OBSERVER MONDAYS DIRECTOR TESS FARLEY TELLS US OF DAY ONE IN THE REHEARSAL ROOM FOR KATHERINE SOPER'S WISH LIST, DIRECTED BY MATTHEW XIA

I take a deep breath. Walk purposefully into the Green Room with a fixed smile, ignoring the flutters of anticipation in my gut. I remind myself I won't be the only one with first day nerves. I stop, take in the room, search for a familiar face. Not finding one, I bound with all the 'grace' and enthusiasm of a puppy in the direction of a cluster of people I really hope turn out to be the Wish List company. It's too late to be cautious now. Luckily my instincts are correct and there's no need to awkwardly extricate myself from the situation. I shake hands with the assistant director, the cast of four actors, the DSM, the company manager and a fellow observing director. We talk excitedly about what this first day might entail. Guesses at what the set design might be like dominate the conversation. We've all been curious to see what Designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita has come up with. Katherine Soper's stage directions simultaneously present a challenge and a creative blessing for a designer and stage management team. You'll see what I mean when you watch the show...

Before long Royal Exchange Associate Artistic Director and Director of Wish List, Matthew Xia, makes his entrance: all smiles and a calm, quiet confidence. We head upstairs to the rehearsal room. And so it begins...

MEET AND GREET

I'm caught off guard to enter a rehearsal room containing around twenty more people. When you work predominantly in participatory arts or on smaller scale productions, it's easy to forget that the production team for a Bruntwood Prize winning play at a flagship producing house is going to be sizable. I spot playwright Katherine Soper across the room, recognising her from the numerous photographs circulated in the media. The buzz of anticipation laced chit-chat fills the room as designers, costume, the stage management team, producers, the new writing associate, marketing, the cast and directors linger around its fringes. I take a sneak peak at the model box, intending to make it discreet. I'm so impressed I end up throwing caution to the wind and examining it with scrutiny. A wave of excitement washes over me as Matthew unceremoniously announces that we're about to make a start. I feel lucky to be a fly on the wall.

WishListModelBox

We introduce ourselves with names and roles before Matthew talks us through Ana's design, mostly explaining the logistics. I am impressed by the solutions the set design offers to the operational challenges the script presents. Ana's design sits in a realm somewhere between abstract and naturalistic. This suits the themes in the play well. I'm excited to see how set design merges with performance choices and the sound and lighting design as rehearsals progress. Soper's play examines our attitudes to work and health, the rituals we follow in order to survive, the transactions that dominate our worlds. Ana's design provides a world that will allow Matthew, the cast and creative team licence to express these themes, as they make discoveries in the rehearsal room in the weeks to come.

THE PLAY

Model box chat being over, Suzanne Bell, New Writing Associate, talks to us about her journey with Wish List: from sitting on the panel for the Bruntwood Prize, to working closely with Katherine to develop the play. What's brilliant about the anonymity in submissions for the Bruntwood Prize, she reflects, are that all preconceptions are removed. Excluding Suzanne, none of the panelists knew anything about the identity of the playwrights whose work they were tasked with judging. The panelists referred to Katherine as 'he', speculated excitedly that the writer of this play, this script that deals so eloquently and delicately with such provocative and urgent subject matter, seemed to be an older, experienced writer. Knowledgeable about politics, maybe with a political career. How refreshing then, that the writer turned out to be female and under the age of thirty. That Wish List was her dissertation piece for her Masters degree. The 'quiet craft' that Nicholas Hytner describes, the 'compassion', came from a young, passionate voice. An aspiring playwright who had worked hard to hone her craft through training. The message is clear: the value in young and diverse voices is indisputable. As Matthew puts it 'this play could have been written tomorrow'.

READ THROUGH

The wider production team retreat to their own domains to work on schedules, measurements, marketing and programmes as the cast, creative team and stage management team settle around the table for a first read-through. The anticipation is palpable. Matthew soothes the tension with a disclaimer that performances are not expected. The cast don't make committed performance choices, but they show professionalism, preparation. They throw themselves into it, allowing themselves to read with feeling without considering performing too carefully. It's easy to get a sense of the possibilities, the unfolding dynamics and rhythms, the chemistry between them. Even in this first read through, emotions are tangible. At times the room erupts with laughter. At others I want to cry. The issues that this play deals with are very real. I've worked with young people for over ten years, both in the arts and in the public sector. I know these stories. I'm struck by the power this play has to humanise subject matter that is often presented in the media in statistics. Statistics are impressive, often shocking, but this play shows us, sensitively, what these stats actually mean. By examining these issues on a micro scale, we are able to see cause and effect. Exploring how a zero hours contract and how being unable to work, but turned down for ESA, affects someone's life in detail hits home in a way that watching a politician make light of it - leaning, cock-sure against the dispatch box and dodging questions - never will.

After lunch we discuss the read through. Matthew and the actors are full of questions for Katherine. We briefly touch on the backstories of the characters. Matthew informs us we'll make a time line of events in the coming weeks. This helps the actors to realise their world, to make informed performance choices, to understand their characters, their motivations and circumstances better. All of this will support explorations in the rehearsal room. Ultimately those explorations translate into the messages actors send us through choices as subtle as a reaction, to stressing a certain word, to moving in a certain way, to the length of a pause. All of this is yet to be discovered.

Katherine has done her research, as has Matthew. When you're dealing with weighty subject matter including the welfare system and zero hours contract warehouse jobs, accuracy is crucial. We spend the rest of the afternoon researching and discussing benefits jargon and the welfare system; how confusing and challenging it can be to navigate. We talk statistics. We look at terminology, targets and disciplinary actions in zero hours agency jobs. We watch documentaries, read articles. It's important that the cast and creative team explore and get to grips with the complex realm of terminology, endless forms, medical assessments, targets, evidence, instability, ticking clocks and overwhelming pressure they're about to enter. Point scoring is pivotal in this world. When a point is given, or not given, the results can be devastating. Points can mean the difference between survival and failure. Life and death.

As we wrap things up for the day, I'm left thinking about the cold face of consumerism, about the affect on those most vulnerable. In particular, about how the system can fail young people. This is often underexposed in the media. The compassion and dedication to this story, not just from Katherine, but from every person in the room, is bolstering. I've heard Matthew describe directing as being like a shaman: I rather like this analogy. Even just after this first day, I can see that he's generous in the rehearsal room. Directing isn't about dictating: it's about facilitating an environment where creatives collaborate to tell a story which deserves to be heard, needs to be heard. That merger of ideas, the clash of creative input from everyone involved, is how we take that story and make it come alive. I'm already hooked, and it feels weird that I'll be working on a different project tomorrow, not joining rehearsal again for another week. I can't wait to see how things have progressed when I'm next in the room.


WISH LIST runs
Royal Exchange Theatre 24 September - 15 October 2016
Royal Court Theatre 10 January - 11 February 2017