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.

Here is the first blog from THE ROLLING STONE observing director Monique Touko.

There's an old African saying - Wisdom does not come overnight.


The idea of the audience seeing a finished product which is worked, polished and built in such a technical and thoroughly processed way is what I observed from the very start in the first rehearsal. This brought the word ‘depth’ to mind. My first insight into this was provided by the assistant director Charlotte Lewis, who kindly met me before the rehearsal to explain to me the work done before the first rehearsal. At that point I began to understand the level of preparation involved when staging a performance. After the brief, I went through with Charlotte what I wanted to gain from the experience, she jotted them down and went through them one by one giving me advice and words of wisdom. One of them being, I wanted to fully understand the difference between the amateur and professional level when putting on a piece of theatre.

Fiston Barek as Dembe in THE ROLLING STONE by Chris Urch Royal Exchange Theatre until 1 May. Photo - Jonathan KeenanWeek one, I learnt that there is a marked difference. For example the level of scrutiny at professional level needed from the beginning of the process which includes vast planning, preparation and scheduling. As I was speaking to Charlotte, behind us in the green room, two women were across the table from one another engaged in a rather intense discussion. I couldn't help but notice that one of them was Ellen McDougall, the director. As we made our way up to the rehearsal room, the cast began to appear and I was introduced. They were all welcoming, inquisitive and intrigued by my presence in the rehearsal room. Charlotte explained that I was on the Observer Monday’s scheme and there were smiles all round and at that point I really began to relax. I spent the day sitting next to the DSM, Sarah, who was insightful and constantly occupied whether it was emails, timetables or ensuring things were in place, Sarah's constant tasks were another reminder of the work involved when putting together a professional production.

The one person I did not expect to see was Chris Urch, the writer of THE ROLLING STONE, who was there in the rehearsal room as a voice of clarity, who injected humour into the rehearsal room continuously throughout the day. Chris’ presence really highlighted for me the importance of the intention not only of the director but of the writer especially in new writing. He really aided the actors in understanding the nature of their relationships and explained the importance of certain lines to the narrative. At the start of the day, Ellen spoke to the cast in a huddle and broke down what the plan of the day was and what she wanted to achieve. It was apparent that Ellen already had established a relationship with each of the actors. The feeling of a new beginning was obvious in the room, the notion that a process was getting underway and an untold narrative was going to unfold was inspiring to observe.

The first initial task was with Charlotte, the assistant director, and the cast sat round the table going through the changes in the script and everyone had pens at the ready. The task became a collaborative effort as Chris asked the cast if the changes felt right, and simultaneously Ellen provided a context linking the scenes together and ensuring the cast understood the changes. Awareness of space, location and setting was something I also observed during week one. This was achieved by building the locations of each scene. Stimuli such as internet images and pre-drawn maps were used as a way to spark creativity. To evidence depth, the visual makeup being explored at such an early stage allowed questions of place and time to be generated. Depth again comes into play as the actors as a group were asked to build each set using items in the rehearsal room. The notion of stretching the actors and sparking their imagination was achieved by Ellen from the get go.

l-r Sule Rimi as Joe and Fiston Barek as Dembe in THE ROLLING STONE by Chris Urch Royal Exchange Theatre until 1 May. Photo - Jonathan KeenanIn the exercise, the team were taking into consideration: distance, practicality of movement in the scene, the space in relation to other scenes. For each scene, a detailed mapping out of the space was accomplished so the actors were aware visually and spatially as a way of fully understanding the plot. Ellen continuously asked probing questions to ensure every aspect of the set was considered to achieve its accurate geography. Aspects such as weather and time of day were considered, Ellen’s meticulous ability to build a world applicable to Chris’ text was apparent from the start.

Depth and awareness was demonstrated to me most clearly by Ellen's push to establish the world not during but before the action of The Rolling Stone begins. She ensured that the backstory was not done in isolation but a collaborative effort throughout the day using a large timeline. The actors were asked to run the scenes and I was exposed to a professional level of acting which I found thoroughly engaging. One of the lessons I would take, is the mixture of table work and practical work from the start resulted in the rehearsal not being static but constantly in motion with ideas accumulating left, right and centre. I could tell this was only a glimpse of what was to come and I was left curious. 

THE ROLLING STONE  runs in The Theatre from 21 April - 1 May. It runs in reportoire with ANNA KARENINA, which runs in The Theatre until Sat 2 May.