by Howard Gayton
Monday, 28th November
Today I began by smudging the space with sage before the cast came in, to clear the air from Friday. I talked about all the things I had thought about over the weekend, and there was a notably better energy in the actors, both before and after the talk. Stage management had stuck up various quotes from individuals such as Ghandi and Goethe — positive affirmations about life, and art!
We made good headway today, working through several scenes. It is one of the amazing things about this way of working that you can take a sequence of scenes that have been worked on out of order, and — with a little linking and readjustment — suddenly find that you have actually created a lot of the show.
In the afternoon, we did an Italian run. An Italian run, from the Commedia dell’Arte, is quite loose, and deliberately not staged at performance levels of energy. It allows the actors to relax and explore the play a bit more. The cast enjoyed it immensely, and it brought up a lot of new material. This often happens in Italian runs, because one has the freedom to play — but it also serves the actor in getting to know their journey through the piece.
In the afternoon they did a session on singing again, with Joгo Loio. He is a magician, I swear. In no time at all, they were singing the most beautiful songs. We have one song near the start called ‘Tell us a story!,’ then one in the Fish Kingdom, for the oldest sister to sing — a lullaby, with the haunting feeling of ‘saudades,’ longing. At the very end of the show there is a traditional Portuguese ‘spring celebration’ song, combined with words written by Nuno and myself that re–tell the story.
Every time we run through the scenes we have, we clean them up a bit more, fine combing them. The actors add more life to the play as they start to understand it, and each time little things that aren’t quite right yet are exposed. It is like writing many drafts of a manuscript, gradually perfecting, or perhaps crafting, the piece. We are also working through to the end of the play, gradually.
One wonderful thing that happened today was seeing the fisherman’s wife in just a simple shawl over the blacks that the actors are all wearing. It is amazing what a great effect one can get from a simple piece of costume, coupled with a strong dramatic image and with actors that hold the energy of that image. One item, properly selected, is better than a whole load of costumes that aren’t right. Bertolt Brecht talked about this: get the right prop, and that is enough. In Commedia dell’Arte companies, the same well–made props would be used over and over again, and most other things would be mimed!I once was in a one–person puppet show of The Elves and the Shoemaker. It started out with many props — and I noticed that each time we got rid of a prop in rehearsals, the show seemed to get better. Always start, as Peter Brook says, with an empty space.
I hope I have managed to get the costume designers to think in a simpler way, after many over–designs. The masks and scenery are looking good. I am a bit worried about the lighting, because the student in charge seems to want to run before he can walk by concentrating on ‘special’ lights rather than on creating basic states and adding ‘specials’ onto this. It is more of a challenge to keep things simple and to see what can be done within simplicity rather than to over–complicate things — but I am sure it will be fine in the end.
Tuesday, 29th November
A lot of the cast had colds today. Rehearsals were also disturbed, as I had to go to the theatre on many occasions to see how the lighting and scenery were doing. There is a lot less space on stage than I had thought. I am very tired now, and it is difficult to create in this way — but we have to, so we soldier on. It took us nearly all afternoon to do about three minutes of the show: the change from the birds to the seals. In part this is because we have done so many changes that we have run out of new and interesting ways to do it, and partly it is just that we are tired.
One thing that came up in the run this morning is the need to get the physical performances to be really exact and clear, not soggy like jelly. For example, there is a way of kneeling down to take a mask off that is precise, as opposed to just bending over (always so ugly on stage) or taking the mask off whilst walking through space. This way of performing — creating pictures that are held for a fraction of a second so as to imprint on the retina of the audience — is very important for this work; it takes the performance style away from naturalism, yet it isn’t stilted. This is the language that we are using:being direct, not needlessly wasting our energy, but following the flow, as in Tai chi. One example of this is how to get someone down off the back of another performer. By using a spiral, following the flow of the energy, it looks neat, magical in fact, rather than the mess it could so easily be.
I advised them that the best way of learning how to perform in this way was to watch each other, and notice when someone is able to make movements and pictures clearly, without it seeming false or stilted. As I understand it, in many Native American cultures, they teach by observation and example, not by explanation; and traditionally Tai chi is learned by just copying the teacher, not with a lot of talking and explanation. I then led some exercises to train the cast in this approach to performance: simply moving the head, then the body, from left to right, with clarity and precision. Then I took them through an exercise in which theyran around and when a drum was sounded they had to freeze in a posture, and then speak a piece of text from the show.
