We’re into the second week of rehearsals for Anything Other’s first show, All of Me. I’ve been thinking (my mother: “always dangerous”): rehearsals can feel like a terribly private and elusive space, so in the name of transparency, I thought I’d write about some of the ways that I’m approaching it.
All of Me is a new play, written by Martin Brett, about gambling addiction… kind of (I do qualify this in a moment, so, ‘bear with’). It’s a one-man play and that one-man is Gareth, played by Tommy Burgess. We’re rehearsing for 3 weeks in a secret location (a primary school in Sidcup). To structure the rehearsal period, I’ve taken inspiration from other directors & practitioners who write about their work, my experience so far as a theatre facilitator and practitioner, and from taking part in director training courses at the Young Vic and Central School of Speech & Drama, and other practical workshops. I’m quite pleased that when I consider my approach as a whole, it’s rather a mish-mash of theories- especially pleased because they’re apparently at odds with one another (“I work on text because I don’t believe in psychological approaches” etc). I’m one for inclusivity, so here’s my first directing discovery: make it work for you. I find that the kind of directors who write books about what they do (i.e. successful), call 4 weeks a very short rehearsal period, and therefore make exercises work over a much longer period than is feasible for your average financially struggling emerging director (poor me, poor me…) so you’ve got to adapt, chop and change. Besides, that way you can make it your own process and then write a book about it and make your fortune.
So, to start with, I’m breaking down the rehearsal schedule into roughly 1 hour blocks, and in each of those blocks, exploring either the text, character or the world of the play (we warm up every day and if I’m feeling nice we get lunch and tea breaks). I took this structure from Mike Alfreds, who works on each of these layers (text, character, world) simultaneously throughout the rehearsal period, so that they all start to inform one another and develop into a natural and aligned whole; a play where the text is clear, the characters truthful and everyone inhabits the same reality (even if it’s not at all real).
So far we’ve explored character through the Laban Efforts- working with different ways of moving, using weight, tempo and space. A very simple overview, we can move heavily through a space (like wading through mud, where there’s great effort involved), or very lightly (like there are balloons beneath the armpits). We can move in such a way that our movement is constant and sustained or broken and in bursts (like a boxer). We can move directly and with purpose (no movement wasted getting somewhere), or freely through a space (available to move in any direction). We can find a really wide range of movement (and therefore a place to draw characters from), but we rarely do- we’re often stuck in our own habits and physical (often mental) constructs, so it’s important to start with as wide a range of movement as possible before we create a character (otherwise we might be cheating ourselves of something surprising and most important of all, truthful). Discovery two: start with the broadest possible range of options and play with them to their fullest potential before you start making definite choices. When we fix something too soon, we miss the potential for it to surprise us, to be brave and to do something different.
Although All of Me is a one man play, Gareth makes reference to a cast of characters that I think it’s important we get to know better in the rehearsal room- who are they, what do they mean to Gareth and why does he bother mentioning them at all? We need to get clear on that, so that Tommy as Gareth can talk about them with purpose and precision. We’ve roamed the streets of Sidcup casting characters mentioned in the script, we’ve structured improvisations between them and Gareth (Katie Mitchell has some very specific instructions on how to structure improvisations to give them purpose and direction, which I like) and hot-seated Gareth with other characters, e.g. his dad, to better understand their relationship. The key to all of this work is to 1) be specific about what you’re setting up Discovery 3: boundaries unleash creativity 2) let what unfolds, unfold 3) Reflect on it afterwards and fish out what’s useful post-exercise (don’t worry if it suddenly appears that someone has a sister that is never mentioned in the text, go with it and discuss it afterwards and take what is useful in relation to better understanding the text).
I’ve been giving Tommy 30 minutes of each rehearsal day to explore the character of Gareth. In this scenario I sit and observe. This has been a real eye-opener for me; with each hour of rehearsal so finely accounted for, I’ve realised how important it is to leave some time to let all of the work sink in, for the actor to play, to claim the work, and to start tying all the ends together. There’s a lot of doing in directing (my version of it, anyway), and sometimes sitting back and handing over can be a really excellent way for the performer(s) to discover (and for you to be surprised). Discovery 4: leave time for it all to come together.
