In Rehearsal: Week 1

November 6, 2011

There’s a chance you’ve arrived here with no backstory, so here goes: Please Be Seated is a new theatre work for a large cast of young people. It’s a verbatim piece about love, framed by movement sequences which utilise the chair as a symbolic device. That’s probably the least interesting way of explaining it – please read back into previous posts to explore how the play was made. 

 The script was devised by one group of 2nd Year drama students, revised by a playwright, and is now in rehearsal with a new cast of young people at the end of their first year of uni.

only a chair knows the true meaning of rear vision

 Monday Oct 31

On Sunday I found three tiny plastic chairs in our local kerbside cleanup – just the prop I’d been looking for. A good omen!

With uni ‘classes’ over, we’re rehearsing 8am to 2pm 5 days a week, for 2 weeks, sessions which include plots and tech/dress. Walking into the room, I was a bit concerned, at first, about the clothes some of the cast had chosen to wear to rehearsal. We sat in a circle of chairs. Pocahontas to my right. Someone wore cat ears and makeup. It was when I saw the pumpkin that I realised it was Halloween.

When we’d last met, the cast had ‘cast’ the play by voting for who they thought could play who, including the role they wanted for themselves. Remembering that the group had collaboratively designated which monologues should be spoken by which [unnamed] character (rather than the playwright) this exercise involved a lot of letters and numbers.  The assistant directors did the maths and worked it out. Everyone seemed happy with it. Everyone had a similar number of ‘lines’.

I like this process. I think it works for this kind of play, because it’s been designed to ‘give everybody a go’, and I know neither the cast nor the characters well enough to make executive decisions.

Then we read the play. It’s still good, but it’s itching to get up on its feet.

As director, I modelled a warm-up and group-forming games. Warm-ups are important up to a point, but they have to be time-efficient and purposeful, or they end up being a way of postponing the real work. My aim is to ensure the group is self-sufficient in warming up both individually and collaboratively.

Some of the exercises we did focussed on the performer’s ‘presence’ both in re/telling a story and just ‘being there’ onstage.

Then we blocked the introduction sequence, within the set which had been marked up with yellow tape on the rehearsal room floor. I didn’t walk in the room with a plan for this. It’s easier to review the script, see what it needs, put the 13 bodies where they need to be and go from there.  Kind of like painting on the stage. A lot of this week is going to be about this kind of  ‘crowd control’ as it were – just making sure everyone’s standing in the right place so we can map out the play, and ensure the stage manager and  lighting designer’s got something to work with. That’s our challenge, to ‘block’ the play in a week.

We’re not going to be doing much ‘acting’ this week. It just bogs things down. The cast need to have memorised the text by the end of the week. I encouraged them to take responsibility for developing their own performances (especially vocal projection) and left it at that.

Early on in the play there’s verbatim text where the characters relate the stories of their own births, and I’ve written a scene where a large ‘adult’ chair gives birth to a little (child’s) plastic chair. We started to ‘workshop’ this scene. The term ‘workshop’, can kind of denote an aimless playing – the sort of thing that useless hippies might do in a new age ‘workshop’.

But for me a ‘workshop’ is a place, like a shed, where stuff gets made. You start them with clear aims and methods, even if you know in the back of your mind that you’re aiming to discover more than you’ve pre-determined.

Again, I hadn’t pre-determined how one chair would ‘give birth’ to another, but there are 15 minds here, so it makes sense to enlist their help to work it out. I’ve decided on some music to use: ‘Because He was a Bonnie Lad’ by English folk group the Unthanks. That will shape the scene in feel and duration, and make us look less like fools fiddling about with plastic chairs, because ‘we’ve got our own soundtrack’.

I broke the cast up into three groups (with the option of a non-performing ‘outside eye’ role so they can see what they’re doing both inside and out) and got them to devise independently for 15-20 minutes. It’s not competitive. Then we return to the whole group, show each other the works, and look at what we’ve discovered.

