One of the major tasks of any first week of rehearsals is to bring together a company in order to create a shared understanding of the text in question. For four weeks’ rehearsal and months of performances to follow, it’s important to cohere this group of people - all with their separate lives, experiences and interpretations of the play - and forge a collective idea of what the thing in front of us might mean, how it might work, and who the people on stage might be.
Tennessee Williams’ attention to detail is something you might not always realise when encountering his plays as an audience member; his meticulous plotting of locations in stage directions and references to time and historical events in dialogue can go right over our heads, focussing as we should be on the relationships of these characters and the dramas they find themselves in. When reading - and, subsequently - rehearsing his work, however, these details are impossible to miss, and have to be understood before the play can be tackled. Not only that, but having an idea of what happened in the past for these characters makes understanding their present a far simpler task.
Over the past five days, one of our main tasks as a company has been to pull together a timeline of events leading up to and included in the play. Our starting basis for this was a list of facts drawn from the text; green post-it notes for narrative events relating only to our characters (Laura getting her glass unicorn ten years ago, for example) and orange for larger historical ones (like the bombing of Guernica). With all these dozens of post-its written out, we could begin placing those with definite dates (the father left sixteen years ago) on the wall in chronological order. Around these, we could then arrange our other events and add those not explicitly mentioned (the Great Depression would have clearly featured prominently in the lives of these characters). In a very short time, we thus had a clearer picture of the world of these characters.
This work involves being a bit of a cross between Sherlock Holmes, Sigmund Freud and Simon Schama, playing detective, psychoanalyst and historian all at once. Making this timeline allows everyone in the room to come to a common understanding of the world we’re creating and the implications on the characters. How would the growing popularity of the telephone affect the Wingfields, for example? Was there a period of time following the First World War when things might have started becoming really tough for Amanda and her children? Putting these facts, figures and dates on the wall can help to start answering some of these questions.
Though this production will not strive to create a historically accurate, ‘realistic’ version of the world (not least because Tennessee himself says the play is “nonrealistic” and “poetic”), this attention to detail is nonetheless crucial in helping us understand who these characters are and why they act the way they do. The notion of cause and effect is an important one in drama, and helps us to understand how the people in front of us move from one moment to the next. And even if you don’t see this work on stage directly, exercises like this timeline help us to make more informed, careful choices in the weeks that come and, as a result, allow us to present the most honest, truthful and human version of the play we can.