To Moscow! Staging The Emperor’s New Clothes

My first time in Moscow coincided with the world cup in Russia this year. Not much of a football fan, the purpose of my visit was actually to direct a performance of The Emperor’s New Clothes with ENgage Theatre Arts.

The State Historical Museum in Moscow

The State Historical Museum in central Moscow

Working at the New School, Moscow, with 15 Russian students aged 12-16, I arrived at the school with only the plot and a scene breakdown – the students did the rest. In only five days they managed to create a script and devise a show. For each scene we would familiarise ourselves with the main events, then the students would improvise the action before choosing which bits of dialogue to keep.

Each session began with warm-up games to energise the students, followed by a few activities to increase their focus, creativity and teamwork skills, then finally scene work. Although I helped shape the work on stage and gave the students notes on how to improve their presentation and performance skills, and ensured the English was correct, the students did a lot of the work. After exercises where we looked at how each character walked and their physicality, they suggested their own little touches to their characters. For example, the student playing the Emperor’s manservant added haughty flicks of the hair to his officious hands-behind-the-back walk, along with a deep character voice and RP accent.

Colourful scenery created by the students

Colourful scenery created by the students

We didn’t set the play in a specific time period, as our costume options were shaped by what clothes the students could bring in from home. Instead we decided that the townsfolk would all dress in bright colours, thus highlighting the more subdued colours of


the two weavers’ clothes (they come from another town). It also solved the question of how to stage the scenes where the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes – we opted for a white vest and shorts to suggest underwear. This contrasted well with the Emperor’s usual outfit, which included stylish sunglasses and a big animal-print coat the student had borrowed from his grandmother – very 50 Cent!

Although I was only in Moscow for five days and six nights, I managed to fit in a spot of sightseeing amongst the teaching/directing. My first few attempts to visit landmarks or suggested tourist attractions were thwarted by the football. On my first night I took the metro in to the city centre, intending to make my way to the famous Red Square, only to find my route closed by police. On the second night I headed out on foot to a viewpoint over the city 25 minutes’ walk away from where I was staying. I decided to turn back after finding all the connecting roads but one closed, and ending up stuck in the throng of football fans spilling out of the fan zones. I can happily report that I did make it to the Red Square in the end, on my final night in the capital!

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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…