Wednesday, May 23

On the rehearsal process

In her final blog post, Nescha Jelk reflects on the rehearsal process of Land & Sea, written just before she popped over to Sydney to assistant direct Old Man for Belvoir. Talk about a busy lady! 

As our rehearsal process is nearing to an end with opening night creeping up (exciting!), now is a good time to give you some insight into what a rehearsal process actually is.

If I tell someone that I’m a theatre director they will sometimes ask “So, what is it that you actually do? What do 5 weeks of rehearsals for a show actually involve?” I completely understand why people ask questions like these. Whenever I went to the theatre as a teenager, I would always struggle to imagine what it would be like to be involved in the process of making a professional show. Due to theatre being such a niche industry with a small and closely-knit community of theatre workers, the fact few people have been in a rehearsal room for a professional show, and because theatre work is so dissimilar from the regular 9-5 job, it's expected that most people don’t know much about what goes behind closed doors. So here’s a rough step-by-step of the Land & Sea process.

Usually, the first step is choosing a play or concept, which is done by a director or artistic director of a theatre company. Instead, director Chris Drummond, and playwright Nicki Bloom knew that they wanted to collaborate on a show together. A range of concepts, ideas, and interests that they mutually found inspiring surfaced over a number of conversations. These included exile, loss, Shakespeare’s Tempest, Douglas Hofstadter’s strange loop theories in Godel, Escher, and Bach and I am a Strange Loop, Christoph Mathaler, Eric Satie, and war, just to name a few.

These subjects were explored on the floor with actors over a two week creative development. I wasn’t privy to this process, so can’t give you exact details on what this period entailed, though I do know that impulse grid work was often used. In grid work the actors are only allowed to walk, stand still, sit or lie down within a confined area. As the name suggests, the actors are encouraged to follow their natural and immediate impulses, and to refrain from pre-planning their movements or actions. Once they are following these impulses more freely, new elements may be added to the ‘grid’ or playing space. For example, Chris would scatter books such as Hofstadter’s I am a Strange Loop, Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller, or Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland around the ‘grid’ space that the actors were inhabiting. The actors would then be allowed to pick up a book, flick to a random page, read a line from the page, and see how it would affect the impulses of the actors. Over time, movements would become more fluid as people responded more freely to their impulses, and interesting images and relationships between the actors would emerge.

The raw material created through grid impulse work served as an inspiration for some of the images and narrative in Nicki’s first draft of Land & Sea, with regular consultation with Chris.

After a number of drafts had been made, there was a script development of Land & Sea. The script was workshopped for 1 week, to see how the script works when performed by actors. (A quick side note: if youlook on Brink’s website, you’ll see that Brink currently has a show in development called Black Thread White Thread to be written by the wonderful UK playwright Bryony Lavery. An exciting project definitely to look out for!)

For some shows, the first day of rehearsals is when all the cast, creatives, and crew are in one room together for the first time. It’s an interesting time to see how everyone gets along. A fascinating aspect of theatre work is that it’s very rare that the exact same group of people work all together more than once; every rehearsal room has a different energy according to the mix of people in it, so your workplace environment is constantly changing.

On the first day, Chris gave an introduction to his thoughts of the play, and the designer (Wendy Todd) presented a model of what the finished set will look like, along with images that had inspired her design of the show. Then there was the first read of the script by the actors - a really exciting time, because it is the first time that you truly get an accurate idea of how the ensemble of actors will co-inhabit the world of the play.

During the first week of rehearsals of Land & Sea, more impulse grid work was done to try to find the performative language/style of the acting, with Hilary Kleinig’s improvised live music accompanying. Chris wanted to make sure that the actors didn’t get trapped by making big decisions about their characters too early. He was weary that there is a fine balance between the actors’ different characters being too overtly different or too similar (this will make more sense once you see the show).

Once the performative tone of Land & Sea was discovered each scene of the play was analysed and 'stumbled through' by Hilary and the actors. Each scene was read out by the actors, and then discussed briefly. Chris then set up the scene to be loosely performed; he would give the actors a clear playing space and boundaries, he would ask Hilary to play a certain piece of music, or to improvise on a certain idea or theme, and would then leave them to do a cold run of a scene with the actors holding their scripts. In the way that Nicki has written Land & Sea, it is a finely composed piece. Many pieces of music in the show are actually dictated by the text. The music in Land & Sea is just as important as the text. So seeing the scene loosely performed with the music and being able to have a glimpse at what the play could both look and sound like was crucial. For me, it was the first time that I began to ‘get’ the play.

