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

A Hive of Activity.

I arrive at Swan Street, where the 'Wish List' team have been working together for just over a week now, and the atmosphere has changed completely from the inevitable 'meet and greet' formality of day one. Talk and interaction is relaxed, friendly and humorous and the company dynamic is clearly established. The working day hasn't officially started, but people are already busy, preparing the space or themselves to begin work.

The walls are filled with collages of images from inside the enormous distribution warehouses at the heart of the play, along with maps and photographs of Milton Keynes, where the play is set, and Orwellian motivational statements: 'WORK, ENJOY, PROGRESS', dotted around the room. There is a colourful and complex timeline that not only reflects the action of the play, but also the lives of the characters well before we meet them in Katherine Soper's story. This, in turn, is linked to seismic world events that include the Bosnian war, the invasion of Iraq, the financial crisis and Brexit; as well as marked shifts in social policy and governments of the time.

The space is 'marked up' and a loose version of the set in position, made up of mismatched furniture and standby props, but also working components of the main warehouse packing station that looms large over the lives of the characters. The number of bodies in the room is smaller but (like the world of the play) it still feels like a hive of activity and production. To facilitate his role as sound designer and composer, Giles Thomas has a large area of technical equipment off to one side - already pumping out atmospheric and driving rhythms and musical phrases. On the opposite side of the room Stage Management have their own workstation; ready to be on-hand and diligently hands-on throughout.

Packing it all in (To Tape, or Not to tape?)

Matthew's schedule for the day proposes to cover quite a lot of ground, visiting scenes from over a third of the full script. After a dynamic and competitive group warm-up - in tune with the target driven themes of the play - the morning session is centred on work with Movement Director, Angela Gasparetto, to unpick the mechanics of 'packing' in a warehouse. Angela and Matthew will also spend some time one-on-one with Joseph, the actor playing Dean, to develop the physicality that will underpin his behaviour as someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

There is a lot of physical business to establish with the packing. Angela states that problem solving is key and, within the loose framework of the second scene of the play, the group begin to explore the practical and theatrical possibilities that the set and the packing equipment present. The task for the actors is to build a believable and efficient relationship with their 'packing station', within which the actions and intentions of the characters can be freely explored. Transitions into and out of work are considered, along with the passage of time, as well as interesting and engaging shifts in the rate and flow of work - all underpinned by a relentless sense of urgency. Aesthetic questions are posed around the different physical configurations of the 'packing line' - stage pictures that change the dynamics of the space for both character and audience - and whether specific elements of automation can remain, "Just because they work".

Positive progress is regularly hampered however, by purely practical and technical questions:
"Will the set require pockets and pouches for scanners and tape guns?"
"Where does an item go after scanning... and before packing?"
And the most pressing question of the morning, surrounding parcel tape.
"It's too noisy to use over dialogue."
"It can't only happen between dialogue. The play must happen whilst they're working. What are the options?"
"They will get very efficient at it, so it will become less intrusive."
"We could pre-tape the boxes with double-sided strips, and their job is to remove the backing and press the sides together."
"They could use boxes that fold and lock into place and don't require tape, although they are expensive and will eat into the design budget."
Stage Management have already ordered potentially quieter tape guns and will look into the cost implications of pre-taped and lock-fold boxes, but no final decision can be made today.

It reminds me of how practical and functional the director's role can be, to unpack and reassemble the mechanics of the play, for and with the artistic and technical team. The real skill, so evident in Matthew's oversight of this process though, is the ability to retain clarity, expedience, humour and creativity along the way.

Wish List Rehearsal 12

Working Lunch

I am pleased that my observing day coincides with the weekly production meeting, and I am not surprised to see that Matthew barely skips a beat between rehearsing with the actors and sitting in on this. The need for his input is minimal however, as heads of each different department set out their problems and potential solutions for the days and weeks ahead. The attention to detail and specific nature of each issue is fascinating, and it's interesting to note on a production of this scale and complexity, how often the budget comes up. Many of the technical questions are answered before Matthew needs to contribute, but his final thoughts on the exponential shift from the text, to the reality of production, are telling: "It's a ridiculously busy show", he says, "Not much is written specifically in the text, nothing much prescribed, but in the world we're creating, there's a lot happening."

