Thursday, 28 June 2012

Mid-term pause: and appreciation

Exactly halfway through the six-week rehearsal process, and time for a quick reflection.

I'm enjoying this show. My fellow actors are a real pleasure to work with; the characters are both interesting and satisfying to play. There is (as I've mentioned in other posts) laughter and drama in equal measure. The play is well written, with enough simplicity of storyline to engage the audience rapidly, but enough layers to keep it most definitely three-dimensional.

What I'm especially enjoying about this process is the highly participative style of direction. Genevieve works in a way which is a superb combination of guidance and freedom. I've worked with (and watched the productions of) directors who rely too much on the strengths of their casts, and effectively leave them to get on with it; at the other end of the scale, directors who 'block' every move, every nuance, every jot and tittle of the process, leaving no room for creativity. Happily, I haven't encountered either of those extremes too often, nor too recently.

Genevieve treats her cast as intelligent professionals; if we suggest that we're uncomfortable with the delivery of a line or a physical placement on the stage, she'll get us to try something else which we feel to be more appropriate. Her suggestions and our ideas are tried out until we know absolutely that we've found the right way to suit our stage integrity and our director's overall vision. Equally, if the cast member is completely at a loss as to why something's happening, or how to convey it, she'll be ready both with her own ideas and with questions to bring it out of the actors for themselves. And if something isn't working, she won't simply tell the actor 'that's wrong', but will find a constructive suggestion for discovering what will work.

It brings me to reflect on the many excellent directors I've had the privilege of working with in the past, and it becomes obvious that, given the wide variety of personality, age, style and experience, this process of intelligent collaboration is the common feature for them all. I really have been very fortunate!

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Tune in tomorrow

Tonight's rehearsal concluded with our second 'stagger-through' to sew together the whole of Act II. It was, given that we're only about halfway through the rehearsal process, surprisingly cohesive and enjoyable; mostly off-book, which meant that we're ready to experiment with characters and dynamic; and great to be an audience for each other in those sections involving only a few people.

We started the evening, however, by working on the final two pages of the second act. Lottie has dropped her bombshell, but we don't yet know all the details, and we have three candidates for the crime. I was irresistibly reminded of an early episode of EastEnders, where several potential candidates for the father of Michelle Fowler's unborn child were implicated; and only in the final moments of the episode was 'Dirty Den' found to be the culprit. This little section had all the ingredients of soap opera: guesses here, accusations there, the final reveal coming seconds before the end of the act. It was all I could do not to call for the theme tune to be played - and, if not the EastEnders percussion, then possibly the Archers. All together now: "dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum, dum-de-dum-de-dah-dah..."

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

A very silly rehearsal

Enter two splendid outsiders to the world of the Helliwells and their friends. The Reverend Clement Mercer is the hapless cleric ("although you're not a member of my congregation") who comes to offer "any help I can" in a pastoral capacity; and the splendid Miss Lottie Grady is "a woman" (not, you note, "a lady") whose main function seems to be to wreak havoc.

The introduction of the totally different dynamic of these characters is a breath of fresh air to the audience, who have been getting drawn further and further into the world of our six respectable folk; and Barry and Judi had rather the same effect on their fellow actors. The flummoxed minister and the brazen hussy took us by storm, and the resulting discussions about staging, inappropriate behaviour involving Barry's leg and (separately, I hasten to add) Judi's cleavage set off one of those episodes of giggles that, once started, is very hard to stop...

You'll find further silly images like these on the Rehearsal Photos tab. 

Every so often, I love to be reminded that there's a very good reason for it being called a play.

Monday, 25 June 2012

The speed of sound

Gradually coming off book, as we are, we're now in that slightly disconcerting hinterland between reading and acting. Finding our way into the flow of the text, the situation and the emotions, it's tricky to suddenly find oneself brought up against a virtual brick wall by the sudden departure of the lines which seemed so firmly embedded when trying them out in the car on the way to rehearsal.

This, in turn, has obviously an effect on the pace of the piece; and, as I've mentioned in an earlier post, the tendency to 'drawl' - and hence slow down - the Yorkshire accent is another pitfall to avoid.

