The sun is shining, I'm a little over caffeinated and my head is buzzing with questions. After a short, relaxed introduction with Associate Artistic Director Matthew Xia, Assistant Director Andy Routledge and staff from Marketing and Literary and Talent Development, we head up and along various back of house corridors, to a large, unglamorous rehearsal room for the Meet and Greet.
Upwards of fifty people are gathered - the full cast, most of the creative team and staff from a range of departments: production, stage management, wardrobe, marketing etc. The atmosphere is expectant. I can feel the first-day nerves humming just beneath people's outwardly relaxed demeanours. It's understandable. There are a lot of relational dynamics yet to establish and creative challenges yet to overcome. I'm interested to see how Sarah approaches this key, tone-setting moment.
Her style is very understated. Emblematic, from what I observe generally, of her philosophical approach to power as a director, which is that it should be shared. This does not mean having no directorial voice or focus for the production. As she outlines her reasons for taking on this "extraordinary, terrifying and exciting" play, it's clear that Sarah has some compelling artistic and personal answers to the crucial questions of why this play? why you? Yet despite this clarity of purpose, her approach – circling the beast from a myriad of related but different angles (intellectual, anecdotal, metaphorical, visual) - allows for a certain amount of useful fuzziness, or looseness. Multiplicity allows everyone to find their own route in. She stresses that, "I don't have a film in my head of this play that I want to make, I want to make it with the people in this room".
It slowly dawns on me, as Sarah outlines the "enormous challenge" of making Streetcar for now and urges that "we have to find a way together", that she really doesn't have a secret road-map in her back pocket. What a massive amount of nerve it must take to step into the unknown with the kinds of budgets and reputations that are at stake in this, already almost sold-out show, which will open the Royal Exchange's 40th Birthday season. I'd read that Sarah likes to work out of her comfort zone – I'm starting to appreciate what that looks like. It's exciting!
Next up, Designer Fly Davis talks us through the model box. Spoiler alert: there are no white, clapboard houses. Without giving too much away, the design is conceived very much as a psychological rather than naturalistic space. This is both an aesthetic choice arising out of Sarah and Fly's creative process, and a practical response to the particularities of Theatre in the Round. Fly highlights how colour will contribute to the symbolic language of the piece, the ways in which making this show post-Katrina has influenced the design and, with Sarah chipping in, clarifies which number exits/entrances will be used. At this point, everyone but the performing company are released.
The remaining twenty or so of us huddle in for a bit more of an intimate chat. Sarah establishes some practical expectations for the cast in regards to rehearsal schedule, pace and line learning. I know that the cast have been asked to be fairly familiar with the script prior to rehearsals. Sarah wants to work quickly and suggests that actors start learning lines before a scene has even been worked on its feet. This is interesting and mildly controversial to me as a common risk with this approach is that actors fix lines, delivering them in a pre-set way before having fully explored the possibilities in rehearsal. I imagine Sarah is well aware of this and is confident that her wider rehearsal process will prevent it. After all, given that the first two weeks of rehearsal are to be spent mainly asking questions, I suspect there will be little room for rigidity.
Company Manager Lee Drinkwater, a man who strikes me as kind of unflappable, human shock absorber, then runs through various practical details such as free gym passes, comp allocations (at a premium on this show) and the important question of the Equity representative, and we all head off for lunch.
Post-lunch, Sarah, the creative team and cast gather round a large, square table for the read-through. Stage Management sits to one side.
One of the questions buzzing round my head from this morning is quickly answered. Sarah has dispensed with most of Williams' lengthy and specific stage directions. This is an interesting learning point. A director who clearly has an enormous respect for the writer's work, is also quite comfortable radically exorcising his stage directions, as well as a substantial chunk of the opening scene. What I take from this, is that directorial respect for literature and the author, is not about slavish adherence to every italic and bracket in the script. It's about understanding the heartbeat of the author and his or her characters, and revealing this afresh to a new audience.
The principals have already been working with a dialect coach. Sarah reveals that she had briefly considered not working with the American accent but quickly decided that Williams' language requires it. She lowers the stakes and reminds everyone that at this stage, "if dialect goes off it really doesn't matter", the main focus is that "we are all hearing the play for the first time".
Different actors approach the read through differently. Although no-one is simply reading, some actors emotionally commit more than others at this stage. It's thrilling to glimpse the relational dynamics emerging between certain characters, whilst also knowing that everyone still has a lot more in the tank. I sense the possibilities of where this could go!
There is so much in this play and as I head home, reflecting on the creative decisions for this particular production of Streetcar, I am really excited about what is going to emerge from the process. I just wish I could observe every minute of it!