The scenes were strange, and I found one of them quite moving, actually. Funny how these bland,  characterless plastic chairs can be endowed with character and emotion. It’s clear this has a lot to do with how they’re being operated. In feeding back on each other’s work, the phrase ‘she was really at one with the chair’ came up – that sounds a bit hippy workshoppy,  but it’s true  – the object theatre element of this show really will involve the development of  puppet/puppeteer relationships.

Then I select a scene or approach, draw in other elements, and choreograph it as director. This worked really well. The room’s full of ideas. And the group seemed to enjoy it, which is important. I’ll use this method for the rest of the week.

These choreographed, musical sequences will frame the verbatim text, where I anticipate there will be little physical action.

Rehearsing Chair Ballet Nov 3 2011

Tuesday Day 2

Worked on further editing the soundtrack last night, selecting instrumental music to act as underscore, and some ‘hits’ to use for the chair sequences. I generally avoid using popular music, especially popular music with lyrics, but this time I’ve loosened up a bit. As you’ve probably observed, I’m very focussed on music as part of the preproduction process. Today I modelled the ‘mapping’ of music, a process I developed as part of the Sonic Loom project. You don’t need to be able to read music to get familiar with the different layers and sounds in a tune. So, we listen to the music, draw pictures, maps,  label sounds individually, then discuss it briefly so we have a shared understanding of how the song goes. In this way you begin the process of incorporating extant music into your new work , and it starts to look like the song’s been written for your show,  rather than the other way around.

We’re officially ahead of schedule. I arrived at rehearsal to find they’d worked on 3X birth sequences from yesterday, so there was more to be going on with. The assistant directors are taking the reins well. Settled on 1 X birth sequence, taking some qualities from others – esp. ‘the reveal’ + moment of stillness

Really each of these sequences is a bit like a ‘song picturisation’ (a concept derived from Bollywood films as well as the music videos we all grew up on) so the relationship between the pre-existing music and the  concept for the scene comes to be symbiotic. That’s what you’re aiming for.

We’d ‘mapped’ Love Lost, a song by Australian band Temper Trap [trying to use Australian music when I can], and then used the small group work to devise the scripted ‘pas de deux’,  a love dance between two chairs. One of the cast noted that it’s ‘….easier to do this after you’ve mapped the music’. And the results were a lot of fun.

Blocked a few more scenes – still it’s mainly crowd control,  making big pictures onstage – not taking too much ‘acting’ into account – so we’re moving quickly.

I had to leave rehearsal early for a meeting, and left the asst dirs with a run through up to ‘Crush’ plus refining the pas de deux.

The students are really enjoying the devising parts: they now have a clear,  reproducible methodology,  they build ensemble,  commitment, and importantly, components that are usable scenes. Got this down to a fine art now, might have it blocked by the end of the week.

It’s interesting getting into ‘chair land’ – I actually  ‘believe’ as we build the conventions and actually got rather emotional during the birth scenes – you have to direct them from the inside out,  and see that even these bland plastic chairs have been endowed by the action and dramatic framing,  as having character and relationships.

with Sams I am. Director and Assistant Directors in the Studio, QUT Kelvin Grove campus

Wednesday Day 3

Started with storytelling exercise – got cast members to volunteer to tell us the story of their first kiss – it was refreshing to see the brightness and movement and smiles that accompanied these real tales,  we discussed which of these qualities we’d like to bring to the verbatim text.

Blocked the ‘all- in’ Busby Berkeley scene, this took time – based in workshop materials from yesterday and 2 X passes the AD’s had worked out. Of course I use the term ‘Busby Berkeley’ advisedly. We’re talking about 12 people running around holding plastic chairs, while it looks cool so it’s hardly on the same scale.  Have a look at some of his stuff and you’ll see what I’m referring is to large-scale group choreography that’s simultaneously uplifting and hokey.

Then played with one of the dialogue scenes – ‘Getting Serious’ – I was concerned cuts needed to be made but they were minimal – perhaps,  given how effective the choreography’s looking I’m worried the text mightn’t be interesting enough. But it’ll probably be fine.

