Cheek by jowl

Last December, as rehearsals for the project were about to begin, I was pleased to be able to publish an interview with professional cast member Jack Holden (playing Lysander). As a way of celebrating the end of rehearsals and the opening performances of the production here’s a post which has been written in collaboration with another member of the cast, Chris Nayak (playing Demetrius). Many thanks, Chris, for your all your work on this and, of course, in the play.

One of the key elements of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation has been sharing and it is with that in mind that I wanted to investigate more closely a typical rehearsal session for one of the professionals in the cast. Essentially, via a milder form of job shadowing, I wanted to see what lessons such an exercise could deliver to those of us in the amateur part of the company. I am therefore grateful to Chris Nayak for allowing me to put him under scrutiny for one afternoon in Week 5 of rehearsals. In the ongoing spirit of co-operation Chris has also kindly agreed to add some of his own thoughts so I’ll be quiet for a minute and let him introduce himself.

Chris NayakCN: Hello! Very pleased to be able to contribute to this blog. I last worked for the RSC in 2015, and amongst the shows I performed in was The Christmas Truce, a new play which Erica Whyman directed. I really enjoyed working with her, so was thrilled when she asked me to be a part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation. It’s the kind of typically bold and adventurous project that she and the RSC are so brilliant at doing, and it’s great fun to be part of.

 

Date: Thursday 4th February 2016          Venue: RSC Rehearsal Rooms, Clapham, London

2.45 pm Chris has been called for a 3.00pm start and I find him in the Green Room with two fellow cast members Jack (Lysander) and Mercy (Hermia). They are discussing their arrangements for accommodation during the tour of the play. Chris, like many actors, is based in London and therefore will be away from his home for quite some time and he and the others are comparing notes about this. I hadn’t really thought about the logistics that are involved in going on tour and perhaps had some far-fetched notion that the actors would have all this done for them (not sure by whom – told you I hadn’t thought it through). Though they do indeed make their own final decisions about where they will lodge, the Company Manager supplies the actors with a list of “digs” which helps to narrow the field considerably. Transport to Stratford upon Avon and in between the various venues is also a topic for exploration – the movement of bulky duvets seems to be a particular preoccupation.

CN: Touring is, for me, one of the biggest mixed blessings of being an actor. On the one hand, we will get to visit some of the most interesting theatres in the UK. We will have to adapt the show for big spaces and small spaces, thrusts and proscenium arches. And we will get the chance to share this play with a huge variety of different audiences, some of whom will never have seen a Shakespeare play before. On the other hand, I like my own bed! I’ll miss my wife when we’re not in London, I’ll miss seeing friends, and there can be something quite tiring about being on the road. Luckily we’re blessed with a lovely company, who will hopefully make being away slightly more bearable.                 

3.00 pm Chris makes his way downstairs to the rehearsal room but the previous session is running a bit late and the etiquette is not to go in until “a suitable break in the performance”. Chris and his fellows are alert to not disturbing the creative process. Instead the conversation about touring broadens to include other new arrivals from the cast; Alex starts an impromptu singalong with his guitar.

CN: It sounds a bit precious maybe, but it’s so important not to go barging into the rehearsal room while there’s a scene in progress. When you’re discovering things for the first time, they’re at their rawest and most interesting, but your concentration can also be at its most fragile. I’d feel terrible if I interrupted a scene and ruined someone else’s work. 

Chris Nayak and shoe
Chris and that shoe

3.15 pm As a number of the musicians appear everyone goes through to the rehearsal room catching up on their day on their way in; some are running lines as a warm up. The designated scene is Act 3, Scene 2 right at the heart of the play. There is a lot of physical action in this scene as Demetrius and the other lovers chase through the night time forest steered in their actions by the impish Puck; Sian the movement director monitors closely considering theatrical effect as well as personal safety. There are also a number of music cues so a good deal of patience on the part of the actors is required while the musicians get the timing right. Chris is, I note, word perfect but for some unaccountable reason is playing the scene right shoe in hand. In a brief break while music cues are checked I take the opportunity to ask Chris about the rogue shoe. It appears it is not just a random decision but continues from something which happens in an earlier scene. That explains it then!

3.45 pm Another short break sees Chris checking the timing of his delivery to fit in with the music and ensuring that his fellow actors are comfortable with this. One thing that becomes instantly apparent is that Chris is a highly collaborative worker thinking what is best for the production as a whole. As the scene begins again there is a good deal of rolling around on the ground and some yawning practice – both of these (I assure you) are integral to the scene.

Chris & Jack
Chris and Jack Holden

4.00 pm By now the scene is being rerun for the third or fourth time though Chris’s own current position is recumbent on the floor; Demetrius is now asleep – charmed by Puck and the fairies (hence the earlier yawning practice). Eventually the whole scene is run through without stopping and Chris builds on what he has done previously to provide an even more rounded performance. Each time this scene has been run he has subtly built on what went before to make the final result seem effortless when it is, in fact, very fully thought through.

