The calm before…

The tour fairy baton
Tour baton

It’s been a long wait for us at Tower to pick up the baton (and there literally is a small fairy baton being passed from group to group) on A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. However we can console ourselves that the high point is still yet to come and that anticipation surely sweetens the reward (that’s what we’re telling ourselves anyway). When I was recently looking into the London Blitz for the blog post on our venue, the Barbican, I was reminded of the period that preceded the firestorm as the “phoney war”. I guess the waiting is a bit like that- a sense of anticipation building and a desire to get things moving. Either that or it reminds me of revising heavily for an exam and wanting to get in the exam room before forgetting it all.

During this period of relative calm, however, we have kept ourselves up to speed by having the odd rehearsal, using social media to follow the exploits of other groups, reading invariably laudatory reviews online and paying visits to our nearest neighbours. Following my trip to Canterbury a couple of weeks ago, Adam (Flute) and Al (Snout) took themselves off to Norwich’s Theatre Royal; the production featured local group The Common Lot. Over to roving reporter Adam Moulder:

Adam and Al Norwich
Flute and Snout go travelling

It was with boundless enthusiasm that Al and I took the train to the fine city of Norwich for a taste of the next chapter of the RSC’s tour. I was particularly over excited as I was returning to my university city and this would be my first viewing of the production in all its glory, having missed the Tower teams jaunt to Stratford Upon A. After a quick reminisce around the city, a beer and some lovely food, we took our seats for the show.

 Before it had even begun two fair ladies to our right jokingly asked if we were going to be rowdy. We got to talking and eventually explained that they were sat next to a Flute and a Snout from London supporting our fellow players and gathering research. Turns out one of the ladies was due to be on a date with her husband but, not being able to find a babysitter, had come with a good friend instead. Shakespeare, a play for the nation, except babysitting husbands!

 But to business; the music started and the next couple of hours were truly magical. For me the additions of costume, full music, proscenium arch staging and schoolchildren were all new and enhanced the production to a beautiful extent. It was also wonderful to see all the mechanicals scenes performed by our ‘Common Lot’ colleagues with such skill, comedy and Norfolk touches! The words ‘here’ and ‘hear’ in a thick Norwich accent surprisingly jumped out!

 Owen, Norfolk’s best Bottom, was superb and his audience acknowledged this. We were there on the Thursday evening which meant a Q&A followed between the actors and audience, and we could tell the Norwich audience had enjoyed the RSC production immensely but above all were so proud of their local ‘amateurs’.

The Common Lot as Shakespeare's Rude Mechanicals. Credit - Topher McGrillis
The Common Lot gather around Owen’s Bottom (sorry!)     Photo by TopherMcGrillis RSC

 It was also delightful to see the professional cast and crew in the pub afterwards (I hadn’t seen them for over two months) and be welcomed into the touring gang with open arms. But last word must go to the Norwich mechanicals, who, as well being superb on stage, were so friendly, humble and encouraging as we shared a few ciders long into the night. There’s no doubt that my nerves have ratcheted up a notch as our performance week creeps on apace but I learnt so much from the production at the Theatre Royal that my excitement and desire to work hard in our final rehearsals in the hope of producing a similarly entertaining result have also increased no end. “We stand like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start. The game’s afoot: Follow your spirit, and… charge.”

Thanks Adam. As I found in Canterbury the bar has been set high indeed. Meanwhile what have I been filling my time with? Taking a tip from some of my colleagues in other groups I thought it was high time I went and observed some real examples of equus africanus asinus so it was off to a local branch of the rescue centre Redwings situated at the Ada Cole stables in Epping. I actually have a horse adoption certificate there and have done for years. It started out as a gift while playing Albert the carthorse in Alan Bennett’s version

Albert
Albert the carthorse – Wind In The Willows

of The Wind In The Willows – yes, I do have previous form as a member of the equus genus. This was some years ago (thanks, Diane, if you’re reading this) and I’ve kept it up ever since and generally visit a couple of times a year. Though there are lots of animals to interact with I spent most of my time this time round observing their four donkeys, one of whom, appropriately, was a real Cockney charmer called Del Boy. Donkeys seem both mournful and sprightly at the same time, have deep soulful eyes and some endearing little habits which just might find their way into the final performance. Fortunately they were just being brushed and fed at the time of the visit and as fairy massages and food play a large part in one of the Dream scenes what I was able to observe will be really useful.