Working, as we were tonight, on the latter part of Act II - which is fraught with tension, suspicion and discovery - Genevieve asked us to 'speed run' the lines, whether with or without script. What was interesting was that (for me, anyway) deliberately cranking up the speed actually felt as though it brought my delivery closer to the pace (and energy) that I should be achieving in any case. It also started to become clear that - without interrupting one's fellow performers - there are times when 'line overlap' is more appropriate, and natural - and the more agitated the three couples become, the less likely they are to stand upon polite conversational ceremony.

Hmm. Back to the script. And to having my (real) husband test me for lines while I'm doing something else, such as ironing or preparing an evening meal. If I can perform those tasks efficiently and safely while delivering the correct thought-processes of Maria, I'm likely to be on course. There may, of course, be the odd culinary or laundry hiccup in the meanwhile...

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Staggering through

The first time of sewing bits together: we ran through the whole of Act I and just over half of Act II. Having spent the last two weeks (is that really all it is?) working through the show in fairly intensive sections, it was pleasing to see the first half of the story coming together in a cohesive manner. Not to mention actually seeing some of our fellow performers with whom one might not actually share a stage! (I particularly enjoyed John Hare's struggles with an old-fashioned camera that was - ex-script quote - "as drunk as I am"...)

Books were down to various degrees. I managed Act I reasonably well, but Act II has still to catch up - I didn't even attempt to put my book down for that, as it would have held up proceedings too much. My fellow wives managed most of the section with only a few prompts. James (Joe) has - very impressively - managed to get almost entirely off-book for that section, which this far before the show is no mean feat. (To be fair, the wives at least have had their scripts for a much shorter time than some of the men - we only discovered which part we were to play at the first readthrough!) And some members of the cast, such as Ben as Fred Dyson, have literally only just joined the cast in the last few days, so could hardly be expected to leave their scripts behind.

We are gradually introducing props - like John's recalcitrant camera - glasses, bottles, trays and the rest. All the usual delightful booby-traps. Not to mention the fact that they will hurry along our line-learning, as there's nothing like trying not to spill the port or break the glass while handling an A4-size script.

So here we are, two weeks out of six into the process (Wednesday 6 June was the first read-through; final dress rehearsal will be on Wednesday 18 July) and it's encouraging to see just how much of the play is already showing real signs of life.

Happily, I now have a brief breathing space: my next rehearsal isn't until Monday 25, which gives me a much-needed opportunity for working on lines. See you next week.

Ormonroyd and his inebriated camera

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Time for some Summer Wine

A brief but very useful and enjoyable rehearsal this evening. The lovely Jen Dewsbury, who has a Higgins-scale comprehension of all matters dialect, took us through a succession of exercises to help us contain our voices within the West Riding of Yorkshire - rather than wandering off all over the British Isles. Jenny's recommendation was that we make the voices of the characters in the wonderful Last of the Summer Wine our inspiration. Well, that's not exactly a hardship.

We each found ourselves a phrase - from the script or otherwise - that we could use to 'tune in' to the voices required. Keira's favourite is the fabulous word 'thing-umpty-ite' (Joe's equivalent of 'what's-her-name'). Mine is 'I don't act silly, but my face gets so red...' (said when taking an extra glass of port. No comments, please, about the verity of this statement.)

We talked about keeping the Yorkshire accent during rehearsals when we're off stage as well as on, and it's surprising how easily one slips into doing that anyway; and the effect of all fourteen of us (well, except for Gerald, who is of course a 'la-di-dah Southerner') diving into the world of Compo and co. is rather infectious.

It was interesting to see the difference made by face shapes. In the case of Yorkshire, a pulled-back head (giving one a rather unflattering double chin - great) and 'loose cheeks' (that's the ones on the face, before I get any rude comments) start to give the right sound. Actually, the double-chin look is pure Nora Batty anyway.

Photo: The Telegraph

Monday, 18 June 2012

I thought this was a comedy?

A long (four-hour) Sunday evening rehearsal, and I come away feeling completely wrung out.

We're working on the section of the play where everybody finally knows the situation. The wives know, the husbands know, and each knows that the others know... that they are (as far as they all know!) not in fact married at all. Now they need to deal with the emotional fallout of this possibility.

Annie is ecstatic - she glimpses potential freedom. Clara is furious - this simply bears out her existing low opinion of her husband's intelligence.

And Maria? Maria is uncharacteristically distraught. She's moved from relief that there is an explanation for her husband's strange behaviour, and determination to reclaim her mantle as The Perfect Hostess; but now she is faced with the possibility that her husband may actually feel differently about her due to the long-past (forgive the language) bureaucratic cock-up.