CN: Demetrius is a fascinating character. He’s very forthright, very front-footed, and yet has managed to get into a huge tangle of his own making through courting first Helena and now Hermia. Why has he abandoned one girl for the other? Our production is set in the 1940s, and Demetrius and Egeus (Hermia’s dad) are both military men – there’s a sense in which Demetrius’ choosing of Hermia is the young soldier wanting to marry the Colonel’s daughter because of what she represents, as much as who she is. But there’s more to it than that. He claims he loves her, and he goes to great lengths to prove it – so is he lying to himself, or is he, as Lysander puts it, a ‘spotted and inconstant man’? These questions – and more importantly, working out what to do with my footwear – are what I’m thinking about at this stage in rehearsal. 

Stella's workshop
Discussion on 1940s etiquette

4.35 pm Following a short tea break the attending actors gather chairs into a circle to have a session with Stella Moss the production’s historical consultant. She is an expert in the late 1940s period (when the production is set) and talks to the company about the hopes and aspirations of the time which sat alongside the sense of loss for those killed in the war and the rationing that, if anything, had become more stringent. She is also clear about the sort of social etiquette that existed for men and women and between the social classes at the time. Chris raises questions about National Service (Demetrius is to have a military background) and how his character’s treatment of Helena immediately before the action of the play begins would have been viewed by contemporaries.

5.15 pm Chris is back on his feet and the cast are rehearsing the opening of the play. What he has just been hearing from Stella can be immediately put into practice as Demetrius marches in and smartly salutes the Duke. There is also sheepishness present in his eyes as Lysander accuses Demetrius of toying with Helena’s affections. Although onstage for several pages Chris actually has only two lines to deliver. I ask him if it is difficult to establish a character with relatively little dialogue to work with; his reply is typically thoughtful.

CN: You can do a great deal on stage even when you have nothing to say. The great genius of Shakespeare is of course his language, and there’s nothing more powerful in this play than using his words. But it’s amazing how much you can do with just a couple of lines. And I think audiences – even those who go to the theatre very rarely – are incredibly adept at picking up things about a character based on the tiniest movements and gestures on stage.

 5.30 pm Erica discusses the scene with the actors and suggests various revisions that they might try. Chris is thinking about the shoes he will be wearing (there seems to be a theme building here) and discusses with Peter (Egeus) how to get the best sounding military click as heels are brought together. The second half of the scene is then run. This does not involve Chris directly as his character has exited but he watches intently, developing a sense of the arc of the full scene. It is here that Helena decides she will reveal Lysander and Hermia’s elopement plans to Demetrius; this actually takes place offstage and Chris will then have to play the result of this decision so close attention is being paid.

5.45 pm After further directorial thoughts the whole scene is run through. The intention is to provide a strong opening to the play and create a sense of danger and threat against which the later comedy will play out. As Erica explains she does not want the start to be cosy – after all it is about a young woman being forced into an arranged marriage and threatened with losing her life if she does not comply. She urges the actors to be alert to keeping the scene alive or “we risk losing the risk”.

6.00 pm Chris’s afternoon draws to a close. It’s been a pretty full session but he is still bouncing ideas around. Is he in a good place at this point in time; to my untrained eye, I’d say so!

CN: There’s always for me a mix of excitement and nerves at this stage. We’ve got a bunch of ideas that we’re really excited to put into practice in a performance. At the same time, there’s so much that still needs to be explored. And there’s the great unknown: we have no idea whether an audience will enjoy this production, and we won’t know until it opens. Ultimately that’s all we want – for people to feel they’ve had a good night out, and to feel that these words from 400 years ago are still speaking to them today.

Chris Jack & Mercy
Chris (Demetrius) and Jack (Lysander)                      restrain Mercy (Hermia)                      Photograph by Topher McGrillis

So what might be learned from all this then? Clearly much of the process will ring bells with amateurs even if we’re not able to approach it quite so intently. The interplay and collaboration with one’s fellows seems paramount; as in any good working team if everyone is pulling in the same direction things are going to be much smoother and more fulfilling. An alertness to the project as a whole also seems key – I have, unfortunately, met amateurs in the past who seem to have little idea as to what goes on in a play other than their own part in it (and sometimes not even that!) Finally, making sure one is “in the moment” on stage and alert to the nuances that others may be bringing to the scene seems to be essential. Oh yes, one more thing, make sure you’ve sorted out your footwear!


