Making theatre – devising a show

I’ve just had my first experience of devising a piece of theatre from scratch for my MAP (MA Project). Well, not from complete zilch. In the beginning there was an idea, but then there is always an idea – it’s what you do with it that counts.

The Hobbs family - I'm back centre

My MAP family

What we did with our idea was take it from a chaotic collection of philosophical musings, through the focus of a question emerging from all this, to end up with a family on a caravan holiday who encounter The Void. Yes, it was quite a leap, but there were many stepping stones on the way – not all in the same direction, but I feel our meandering exploration took us on a very human journey that directly informed the final piece. And what more fitting vehicle to share our explorations than that beacon of western society, the family holiday.

Playing the mum of the family (this is the second time I’ve played a mum in a few months – is this it now I’m in the 25-35 category on Spotlight?!) unexpectedly brought up a lot of old memories of being a little girl. It also went to a place within myself that has awoken this year – a deep place of nurturing and nature and what it is to be a woman and own that womanliness. I certainly hadn’t expected such an experience to come from the devising process, but it just goes to show how involved and invested in the work we as both actors and theatre-makers become.

The devising process was a new adventure for me. Our group of six actors from the MA Acting at East 15 Acting School formed a company and did the whole marketing shebang. We booked rooms and loosely planned rehearsals. We scribbled spider diagrams on the whiteboard, bruised our knees choreographing movement pieces, and pondered our reality. Our question: to what extent do we create our own reality?

We drank coffee and discussed religion, we rolled around on the grass exploring mother-daughter relationships through contact improvisation, we went to the woods in character as a family. Improvising was a tool we used a lot to explore our characteristics and discover the family dynamics. One night we had a family sleepover at one of our houses, which was an extended improvisation ending at 10pm and starting up again for breakfast the next morning. It was an important part of our process and produced some important character discoveries, along with a fantastic recipe for bolognese! It was also absolutely knackering – although we’d rested as our characters, in reality we had all been working until 10pm and had very little time to rest as us.

One key lesson I learnt from the devising process was how to work in a group where there is no clear leader and everyone has an equal say. I also put into practise the whole ‘applying the white paint’ process we’ve been developing over the past few months of our training – knowing when to scrap this bit or that bit and knowing which bits to keep.

It’s been an enriching and exciting journey and, with the possibility of our piece having a life beyond the MAPs, one that hopefully isn’t over just yet…

 

Two jumpers, one alcove and a dog called Theodore – a director’s notes

Here is over. After a fantastic ten weeks of rehearsing Here by Michael Frayn for the Southsea Shakespeare Actors (SSA), my job as director is done. We did three performances last week in a local wine bar, Rosie’s Vineyard, in their ‘conservatory’ space out the back. Audience numbers were good and the review in the local paper was brilliant.

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Now that a week has passed I can look back on the whole experience and identify what lessons I have learnt, that I can hopefully take forward to my next directing project.

Rehearsals

I wasn’t sure how many rehearsals to fit into the ten-week rehearsal period we had. In the end we got to rehearse each section twice and then several times in the full and half runs, however it would have been nice to have had one more rehearsal for each part to really fine-tune it.

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As for planning the rehearsals themselves, I think organisation is key. I planned what section we would work on in each rehearsal, but within that I could have structured the rehearsal itself better. A solid warm-up at the start of each rehearsal, a set amount of time on each key bit covered in that rehearsal, and a wash-up at the end would have made sure we all got the most out of the limited time we had.

A few weeks into rehearsals I introduced a few activities, such as contact improvisation and some ‘grounding’ exercises for the voice. I think it would have been beneficial to have planned regular rehearsals where these would feature – being proactive, rather than reactive.

Set

Set can often be the tricky bit – you’ve got an inspiring and well-written script, a cast of fantastically talented and hard-working actors, and now you’ve got to somehow transform an otherwise bland room into a family home, or a doctor’s surgery, or even the middle of a jungle. It’s not just the actual practical creation of the set that I admire, it’s the set designer’s overall vision; how they can look at a space and visualise this world they’re being asked to create.

