Creating theatre on the South Bank 

Induction week is over and the real thing is about to start. Tomorrow is the first official day of term at drama school and we can’t wait to start. We’ve had seven days of introductory sessions, Equity and Spotlight talks, headshots and general getting to know each other, and now we’re ready to get down to some work.

Last week we had a day out in London with the other postgraduate students. It was a chance to get to know people on the other postgraduate courses, explore a bit of London, and create a piece of new work – a 90-second performance.

Otaiti by Francis Picabia, in the Tate Modern - the image we chose as most representing our quote

Otaiti by Francis Picabia, in the Tate Modern – the image we chose as most representing our quote

We were split into groups of around 10 people – each person picked a quote out of a brown envelope, and we had to find the other people with the same quote (to form a group), without speaking any words or showing the quote to anyone. You can imagine the hilarity and mild panic that ensued as we all flitted around the room, desperately miming parts of our quote at each other whilst trying to spot anyone miming something that could possibly fit with ours. It was desperation-fuelled and fun and it certainly broke the ice.

Once in our little collectives each group was given a destination, and after a visit to the toilet for some of us (namely, me), and a stop-off at the school cafe for a coffee, we headed off to the tube, already chatting to new people in our groups, making new friends from different parts of the world.

We had a list of tasks to accomplish and orders to reconvene outside the National Theatre on the South Bank at 5pm, where we would perform our 90-second pieces in our groups.

On the tube we discussed the meaning of the quote to us as a group – what did it make us think of? Did it remind of us a moment in our own lives? In what different situations might it be said? Our quote was from Macbeth (yes, I said it. I will also say Voldemort, if the occasion arises), and is spoken by Lady M:

“Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty!”

We spoke of times when you pray (if you believe in a god) for the strength to cope with something difficult, but we also looked at the element of self-sacrifice in the quote. Lady M is willing to give up part of what makes her who she is – the so-called ‘female’ traits of empathy and compassion – in order to commit the dreadful act of murder, which will help her husband achieve his ambition of being king. We could also imagine this being said by someone wanting revenge.

My group’s destination was the Tate Modern, a breeding ground for inspiration. I’d only been once before, in the summer of 2012, so I was excited about going back there and seeing some of the old favourites, plus any new installations. I was thrilled to see Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus again – one of my favourite paintings – and spent a good five minutes gazing into its rich colours and fluid landscape.

Here our task was to find an image or object that best reflected our quote, consider which of the four elements resonated with the quote (we chose water), and find a new image reflecting the elemental aspect of our quote. The image a few of us settled on for best representing the quote visually was an oil painting by Francis Picabia called Otaiti (see picture). I felt its thick texture, dark colours, and the nakedness and posture of the woman, with her parted lips and upturned eyes, illustrated the sexual and malevolent nature of the words. A beautiful and very powerful painting when you’re standing right in front of it!

Another of our instructions was to explore what sounds might surround the words. We focused on the voice and the breath, and used this in the performed piece we created.

At 5pm we all congregated in a circular area near the Laurence Olivier statue outside the National Theatre, and one by one each group got up to perform their piece, arranging the audience as they wished beforehand. People walking along the South Bank stopped to watch. A few stayed through all the performances, others came and went. When all the pieces had been performed by applauded ourselves and each other, then applauded the public who had taken time out of their day to watch us. That has often been me in the past – wandering along there on the way to a bookshop or a cafe or the theatre, stopping to watch something that’s piqued my interest. This time it was the other way round – I was the one performing, and it felt special.

I had a wonderful day – meeting new and interesting people, getting to work with them, exploring London a bit, having stimulating creative conversations and getting the chance to perform outside the National Theatre….. if only for 90 seconds!

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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:

6,000 miles away part 2: Rearray

The second piece of the evening, Rearray, was choreographed by the internationally renowned choreographer William Forsythe. A former dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, Forsythe was director of Ballet Frankfurt for 20 years before founding The Forsythe Company. He is an Honorary Fellow at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance, holds an Honorary Doctorate from Juilliard, and has pioneered new approaches to dance documentation, education and research.

Photo: Bill Cooper

Photo: Bill Cooper

Despite the brilliant Sylvie Guillem dancing in this piece, I have to say it was my least favourite of the three. The music, by David Morrow, was discordant and jarring and made me feel strangely uncomfortable. There was one particular note whose high pitch physically hurt my ears, and brewed within me a sense of violence that put me on edge and filled my muscles with the urge to lash out. That said, a friend sitting next to me enjoyed the piece, and said he could detect a pattern within the music so the discord no longer seemed apparent.

I can see how the music set the mood for the choreography, which was brilliant. Massimo Murro partnered Guillem with strength and grace, the two dancers complementing each other in their physicality and lean, flowing arms and legs. I got a feeling of a disjointed relationship, of two people not quite on the same page – perhaps wanting to be, and at times achieving this with beautiful moments of harmonious choreography, two bodies reaching an elegant symmetry, but then falling away to their individual rhythms.

