DanielJohnston

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 WIT observing director Daniel Johnston

The part where I begin the blog?:

Let me start this off by saying, I’m not a blogger.  That’s not to say I don’t think deeply about processes such as this, it’s just that my thoughts and notes usually remain confined to a brightly coloured neon notebook with bite marks all over it, which only I look back on weeks, months or years later.  So I’ll do my best to translate this process to a state readable to others.  Finally, being that as of yet I have not been given any specific guidelines for this blog, following and excluding this loquacious preamble, I will endeavour to keep my entries short and devoid of as much exposition as I possible.  If I fail to do this, I will simply refer you to the immortal words of Blaise Pascal, “I am sorry to have wearied you with such a long letter but I did not have time to write you a short one.”

I’ve never been a fan of the chronological layout in writings that involve recounting.  Even with biographies (auto and otherwise) I’ve always gravitated to the ones that were thematically structured as opposed to the linear.  Therefore in this vein I shall write in the only way I know how, a scattering of thoughts centred around a central theme. 

This weeks theme was formed by something the plays designer Hannah Clark, remarked when taking the company through the model set and design concept.  She said that the idea was to make it “more real than reality”.  I don’t know whether or not it was just an off the hand remark or whether it is a guiding force in her and director Raz Shaw’s concept for the play, but it stuck with me nonetheless and became the fundamental principle that stood out for rest of the day. 

The statement at first could be seen to be paradoxical and indeed in many ways it is, but what really resonated for me was the way it seemed to embody exactly what I value in the theatre and what I think is so essential to highlight in this play.  The theatre itself is not natural or real.  In fact it is about as artificial a situation as you can create.  A complete abstraction of real life.  Yet in order for it to be great, I believe people must be taken to a place that ‘feels real’, more real than reality as it were.

WITJulieHes

What the writer of this play, Margaret Edson, was able to capture so eloquently when she wrote this play over twenty years ago was what it feels like to be in the mind and world of this character going through aggressive treatment for stage four ovarian cancer.  Nothing about this play is particularly naturalistic.  In fact it’s main character itself as well as the plays inherent style seems to be unapologetically theatrical.  Which leads me to wonder if this isn’t the very thing that makes it so effective, so real.  A fact that I suspect Raz and the entire creative team are keenly aware of. 

Although it has only been one day, this notion of ‘more real than reality’ seems to be embedded in ever aspect of the production.  Apart from the mornings introductions and first read through, the lion’s share of the rehearsal day was taken up with movement direction guided by Georgina Lamb. 

At first it would seem that Georgina’s exercises and team games were simply to build a sense of team and ensemble trust for the acting company, which it definitely did, however it soon became apparent that these games were leading to a more practical result as well, to do with the plays movement and choreography.  She began by working with the actors on a number of fun awareness and team building games ranging from different types of “Tag” to “Simon Says” scenarios, gradually warming the actors up and keeping things fun, but all the while moving towards and eventual introduction of the stage props.  For those of you who don’t know this play, it is set almost entirely in a hospital, so the props in this case were a range of beds, chairs carts and IV stands all on wheels along with various other items like bedpans and charts. 

What began as a set of games passing balls to each other and staying in even numbers gradually became a finely tuned ballet of medical equipment and staff going about their daily rounds.  I imagine like many institutions and organizations, hospitals have an inherent rhythm, especially in crisis and code.  Everyone knows their job and it’s like a morbid dance. It was amazing to see this evolution right before my eyes and just like that the, day’s theme was right before me again.  By approaching this seemingly pedestrian aspect of hospital life like it were a dance, accompanied by Mark Melville’s eerie composition, the inherent essence of a hospital ward is captured and we are transported into a world that is more real than reality.  What could be a boring and blasé imitation of ‘real life’ instead becomes a morbid, haunting dance both beautiful and terrifyingly graceful like the ethereal gliding of death, (Jesus Dan, chill out with the adjectives.) and from this we then begin to understand the true mercurial nature and organized chaos of a hospital ward from the perspectives of those in it. 

Now that’s not to say this is what we would see whenever we walk into a hospital.  Were you to walk in to a hospital and observe it at work right now, it probably won’t have the same feeling, because you’d be an outsider, unable to empathize .  But what the theatre can do is bring people in to these subjective experiences and bring the story in to their hearts so they empathize, so that the audience feels like it is them in the story at each moment.  Like it’s happening with them in it, they are part of it, they can feel the sweat beads down their forehead as a wet behind the ears doctor or can experience, in a safe way, the powerlessness of a strong charismatic person being crippled by the weight of stage four ovarian cancer.  As John Patrick Shanley said, “Theatre is a safe place to do the unsafe things that need to be done.” and I believe this to be true for audiences and actors alike. 

WITRazShawOther things I’ve learnt today that I can’t segue to smoothly:

  • Being in an artificial space of the theatre, perhaps it is best to recognize this as opposed to hiding it.  It is like Brecht surmised, why bother trying to trick anyone.  Instead, use and embrace the unreality to reveal a truth and reality more truthful and real than our regular life experiences.
  • Seeing Georgina and the actors at work reminded me of a quote by Michael Caine - “I heard a director say, ‘I need a butcher in this part.’  Someone suggested he get a real butcher who knew how to cut up meat.  The director answered, ‘If I’ve got a good actor, I’ve got a real butcher.  if I’ve got a real butcher, the minute I put him in front of the camera, he’s stiff and I’ve got a bad actor’ ”  That is to highlight once more that being ‘real’ or natural in art is not enough.  All art requires some degree of artifice and unreality and it is by embracing these very limitations as qualities that we are able to transcend the banal theatrical equivalence of a car park security camera. 
  • Raz introduced the idea of each actor reading out their own character’s stage directions by replacing their character’s name with ‘I’.  I absolutely loved this idea, it was so simple yet effective and, as someone who is very much a stickler for the text including the importance of stage directions, struck a perfect middle ground for me.  It rectified a part of the usual read through process that I’ve always felt was lacking but was never sure how to fix.  Although maybe a little uncomfortable at first, by doing this the actors are able to own those parts of the script that are unspoken through dialogue but are integral to their understanding and embodying of the character’s intentions and behaviours. 
  • I am definitely hiring a movement director for my next production.

Things I’m gonna steal:

  • Raz introduced the idea of each actor reading out their own character’s stage directions by replacing their character’s name with ‘I’.  I absolutely loved this idea, it was so simple yet effective and, as someone who is very much a stickler for the text including the importance of stage directions, struck a perfect middle ground for me.  It rectified a part of the usual read through process that I’ve always felt was lacking but was never sure how to fix.  Although maybe a little uncomfortable at first, by doing this the actors are able to own those parts of the script that are unspoken through dialogue but are integral to their understanding and embodying of the character’s intentions and behaviours. 
  • I am definitely hiring a movement director for my next production. 

The part where I write the end of the blog?

So I think I spoke a little too soon at the start.  I did desperately try to keep the words down I promise.  To conclude, I want to point out how grateful I am to be part of this process and observe such a fabulous team at work.  The sheer scale of this production is overwhelming and to have an opportunity like this to see how all the different creative roles work together is a truly unique opportunity.  Finally I would like to thank some of the people so far who have welcomed me in to the process and been so kind an humble including the cast, Esh Alladi, Niki Angus Campbell, Okorie Chukwu, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Tom Hodgkins, Haruka Kuroda, Julie Legrand and Jenny Platt and a very special thanks to Raz Shaw and Kate Colgrave-Pope.  Can’t wait till next week!