Don’t try and get it right

Last week I did something I have never done before.

I rehearsed a play in a day.

The piece was ‘The Photographer‘ – a 10 minute short which was staged as part of the This Year It Will Be Different at Theatre503. ‘The Photographer‘ was conceived by Lisa Cagnacci, and I stepped into the breach at the last minute after a previous director dropped out. Thanks to some availability mix-ups, we were left with a day to bring the show up to speed.

In terms of time itself, the hours we spent were probably adequate for what was required. Six hours to prepare ten minutes tight, but arguably all you need. Doing it in one day, however, was as curious as I expected and provoked a few thoughts on the rehearsal process.

The day really brought to the fore how important it is to work with good actors. This sounds obvious and in a sense it is, but there is being good on stage and there is good in the rehearsal room. With such a short amount of time, a lot of my focus was on supporting the actors and giving them what they needed to shape their performance. It was therefore key that they could articulate what they were missing and what was unclear.

Over the 6 hours this process came into sharp focus. It became quite direct. Phrases like “Do you have what you need?” came to the fore. It reminded me how grateful I am when I work with actors who are not afraid to be clear and, if necessary, blunt about what they need from the director, or (which is quite common) when they simply don’t follow the note that was given.

Each actor will approach their role in an individual way. it is part of the director’s skill – and, I believe, their responsibility – to tailor their notes to the actor. ‘The Photographer‘ is essentially a duologue, and the two actors are very different in their approach, style and experience.

With one actor, it was clear that the more framework I could give the better. He approached the role from the outside in, starting with a clear vocal choice and physicality which then informed the character and textual choices he made. We were technical, made quick decisions went back and forwards with the blocking, but each time nailing decisions as we went.

The other was more gentle, offering early on in the process real people and archetypes on whom he could base his character. We swapped anecdotes and experiences from which the performance emerged. Each run, something new was offered. Eventually we arrived at a journey through the piece, safe in the knowledge that it would continue evolving throughout each performance.

A lot of rehearsal time is spent stumbling in the dark. This should be a positive thing. We are exploring, collaborating, testing ideas. One of things that frustrates me is when people get hung up on trying to ‘nail it’, to get the performance right. Sorry, but you aren’t going to get it ‘right’ until you get into the run itself. The rehearsal room is about getting it wrong.

Inevitably this relies on the luxury of time, but even with only a day to work with we learned more from ideas that we discarded than those we pursued. That is not to say that the process is meandering. There needs to be a clear direction of travel to ensure that energy is sustained and confidence is maintained – because you need the confidence and the energy to take the risks that creativity demands.

The truth is neither approach is right or wrong. Framework is important. Certainly when I began as I director I used to pride myself on collaboration, of an open working environment where everyone is creatively involved and ownership is shared. More and more I don’t think this is often the best way forward. Structure, framework and clear, bold decisions are more useful. The director’s is responsibly for the overall vision of the piece. The actors should be free to focus on their work, on the scene itself. The more you can offer them, the more free they are to play.

Obviously this will change and shift as the piece develops. Even in a day, I found myself tearing apart ideas and notes that I had given with such certainty in the morning. The is part of the process. As David Hare says, only bad directors are afraid to go back on notes they have given. And only bad actors pick them up on it when they do. As I often say, notes are like scaffolding. You put them up whilst you are building, and when you don’t need them anymore you take them away.

I have learned to be bold, make strong choices. Work in big, broad, brushstrokes. Create a strong framework so that everyone can stop worrying about getting it right. Then change you mind, go back on yourself. Throw out on Friday what you thought on Monday were your best ideas. If people trust you, and have confidence that each step is taking them closer to that final piece then they will go with you. That is exactly what rehearsal time should be used for – even if you only have a day.

The Photographer in rehearsals, with Jethro Skinner and Farshid Rokey (c) Roland Smith
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