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 second blog from WIT observing director Daniel Johnston

The One Where Shit Gets Deep/I Do My Best to Segue Effectively/I Abandon All Efforts at Brevity

After a break over Christmas it is time to start again.  The aim this week, according to Raz, is to get the whole show on it’s feet before the new year after a week or so of table work.  The rehearsals this week are taking place in Swan Street studios where the entire revolve set for the show has been built in already and is ready to use.  What is most impressive about the revolve is it’s scale, which takes up almost the entire space, juxtaposed against the intimate mood it seems to illicit.  What is clear from seeing this part of the set in person is that it is not just a gimmick, this has been thought out with very clear intentions about how it will support and serve the story in an emotional way.  It’s aim is not to be impressive but useful and tell parts of the story that the acting, lights and sound alone cannot do and what I am gradually gaining more of an appreciation for is theatre’s ability, like film, to utilise it’s different creative elements and areas to enhance and tell the story in an entirely unique way.  It is the theatrical equivalence between setting up a camera in a single spot and filming a scene as opposed to dividing up the scene in to separate shots and moments, each one pulling in or pushing away from the actors in different ways to emphasise aspects of the story that are essential for that particular moment.  It is clear to me which one is the wiser choice and in this case it is like getting to enter in to the mind of Vivian and feel what she is feeling in the most intimate way.  Aha, there it is, looks like we have our theme for this week, intimacy.

What stands out most for me this week while observing rehearsals is the intimacy of this play.  Not only is this clear on the rehearsal room floor, but also in the break room when every has their tea breaks. As I sit back and quietly observe the team on their tea breaks I begin to see just how close the themes of this play hit home to everyone and I mean everyone.  There doesn’t seem to be a single person involved in the production who hasn’t in some way been touched by cancer in their lives in a direct and personal way.  It is overwhelming and terrifying.  The stories begin to trickle out, not in outpourings of histrionics, but the subtle intimations of people who have felt the wounds too keenly to make hay of it.  Gently and gradually everyone from the stage managers to the actors, designers and director begin to share moments, just moments that they can recall that link them to the world of the play.  Things as subtle yet world shattering as the smell of the waiting rooms to the absurdity of being faced with a real life DNR (Do not resuscitate) form.  There’s no way to avoid it with this play, it is intimate. 

It seems unlikely from the obvious and visible talent and skill of all these people involved, that each of them was chosen from their connections to the play though the thought has certainly crossed my mind.  In some cases I suspect the connections to be conscious choices for example in the case of Esh Alladi, who is himself a doctor in real life and has worked in oncology wards.  His command of medical terminology and the intricate effects each medical procedure or biological process makes the idea of having a dramaturg seem grossly insufficient.  There is so much to be said for this lived experience that I wonder how one would do this part justice without having 6-8 years of medical training behind him. 

The most obvious candidate for his connection to the play would of course be the the director Raz himself.  Having not only survived cancer himself years ago but having also just recently written his book, recounting the experience and his subsequent experience since, entitled ‘Death and the Elephant – How Cancer Saved My Life’, his visceral connection to the play would make you think he’d be understandably but perhaps detrimentally protective of it.  However this is not the case.  His perspective of it and the 20 years that have passed since his experience have clearly imbued him with a calm and appreciation around the subject that opens the conversation up to everyone.  Despite both the single character focus style of the piece and the depth of his own lived experience, Raz keeps the play as a dialogue, always inviting input from his actors and phrasing everything as a question.  He seems to have no desire to push his own agenda on anyone which is both impressive and admirable. 

The best way I can emphasise this point about intimacy, in both the rehearsals and the script itself, is by trying to describe the idiosyncratic coded language that the team has formulated in the mere three days rehearsal I was away for.  The code is divided into A,B,C and D with each letter pertaining to a different mental and/or metaphysical state surrounding Vivian’s dialogue.  Whether she is talking to the playwright herself, to the audience, in the future from some state following her death, or within the direct imaginary world of the play itself.  To be honest I couldn’t crack it.  It was like listening to my friends discuss the world of professional football and having no idea what the hell was going on.  But what’s clear is that everyone else does.  Each intention and moment of the play is divided in to one of these states and although the code definitions themselves are unclear to me, the effect is palpable, with each moment becoming emotionally and intellectually distilled.

Finally without any intention to resort to histrionics myself nor highlight myself in any way, but simply to emphasise my point on the effect this play has on people reading in and what I am sure will come from people seeing it, I have decided to share part of the cover letter that enabled me to witness this fantastic process in the first place.  My intention was certainly never to have it witnessed publicly so please do forgive it’s intimate nature.

My mother gave me a copy of Wit for my birthday many years ago now.  It was quite a moving moment at that time in my life because it was the first time anyone in my family had ever gotten me a present that had to do with theatre.  I remember looking at the cover of the play reading all about it, being impressed by how well thought out the gift was and what a great play my mother had chosen to give me.  At the same time the first thing I saw was the picture of a 50 something year old woman with no hair, wearing a baseball cap.  I say the gift moved me, but perhaps for more reasons than I could grasp at the time.  Thus the gift remained on my bookshelf for many years after, cherished, but untouched and unread.

My mother was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma when I was in my final year of high school.  I watched as my family slowly crumbled and fell apart in the years leading up to her diagnosis and through her treatment; seeing the strongest person I knew, who'd already come through more hardship than anyone else I knew, become weak and feeble, losing her hair and at many times her mind.  I also watched her come through it as an even more powerful and resilient force than I had thought possible.  It reinforced in me the naive and childish notion that my mother was in fact so strong, that nothing could happen to her that she couldn't handle.  I believed that because I had to believe that and despite seeing the obvious contradictions between this belief and my logical and rational understandings of life and death I have continued believing that in some way or another ever since.  In short, ever since day one, the very thought of this play has terrified me. 

When I was preparing to apply to this program and I saw this play as an option, I immediately began researching the director, Raz Shaw.  Seeing his story alone convinced me that I wanted to be in this rehearsal room.  I want to witness this story come to life from someone who knows the intimate inner world of this story and I want to see how an experienced director like Raz will do this.  

This is an unique opportunity and one that I deeply wish to be selected for.  I hope that you agree in regards to the many ways I might benefit from this experience as an emerging director and local theatre maker.

Many thanks to everyone so far to everyone for allowing me to be a fly on the wall in this process.