlotte says that watching a play as a director is an exhausting experience as you are constantly alert – you can’t get emotionally drawn in to the play like an audience member. She goes on to say that the AD’s role is not really to give ideas but to “maintain the standard of performance.” Are the actors giving the best performance possible and telling the story clearly? She is also looking at their journeys through the space and sightlines. It’s especially important when performing in the round to not get too “static” and exclude sections of the audience for a long time. Charlotte is also aware of audience’s reactions noting when they laugh or gasp or when they don’t!

I find it interesting that the notes (feedback) session following the run takes about as long as the run itself! Wils, Rona and Eddie take the time to give each actor specific notes and talk through particular moments which aren’t working and discuss solutions. The session helps the company form a plan of action and a way to approach the coming week where a lot of hard work lies ahead!