Act One, Scene One: The First Rehearsals

I’m Emily, the actress playing Mary Brenham and Rev Johnson in Original Theatre Company's latest production - Our Country’s Good. When our director and producer Alastair asked me if I would take on the task of writing the company’s blog I was thrilled and flattered. I’d really enjoyed reading Rhys King’s Michael Simkins-esque no-holds barred blog for the company’s last tour. But what could I offer?

And what form should my blog take? After a little deliberation, I decided that rather than a daily diary or a life on tour memoir, 'Something About Mary' will be more a week by week insight into our process of rehearsals (and my personal discoveries within them) as well as a sneak peak into the joys and challenges of being on the road. No doubt with some blood, sweat and tears along the way. My readers, if I get any, I hope will be far reaching and varied but my aim is to make this blog particularly useful for drama students, teachers, or aspiring performers who may be studying the play or perhaps want to discover what a professional rehearsal process can be like.  
One actor’s experience: from page to stage. Something I would have enjoyed reading myself back in the days when the idea of acting for living seemed mysterious and out of reach.

But this is also for you, our audience. Without your support we would all be living on baked beans and reciting Shakespeare to ourselves in front of the mirror.

I arrived on cold drizzly Monday morning at our rehearsal studios in London’s old east end with a sense of trepidation and excitement. And that's despite the fact I’ve been acting professionally for nearly 7 years now and day one is always reliably and comfortingly formulaic. First, a meet and greet of cast and crew, obligatory tea and biscuits and the 3 degrees of separation chats (Oh, so you know Sally Scratchett?  Yes I worked with her husband in 1972 in a contemporary dance piece touring the welsh valleys – small world!). This is usually followed by a welcome introductory speech by the director and perhaps other members of the team discussing the design, followed by the rather nerve-wracking first company read-through of the play. 

But that’s about the only formula you can bet on, as every director (and actor for that matter) will have a different process for ‘how to rehearse’. Some directors will sit the company around a table for a number of days exploring the text, others will get straight down to ‘blocking’ (finding a shape for the movement of the actors around the set that tells the story best). Some will begin with character work, throwing you head first into improvisations which explore on-stage relationships, or perhaps delve into the imaginary life of the character outside of the play. I’m pleased to say that our first week was both a creative and thought-provoking melting pot  - a mixture of detailed analysis of the text, practical and imaginative ensemble improvisations and even a research and presentation project which gave us all chance to share knowledge of the social and historical context of the play.

Here’s a low down of our first week:

A focus on the text.
Following our first read through, we spent the next 3 days on a Facts and Questions exercise. This is a lengthy but valuable exploration of the play where the company sit around and read the play aloud, line by line and as a group call out any Facts that arise (e.g. Ralph keeps a diary) followed by any Questions that may arise from that fact (eg. How long has he kept a diary, how often does he write in it? Why does he keep it?  Is it therapeutic? Does he imagine anyone else will read it or does he use it to reveal his deepest secrets? What materials does he use to write it? Where is it kept? etc). We don’t attempt in any way to answer these questions at this stage, but rather write them down with a view to exploring them further in rehearsals or privately.

Song Time.
On Thursday afternoon we had a visit from the wonderfully talented folk singer/musician Tim Van Eyken who, after a short vocal warm up, lead us through two songs specially selected and adapted for our production: the beautifully poignant ‘Australia’ and the rousing sea shanty (about gonorrhea): ‘Fire Down Below’. It’s fun to get the company together for a good sing-song (even though at first the idea of singing in front of others always brings me out in a cold sweat). But importantly, these songs gave me a real taste of the ensemble power of this play – the sound of a lone voice singing a call followed by a blast of collective singers firing back a hearty response would lift any flagging spirit. You can have a listen to some of Tim’s work here:

Nearly every actor in OCG plays both convict and officer and Alastair lead us through two separate improvisations to get our creative juices flowing for each of our characters.
For the purpose of the officers’ impro, Alastair gave each of us an individual brief on a modern day version of our character. My character in the play is in fact not an officer but rather the colony’s appointed Reverend, who is concerned about Ralph putting on a production of ‘The Recruiting Officer’ because the content of the play seems to lack moral fibre.  For the purpose of our impro, I was to play the local Dean of the Cathedral at Bury St Edmunds. The scenario: we were all attending the Bury town council meeting to discuss the merits/difficulties of the latest council proposal -  to spend £20,000 on staging The Recruiting Officer with a group of amateur actors and local young offenders. My stance was to encourage the idea, but strongly suggest a production of Noah’s Ark: The Musical would be far more suitable!
I certainly relished my chance to put my tuppence worth in at the meeting, I enjoyed the status my role as the Dean gave me within the group, and the power and confidence it gave me to speak and be heard. I felt soon enough we were all debating our conflicting viewpoints with a real appetite and in some cases heated ferocity. In the mirrored scene in the play, Wertenbaker’s stage directions describe the officers debating with the ‘passion for discourse and thought of eighteenth century men”. I certainly felt we were discovering the passion for debating, whether the motive was to air a strongly fixed opinion or simply to enjoy playing devils’ advocate. But what did she mean exactly by ‘the thought of eighteenth century men?’ Maybe that would be further explored in our history research at the end of the week.

The second impro was to be a modern mirror of the convicts’ first rehearsal. This time my brief was to play a contemporary teenage version of Mary: a 17 year old first-time offender who had been arrested for being in possession of stolen goods for the boy she loves. She was shy and nervous about being brought in to rehearse this play. She was from a good private school and had been brought up well by loving parents prior to her arrest. She was not used to the bolshy and aggressive behavior of some of her fellow classmates in the Bury St Edmunds Young offenders drama group.

And so we played at being led through our first rehearsal by the long suffering amateur director and project leader Ralph (pronounced Rafe, of course). I found this was a really useful exercise for me in discovering Mary’s relationship with the other criminals she now shared her life with. I became acutely aware of the importance of self preservation - to survive in this environment I needed to know my allegiances. My protectors became Dabby (brash enough to scare off any threats made in my direction) and Wisehammer (keeping a quiet watchful and fatherly eye over me). As Rafe’s attention to me and his praise of my performance increased I found myself becoming physically and vocally more confident amongst my peers, yet still aware that I mustn’t relish it too much for fear of others becoming jealous and aggressive. I was also beginning to find physicality for Mary through her objective to look after herself.

Close your eyes and imagine a day in the life of a convict.

The project presentation.
Our Country’s Good is set in 1788 and spans a dauntingly vast array of historical, geographical, political and social issues. I was reassured by Alastair’s suggestion that we each research and prepare a presentation on one of the key issues to share with the rest group at the end of the week.

The topics included:
English and World Events, Transportation and the Crossing, Criminality in Georgian England, The Aborigines, Sex and Prostitution, The Navy, The Military, Georgian Theatre, The process of Flogging and Hanging, The role of Religion, and The Daily Life of a Convict…
It was a fascinating morning of factual insight as well as practical exploration (Jack’s exercise on how to perform like Garrick and Rachel’s real display of convict food rations were memorable highlights). You can of course always do this kind of research on your own: my personal preparation involved reading books such as The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally and The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes (both of which I highly recommend). But I feel there’s a huge advantage to this kind of communal sharing with the rest of the company. You begin to feel like you have a shared knowledge of the world that your characters all inhabit.

And it certainly got me excited for the task ahead of us.

Daily rations: Oats, bread and salted beef (demonstrated here by packets of Peperami).

But a little something called ‘Christmas’ was about to break us up for the week. Moving from the convict rations of bread and gristly beef to an abundance of festive indulgence, off we merrily trot. be continued in 2012.

Emily x 

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