Because Land & Sea is a deeply poetic and complex play, we had to do a lot of digging for the story behind the text. Rather than construct an interpretation in the first week, Chris was interested in finding images that would allow new meanings of the work to be discovered. Chris took time to experiment with different blocking in each scene until the larger interlinking story gradually revealed itself. Therefore, no single interpretation of the text was really locked down until the end of week 3. It was a time-consuming process but ensured that each moment of the play became impregnated with meaning for the actors, so that they could clearly understand their complex characters. No moment in Land & Sea was imposed by Chris onto the actors. Every action was carefully placed and discussed.

The process of searching for an internal allegory through exploration of images continued through the second and third week of rehearsals. When each scene was revisited, new possibilities were discovered. Slowly but surely, an over-arching story was burgeoning to reveal itself brilliantly. Characters were taking clearer shape, as the understanding for each character’s function in the play grew. Chris then began to direct the actors in a more traditional mode. One of the big tasks in directing is finding the action behind each line. For example, if character A says “stop it, you’re killing me” to character B, the scene could be read very differently depending on whether character A delivers the line with the action ‘to seduce’ B rather than ‘to plead’ with B. This is an ongoing process; Chris and the actors constantly experiment with different actions on different lines to find the most interesting and appropriate result.

Over second and third week, the creatives were also busy. Hilary (on top of attending rehearsals) was collating and mixing the recorded sound design for the show, the production crew were building the set, Geoff was crafting his lighting design, and Wendy was finding more and more set pieces and props. Geoff and Wendy also regularly visited the rehearsal room, as the direction of the show took on a clearer shape. This included attending all of the full practice runs of the show, which usually occurred at the end of each week.

By the beginning of the fourth week of rehearsals, the overarching story behind the text, and a large percentage of choices about actions and blocking had been locked in. In this week, each scene is visited in length for the last time, before tech and dress rehearsals take priority in production week. Timing, precision and detail were the primary focus of this week. The actors had learnt their lines by the start of this week, so they were no longer holding their scripts. This meant that they can put more focus on responding and reacting to the other actors, which added a new level of intensity to the work.

The rehearsal process finished with the production week which is usually full of late nights and take away food as everyone is working hard to polish off every element of the show. The construction of the set, costumes and foyer and lighting grid was finished in this week. The sound system was installed. Chris plotted through lights and sound with Geoff, Hilary and Lucie Balsamo the stage manager, who runs the tech during performances. Chris took great measures to besure that every single light will shine at just the right intensity, and that each sound cue will be played at the correct volume, at the right time, and for the right length of time. Set changes and transitions between scenes were also rehearsed mercilessly in this week - and once you see Land & Sea you’ll understand how big a task that was. Badly timed lighting or sound and technical disasters can ruin a show, so it’s vital to ensure that these elements all cohere seamlessly. This time-consuming process takes a lot of hard work, but its necessary.

The first dress rehearsal (when the actors are in their costumes on the finished set for the first time) is thrilling. The set, costumes, sound and lighting will lift the imaginary world of the play into a wonderfully palpable and tangible place. Then it’s just a matter of running the show many times to ensure that the acting, live music and sound/lighting cues are consistent, and so that Chris may add small finite details to the actors performances.

Thomas Conroy in Land & Sea. Photo: Chris Herzfeld

Preview performances are essentially dress rehearsals with an audience. The energy of a show completely transforms once you have an audience in the theatre. Giving the actors a chance to practice running the show with an audience is important, so they don’t feel too awkward on opening night.

Last, and certainly not least, there is the opening night. After which, Chris, Nicki, the actors, Hilary, the creatives and the crew will have a well earned drink for all their hard work. The first creative development of Land & Sea happened two years ago, so its been a long and exciting process for Chris and Nicki.

Nicki, Nescha and Geordie Brookman on opening night. Photo: Jonathan Van Der Knaap

One thing that I do know from my limited experience is that no matter how much work you put into a show the artists working on the show will always feel as though there is more to discover. More to unearth, portray, reveal, more details to add, or different ways that a scene could be played. I don’t think I know any director/actor/designer/writer who has ever said that they felt that their show was perfect or complete. This eventuality is unavoidable as perfection is impossible and artists will always be their own worst critics. But it’s what theatre such an exciting and inexhaustible challenge. It reminds me of a wonderful strange loop:
Hofstadter's Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.

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