There were two key components of the set for Here that caused me grief from the start – the first being doors, the second an alcove. I left it too late to realistically install fully functioning doors. We do have several stage doors kicking around at HQ, where we rehearse, and the other place we own where we store a lot of the company’s stuff, aptly named ‘The Other Place’. However, we would need to find someone with adequate transport to get these great slabs of wood over to the venue, there would be little chance of them being the correct size to fit in the set we were creating, and we had no way of affixing them to the rest of the set (largely because it was nonexistent).

In the end I went for black curtains – not particularly imaginative, but they were easy to put up in the venue (which had beams running in between pillars around the edge of the room and the wall – perfect to tie and drape fabric over). Perhaps the mix of realism and representation didn’t work for everyone, but we made the best with what we’d got.

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The alcove was again left a little late in the process, however on of the actors came to the rescue. Working at a builder’s merchant, he could get us materials at a good price and had the know-how to assemble everything, with the very kind help of his dad. He used the beams in the room to create the alcove by cutting two pieces of hardwood to size, building a frame to reinforce the two sheets, then using plastic ties to attach the wood to two parallel cross beams. He fixed a metal pole between the two sheets and I bought a shower curtain from Primark to go on this. The curtain wasn’t ideal, and it did made that telltale ‘swish’, but at first glance it wasn’t so obvious it was a shower curtain rather than an ordinary fabric one. Either way, it was the cheapest option!

Props

Most of the props weren’t too difficult to source. The main issue was finding two identical jumpers in different sizes that were large enough and with stretchy enough necks to fit two heads in. If this sounds bizarre, there’s a scene in the play I call ‘the jumper scene’ – just before the end of Act 1 – so have a read and all will become clear.

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We realised what we really needed were some v-necks, but of course all the shops seemed to have decided v-necks were sooo last season and gone in for high round-necks; a very impractical jumper for fitting more than one head in without garroting your female lead.

Just as I was contemplating tearing the necks of a pair of round-necks we’d found my stage manager and head of props managed to find the perfect baggy, stretchy v-neck jumpers in Matalan. Result!

Venue

Revelling in the magic of the rehearsal room it’s all too easy to forget the practicalities of putting on a show – ticket prices, marketing, and of course any concerns with the venue. I’d chosen to put on a play where one of the actors spends half the time in a woolly jumper, in a room known as ‘The Conservatory’ for its glass ceiling, in the last week of July. Not the brightest of sparks sometimes, but of course the prospect of several audience members fainting and an actor sweating within an inch of his life didn’t occur to me until two weeks before the show.

My lovely marketing lady who also ran front of house had the genius idea of iced water, so we sent someone out to get plastic cups and a big bag of ice. Consequently the audience survived, as did the actor, though I’m not sure the jumper was particularly pleasant after the final performance.

There’s so much more to directing than I could ever have imagined. You’re not only the captain of the ship, you’re a mentor, a shepherd, a quick-thinking, super-planning, creativity-inducing organisation machine. At the best times it’s been exhilarating, at the worst, stressful and exhausting, but all along it’s been an interesting and invaluable experience. And I can’t wait to do it again…

 

Click on the thumbnails below to see larger images of the cast – Ben Tanner as Phil, Faye Williams as Cath, Sue Bartlett as Pat – during the dress rehearsal, plus a few props shots:

Improvisation workshop: a spot of devising

You may have realised by now that I’m a big improvisation fan. Earlier this year, when the sun had not yet fought its way through the clouds and the persistent gloom still hung heavy in the sky, a group of actors traipsed through a dark winter night to get to an improvisation workshop. It was run for members of the Southsea Shakespeare Actors by the brilliant Vincent Adams of Soop, resident theatre company at The Spring Arts and Heritage Centre, Havant. Soop run regular improv workshops in Havant and Southampton.

Last week, the sun beaming down on us, we once again headed to the Southsea Shakespeare Actors’ HQ for another evening of improv antics. Our band was a little depleted in number due to the England match, but we still made up a respectable gathering.

Vincent Adams, photography by Dan Finch, courtesy of Soop

Vincent Adams, courtesy of Soop

Vin started the evening by asking us to each write down the topic for a political speech on a piece of paper. These were then folded, collected, and placed on a table at the back of the room to be used at various points throughout the workshop. By the end of the evening each of us had had a go at one of the topics. We selected a piece of paper at random, then had to speak for 45 seconds on that topic, in the form of a political speech. The piece of paper I chose said the importance of rabbits, prompting mention of Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit, the latter signifying the importance of the arts in Britain, and my pledge to focus on the arts where the current government has made more and more cuts, with a brief less than complimentary mention of Michael Gove thrown in.