The choreography was firmly rooted in a classical training, but at parts it would veer off to something more abstract than I was accustomed to, which really opened by eyes to the artistic possibilities of contemporary dance. A stalwart of classical ballet, it could be said my preferences are a bit tame!

Rite of Spring signals theatre’s rebirth

As the Rite of Spring reaches its centenary, what better piece to mark the rebirth of a theatre than one so rich with regeneration and the creative power of spring.

Rite of Spring rehearsals

Rite of Spring rehearsals

Choreographers across the country are reviving the ballet that caused such controversy with its first performance in 1913, and which some say still holds the power to shock and unnerve. One performance, in a cosy Portsmouth theatre last week, was particularly significant.

Over 100 young musicians and 40 local dancers brought this infamous piece to life. It is perhaps fitting that these were the final notes to fill the auditorium of the New Theatre Royal before it closed its doors for redevelopment. It will reopen in 2014 as a theatre reborn. Just as spring finally comes after the long winter, so the day has finally come, after 40 years of tireless work, when the regeneration of the theatre can finally begin.

Caroline Sharman, Director of New Theatre Royal, says: “the symbolism couldn’t be more apt.”

“To mark the centenary of the composition that totally challenged the music conventions of 1913 and is so rich with expressions of rebirth and regeneration chimes perfectly with our own story of rebirth.”

Construction work began this month as part of a £12 million joint project between the theatre and the University of Portsmouth to restore the backstage area and stage house, increase seating numbers and add much-needed workshop and office space. The theatre currently uses a temporary thrust stage after the original stage, orchestra pit and backstage area were completely destroyed in a fire in 1972.

The rebuild is also set to include a new Creative Learning Space where film, television and drama students from the university can train and perform, and where new practitioners and companies can develop and show their work in a cultural hub at the heart of the city.

Collaboration is key

Last week’s performance of the Rite of Spring was a truly collaborative project, involving the Hampshire County Council’s Music Service, local schools, community dancers and the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra, with the assistance of players from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Caroline highlights the importance of creative collaborations like this: “It is only through collaboration that great art can be created and will be sustained. Our collaboration with the University of Portsmouth is enabling us to rethink and restore our theatre, and our partnership with Hampshire County Council’s Music Service enabled a 100-piece youth orchestra and 40 dancers to create such a great event together.”

“Partnerships, in my view, only work if both sides really want it and are prepared to work at it as much as each other. Saturday’s performance was testament to this collaboration’s success.”

Conducted by Carl Clausen, over 100 members of the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra performed the classic score live. A company of local dancers, choreographed by Jamie Roberts of Jam Jar Dance and Donna Bish, brought to life the story of an ancient society deciding which maiden to offer as sacrifice to the gods. The dancers, aged from early teens to mid seventies, came from local schools as well as community dance groups, including the Misspent Youth dance company, Fred and Ginger group, and the Aging Disgracefully dance group.

Students from two local schools worked with Fraser Trainer, an internationally renowned composer whose work has been performed at the BBC Proms, to produce music inspired by Stravinsky’s original score, which they performed on the night. A University of Portsmouth student production team, fondly referred to as ‘Laura’s Angels’, was involved in the costume design and stage management of the project, and also included the assistant creative producer and assistant choreographer.

A shared experience

Lead choreographer Jamie Roberts, of Jam Jar Dance, was keen to involve the local community in the project. “We decided to use community-based artists to make up our cast. Working with school and colleges as well as dance artists and over 50s was imperative to the success of our ‘Rite’. The collaboration between these groups leads to a wider bank of experiences on which to draw in the choreographic process. Using a range of people with a selection of ages provides them with a shared experience that helps bring the community together.”

Jill Larner, Head of Hampshire County Council’s Music Service, can see the benefits for the young people involved, of the different artistic disciplines working together. “It’s rare for the instrumentalists in the orchestra to have dancers there,” she says. “Suddenly the music isn’t just music, it’s being performed in the way it was meant, and the audience has a visual stimulus as well as the sound of the music itself. The dancers added a new dimension for our young musicians, and enabled them to experience the excitement of a different outlook on the music.”

“Equally, most of the dancers are probably used to dancing to a recorded track, so to perform to live music created by a 100-strong orchestra was hopefully a great new experience for them too.”

Looking to the future

So with the final performance of the season over and the doors firmly closed until next year, are the theatre staff confident of this being a success story, where so many regional theatres have failed?

Caroline is mindful of the challenges they face, but optimistic. “I still have much to do to embed our partners into our future plans so as to ensure the theatre’s sustainability. My challenge now is to find the balance between making and touring great shows to attract new audiences, providing a space to experiment as we nurture artistic talent of all ages and, importantly, providing excellent skills development opportunities for our local community. A tall order, but we certainly have the ideal place to offer it and some excellent partnerships already in place, so I feel optimistic too.”

Following on from its sell-out performance at New Theatre Royal on Saturday April 20, the Rite of Spring was performed at Anvil Arts, Basingstoke on Saturday April 27.