We’ve also been looking at the wider world of the play- the nature of problem gambling, what makes someone an addict, why someone might start gambling and how and why it might become a problem. As well as conducting our own research (Katie Mitchell recommends using books because internet sources can be sketchy, but it’s also a wealth of information, so I wouldn’t discount it by any means), we’ve met with counsellors from the charity GamCare and people working within the gambling industry, to get both sides of the story- a fundamental part of the ethos of Anything Other. This research has been invaluable to our interpretation of the play in that- although Gareth has a gambling problem, it is really a manifestation of his loneliness; Gareth is acutely alone, and he uses gambling in part as a smokescreen- “my problem is gambling”, and in part as a way of filling the void- with numbers, bets, odds, wins, losses, chasing and statistics, there’s not enough space for him to ponder underlying concerns around his identity, his purpose and isolation. We’ve used that research to inform the physical characterisation of Gareth too- his movement is light, so he is often on his toes, meaning even when he stops (pauses), he is never quite still- he’s always about to tumble into something else, always ready to move away from all that he’s avoiding.
Next, I want to make sure that we consider every beat, every line of the play, because it matters why we say things; we (usually) speak because we think we’ve got something good, or important, informative or entertaining to say. That brings us to actions. I learnt actioning from director Sarah Bedi, and it’s a technique that Max Stafford-Clark favours (putting it lightly). It’s a lengthy process, but a fascinating one. In week 1 we broke the text down into chunks of text where there’s a definite shift in focus- that totals 21 chunks (I’m not big into semantics, some people call it units, others sections, could be called ‘elephants’ as long as we all know what we mean by it)- all of which we’ve given simple titles explaining exactly what’s going on- not interpretive but the bare bones, e.g. ‘Gareth charts his relationship with Derrick Wentworth’. We’ve then divided up the beats in each unit- that is, the thoughts. So every time there is a new thought, we mark it as a new beat. We then play, on our feet, with potential actions for that beat. An action is something I (the speaker) do to you (the listener)- the line might be ‘Why are you lonely Derrick?’, and an action might be ‘I hurt you’, ‘I flatter you’, ‘I belittle you’, ‘I pinch you’. Try saying that line whilst doing those things with it- you’re only using the line of text, but you’re using it to e.g. pinch you. Once we’ve assigned an action to each beat for a whole chunk of text, we work out Gareth’s objective (what he’s trying to do) for the chunk. We do this process on our feet and we keep it big for the first week, so it gets into Tommy’s muscle memory and so that we explore the full potential of each action (it’s truthful even if it’s not naturalistic). Discovery 5: It’s much easier to start big and reel it in.
As we develop the unit objectives, we’ve started to identify Gareth’s super-objective (what he wants overall, most in the world), and his through-line (what he wants in the play). All of these parts should be related to one another, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t conflict- all the better if there is, because out of that comes real and interesting characters, as well as drama (if Gareth knows what he wants and gets it straight away, our play is about 30 seconds long, and we might need to offer the audience a refund). Discovery 6: Don’t make 30 second long plays. Or do, and don’t charge more than a coca-cola fizzy bottle for them.
As we get into week 2, we’re starting to look at the use of the set with set designer Nicola Ralph (which I’m not going to talk about here because I’m rather excited about it, and I want to leave something to tantalise), as well as the use of technology- projection and music. Interestingly, I’m more hesitant about how we use technology to tell the story as we get further into rehearsals; I take that to be a totally positive thing- I feel so excited about the quality and depth of the writing, character and world that we’re creating, and crucially Tommy’s embodiment and interpretation of it, that I’m concerned technology might distract from, rather than support, us. Discovery 7: Consider- Does what you’re doing (every prop, breath, action, sound and music cue), serve the story that you’re telling? But, as with all things in the rehearsal room, I think it better to do and play and see what comes out of the other end, rather than make decisions before we’ve tried the full range of possibilities.