Two quite different but ultimately interrelated dream experiences this week. One related to The Dream and the other more like A Dream but both fascinating and adding to the sum total of theatrical/knowledge skill.
Those who are regular followers of this blog will know that it had been a hectic few days on the A Play For The Nation project the previous week as the Tower team hastened to complete Task Two ahead of “real life” commitments. Two days after filming our effort we had our first face to face session with RSC director Erica Whyman. Erica is Deputy Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the driving force behind the unique theatrical venture which is this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Although David (our team director) had attended a Director’s Day in Stratford upon Avon some weeks back and we have had online meetings, it was the team’s first time with Erica after our final audition some months ago – since, then, of course, much water has flowed under a myriad of bridges. So our first task was to reintroduce ourselves, give a potted biography of our experience and outline everything we were looking forward to about the project (that was easy – everything!)
Finally, we were asked to raise any questions or pinpoint any concerns we might have. Quite apart from the usual fear of not coming up to the mark (a particular condition of the species known as Amateus Dramaticus) we were able to enquire about the TV documentary filming, the involvement of the schoolchildren and the members of the professional cast. Erica patiently allayed any concerns we might have – I’m sure she’s either heard or will be hearing this stuff from all the other groups too – and reassure us that if anyone’s head was on the block then it was hers and that we were to enjoy the experience and become as involved as possible. It emerged that a great deal of the rehearsals starting in January will take place in the RSC rehearsal rooms in Clapham. All the amateurs have been given an invitation to attend any of the mainstream rehearsals they can; the location is, of course, a real bonus for us here in London. Like so much else in the project this is another aspect which is going to provide a chance of a lifetime to follow professionals at work and watch the production grow. Personally I’m clearing my diary as much as I am able.
After the discussion it was time to get down to some actual work – if having such fun can be labelled so mundanely. Following the submission of our Task 1 videos, Erica put as through our paces to improve upon and develop the work we had already carried out. We were encouraged to explore alternative ideas and try different interpretations of our speeches. We saw how the dynamics of a scene changed by introducing a “listening” character into the frame. So Maria altered the dynamics for Al of Claudio’s speech from Measure For Measure by providing a silent foil as Isabella; Al then embodied a silent brooding Leontes for Adam’s The Winter’s Tale speech by Hermione. I got to harangue Erica and the rest of the group as a distraught Mark Antony – very liberating being able to rant directly into an audience member’s face (sorry, Erica) and something I was able to put to good use just a couple of days later (see the second half of this blog post). For me possibly the biggest challenge of the night was lying still on the floor as a “dead Pyramus” while Adam ran through Thisbe’s final speech; why is it that an itchy nose and cramp in the leg always develop at such inappropriate moments?
Now, I’ve directed a few plays in my time (29 at last count) but this short session certainly demonstrated a highly positive and productive way of doing things. I think we in am dram land are generally up against such time pressures that we don’t always have the leisure to allow our actors to fully explore alternatives. Hence we end up with the “stand here, move there, say it this way…” school of directing; even when we know that isn’t what we should be doing. I do personally try to avoid this over-directive approach (time frames permitting) and try to work by these maxims laid out by Alan Ayckbourn in his excellent book, The Crafty Art of Playmaking:
- Directing for me is largely responding to the needs of others
- A choice made by the actor is worth five imposed by the director
- Directing is about creating an atmosphere in which others can create.
So it was especially encouraging to see that Erica seems to have a similar approach. She was an enabler rather than what might be thought of as a traditional director encouraging others in the group to lob in thoughts and ideas; in a very short space of time she began to draw the best out of us. All in all, then, an excellent evening which was inspiring, engaging, encouraging and a very positive foretaste of what is hopefully to come.
Later in the week I experienced a theatrical sensation and one with its own dreamlike qualities. Those of you living in the capital and interested in theatre will know that THE hottest ticket of the season is to be a passenger on the phenomenon known enigmatically as You Me Bum Bum Train. Only 70 lucky souls per performance are able to become passengers and having failed to secure a ticket the next best thing (and it really IS the next best thing) is to participate as a volunteer; some 450 are used every night to create the experience – forget the old adage about the show being cancelled if the cast outnumber the audience! As a volunteer you can just rock up and take pot luck on show night but by going on the website and signing up I’d managed to prearrange what scene I would be doing and had been briefed accordingly…….
Now, you may or may not be aware that the whole YMBBT experience is deliberately shrouded in mystery, something which totally enhances the experience for all. One of my earliest theatrical memories is of being taken to see The Mousetrap and being forbidden not to reveal the ending to others. This event has taken it one stage further in that neither the end, nor the beginning nor actually anything that happens in between can be revealed and in case you’re getting concerned that I might be about to buck that trend – fear not; I too signed the confidentiality agreement. The first rule of YMBBT is that you don’t talk about YMBBT! In any case, for the most part, I still don’t know what happens – just the bit I was directly involved in.
All I’ll say about this was that it challenged my improvisational skills to the max. The scene began in the dark – very disorienting for the passenger who “arrived” suddenly and, of course, totally unaware of what or who they were going to encounter. At least I had the advantage of knowing that someone would be along at regular intervals but then as the scene started I would quickly have to adjust what I was doing according to the age, gender, apparent disposition, perceived level of orientation, etc. of the passenger. Try and imagine my own surprise when, at one point, I found Ant (of Ant and Dec fame) standing right in front of me. After his departure and a brief pause it was Dec’s turn; I’m guessing a double celeb hit is fairly rare!
Press reviews have praised YMBBT to the skies.
Only two days before Dominic Maxwell’s five star review in The Times had further fuelled my curiosity and I was not disappointed. As much of a challenge for the actors/volunteers as for the passengers, I came away both exhilarated and drained. Here was performance in the raw and total immersion with high level emotions for all participants. It was anarchic almost chaotic – quite far removed from what I imagine will be a much more disciplined approach for the RSC gig. Even so and on reflection I think it actually harked back to Erica’s points about how the dynamics of a scene change according to circumstances and how a performance needs to live in the moment. It would be fun to try another YMBBT scene or a few more variations on the old one and so although my commuting days are well and truly over this might just be a train I’d like to catch again.