Thinking about this from the standpoint of my own (happy) marriage, I realised just how huge this is. If my own delightful husband of seventeen years' standing were discovered to be not my husband because of a technicality, we'd both laugh it off, rectify it, and dine out on the story. (Listening to the recording of our marriage service, it's actually true that the octogenarian priest who married us did not actually use the words 'they are now husband and wife', so...) However, if, as a result of this discovery, he turned round and said - in Joe's words - 'I won't tell you a lie, love... ever since I've known I'm not married I've felt most peculiar' - my world would fall apart.

Working through this difficult scene - with all the comedy it also contains - I commented "I didn't expect to find myself back in Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf..." - my favourite role ever, back in 2009. In fact, that play is a drama-with-comedy - albeit a deeply black type of comedy; this is a comedy-with-drama. In both cases, that's what makes the plays so strong.

Polonius attempts to categorise the Players' style, and ends up with "tragical-comical-historical-pastoral". I reckon that's a fair description of many plays. Priestley calls this 'A Yorkshire Farcical Comedy', giving no clue about emotional challenges that lie within; but without those challenges, the characters would be far less believable. Many of my favourite theatrical experiences - as performer or as audience - have been those that leave the audience unsure whether to laugh or cry. Let's face it, in real life, we tend to do both in equal measure.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Playing 'Mornington Crescent'

You know about Mornington Crescent, of course. That insane, convincing, completely nonsensical creation of the team of I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue on BBC Radio 4. None of us know (for the very good reason that there are, of course, no rules) exactly how one does move around the network of the London Underground to be the first one to reach Mornington Crescent and claim the winning post.

It struck me that this is a pretty good image for the mapping of emotions that's going on in this play. Yes, it's a lighthearted comedy; but each of us moves from (as it were) station to station, crossing over, swapping places and changing direction - sometimes abruptly, but sometimes (if you'll forgive the laboured comparison) you can see it coming like an oncoming train.

We've started to work on the second act: the three wives await their husbands' return from wherever-they've-gone. Then they hear where they've gone. Then the husbands return. Then the husbands flee 'to talk'. Then the wives hear why the husbands have been behaving so strangely. Their reactions to the absence, to the explanation given by the maid ("they wanted to have a nice quiet talk, so they went down to their club"), to the men's arrival, and to Mrs Northrop's revelation about the reality of the situation (as far as they know at that stage in the play) - all provoke quite different emotional journeys.

When Genevieve asked us how we were feeling at a particular point, I answered with a very simplistic summing up - and suddenly realised that, on my own behalf at least, I was completely wrong. Maria isn't devastated and tearful to understand the social disaster that has arisen; she is far more relieved by the fact that there is an explanation for the extraordinary recent behaviour of her husband. The difference in interpretation - from tearful and distressed to relieved and practical - changes my character's presence completely at that point. Finding herself at, as it were, Oxford Circus instead of Charing Cross!

I have to say that it's also a great relief to find the number of layers to these women. If they could be summed up in one word ("dictatorial", "submissive", "argumentative", "tearful", "distraught" or whatever) - they'd be terribly boring to play. Instead, Priestley gives us very real people with all the shades of grey that implies; and that's much more fun.

Of course, it still leaves open to debate which of us will reach Mornington Crescent first...

(Thanks to this rather excellent website for a view of the London Underground as it would have been in 1908 - the year in which When we are married is set.)

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Cackle and crash

This is what I love about rehearsals.

My first entrance - first line - is "That Mrs Northrop. When she's done her washing-up tonight, she goes - and goes for good." We figured out that Mrs N had presumably really annoyed me in some way just before we arrive on stage ("crammed with high tea"), rattling Maria's normal composure as hostess. As such, we've asked Mrs Northrop to cackle at us from offstage (she's later referred to as "laughin' to herself like a proper barmpot"). Jude's wonderful Wyrd Sisters impression was quite enough to send me on stage in a state of agitation...

This first entrance of our three married couples, straight from their celebratory tea, needed a bit of noise and chaos. We weren't, however, quite expecting one of our number (I shall spare their considerable blushes) to fall over the crate presently housing the bottles and glasses for use later in the scene... but the funny thing is that it did rather create the right atmosphere!