We also played a few games including hidden agenda and the one word game, but the highlight of the evening was getting to do a bit of devising, and direct it. We all walked around the room at a speed on a scale from one to five, one being as slow as possible without stopping, five being a very fast walk. Once we had run through the five speeds with Vin, we then chose one of these and moved around the room at our chosen speed. One by one we were asked to continue while everyone else froze and gave us a few adjectives to describe the kind of character or mood this speed portrayed.

We then decided as a group on a setting for our devised piece – a cruise ship. We wanted somewhere where you would get a group of random people together who may not necessarily all know one another, but in an enclosed environment, rather than in the openness of a street. Vin went round the group asking us who we were – I decided that, as I’d chosen a speed of 5, the head of entertainment would be a sufficiently stressful and hectic position to match this pace. Of course at this stage we no longer had to move around at our chosen speed, it was more to give us a starting point for a character.

Vin asked me to play a directing role as the others got into position for the first improvised scene. I decided on a few key moments of action that would each form a scene, and we gave the first one a go. Vin gave them three minutes for the first scene, then we stopped and decided what worked and therefore we wanted to keep, and what needed changing here and there to make the whole piece work better. It was a fantastic experience, getting a glimpse into the process of devising and how a director approaches this kind of performance work.

The workshop lasted for two hours, and in those two hours it was as if I completely forgot the outside world existed. In that safe and wonderful environment of play I was in my element, and it was quite a shock coming back out into the daylight and the ‘real world’. I left HQ feeling tired but happy, and with plenty of creative ideas dancing round in my head.

Act One and a dog called Theodore

We’re a month into rehearsals for Michael Frayn’s Here, performed by the Southsea Shakespeare Actors, and at the weekend we attempted a run-through of Act One, the first half of the play.

I was really pleased with it, especially considering it was the first time off book for certain scenes. My three lovely actors, Ben, Faye and Sue, gave it a good go, and I think we all felt we’d benefited from seeing how the different sections of the first act fit together.

Theodore

There are four scenes in the play – Act one Scene one and two, and Act two Scene one and two – and I’d broken this up for rehearsals into smaller, more manageable sections. Up until now we’ve only worked on these sections individually, so it was really helpful to see them all flow together. The first run-through can be rather disorienting, even if just one half of the play, for this very reason. On top of that the actors are not just trying to remember their lines for one small section, but for the whole of the first act, knowing they won’t really get a chance to check their lines at any point until they’ve finished.

A few notes that I’d given the actors previously were forgotten, but this is to be expected, and overall I felt very comfortable with what I saw. My stage manager, Courtney, was there to prompt, and there were multiple occasions when I could hear him chuckling at the side of me, so I was confident that none of the humour we’d worked on had been lost.

After the run-through followed by a break, we discussed various matters including what to do with Theodore (pictured). This soft toy dog makes several appearances in the play, and is a key member of the cast. Naturally, therefore, it is important that we get him right. Faye spotted this adorable little fella in a charity shop and brought him along to rehearsal to see what we thought. As we sat contemplating the many misfortunes we could inflict on the poor chap to make him look considerably more threadbare, as is required in the play, we looked into his big furry face and melted. We couldnt do it. Or rather, I couldn’t. Thus a conversation ensued on how we could make him look threadbare while inflicting the least ‘pain’. Yes, I am sad. No, I do not live on my own with five cats.

The plan at present is to cake a few patches of his fur in food – spaghetti’s a firm favourite – and apply a medium dusting of coffee granules to get a grubby effect. I will be seeing the grubbified Theodore at rehearsal tonight, so I hope they haven’t been too hard on him!

 

The randomness of rehearsals

Rehearsals are underway for the Southsea Shakespeare Actors’ production of Michael Frayn’s Here, and I’m already relishing the wonderful world of the rehearsal room. We’ve had popper paper, a teddy parading as a toy dog, a heart to heart about relationships, and introduced one cast member to the hilarity of Rowley Birkin.