I also spent a couple of useful hours recently at the Shakespeare In Ten Acts exhibition at the British Library. Lots of books and manuscripts to see and even an example of WS’s own handwriting in a scene from an unproduced play about Thomas More (Ian McKellan performed the speech at the Stratford Shakespeare Live celebrations recently). Plenty of other good stuff too about the contexts in which various plays have been performed across SITAthe last four centuries. Dreamwise there was a recreation of the white box set from the celebrated Peter Brook version of the 1970s. This exhibit also had photos, costumes and even props from the production. As usual with any exhibition there was simply too much to take in but if you’re a Bardophile and in the Kings Cross area I can thoroughly recommend this (it’s on until September)

One of the perks of working with the RSC has been being invited to events at the BBC. Having already attended their Shakespeare season launch and (very briefly) being seen in The One Show we were asked to a special preview screening of their version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream shortly to be shown on prime time television; and I stress it is a version. No spoilers but the text has been cut and runs at just 90 minutes. It also takes some interesting and surprising liberties – I was particularly intrigued by the concept underpinning the character of Hippolyta – and the whole has the unmistakeable whiff of magic sprinkled on it by creative genius Russell T Davies. BBC DreamThe screening was followed by a Q & A with Maxine Peake (Titania), John Hannah (Theseus), Paapa Essiedu (Demetrius) and Mr Davies himself. After that it was time to mingle and star spot – Elaine Paige, Richard Wilson, Esther Rantzen and Alan Yentob to mention a few. I had an interesting chat with Russell T Davies about the RSC project (he called it “a very exciting idea”) and he fondly recalled working with our Titania, Ayesha, in a Doctor Who episode Planet of the Ood. Apparently he’s had plans to put together a film of the Shakespeare play for many years now – it will be interesting to see how it goes down when it is shown publically.

The last event I wanted to mention is one in which I didn’t even participate but demonstrates the generosity with which the RSC have gone about this project. By way of a thank you to all the original companies which auditioned, the RSC announced their intention to run a Saturday morning workshop for them. Knowing it would be a popular event the immediate Dreamteam decided to take a back seat and let others get stuck in. So many thanks to participant and second roving reporter Ruth Sullivan for the following insight:

We had a super time on Saturday with voice and movement coaches Cathleen and Sinead. Several London-based amateur groups met up in the Green Room of the Barbican before being split into two groups and whisked away for the first session. As Tower made up the majority of the participants, we were in our own group with  a whole mixture of Tower members old and new. 

Lots of stretching, breathing and yeehaa-ing was followed by a look at a scene between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, going round the room saying a phrase each or even just a word, emphasising the words we thought were most important. Then a hugely instructive demonstration of Lady Macbeth’s speech with ‘interruptions’ from Macbeth – well done to participant Penelope.

We were disappointed not to spend more time looking at text but after a quick coffee break it was time for a movement session, spending a lot of time walking round the room in straight lines and curves, with broad or focussed perspectives, muttering lines to ourselves and observing how our intentions changed depending on how we walked. Fascinating to see how such a simple thing as walking in a particular way can change the way you speak. The physical can so often inform the verbal.

The session came to a close with a look at how the dynamics of a scene – one person walking to a chair, one person following walking to a window – can be affected by walking in a combination of curves and lines. Again, so simple and yet so effective.

Thank you to the RSC for letting us have an insight into their world and teaching us lots of useful techniques in the process. They assured us they’ll be continuing their relationship with the amateur world so watch this space! 

Thanks Ruth; sounds similar to some of the stuff we got to do. I can only say that if they had as much fun and learned as much as we have done over the last year then they will have been very fortunate indeed.

So that’s everything up to date and tidied away ready for the final big push which begins imminently. It is with not a little trepidation that we look forward to the next couple of weeks but as the preparation has been long and thorough we can do so with a degree of confidence ( he said with fingers crossed while touching a piece of wood and clutching a lucky piece of heather). Look out for even more regular updates on the blog in the big week next week as you continue to share this wonderful experience with us. As Adam said above…”Charge!”


This week the  production is  at the Hall for Cornwall in Truro– click on the image below to reveal full details.

Truro


 Tower Theatre‘s curent production is:

London

Evenings at 7.30 Tuesday 17th – Saturday 21st May

Matinées at 1.00 Thursday May 19th & Saturday May 21st

The Tower Theatre performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Barbican

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The calm before…

A crew of patches met together to rehearse a play

Week 3 of rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation and the pace is now picking up. For Tower Theatre it meant much time spent south of the river Thames and an increasing familiarity with the environs of Clapham as we journeyed there to practice our scenes.

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The amateurs watching the pros rehearse

On Tuesday we were treated to watching the professionals at work as Erica explored the possibilities thrown up by the start of Act V. This last act is when the play within a play gets performed by the Mechanicals so it was extremely helpful to have the pros putting it into context for us. What struck me most forcibly were the number of possibilities which they found within the text and the relish with which they explored them. This section formed the broadcast which went out to the groups throughout the country. Then it was our turn and we worked with Assistant Director Kim on Quince’s two prologues in which the plot and characters of Pyramus and Thisbe are introduced to the Duke’s court. This meant the bulk of the work fell squarely upon Maria’s shoulders while the rest of us had some fun experimenting with our roles in dumb show. Several versions later we felt we had definitely got somewhere with it. One significant practical difference between pro and amateur rehearsals quickly manifested itself when the stage management team produced a number of props for use in the scene and we were invited to make selections – I, for instance, was offered a choice of four (FOUR!) different swords. I can remember doing productions in the past where key props just about managed to appear by dress rehearsal, never mind in the early stages of practising. RSC – you’re just spoiling us now!

