Opening up the rehearsal process. Guest blog by LFS director Andrew Loretto

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A guest blog by director and Sheffield Theatres Creative producer Andrew Loretto, written on Saturday 5 May 2012: 

And here we are at the end of week 2 of rehearsals for the Sheffield Theatres/Chol Theatre co-production of the world premiere of LeanerFasterStronger by Kaite O’Reilly. Time has flown by in the rehearsal room, but so much has been achieved – including a rough stagger run on day 9.

The project has been an extraordinary two-year journey of collaborative research and discovery – and my aim now as director is to condense and continue this journey in rehearsals whilst also doing everything we can to realise a bold and vibrant staging of this remarkable new piece of writing, owned by all the artists involved. I want our Sheffield audiences to be thrilled, provoked and caught up in the rapid-fire sweep of the play’s arguments.

Having Kaite in rehearsals for the first two weeks has proved invaluable in terms of tackling nitty-gritty textual and contextual questions to help me, the cast and our designers achieve a shared understanding of the many worlds of the play. It has also been helpful for me to share physical and vocal thoughts on the floor with Kaite so that she can see the choices we are making and – crucially for a first staging – be part of those choices. One of the reasons I love directing new work is the joy of having the writer in the rehearsal room – that sense of taking collective creative steps into the unknown for the first time. It is both thrilling and daunting, but as director I place my trust in a wonderfully talented team who I know will get us to our destination.

Alongside interrogation of text, character, setting, emotion and logic, we are also constantly playing with the physical language of the play in response to Shanaz Gulzar’s intimate in-the-round design of video projections that interact with building blocks that can be constructed in various permutations – rather like an oversized child’s play set. I’m keen that we don’t try to literally show sporting sequences on stage. We are not trained, expert sportspeople, but rather a bunch of artists interpreting the essence of the athletes for our audiences. I also feel that a naturalistic physical language would not serve the post-dramatic nature of Kaite’s writing. So we have been playing with various conventions based on broken down scores, shared by all of the performers and interacting with the geometric shapes created by the dispersed set blocks. I have also been playing with the notion that an athlete is still when speaking to us whilst the movement happens elsewhere. This produces the sensation of the athlete being the external observer of him or herself. This serves the text well and helps the audience’s understanding of the thought processes of the athletes we encounter in the play.

We have a wonderful, intelligent and creative team of four actors – each brings generosity, enquiry and complementary skills to the process. My job is to get the cast to a place of embodying the same physical language whilst also celebrating their individuality. With this in mind, and based on the discoveries from rehearsals, our Movement Adviser Lucy Cullingford is charged with empowering the company with a choreographic language that we all understand and can use at various points on the play.

One of my driving forces for making theatre is how we can open up and make opportunities of excellence for others – it flows through all of my work, whether making a large-scale production with an eighty-strong cast of 12-85 year olds for Sheffield People’s Theatre, enabling a student company to tour work to international festivals, or opening up Sheffield Theatres’ spaces to local musicians, comedians, dancers and cabaret artists through the Sheffield Sizzler. It doesn’t matter to me what the scale, level or form of project is, we must find ways of opening up our processes and providing opportunities for others to learn, develop and show their own creative skills.

With this in mind, from the outset LeanerFasterStronger has been designed to carry a range of pedagogical opportunities, including multi-media workshops for local schools led by Chol Theatre, writing workshops and a facilitated play-reading with Kaite and post-show discussion with the company. We are also providing opportunities for members of Sheffield People’s Theatre to work with our cast and become involved in elements of performance as ‘supernumeraries’ (a new term for me). In my role as Sheffield Theatres’ Creative Producer I have been curating a season of workshop opportunities for students reading Theatre Studies at the University of Sheffield School of English. And so I arranged that their final workshop would interface with our rehearsal process.

This is, to my knowledge, unusual in mainstream British theatre practice. The rehearsal room is generally held up as the holiest of holies, not to be disturbed on any account and only accessible to those people most closely involved with the process. And yet we strive (or ought to strive in the publicly funded sector) to provide access to most aspects of theatre-making these days. So why not also the core of making theatre – the working rehearsal room? In the case of LeanerFasterStronger, I not only wanted to provide a workshop based on our process for the students, I wanted to lead a workshop that interfaced with an active actual rehearsal whereby the students would be making discoveries with the cast for the first time.

So it was today that our fabulous company of Morven Macbeth, Christopher Simpson, Ben Addis and Kathryn Dimery were joined temporarily by an extended ‘cast’ comprised of first, second and third year students Amy, Matt, Sarah, Esie, Jade, Naomi and Natasha. Together we were taken through a journey of ‘Viewpointing’ by Lucy, whereby we developed an improvised but highly detailed approach to interacting with the space, set and gestures related to the play. Combined with narrative, character and scenario parameters I set, we jointly developed a rich palette of physical choices that were full of pathos, optimism, moments lived, savoured and lost. The students approached Lucy and my collaborative approach to making work with open minds, focus and great humanity. Until this point our cast had worked as a team of four. Now they were fully able to be observer/participants and step back to observe the bigger physical picture. This was highly empowering and encouraging for the actors – who could see properly for the first time how the physicality of the play would work. Not only that, but the students were excited by the prospect that their ideas would feed into our process – and all of them were keen to come and see the show by close of play.

This got me thinking: why shouldn’t we open up all our rehearsal processes to local students? There cannot be a single creative process from which an aspect cannot be extracted to draw a line of genuine enquiry that can then be explored with students and cast together. Do it – as we did – in week 2. Enough time for the cast to have bonded and know the world of the play, but not too late for things to be set, and there still to be big questions to explore. And not at the delicate, later, highly focused and sometimes high-stakes stages of rehearsal.

Go on theatre directors – particularly those of you in the subsidised sector – plan for it in your schedules. And if facilitating workshops isn’t your forte, talk to your assistant director (if you have one) or a member of the venue’s creative development team. Do it now. What’s your excuse? If in doubt, here’s an extract from an email I received whilst writing this blog from a first year student who took part in our rehearsal:

 “I want to say a big thank you to you and your team for letting us step into rehearsals for the day. How refreshing it was to try something different in such a friendly and warm environment! Getting to do work with professionals was also a tad mind blowing! I found the work you were doing really different to all the training I’ve done in the past.”

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LeanerFasterStronger runs at Sheffield Theatres:  Wed 23 May – Sat 2 June  http://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/event/leanerfasterstronger-12/

Dramatic Structure – Raising the Stakes. Sat 26 May

Make high tension stories that really matter! Learn how to shape plays that will have an impact on your audience and make them care about your characters. Led by Kaite O’Reilly, award-winning writer of LeanerFasterStronger.

http://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/event/dramatic-structure-raising-the-stakes/

Taking the dramatic temperature of your script. Tuesday 29 May.     A practical checklist for effective and dynamic drama: tension, pace, plot, and emotional engagement. Led by multiple award-winning writer of this season’s LeanerFasterStrongerKaite O’Reillyhttp://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/event/taking-the-dramatic-temperature-of-your-script/

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