Having consolidated the work done in the last few evenings on Act I, we've moved on to reading, then initially moving, the start of Act II. The men are in big trouble. They went off to t'Club - in the middle of our anniversary party... And when they return, they don't seem to have a satisfactory explanation. So we freeze them out. Well, wouldn't you?

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Arrival of a Southerner

Having spent the last few rehearsals wrestling with the (to most of us) unfamiliar Northern accent, it was quite a change in dynamic to work on the section of the play that involves the 'la-di-dah' interloper from the South. The young upstart of a new organist at Chapel, Gerald, is the character who blows the whole problem wide open. With his 'bright young thing' confidence and refusal to be undermined by the 'old school', he turns the world of the three couples upside-down.

There was a contrast evident in the speed and pace: Yorkshire/Southern, age/youth. Even at this early stage, it's a great thing to see happening, with a combination of direction and actors' instinct.

My own personal challenge will be to maintain pace of performance without losing the 'steady, respectable' nature of my character - and at the same time, keeping that 'respectability' without compromising Maria's undeniable strength of character and humour. Watching Lawrence & Becca, as Gerald & Nancy, I rather envied the energy and freedom they were able to bring to the stage!

It will also be interesting to see, as the play progresses (we've only reached the end of Act 1 so far) how those dynamics change between the older characters as their situation is removed from its haven of safe respectability, and the old rules no longer apply...

Friday, 8 June 2012

On our feet

Back to the Hog in Armour upstairs room, and we're on our feet. The couples are joined by Ruby (the maid) and Mrs Northrop (the char).

It becomes very evident just how much character can be expressed through a simple seating arrangement or move. Excluding characters from discussions, allying oneself with the dominant character in the room, sitting in such a way that someone else is prevented from joining you; all done without a word of script.

Vitally, Genevieve very seldom tells the performers to move to a particular spot. More likely, we'll be challenged about 'what's going on', and the positions become obvious. If one doesn't work, we'll try another.

Oh, and what are we supposed to do with our port glasses when there's a knock at the door? We don't want the Yorkshire Argus to catch the Councillor and the Alderman imbibing...

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Talking couples; and actioning

We've now decided which woman is playing which wife. Julie, as Clara Soppitt, has the delightful task of hen-pecking poor Matthew; Kiera, as Annie Parker, is on the receiving end of the bullying attentions of Robin; and as Maria Helliwell, yours truly will spar with James, but maintaining - we think - honours approximately even.

The couples meet in the Charing Cross Centre to start to work through our introductory scene. After an initial readthrough, we begin to discuss the situation we find ourselves in. These three couples are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary: is this actually a cause for celebration? The main reason for marking the occasion seems to be less a celebration of love and more of determination and longevity. We wonder what on earth Annie saw in the bullying Albert, and whether poor Herbert had any say in his relationship with Clara - or whether the dynamic has changed across twenty-five years.

There is laughter at the anecdote of a diamond wedding anniversary involving a (shall we say) difficult gentleman and his long-suffering wife. "Imagine being married to him for sixty years. You only get twelve for murder." When the laughter dies down, we all look rather stricken and say "Actually, that's very sad..."

The relationships are given a new set of possibilities when Genevieve introduces us to 'actioning': a neat way of identifying, using one descriptive word, what precisely the character intends to say in a particular phrase. Too detailed to use on an entire play (at least, when we're limited in rehearsal time as we are), it's clear that it is nonetheless useful if we have difficulty with the integrity of a line or a situation.

For example, my own second line - complaining about Mrs Northrop, the charlady - is broken down thus:

(warns) Trouble with her is -
(exposes) she likes a drop -
(confides) I've smelt it before today.

Change the actioning verb, change the whole colour (and intention) of the line. Useful.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

First readthrough

The upstairs function room at The Hog In Armour; the room itself is a bit gloomy for reading the script for (in some cases) the first time, so we use the bar area instead.

Most of the fifteen members of the cast are there, with a bit of judicious reading-in - not least by Lucy, who just happened to be in the pub when we arrived. The three wives - Annie, Clara and Maria - don't at this stage know which one will be playing which, so we switch roles across the three acts. Suggestion made in the bar afterwards that we could always share all three roles ("if it's Saturday, I'm playing Annie") but this is rapidly dismissed as a bad idea by the actresses in question.

Yorkshire accents of varying consistency and accuracy abound, and we are relieved to know that a dialect coach will be available. Judi, of course, playing Lottie, has the advantage of hailing from Wakefield to begin with...

And so it begins.