The Unseen Sacred Space

For the last couple of days I have been searching for last minute rehearsal space that I can ‘hire’ for next-to-nothing. It is a situation I detest, but is all to familiar to theatremakers and artists who are creating work outside the mainstream…

There is a delineation in theatre between the Seen and the Unseen work of the performer. As a rough distinction, the ‘seen’ work is what happens on stage. This is the performance that is shared with the audience. The Unseen work is everything that occurs to make the performance possible, and of a quality that is worth sharing.

The Unseen work is predominantly what happens in the rehearsal room. Obviously, any actor worth their salt will be researching, exploring and line-learning outside rehearsals, but whatever they do elsewhere is tested, examined and refined in the rehearsal room itself. This is where the work takes shape. Ideas are discovered and exchanged, characters developed and scenes are worked. This is primarily the actor’s space, although it is shared by the full creative team. The responsibility for the room is held by the Director, who will usually delegate much of the management to the Stage Manager.

I have heard the rehearsal room referred to as a ‘sacred space’. Although characteristically theatrical and pretentious, this term captures both the importance and the delicate nature of the room. Everyone, whatever their trade, needs a private space to work and to develop ideas. The privacy is important because so much of the creative process is about making mistakes, or more precisely doing things wrong so that you discover how to do them right. The space needs to foster and support creativity, so should be comfortable, open and welcoming to everyone involved, with everything that the team requires to help shape the performance at hand.

In previous Theatre Delicatessen buildings we have hired rehearsal rooms to other artists and companies, and seeing the way that everyone creates their working space was fascinating. It begins with the essentials. Tea, Coffee, Milk, Mugs. Enough chairs for all. Perhaps a stage managers table. Soon, cuttings and pictures appear on the walls, as creative inspirations are sought and shared. Timelines are mapped out. The dimensions of the stage are mapped out in LX tape on the floor. Props begin to pile up, reaching the point when a props table is created. Pieces of rough set and costume are strewn left and right. Pages of discarded script and half-empty water bottles begin to cover every flat surface. It is exciting, energising and, to the outside eye, utterly mysterious.

The Unseen work is vital to shaping the performance, and relies on two precious commodities – time and space. The rehearsal room is when and where the work is created.

So why then do we collectively seem so willing to compromise with our ‘sacred spaces’?

The answer lies with that word precious. Buying people’s time and hiring spaces are both expensive enterprises. In financial terms, holding 3 weeks of rehearsals rather than 4 makes a huge difference to the budget. If you don’t have the money to pay people, then you are forced to work around their other commitments. At Theatre Delicatessen, the bottom line has always been ‘paid work takes priority’. You have to compromise.

Given the proliferation of ‘space’ that surrounds us, the temptation is always to try and find work-space that you don’t have to pay for. If you are working evenings and weekends, surely there is an empty office, a disused shopfront or a friend-of-a-friends studio you can get the keys to. Why pay for something that you can, with a little hard graft, get for free?

Of course, through the buildings Theatre Delicatessen manages we have access to our own rehearsal space. We are also part of the People at Play collective, and have access to rooms through them. That doesn’t mean, however that they are ‘free’. There is always a transaction involved, and if it ain’t money then it is something else.

More and more I would rather spend my time raising funds for a decent, well-serviced, warm, light rehearsal space than ferreting around looking for somewhere for free. The time and effort may end up being the same, but the difference in benefits might be huge. After all, in this as in so many aspects of life, you get what you pay for.

Rehearsals for Pedal Pusher at the Jerwood Space
Gareth Richardson and Tom Daplyn in rehearsals for Pedal Pusher at the Jerwood Space