As 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. The Mighty Walzer is being observed by director Caroline Kennedy.
Table tennis players........ASSEMBLE!
Firstly, I just want to highlight what a brilliant opportunity this scheme is, so thanks to the Royal Exchange for giving us early career directors the opportunity to have this rare chance to step into someone else’s rehearsal room and see how they work (and most definitely pinch their strategies).
The Mighty Walzer is adapted for stage from the novel written by Howard Jacobson. The playwright is Simon Bent and it is directed by Jonathan Humphreys. This is why I love new writing – all of these people are actually here in the room on the first day. Nobody has performed this play before, there is nothing to compare the performance to which I think is a total gift. This is one of the reasons I wanted to observe this production, also the fact it’s a local story really draws me in because I know the places and the areas of Manchester that are mentioned – I think that appeals to an audience too. My main reason for choosing this production though is Jonathan himself. He made his West End debut as a director at the age of 22 – that is pretty impressive. I’m now on the wrong side of 30 and only just put enough faith in myself over the past year that I have what it takes to be a director professionally – I’m hoping some of Jonathan’s skills rub off on me!
So today is officially the first day......but not really, there has been quite a lengthy process already to get to where we are today on day one of rehearsals. There have been drafts, rehearsed readings, more drafts, more readings and so on.
We start with the meet and greet and the room is full! We meet staff members from all departments round the building, everyone seems to be buzzing about the show. I guess it’s like having a new baby, everyone wants to protect it, nurture it and watch it grow!
My aims for the day – observe, absorb, ask questions when I can and don’t draw attention to myself. I achieved these.....on the most part.
The cast and crew are now invited over to the box model. Designer James Cotterill explained the concept, showed us all the aspects and ended by saying ‘light on its feet is the order of the day’. When we read the script this made even more sense to me. It’s cool and clever and not too much going on which is important for this performance.
Time for the table read. Now, I have read the novel but I haven’t yet seen the script so I have no idea what I’m about to hear. The dialogue is brilliant, the pace is perfect, it’s fast, like a table tennis match and it has the same rhythm. And it is funny, dry, witty – right up my street. I was so engrossed in the story that we were on page 40 before I realised there are no scenes, it’s written in two acts – this gives you some idea of the flow of the performance, it never stops!
The cast then have the opportunity to have a chat with Howard to understand the world of the play. He talks about the markets and the places he would go to as a boy. He told us about the people the characters were based on, how they fitted into his life and some chance encounters he had with them many years later. I must point out that the story is not autobiographical but there is a lot of truth in it. The cast are really lucky to have this opportunity and they make the most of it, asking questions about their characters to help them understand them better which will feed into the way that they play them.
I had a few opportunities to speak with Jonathan when we were changing tasks which was great. He has such an open and relaxed manner and has made me feel extremely welcome. I get an opportunity to tell him what I really want to learn about when I’m there – which is the communication between actor and director. My experience is mainly in the participatory side of things which is a completely different process as there are many factors to consider besides the performance you are making. I’m keen to see how he gets the best out of the actors, changes things, challenges things and realises his vision on stage.
Now, into the rehearsal room comes David from Stockport Table Tennis Club. He’s the head coach and he means business. He’s here to teach he cast how to look like professional table tennis players – he says you can spot an amateur from quite some distance. No ready stance – amateur. Left arm swinging – amateur. It all starts with the way you hold the bat. The cast are quite excited by this section of the day and quite rightly so – its fun! Now, this is purely speculation on my part.........but I have to say, I think a couple of these cast members have been brushing up on their table tennis skills before today.
The cast are off for a singing call and thus ends my day. As I try to leave without disturbing anyone, I trip over David’s box of ping pong balls and knock them all over the floor. Smooth. So as I said, my aims were achieved on the most part!