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:

Truly talented ladies

It’s always a joy to discover new talent, even if that talent was actually discovered by everyone else a long time ago. With the ladies of Bench Theatre‘s recent production of Ladies’ Day, I felt just that.

Robin Hall, Beth Evans, Jessi Wilson and Sarah Parnell gave fantastic performances as the four fish-packers from Hull. I could easily have been watching professional actresses.

My review of Ladies' Day in local newspaper The News

My review of Ladies’ Day in local newspaper The News

Sarah Parnell particularly stood out as an actress who could captivate an audience and take them along for the ride, as she lead you deep into the story and her character’s life. Having praised the actress to a friend after the show who is very familiar with the local am dram scene, I learnt she also did voiceover work, possibly professionally. It was evident that my ‘discovery’ of this talented lady in our midst was lagging behind the rest of the local theatre world, and perhaps further afield.

If you missed Ladies’ Day, you can catch Sarah next in One Off Productions‘ performance of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, coming to the Kings Theatre, Portsmouth this September. I’ll be there on the front row!

One day, two plays – The Duchess of Malfi and Step 9 (of 12)

With my boyfriend away in Edinburgh the other weekend I decided to spend a day on my lonesome in London, watching a play and losing myself in the myriad of bookshops, and considering the price of the train ticket to get there I thought I may as well see two plays to make it worth my while. The second of these, The Duchess of Malfi (Webster) directed by Jamie Lloyd, was impressive, but not the highlight of the day. I’m a big fan of Jamie Lloyd and his work with Polar Bears (which I directed for an in-house production last summer), The Pride and The Faith Machine, and was equally impressed with his staging of this – a moody and atmospheric set, which the impressive size of the Old Vic stage lent itself perfectly to, the choreographed candle-bearers in hooded cloaks, and the overall underlying menace he managed to instil into the whole production really brought to life the underlying themes of the play. Acting was strong, especially Eve Best as the Duchess, but there were moments where it dragged a little, and when several key characters had died so quickly and violently, waiting for Bosola to finally pop his clogs you wanted to yell, “just get on with it!”.

The Duchess’ death scene was chillingly brilliant, the anticipation building as we waited with a macabre fascination for the moment when they pulled on the ropes to strangle her. The way Best’s body jerked and writhed about gave me a genuine chill. Harry Lloyd as the violent and volatile brother Ferdinand was pure perfection, showing a man torn between emotions and societal pressures – I hear he’s in Game of Thrones so will be checking that out! I did enjoy the play, but the second act couldn’t match the pace of the first, and no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t sympathise with the character of Bosola and his actions. I know many consider Webster’s language to be even more complex to interpret than Shakespeare, so perhaps I just wasn’t in a receptive mood.

The first of the two plays I saw, however, affected me deeply. It turned out that the two plays were not only very different pieces set in different times and with different circumstances, but also staged very differently, one on a grand scale in the Old Vic, the other in a small cosy studio space in the Trafalgar Studios 2, which added a nice bit of variety to my day!

Step 9 (of 12), a play by Rob Hayes, tells the story of Keith, a recovering alcoholic, as he tries to apologise to those he has hurt the most with his destructive behaviour, and featured Blake Harrison of The Inbetweeners fame. Having loved him on screen as the lanky simpleton Neil, I was keen to see what else he could do as an actor, and I can happily say I wasn’t disappointed! Although the first ten or so minutes moved rather slowly with the jokes a little forced and I felt he was shouting out the lines for the room to hear rather than directing them at his fellow actors, the pace soon picked up with smart dialogue and troubled yet realistic characters that were brought to life brilliantly by all concerned. Harrison showed an ability to snap from light-hearted nice guy to menacing in an instant; equally from menacing young man to vulnerable little boy. The moments where he was begging his foster mother to forgive him and calling her ‘mum’ for what we deduce is probably the first time ever were heartbreaking, and the tears in his eyes brought tears to my own, as I had to stop myself from running on stage to give this suffering little boy a big hug and tell him everything would be alright. The beauty of the piece being performed in such an intimate space is that you really did feel a part of the action, and that you were witnessing a private conversation between a troubled family rather than watching a play on a stage, detached from the characters and their lives.

Barry McCarthy as the protagonist Keith’s foster father gave a beautiful performance, struggling to hide the inner turmoil beneath a veneer of amiability. The contrast between this ‘mask’ he wore at the start of the play, showing a guy who just wants to get along with and support Keith’s endeavours, and the true hurt and struggle that lived within was played with expert empathy and showed an actor who truly understands the complexity of the human condition. Wendy Nottingham as the foster mother was at times a little vocally ‘flat’ but played a woman scarred by her experiences beautifully, and at the point where the character Mark was threatening them the fear in her eyes was haunting. Ben Dilloway as Mark, the son of a man who Keith had put in hospital with permanent brain damage, gave a short but powerful performance. A mess of pain and wanting vengeance for what was done to his father, Dilloway played him perfectly, wrenching even the hardiest heart in the audience out of its chest.

The play is brilliant. The humour was there at every turn and the audience was often chuckling at this or that. Awkward conversations and moments were interspersed with dry humour and left us not sure whether it was appropriate to laugh or not, causing us to question our own reactions to the characters and their actions. The staging was thoughtful and made good use of the space. Keith’s front door being situated off stage made us use our ears rather than just being fed everything visually, and helped create a sense of tension as you heard the slam and awaited the arrival of a character. An impressive West End debut for Harrison, a powerful yet poignant performance by McCarthy, and a success for the director Tom Attenborough and his creative team. Oh, and hats off to Rob Hayes for a bloody good play.