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:

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.

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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!

 

One day to go…

It’s now just one day to the first performance. As the moment approaches, I feel a strange sense of

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something momentous drawing near. This isn’t like any play I’ve done before. It’s not like a well-worn Shakespeare, where there’s been a hundred Portias live and breathe before yours. Anne is mine, and I am hers. I am her vessel, her conduit off the page and to the real world. I give her a human voice, allow her to move and walk and stand there for all to see.

I imagine the others must be feeling the same. This will be the first time these characters have ever lived off the page for an audience. The excitement is hanging on the air, an almost tangible electricity that surrounds me as I go about my daily routine. Continue reading