Sit down and rehearse? On the face of it somewhat of an odd thought; rehearsing usually means getting something “up on its feet” and moving. Yet sitting down seems to have been the dominant mode for much of Week 2’s rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. Firstly there has been the type of sitting down which has been all about getting words learned. Secondly there has been the unusual experience of rehearsing by watching others doing the donkey work (!) via video link – a singularly innovative mode of working on this particular production.
Word learning is, of course, absolutely fundamental to an actor’s craft. It is the foundation of every performance and yet it can be mechanical, repetitive and even (whisper it, who dares) boring. The only thing to do is take a deep inward breath and buckle down. I’ve always subscribed to the view that paraphrasing is not really right and proper; the playwright has taken time and trouble to craft the dialogue and as actors we really should be paying her/him the proper respect due by learning it as accurately as possible – I’m aware even as I write that I’m setting myself up here! If that is so for other authors than it certainly is the case for Mr Shakespeare and especially when one is working for the guardians of his legacy – the RSC.
How the process of word learning occurs remains a mystery to me even after many years of going through the process. For as long as I can remember I have used the “read, learn, cover, say” method. This involves going through the printed text over and over again and using a sheet of paper to cover the words while going through them in your head and then checking that they are right. It is of course, extremely repetitive but it does drive things into the deeper parts of the brain. For some reason I’ve always found this easier to do on moving transport so the time getting to and from rehearsals has proved vital. It is this method which is forming the bedrock of the work on Bottom but given that the stakes are a little higher than usual for this production I have also been trying to use some other methods.
Running lines with a partner is always helpful. My good friend and fellow amateur actor of many years, Liz, has been gallantly helping me with that. She’s played Titania herself so that’s pretty ideal and she is keeping a gallant eye on the minutiae of the text as I stumble through trying to remember whether it’s “will” or “shall”, “could” or “can”, “have” or “had”. Another popular method is to attach actions to the words (hopefully the ones you are actually going to use onstage) helping to form a muscle memory and assist recall. This is one for the privacy of the home as it can look slightly bizarre in public.
Going all modern, I’ve also been using an app called Script Rehearser. This allows you to import the play text, record your lines using your preferred speed and intonation and then play the whole thing back pausing while you say your own lines; the app does the rest by filling in the other characters with synthesized voices. It’s clever but there are one or two drawbacks. The text recognition software can get a little muddled particularly with some of Shakespeare’s syntax and pronunciation. This leads to some unfortunate anomalies. So Hippolyta comes out as “hippo – litre”, it cannot recognize the name Hermia at all (each time it comes up the name is simply spelled out) and it has a slightly unfortunate take on how to pronounce the word “ass”(!) Most embarrassingly of all I was actually setting the whole thing up on a tablet while travelling on a train and did not have the headphone jack securely in place. I was configuring the voice reading my lines and had no idea that I was broadcasting to the whole carriage the phrase “Hello! My name is Bottom” over and over again. Heaven knows what my fellow travellers thought – I didn’t even get any interesting offers out of it!
Talking of modern technology, that has been very much to the forefront with the mainstream rehearsals this week. As I wrote in my last but one post the “mothership” took off for Newcastle and has streamed events from there with direct links to the teams in Glasgow and Leeds while the rest of us around the country tuned in for the broadcasts. This was a complete turnaround from Week 1 where the broadcasts largely came from London and we were somewhat spoiled to be actually in the room. It has to be said that our technology didn’t always work smoothly. Despite being in central London the broadband was erratic and we unfortunately lost the link on more than one occasion. One evening there was the bizarre sight of seven of us gathered round a small tablet trying to pick out who was who on screen in Newcastle and trying to take pointers from Erica and co as microphones fed back and the picture started to break up. I think it is all a deliberate cunning plan to instil in us the Blitz spirit and the make do and mend ethos of the post war years in which the production is to be set. In the same “can do” spirit, the RSC have now started to make all the broadcasts available offline for our later or repeat viewing which nicely gets round the problem of any broadcast breakdowns.
Last Saturday’s Bottom hub was also from Newcastle and for this I was able to watch online directly from home. Fortunately this was not a completely passive experience as those of us not actually present were able to ask questions and share thoughts through the comments facility. It was particularly interesting to see the second Bottom/Titania scene take its first faltering steps into the world. Can’t issue any spoilers but the ideas underpinning this scene are going to make it just a little bit special, I think. Hats off to Barry from Leeds for carrying off this first draft with aplomb and can’t wait to have a go myself.
So far so sedentary, but it wasn’t all sitting down; we have still had plenty of time to get up and do. On Tuesday we were able to take part in a mass warm up session led by Michael Corbidge (see previous post) and we have had time to run scenes too. This week we have been concentrating on consolidating the first of the four mechanicals scenes (tackled last week) and on their second scene where they rehearse their play for the first time. Running a rehearsal about running a rehearsal, having just watched someone else running a rehearsal about running a rehearsal may sound like something out of a Tom Stoppard play but at least the experience feeds directly into the emotions that the characters are experiencing so is all the more helpful for that. I also got to try out the first Bottom/Titania scene with our rehearsal Titania (Karen) and work on some of the things we had seen at the first Bottom hub the previous Saturday. This went quite well I think, though the sight of fellow Mechanicals, Tom, Al, Adam and Peta doubling up as the fairies was a singular experience; Peta was particularly naughty in affecting a lisp as the sprite Muthtardtheed!
So that’s about it for rehearsals – week 2. Next week the word learning continues, the rehearsal mothership returns to London, there’s a launch event at the BBC and we all continue to have the time of our lives!