As I meander up Swan Street to The Royal Exchange’s Studio space, I can’t quite believe how quickly this rehearsal process has flown by: we’re now entering week three, our final week of rehearsals before tech week.
Week one was spent almost entirely doing table work, splitting each scene into units and beats, discussing intentions, completing timelines, exploring backstories and researching. Week two was a mixture of further table work, trying each scene on its feet, more table work and work on movement. I’ve not before witnessed such a heavy and exclusive emphasis on table work in the first week of a rehearsal process. Looking back I’m not sure what I was expecting. Unlike classic or revived texts, new work is uncharted territory. Table work is crucial in any rehearsal process, but it’s especially important with new writing. I’m about to see how it’s paid off.
I wonder what the calls will be today, how the work on it’s feet will have changed, how the cast’s performances will have developed. How will the dynamics between them, the pace and shape of each scene (including many I haven’t yet seen on their feet), the stakes and the interaction with the set and the seemingly endless props in this production have evolved?
I know the cast will have spent time working with movement director Angela Gasparetto over this past week. I’m intrigued to see how this has influenced they way they tell us stories with their bodies and our subsequent understanding of their characters. Storytelling in theatre starts with the words spoken. We spend hours analysing the choice of a word, what a character is doing to another character, what they want. But, just as in real life, we communicate this meaning not in the words spoken, but in how the words are spoken, in the words not spoken, the spaces between words and with our bodies. The tension in a jaw line, the proximity of characters, a touch, a gaze, a meeting of eyes or an aversion of eye contact, the impetus to move, the reason for movement, the way we move and the way we hold emotion in our bodies brings a story to life, allows an audience to take meaning from it. Movement is especially important in Wish List. Dean’s movement in particular tells us more than his words ever will. Before we can explore movement, textual analysis is vital. To tell a story effectively, the cast must have a full grasp on why they’re telling that story, the nuance and the complexity of emotions they are feeling at any given time. Without this preparation the story would be hazy, undefined. Directing a play is like completing a 3D Jigsaw puzzle. You start with a complete 2D image of the entire thing. You analyse each separate bit, look at how and where it fits. Then, you begin the process of piecing it all back together. You experiment, until it comes to life in three dimensions.
My thoughts are interrupted when I bump into Caoimhe, Stage Manager, outside. She helpfully updates me on what I’ve missed - all scenes are now on their feet and roughly blocked. There was a stagger through on Saturday; things are starting to take shape. As I enter the rehearsal room I see new bits of mock up set, a plethora of props, new areas marked up on the stage. Sound Designer and composer Giles Thomas sits in a corner, surrounded by keyboard, amp and two macs. He intently stares at waves on his sound design software, headphones drowning out the cheers and shouts as the cast play their usual warm up game, ‘Woosh’. I’m curious to hear Giles's work, get a sense of his approach to sound design. Sound Design, being only relatively recently recognised as on par with lighting or set design artistically (in the context of theatre’s long history), encompasses much more than just making a phone ring, or filling a scene change with pretty music. A sound designer's approach is often dramaturgical: being in the rehearsal room is key to that artistic process. Sound design supports the action on stage, heightens emotion and anchors key moments. Our experience as an audience isn’t just visual, theatre appeals to all of the senses.
Meanwhile, the cheers reach fever pitch as Erin (Tamsin), Joe (Dean), Monique (Assistant Director) and Matthew reach a new top score with their ball game. To anyone who doesn’t work in theatre, the idea of spending working time playing ball games would seem absurd. It strikes me as a far cry from the world of work we explore in Wish List, although like some of the themes explored in the play, ball game warm ups are somewhat of a ritual. Despite appearances, the ritual in playing these games helps the cast not only to warm their bodies up, but to think and act as an ensemble, to gel, to work generously within their team. This is crucial on stage.
