One of the most fascinating moments in the rehearsal room is seeing what the director chooses to do first. On the first day of rehearsals a new group of artists gather together with a plethora of worries, concerns or perhaps completely at ease. Either way, how do you start? Warm ups? Table work? Open discussions? A mixture of all three? In our case, it was a doubly special day, as the first day of rehearsals was also the actress Pearl Chanda’s 21st birthday .
On Monday, after we’d said goodbye to the usual incredible army surrounding a Headlong show, the acting company began to set up a playground in the rehearsal room. Chairs, tables, piano stools, anything we could find was scattered across the 20mx10m rehearsal space.
Blanche then asked the actors to walk through the whole play, busking it rather than acting it. Every now and again we’d stop and chat. There was something relaxing about getting through the play so quickly. It somehow seems less of a mountain to climb, because let’s face it, The Seagull is one of the great plays in the canon. Busking it gave the actors the chance to exorcise any ideas they might have had in the run up to day one. Jogging our way through John’s text immediately shaped the two dimensional text on the page into three dimensions via the brains and into the bodies of the cast.
The company watched the actors in each scene from all perspectives, spreading themselves around the four walls of the rehearsal room, quietly taking in the decisions being thrown up into the air by the actors. There was a sense of fun and enjoyment in the room, generated by the instinctive responses that were being played out. It was a revealing and, at times, an extraordinary way of starting to work on the play. For a play which asks so many questions about the nature of theatre, it was a fitting start to the week by going back to the basics of characters interacting with each other in a space.
When we did stop we asked each other about how things read and how things seemed. We started to develop a language for talking about the play from a place of activity rather than sat at a table.
The idea of constellations began to become important to the way we’re thinking in the space and about how the characters talk to us as an audience.
One of the things I’ve been doing this week is to observe the actors working on the text with small pile of buttons next to me. This was a response to Blanche’s desire for the audience to read the constellations and configurations of the relationships in The Seagull like we read the night sky. So I’ve been collaborating with the cast and allocating buttons to each character. Asking actors to isolate and reduce their characterisation down to single solitary button, based upon initial instinctive thoughts, feels like a positive and safe thing to do. For Irina, a light green one encircled with a gold rim was chosen, a worn down dark green one from a cardigan for Masha and a large black one from a smart blazer for Konstantin.
I then started to place these buttons in configurations together based upon the work of the cast.
These have created an interesting archive for the process; a collection of images and shapes which somehow seem to make sense even at this early stage.
Perhaps they won’t be of any use further down the line but they’ve certainly got the cast thinking about the piece as a larger piece of fluid choreography, delicately balancing the space.
We have of course spent some of the time sat down, talking about the play. These conversations have been in small duet groups:
Nina & Konstantin
Konstantin & Irina
Semyon & Masha
Yevkeney & Polina
Konstantin & Petr
Trigorin & Irina
Nina & Trigorin
These have taken place over the week and the conversations have brought up all sorts of cultural references from the game playing in Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf to the paintings of Munch, gothic art all the way to Jack Nicholson’s performance in About Schmidt. The vast reaching tentacles of John’s version have set in motion lots of exciting and explosive conversations. For me, one the most interesting aspects of John’s version is his ability to distil what are traditionally four or even five lines of Chekhov’s text into a single word or quick fire exchange. This is asking the actors to work incredibly hard to articulate and story tell in every possible and tangible moment.
Some of these conversations have lasted hours, asking endless questions and exploring past, present, future moments through the spinal cord of the characters.
Stay tuned for snippets of these references as we progress through the next three weeks.