The current week’s performances are at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon. Click the side bar for amateur group details

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Cheek by jowl

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

It is not enough to speak, but to speak true

For the second of this blog’s seasonal specials I am thrilled to bring readers an interview with a member of the professional cast of A Play For The Nation. Jack Holden will be playing the role of Lysander, one of the four mixed up young lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

JackH

Jack’s love of performing started at the age of 7 with a camcorder-recorded spoof of a popular children’s BBC show entitled ‘Bloop Eater’. He was born in Tonbridge, Kent in 1990 and was educated at the Judd School after which he was awarded a place at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, graduating in 2011. Since then he has never looked back and has played in a range of productions including a couple of highly praised one man plays and a previous season with the RSC. His last stage outing was as Hastings in the Theatre Royal, Bath production of Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer directed by Lindsay Posner. Jack has also appeared on TV and radio and has recently completed his first feature film The Levelling made for BBC iFeatures; the film is set in the aftermath of the 2014 Somerset floods. Jack says that he “divides his time between Central London, Kent, the West Country and, given half a chance, Los Angeles”. You can find out more about Jack’s career so far by going to his website.

So Jack, how and, more importantly, why did you get involved with the Dream 2016 project?
I worked for the RSC at the end of 2014 to the beginning of 2015, performing in The Shoemaker’s Holiday and Oppenheimer, which then transferred to the West End. It was a dream come true to work for the RSC. When they asked me to audition for this new project I couldn’t say no; what an honour to be asked back straight away, and for such a fantastic show.

Oppenheimer

The amateur audition process was quite intense, what was it like for you?
My audition was very straightforward. I read a few Lysander scenes with Erica Whyman, and we talked about the project. I was given plenty of time in the room and it felt like I really got to understand the enormity and ambition of Dream 2016. They saw me perform in the previous Swan Winter Season, so they knew what kind of actor I was… I just hoped they’d want me to be involved.

Have you worked with Erica Whyman before?
I’ve not worked with Erica, but I’ve seen some of her shows and I’m always in awe. I can’t wait to work with her to create a beautiful version of Shakespeare’s most magical play.

What aspects of the project are you most looking forward to? 
I’m excited about: doing such a wonderful play, speaking Shakespeare’s words, seeing the cities of the UK, playing some beautiful theatres, meeting lots of talented and passionate people, inspiring people from all corners of the country to act, perform, play, write and create.

Anything that you are feeling less easy about?
I’m slightly nervous about what my digs will be like in each city!

This project is a real “one off”. How do you feel about working in a company that includes amateurs and schoolchildren as well as professional colleagues?
One of the reasons I wanted to do this job so much was because it would be a production with amateurs, children and professionals all mixed together. By touring to all corners of our nations, including people from all walks of life, the RSC is placing itself as a truly national institution making theatre with the people, for the people.  Amateur theatre is a vital part of Britain’s cultural identity. In this time of austerity, with arts and culture budgets facing deeper and deeper cuts, it’s never been more important to let everyone know that our theatre community, both professional and amateur, is fighting fit and making great art.

Tell us how you got into acting; did you work as an amateur before training?
I took GCSE drama at my secondary school, then acted in more and more plays at school, at clubs, with societies, until I was doing more acting than school work. I went straight from school to Drama School, but flirted with the idea of joining the RAF! A very great mentor to me at the time said, ‘If you don’t act professionally it’s not the end of the world; there’s nothing wrong with being a very good amateur.’ It was sage advice, and it took the pressure off me while I was auditioning for Drama Schools. I was lucky enough to get a place at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and I haven’t looked back.

War Horse

What have been your favourite professional experiences so far?       
My first ever job was playing the lead role (Albert) in War Horse in the West End for a year. It was a dream come true. I was 21, I was doing eight shows a week, it was the hit show in London.  I got to ride enormous puppet horses, fire guns, act within a truly brilliant cast. My first time at the RSC was awesome too. And I did a couple of one-man shows last year – they were great fun. And I just did my first feature film. SO many experiences to choose from!

What about Shakespeare?
The last time I performed in Shakespeare was Comedy of Errors (as one of the Dromios) for Fine Frenzy theatre company. It was so much fun. I detested Shakespeare at school because we always had to read it sitting down, bored rigid, not a clue what was going on. Shakespeare was written to be spoken, on a stage, standing up, dancing, sword-fighting, laughing, crying, kissing. I plan to do all of those in Dream 2016!

I know the amateurs can’t wait to start working with the professionals. Do you have any advice/words of wisdom for us?
Everyone gets nervous. Don’t try to stop your nerves; feel them and use them to energise you. Then think about what a beautiful thing you are doing; speaking four hundred year old words, to a crowd of excited human beings, gathered together on this night, in this beautiful room to hear you tell a story. What an honour!

 

Many thanks to Jack for taking time to share his thoughts in this blog post; we’ll be looking to benefit from your expertise in the rehearsal room as we enter 2016 – Dreamyear!

It is not enough to speak, but to speak true