Only half of the cast, Erin and Joe, have been called this morning. The aim is to work on the scenes they share together, as brother and sister, Tamsin and Dean. We start by looking at Scene 11, the final scene. Briefly revisiting the table, Matthew reminds us of the units agreed for the scene, informs Erin and Joe that he won’t infringe rules upon them, there is only one rule for the scene. Before long Erin and Joe are on their feet. I haven’t watched this scene on its feet before, but even the first time it’s run, I can see the benefits of the table work and focus on movement. After the first run, Matthew feeds back ‘the shape of that was great’. I agree, and I can see how intensive table work has allowed Erin and Joe to understand the arc of the scene and translate it effectively. Matthew gives notes following Saturday’s stagger through. It strikes me as helpful to give (or to remind of) notes in this way. After re-familiarising themselves with a scene, notes are then fresh in the minds of the cast as they develop that scene, work on the detail. This proves to be effective, as Matthew, Erin and Joe are able to quickly find solutions to bits that didn’t feel quite right.
We then run scene 9, skipping scene 10 and running straight into scene 11. This cuts out time where Tamsin and Dean have been apart and brings a new energy, a sense of urgency, to the scene. That energy is then harnessed for the opening of the scene, as Matthew works with Erin and Joe on changing the tone as the scene progresses. Experimenting in this way allows the cast to explore differing dynamics, paces and tensions. This means Matthew and the cast can pick and mix the bits that felt right, merging them together to allow the shifts in energy needed for the scene. The nuance in this scene is important; we end in a very different state to one we started in. It’s the end of the play, it needs to be powerful, but there isn’t the same sense of urgency as at the top of the scene. As I watch the scene play out, I try not to well up. The power in this play isn’t aggressive, it’s gentle. Real. The humanity and the compassion in moments of silence, in small gestures, is what makes this play potent. To see this final scene in three dimensions, with rough edits of Giles's sound design, reinforces why Wish List won the Bruntwood prize. I want the young people I work with to see it, because I know many will relate. I want the world to see it, because it’s urgent. Because this is a story that needs attention.
After lunch we visit some of the earlier scenes, using the same recipe of revisiting the scene at the table, to running it on its feet, to notes, unpicking and looking at units, specific performance choices and blocking in more detail. Sometimes Matthew asks the cast play out units in slow motion. This helps to solidify blocking, intentions and the mechanics of a scene. At other times we pause to work out logistics with props and stage directions.
Mid afternoon, Alex (The Lead) and Shaquille (Luke) join us. We revisit scene 2, which we spent much of last Monday working on. Again, I’m impressed with how it’s developed. This is a challenging scene for the cast, they have endless props to grapple with, movements and complex actions to fulfil alongside their line delivery. There are still details to refine, further props to get used to, but the scene is starting to take shape and the cast are now conquering the challenge of balancing complex action alongside finding the pace and energy in the scene.
As we end the day, I wish I could observe every second. I’m full of anticipation and excitement for tech week. There is still much work to be done, details to be ironed out, discoveries to be made. But it’s developing beautifully and I can’t wait to see how it’s looking in a week’s time. I consider Matthew’s presence in the rehearsal room. Like this play, it is powerful, but gentle. I’ve watched the way he interacts with different actors, who always have their own approach and way of working. It can be easy for a director to demand his team mould to his way of working, but since Matthew describes directing as being shamanistic, I wasn’t expecting to see a dictatorial directing style, and I’ve not been disappointed. My own directing style is gentle, non dictatorial. I’ve often worried that this is the ‘wrong’ approach. But through observing Matthew, I can see his way of working brings the team together, whilst allowing his cast to find their own way into their performances. Similarly, the creative and stage management team have their own styles of working. What makes Matthew’s approach successful, I reflect, is the balance between process and generosity, the balance between knowing when to make a decision or a suggestion and in allowing his team to make their own discoveries. When we merge those discoveries, we often end up with something very special. I feel there is much I can learn from, but I’m reassured that I don’t need to change my own style of directing to hone my craft. The production that’s starting to take shape is very special indeed.