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:

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…

The expo – and so it begins

Directing a play is always an adventure. You get your ship ready, choose your crew, raise your anchor and set sail.

There is also a fair bit of blagging involved, in my case anyhow. I’m sure most directors would agree. They may now be accomplished, successful and highly regarded by their peers, but once upon a time they too were starting out. And every fledgling director surely has that moment when they ask themselves: do I really know what I’m doing?!

About to embark on my second directing journey, the first being in 2011, I held an ‘expo’, as is customary with the Southsea Shakespeare Actors. This is an evening where anyone interested in the play can come along to find out more about the characters, plot, rehearsal commitment, performance dates and the director’s interpretation.

The play I will be directing, Here by Michael Frayn, only has three characters, so I started by giving a brief overview of each character – names, playing age, key characteristics and background info, if known – before covering the setting and summarising the plot. Basically we have Cath and Phil, both playing age mid 20s to early 30s and in a relationship together, and Pat, their landlady and playing age 60s.

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It’s a good idea to throw in an activity or two during an expo – something relevant to the play that will get people on their feet and interacting with each other. I doubt many actors can sit still for long, if our lot are anything to go by! I took a scene from the play that I’m particularly fond of – I call it the ‘jumper scene’. Phil and Cath are wearing matching jumpers, and both end up in Phil’s jumper when he puts it over Cath’s head. Of course I could see the hilarity of getting two people together, possibly who have never met before, and cramming them into an oversized jumper, so I headed down to the British Heart Foundation shop at once and bought a lovely woolly blue-and-white striped number (see picture). The scene went down a treat. Obviously the actors had scripts in their hands, but in a way that made it even more cumbersome and amusing.

For the second activity I decided to do a bit of improvisation. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed, and often found really useful in developing a character or just for getting the creative juices flowing. A lot of the dialogue between Cath and Phil focuses on bitty arguments or discussions about inconsequential things, which I’m sure most people have experienced in relationships. I asked for two volunteers – a Cath and a Phil – and gave them a subject over which to argue. I also asked the rest of the group for a suggestion. My favourite was whether curly or straight pasta is best in a Bolognese, apparently drawn from an argument in real life! We repeated the exercise with another two volunteers and another few subjects, and I realised this would be a great activity to take into the rehearsal room once the play is cast. Aside from helping the actors develop the natural rhythm of such an argument, it could also serve very well just as a warm-up before the text work begins.

I came away from the expo really encouraged by the interest in the play from company members along with a few new faces, and excited that it’s finally about to begin. Auditions are this week, and I’m feeling both eager and nervous – eager to see everyone read or perform, and nervous because, with such a talented company, I have a feeling I’m going to have some very tough decisions to make when casting!