The true beginning of our end

“Hello. I don’t know if you remember but we met at the BBC Shakespeare launch”. The first person I set eyes on when entering the Barbican last week was none other than Simon Russell Beale. Although the Tower Dreamteam had met intermittently in the preceding weeks this was to be the evening when everything started gearing back up for our performance week of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. It was, I felt, rather a good omen, to bump into someone who had taken such an interest in the project previously and sure enough he enquired after the health of the production and wished us all good fortune as we moved forward. I have to say this did put me in a very good frame of mind for what was to come.

This first rehearsal of the final push was very much getting back up to speed. We ran through all the scenes in an upstairs room of the Barbican (the one where we had part of our very first audition) and were universally relieved to discover that the words, moves and bits of business seemed to have been retained.

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ASM Lindsey explains the mysteries of the cue light system

The next evening we returned to another old haunt; this time it was the RSC rehearsal rooms in Clapham. Here awaiting our arrival was Kim (Assistant Director) and Lindsey (Assistant Stage Manager). They gave us an overview of what we could expect in the next ten days and dealt with any admin aspects which were relevant to us. Lindsey also explained to us the mysteries of the call light system – no barging on stage whenever you feel the moment is right but a carefully regulated system of entrances and exits controlled by the stage management team. Then it was into a warm up and a concentrated look at our first scene. Despite the fact that we have looked at this section on quite a few occasions it was amazing how much there was still to be found in it. Kim, of course, was able to bring much extra understanding acquired as the tour had progressed. We must have worked on this section for a good couple of hours and as it is almost a duologue between Bottom and Quince the rehearsal was tiring but exhilarating.

For Thursday’s rehearsal (Clapham) we were joined by the lovely Polly Bennett (movement) and the redoubtable Michael Corbidge (voice) there to help us with the physical and vocal aspects of our work. We did plenty of stretching and limbering up (muscles and vocal cords) culminating in us trying out the Bergomask. I don’t think that I’ve made any secret of the fact that this routine is the bit which I have least confidence in. But a quite wonderful thing happened when Polly told us we had absolute permission to get the whole thing wrong as long as we stayed in the moment and enjoyed what we were doing. Suddenly there was a sense of liberation and – for the first (hopefully not the only) time – it went through without a hitch. We then concentrated on Pyramus and Thisbe for the rest of the evening. A lot of extraneous (and comforting) “business” was stripped out and some new ideas put in. Maria received particular praise for the prologues and, coached by Michael, I was encouraged to open up and let rip in the big speeches. Another full and exhausting/exhilarating evening.

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Heads full of Shakespeare

Friday (Clapham, again) saw the return of Erica into the fold. What a joyful moment that was to see her positivity and boundless energy being displayed. She had many tales from the tour and helped us to reach new levels in the work we are doing. The concentration this time was on the forest rehearsal scene. While this was already in pretty good shape some trimming, tightening and rearranging helped the scene to flow much better and gain in quality. By now I think we could safely say we felt in a good place but, of course, when you’re working with a professional company the imperative is always to stretch for just that little bit extra.

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But still loving it

So 12 hours of rehearsals and then the big one – an all day Saturday rehearsal back in the Barbican rehearsal room. Adam was called first to run through his final Thisbe speech. Then Karen came to work with me on the Titania scenes. I was generally pleased with the ways these went but can’t wait to get to do these again with the full cast on the proper set. The rest of the team arrived and we tried some variations on the scene where the Mechanicals await Bottom’s return. A key aspect at this stage is to make absolutely certain about entrances and exits especially – as stated above- because of the cue light system. It was nearly lunch break so just time to run through my monologue a few times and familiarise myself with the ebb and flow of this particular piece.

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Some hempen homespuns

After lunch we ran through all the other scenes (usually several times) picking them apart and reconstituting them again until everything flowed well and we felt comfortable with what we were doing. Just time for some sage advice from directors Kim and Erica before departing for home and the anticipation of the big week itself. I still can’t quite believe that what is happening is actually happening (in that sense I feel very like Bottom himself). Whatever happens now it has been an honour, a privilege and an absolute thrill and in the words of a character with Bottom like tendencies we now move:

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My intention over the next week is to try and write up a daily bulletin of the previous day’s events. This will all depend on what time is available. I know, for instance, that both Monday and Tuesday will be two 12 hour days so any writing will need to be fitted in around this. Anyway, do look out for the daily missives from Planet Dream and hope you’ll be able to come and see us in the next few days. Bottoms up!


This week the  production is  at the Barbican in London– click on the image below to reveal full details.

 

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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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 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