Q. What do you call it when you’ve got 14 Bottoms in a rehearsal room at the same time?
A. Anything you like – they aren’t listening – they’re Bottom!
Last Saturday was the first time the amateur actors who are playing this iconic role for the RSC’s A Play For The Nation project got together … but before we get to that, there were a couple of other events this week.
On Monday the Tower team and five other teams around the country gathered together for some feedback on the third preparatory task – their radio versions of the Pyramus and Thisbe section of the play. By now we were quite blasé about the setup having got used to the idea of hooking up electronically. Once again, the session was led by director Erica Whyman – it turned out that she was actually just down the road from us in the RSC office in Covent Garden.
Erica said she felt that all the groups had shown “brilliant dedication and effort” and that the results were “very creative”. She then proceeded to work through each group’s effort using appropriate extracts for illustration. When our turn came, Erica started by saying we had done two things particularly well….at which point the technology froze. When it came back to life she was talking about the second point, so we had no idea what the first thing was*. However, the second was that we had successfully used a variety of voices in creating the atmosphere of the audience watching the play within the play. Tom was particularly praised in this capacity as at times he was playing both the Duke and Starveling, talking to each other (thanks again to Leon for his editing wizardry); a clip was played of this section. Erica then worked her way through each of us in the team, commenting favourably on our individual renditions. I think it’s safe to say that we came off well in this analysis; this will give us increased confidence going forward.
After all the groups had received feedback Erica reminded us of the path we had travelled so far and pointed out that we were now at the end of Phase 1 of the process. She then gave us an overview of how the rehearsal process would work – complex to say the least – and then invited us to participate in a “bonus” task. This was to put together a very short video introducing ourselves to the professional actors in the company when they start work in January.
We decided to tackle this last task the very next evening and quickly conceived the idea of introducing ourselves while standing in front of various locations dotted around the area of the South Bank. So we visited sites such as the Millennium Bridge, the Globe and Southwark Cathedral to record our ten second pieces to camera. The task was more fun than it might sound as we grappled with the intricacies of filming at night (Adam’s bike lamp came in very handy) and trying to find reasonably quiet spots to record our pieces. We were accompanied by our regular BBC programme maker Andy who filmed us filming each other and who was able to give us a bit more of a lowdown on the documentary that he will be putting together. “Are you the BBC?” one passer by wanted to know. “Yes,” we were able to (reasonably) truthfully reply. The evening finished at the George Inn near London Bridge, by all accounts Shakespeare’s local. There was a surprise “secret Santa” and a modicum of merrymaking; as we departed we reflected that the next time we would meet we would be in rehearsal for real. OMG as they say nowadays!
However, for two us we hadn’t quite finished as there was one more aspect of Phase 1 to go. Both Maria and I attended a comedy workshop held at the RSC’s rehearsal rooms in Clapham. A somewhat unprepossessing building outside it was quite the reverse once we got in containing everything that an amateur could only dream of (pardon the pun!) That said I was momentarily alarmed to see a rather ominous winch/block and tackle arrangement fixed to the ceiling. Nobody had warned us about flying work! Eventually it dawned on me that we were in the rehearsal room used for the RSC’s current production of Peter Pan and Wendy and that none of us would actually be expected to take to the air.
The workshops were in two half days. Maria attended the morning session along with her fellow female Quinces and the two female Bottoms while I was in the afternoon session with the other male Bottoms. Both workshops concentrated on comedy technique though the exercises and approaches differed. The morning session was led by Sally Phillips (well known for her “Bear with” moments in Miranda as well as appearing in Smack The Pony and the Bridget Jones films). Our afternoon session was led by Nick Haverson who has played a number of key comic Shakespearian roles and who I recall fondly as Bingo Little in Ayckbourn and Lloyd Webber’s By Jeeves. Both of these warm and encouraging professionals really added value to our experience and seemed almost as excited as we all were. I can’t speak with any authority about the morning session but the afternoon was intense, challenging and in some instances highly dramatic. This comedy is a serious business!
In between the two sessions it was our first (and perhaps only?) chance to meet and mingle with our colleagues from across the country. Having conversed with many of them via social media it was rather like a giant pen pals’ convention as we greeted each other warmly, falling into instantly formed friendships with so many people of a like mind. Our day was made even more exciting when Erica announced that she‘d like to bring in “perhaps the bravest actress in the country”. The door opened and in walked our Titania, Ayesha. There was an audible intake of breath and a huge ovation. Many photos were then taken with our leading lady surrounded by a fine array of Bottoms (sorry!) and Quinces. If that wasn’t quite enough excitement, Maria and I also completed another short interview for the BBC documentary about our experience that day. Another exhausting but thrilling day in the life of two amateurs gearing up to work with the RSC – still can’t believe I can actually write that without finding it’s all a hoax!
*Subsequently we discovered that this was about capturing a feel of the 1940s in our piece (as this is when the production is going to be set this isn’t quite as bad as it might sound!)
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