Then sketched out elements of Dream Sequence in  4X small groups. Music for this is Happiness by Jonsi and Alex. Jonsi is lead singer of Icelandic soundscape-merchants Sigur Ros. The music of Sigur Ros is quite popular, I’ve noticed,  in student devised works. I think the rationale is if you play it loud enough it implies a kind of grandeur to what you’re doing, and maybe people won’t notice your scene’s undercooked. That’s the crudest use of music in performance,  just kind of grafting it on for artificial emotional effect. Naturally I’m not using it like that. Our performances are ‘in-house’ only – that is, for an invited audience. There’s no box-office so I’m not seeking to licence these tunes for incorporation into a dramatic or balletic context. Read about that here at the APRA website.

As a composer, musician and APRA member myself, I’m always keen to do the right thing where the inclusion of music in dramatic context is concerned. In this context I’ll just ensure the composers and performers are credited in the program and take care not to distribute illegal copies of the music.

Thursday Day 4

Today we workshopped the sex scene, which was a lot of fun,   lots of ‘positions’ etcetera, it was meant to be just two ‘partners’, however it’s tuned into a bit of an orgy. But with chairs. Quite a lot of laughs today.

The cast seem to enjoy the balance of direction /facilitation, structure and openness – enjoying their input, as well as contributing to the shape of the whole thing – morale is high,  we’re actually having a lot of fun.

It’s great to have had 80% of the s’track worked out before we get in the room – music is your friend on the rehearsal room, treating the actual text based scenes as interstitial – it’s important the thing’s blocked early on so it can be lit – we’ll deal with ‘acting’ later.

There’s a lot of co-instruction and modelling of performance style going on, about timing, deadpan/ underplaying.

We’re in the theatre tomorrow,  we might get through the blocking by the end of the session -I’ve just made some decisions on some chairs to bring up from props store It’s interesting to have endowed boring plastic chairs with such character,  then looking at chairs which REALLY do have character not sure how to play it. It will be good to have ‘the real thing’ -there’s only so far you can go with detailing scenes if you don’t have the right prop. The main thing is the chairs need to be in their ‘natural state’. If they look like props I don’t think they’ll fit with the work.

Costume will be street clothes – I see no need to go ‘drama blacks’, or limiting colour to a particular palette. I reckon that’s a bit daggy. But fashion’s not my strong point. The play’s about Young People, so let’s just dress them as Young People.

Friday Day 5 completed blocking the play 10 minutes before the end of the rehearsal. Even got as far as bows. Then a paper plot with the SM and LX designer – most of my attention is on sound & music. I want to block the play so it would work under fluorescent lights – so it’s neat and doesn’t depend on blackouts.

For a transition just before the end of the play,  I’d suggested in the script that a game of ‘reverse musical chairs’ be played – that is,  chairs dance about looking for a bottom to sit under. Played a real game of musical chairs, then just swapped it about. It which seemed to work, and really in terms of blocking it’s about the flow of bodies on stage, seeing where they end up.

Character Scene Breakdown prepared by Stage Manager, Amy F

It’s great having a stage manager and other crew about. The unit this production sits within seeks to reproduce a traditional herirarchy (both technical and artistic) of traditional theatre practice,  so while that has its advantages and limitations, it’s a good experience for everybody to be learning in the same paradigm. Having a dedicated stage manager means there’s someone with their mind on important aspects of the show in more detail than there’s ever been before. I find documents like this character/scene breakdown (above)  compiled by Amy,  our stage manager…. strangely thrilling.

The SM performs an important function in the making of and running of a work like this – and I think that function , while multifaceted,  is essentially rhythmic. there. I said it.

It’s clear the cast are ready to get into working with the monologues; there are glimpses of some increased energy in relation to the text.

Chose some chairs, took a photo. Back into it next week.

Cast of Please Be Seated November 4 2011

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