We kicked things off with a read-through accompanied by bakewell slices and coffee, then a session on character to establish the back story for everyone. Now, I know not every director advocates doing a read-through, and in a play where some actors don’t have anything to say for several scenes it can be a bit of a chore, but I do think it can help the actors, and indeed the director, get a feel for the shape of the play. Thankfully, with a cast of only three, there was no fear of anyone getting bored.

Here rehearsal 2 Cath and Phil

I’ve divided the play up into sections, or ‘parts’ as I’ve called them. There are only two acts and four scenes (two in each act), but two of the scenes are very long, so to help our work in the rehearsal room I’ve broken these up into more manageable chunks. Then within each part, I’ve marked where the tone or pace of the action changes, creating what are often called ‘units’. With very little significant action, the dialogue plays such an important part in this play, the way in which it is said even more so than what is said.

The first rehearsal where we got it on its feet was an exciting and slightly nerve-wracking moment. This stage is always a difficult one for actors and directors alike, as the actors grope around, script in hand, trying to feel their way through the scene, testing out a movement here, a change in tone of voice there. A few rehearsals down the line it will be an interesting and exhilarating time of play, experimentation and discovery, but for the moment it is awkward and new. The character is not yet your own; you are not yet comfortable in their shoes.

A mattress was needed for the second rehearsal, and not having a spare one to hand (the stage manager/head of props is working on sourcing one as we speak), I had to improvise. I wanted the actors to have something physical that they could drag around, and not wanting to give up any of my bed sheets as the rehearsal room floor may have last been swept when I previously directed three years ago, I rummaged through my cupboards and came up with….. a large strip of popper paper (the kind with the big bubbles). No, the fact that every time the actors lying on it moved there would be an eruption of popping sounds followed by stifled giggling didn’t occur to me in the moment I grabbed it and headed out the door. Yes, it probably should have.

The actors were very well-behaved and held it together admirably, fighting back the urge to pop all the bubbles, and about halfway through the rehearsal a beautiful thing happened. I gave them the freedom to follow their instincts, to sit if they felt like sitting, to move if, as their character, they felt like moving, and all of a sudden the tension of the first rehearsal just melted away. The characters started to come alive, the actors more animated, and the momentum of the scene took off. It was a pleasure to watch, and I of course was grinning from ear to ear as I gave notes at the end of the rehearsal.

All three actors are a delight to work with and are already clomping around in their character’s shoes. I can truly say it is a joy to see them transform and develop a little bit more each rehearsal, and I cannot wait to see where we are in a few week’s time…

It’s time to cast the play!

So the expo’s come and gone, the auditions are over and now you’ve got the difficult task of casting the play. I imagine this must be a challenging task for any director, but when the auditionees are your friends it makes it even more difficult.

The auditions for Here (by Michael Frayn), which will be performed in Portsmouth in July, were both enjoyable and thought-provoking. We have a wonderful collection of talented actors in the company I am directing for, the Southsea Shakespeare Actors, a fact reinforced at the auditions last week. I was entertained, impressed, and left thoroughly disappointed that there are only three parts I’m casting for!

Watching intently during rehearsals for Polar Bears, my first directing experience

Watching intently during rehearsals for Polar Bears, my first experience directing

After several days of deliberation I finally made my choice. There were several combinations of Cath and Phil, the couple in the play, which would have worked, so it was a case of working out the best combination for my version of the play. Although I like small-handers, one drawback is that, with only a few characters, you can only cast a few people. I am absolutely thrilled with my cast, but there remain many people within the company that I would also love to direct and hope I will have the chance to do so in the future.

When telling actors whether they have been cast or not, I like to ring round everyone. Maybe ‘like’ is not quite the right word, as it’s certainly not fun having to tell the majority of the people they haven’t got a part. Nevertheless, I feel it is important to show the actors this courtesy, as they have given up their time to audition and I am always thankful that they have shown such an interest in a play I am directing. I’m sure this may not always be possible, depending on the scale of the production, but if it is then I think it’s the right thing to do, even if it does call for a large glass of wine at the end!

As I flick through my notes so far and start to work out the rehearsal schedule, I can feel the subtle tinges of excitement fizzing through my fingers and toes. The magic is about to begin…