On Wednesday evening another first was attempted as there was “a three way” hook up between London, Blackpool and Stratford so that scenes could be tried out in various configurations. Although most of the venues have proscenium arches, Stratford itself has a thrust stage and they are all, of course, different widths and depths. The Barbican (our venue) has one of – if not the – widest performance areas so it was good to find that one of the rooms in Clapham has been marked out with that particular configuration for us to practice in. This is the aptly named Bottom rehearsal room (as in top, middle and…but a nice piece of serendipity all the same).

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Nice of the RSC to personalise the rehearsal space

Thursday was an extended day for me as I took the opportunity to go in early and observe the professionals rehearsing the lover’s scenes. While they only interact with the Mechanicals at the very end of the play it was very interesting to see how another key aspect of the piece has been developing. Laura, Mercy, Jack and Chris (who play the four roles) worked intensely with Erica trying a myriad of variations until hitting on combinations of interpretation with which they all felt comfortable. What occurred to me was i) the fun they had in trying out various combinations and ii) the amount of discussion and thought that went into proceedings. In “amateurland” time pressures often take their toll and far from having all day to get a scene right it is often a case of cramming in a couple of hours after a full working day. In the afternoon the rehearsal continued with Sian the movement director and AD Kim. Having more or less blocked the scenes in the morning, the afternoon was all about finessing and nuancing. The day finished with the arrival of several other professionals to rehearse the Bergomask (the dance which happens just before the play concludes). Great fun to watch – especially Kim busting moves as a stand-in Bottom.

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The young lovers

Then, in the evening the Tower team gathered in the aforementioned Bottom rehearsal room to try two of the Mechanicals’ scenes – one of which we had never tackled before. Inspired by what I had seen earlier, I found it much easier to let go of any set notions about how a scene should look and be played and tried out a number of variations of what we were doing. Meanwhile upstairs another tri-cornered broadcast between Truro, Kidderminster and London was going ahead with the Mechanicals’ professional understudies in attendance. If you’re wondering why we weren’t watching, this was a conscious decision – sometimes it’s better to just get on and do. In any case the recordings of the broadcasts are being made available for us online to watch at our convenience. Alongside these recordings we are also due to have access to a number of digital lessons. So far we have had examples of a vocal warm up, how to sing Bottom’s song and the choreography for the Bergomask dance. I’m just waiting for the one that teaches the ancient art of braying like a donkey!

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A posterior of Bottoms (and a rogue Quince!)

The last rehearsal of the week was the Saturday Bottom hub and what a gathering it proved to be. Nine Bottoms in the same room (plus one at the other end of a camera in Cornwall) at once may seem like overkill but as someone pointed out “You can never really have too many Bottoms”. Ayesha seemed to take this all in her stride, one minute acting opposite Stratford Bottom (David), the next with Canterbury Bottom (Lisa) before turning her attention to Norwich Bottom (Owen) and Cardiff Bottom (Steven). She even managed a brief scene with Truro Bottom (Peter) through the magic of the Internet. At one point everyone in the room attempted the Bergomask dance (see above) for the first time; I need to take my time with something like this so will definitely be studying the digital lesson carefully.

And that was it for Week 3 – halfway through rehearsals already! A slightly scary thought especially, I suspect, for the groups who are early on in the tour run.

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As a footnote there was one other highly enjoyable aspect to the week which was connected to the Dream2016 project. This was being invited to Broadcasting House for the BBC Press Launch of their Shakespeare 2016 season due to start on April 23rd. Seeing clips of the forthcoming programmes along with live turns from the Horrible Histories troupe, Hip Hop Shakespeare and an interview with David Tennant was a very enjoyable way to spend a morning. Greg Doran (commander in chief) introduced the RSC’s 2016 programme highlighting the Dream tour as its flagship production. This was followed by ten pupils from Eastbury school (one of the schools we will be working with) and some of the adult cast performing Titania’s lullaby from the show. Apparently they had had only one brief rehearsal – and they were utterly brilliant. My personal highlight was when Erica introduced me to Simon Russell Beale who will be returning to the RSC to play Prospero in a unique and highly technological take on The Tempest at the end of the year. He was lovely to talk to and he was particularly interested and intrigued by the Dream project. However, if I was hoping for any tips it was to prove disappointing. Despite extensive experience in Shakespeare’s work and the fact that it would seem ideal casting, SRB has never played Bottom or, indeed, been in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So then, Dream2016 Bottoms – 1: SRB – Nil!

A crew of patches met together to rehearse a play