Table Work

After lunch we head back to the start of the play, concentrating on the relationship between brother and sister, Dean and Tamsin. This begins with a read through and re-questioning of the scene, and a thorough examination of the other end of the phone conversation Tamsin is having with the DWP. There is a great deal of reference to the detailed and forensic analysis that must have taken place during the previous week, with the text broken down into events - key shifts for characters and audience - and the actors having clear ideas about their intentions within these moments. There is no rush with this work however, and its importance is constantly reinforced by the detail of Matthew's questioning, examining the basic logic of the situation and the actions and intentions of the characters, uncovering truthful answers in order that the scene can move on.

In the space, Matthew leads, but Angela is on-hand to feed into Joe's OCD behaviour and the physical proximity of the characters. They play the scene with Matthew reading in the stage directions, to reinforce the prescribed action of the play, and Monique, Matthew's assistant director, reads in the other side of the DWP conversation. The scene is played again without this technical layer, and then again, in a very stop-start fashion, with Matthew inserting ever simpler, more practical questions, to test the basic logic of the scene and the moments. Like the morning session, it is technical to begin with, but you can see the benefit of the background work, and it comes into it's own when the actors begin to find space within that clear, logical framework, for sensitive connection and shifts in rhythm and intensity that will inevitably draw the audience in.

Throughout the day I have managed to piece together a rough idea of what I must have missed over the past week, and when we finish, I am fortunate enough to catch up with Matthew for a recap. What he tells me about week one is, for me, the most useful thing to take away from the day. I am amazed to learn that he didn't actually 'rehearse' anything at all during that first week - a clear statement of intent and commitment to research and analysis of the text and the world of the play - and a bold choice during a relatively short three-week rehearsal period.

We talk about the importance of moving into the second week with a clear blueprint for what sits underneath the text. Matthew had already done a great deal of work establishing the basic facts and generating questions to examine the play with the team before rehearsals begin. They had read through the play again, but now they renamed scenes with more substantial and meaningful titles than 'Scene One', worked out the 'events' of play, looking for natural and clear units of action - the shifts that we need to signal to the audience that something is changing, and that will eventually manifest in shifts in voice, movement, lights and sound. All the while, Matthew stressed to the team that "Nothing can be invented at this point, there is no room for conjecture".

They examined the environment and the scale of experience for the characters in the play: the flat, the warehouse, Milton Keynes - reminding the actors how limited the characters lives can be. They watched documentaries on OCD and Amazon, broke down and listed the roles within the warehouse and the peculiarities of that particular debilitating condition. They created the timeline, inventing a back-story against the true timeline of play, and included real world events, noting where to draw parallels. Borrowing from Stanislavski and Mike Alfreds, they made lists about their characters and how other characters see them, and distilled these into three simple positive and negative statements about themselves, from which short improvisations and interactions were explored. It's clear that the depth of this contextual/exploratory work sets a tone of positive interrogation and understanding that enables the actors to move freely, from a grounded and reliable understanding of their world, their character and their relationships, into the more creative and expressive aspects of rehearsal.

Matthew's talks about the engineering of the set and the complexity of the props being what keeps him awake at night. We talk about the staging of the play being 'open to interpretation' as Katherine states, but how this first incarnation of a play is like drawing a line in the sand, for every production after to be compared and contrasted - "It could be staged in a bare space, with the floor taped out and the actors miming everything, but that's not the play I want to see" he says.

Reading Matthew's CV reveals a commitment to directing socially engaged work, whether that's about mental health, race, or social inclusion. What is also clearly important for Matthew on Wish List though, as well as serving the content and themes of the play, is his responsibility to Katherine during this first production of her first major piece of work - to guide her through and safeguard her experience of this - and I admire this generous and bold approach.


WISH LIST RUNS

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE 24 SEPTEMBER - 15 OCTOBER 2016
ROYAL COURT THEATRE 10 JANUARY - 11 FEBRUARY 2017