In the afternoon, I put on Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ really loud, and we danced the warm–up. I just started dancing and gradually they figured out that they could join me. I hadn’t planned it, but it became a great warm–up, with Nuno improvising on lights. Then he took the cast for a run–through of the material we have so far, without words. This was important because they still need to get the stage blocking, but if we rehearse the piece the same way all the time, it will become tired, boring and dry. Each time we run it in different ways, the cast discovers new things and loosens up into the flow and the dance of it all.
Monday, 5th December
The last few days have been very intense. We have been through the Tower of the Tarot deck, and are starting to come out the other side. The show is now running smoothly, and the cast are performing well, clearly enjoying it, and giving it the energy it needs; so much so that today we did a ‘dance through,’ where they went through it not with words, but dancing to Holst – The Planets.
So what happened in the six days since Tuesday, when I last wrote?
On Wednesday, we had a very laborious workday on the Seal Kingdom, which felt like wading through treacle. The actors in that scene did not get the idea of image, physicality or character. I sat in a coffee bar in the early evening in despair. What on earth could I do? How could I get them to understand the performance style and energy? The actress playing the boy was struggling, and was going to be away for the first two hours of rehearsal in the evening. It was our first nighttime rehearsal, and we needed to start on the tower scene. It was then that I was struck with the idea that Nuno and I would create the atmosphere of the tower in the rehearsal room with verydim lighting and sound (‘The Mystic’ from The Planets Suite); and we would adopt ‘high status’ in how we worked with the cast.
When we returned, we set up the room with the atmosphere we wanted while keeping the cast waiting outside. They were not to talk, and had to accept what we did and asked of them with no discourse, no thinking. Then we led them in. Nuno lead a warm–up that was all freaky, frightening noises in the near pitch dark of the room. At about 10 o’clock in the evening, the cast improvised a run–through of the tower scene with two people story–telling and the rest of them acting it out, with someone standing in for the actress playing the boy. The nighttime energy (very different in terms of rehearsal because one is tired) helped blocks to dissolve in the actors’ minds.
The improvisation was amazing. The actor playing the old man, the actress playing the young girl, the stand–in actress, and the storyteller were all absolutely astonishing. Completely immersed in their roles, turning out to the ‘audience,’ and listening and playing together. The question then became: how are we going to repeat this with the actress playing the boy? We kept the rest of the cast in this state of concentration, not letting them break the mood, not letting them go out of the room. They stood in the dark, concentrated, waiting for the other actress to arrive. When she did, we brought her into the space, and improvised the scene again.I noticed that she was standing with straight legs, so I told her to bend her knees for the entire scene, in order to break her out of her usual way of doing things. It took her the whole of the improvisation to even begin to get the idea of what was required. As soon as we finished, without breaking concentration, (at about midnight), we did it again straight away. This time, she really started to get it — and since then she has just flowered in the role! The improvisation worked, I think, in part because the cast truly know the themes of the show, the story, and their characters now. It set a new level for them to reach in terms of performance.
On Thursday, we went into the theatre and saw the set for the first time. I had the cast become dogs, spraying their scent on the set and stage. This is how dogs mark their territory, and I want them to feel that the stage is theirs now, that it is their home. In my own theatre company, Ophaboom, we have our own wooden trestle stage that we tour with. It is a magical space that has been with us for ten years — it has seen rain and sun and good shows and tough shows; it is our space and we feel really comfortable on it. So, too, the actors should feel that here, in this big theatre. The exercise clearly worked, because they are feeling and looking very comfortable on the stage now.
In the afternoon, I decided to have them work more on their characters, and then to ‘Hot Seat’ them. This is where they come into the space as their characters, and I ask them questions that they must reply to in character. From this exercise, we found a back–story for the old woman. It is not in the show, but has helped the cast make sense of the girl’s imprisonment. It seems that the old woman went into the tower when she was young and was raped by the old man, the resulting child being the girl. And the girl is not just a damsel–in–distress, waiting to be saved; she is intelligent and scheming, and ends up, in our version of the story, being the one to crack the egg over the old man. I had spoken with the actress aboutthe fact that we didn’t want her to be passive, and she has discovered a performance and a plot line that really conveys this. It seems that since we went to, and through, the Tower on Wednesday night, the students have moved on to completely new levels of performance and understanding.
On Friday, I led a warm–up that consisted of a tour of the body, explaining that this is the toolbox of the actor. I explained how the body works, and what an amazing thing it is, including the skeleton, the muscles, the heart, the breath, the voice, and then on to the rational mind, the emotions and imagination. These are powerful tools, and ones that the actor should hone, understand, and use wisely.
On Saturday we went into the theatre, which now had all the set and lighting fully in place. Our purpose was to make any changes that were necessary to make the show work in that space, and to make sure the costumes end up in the right place for the ending of the play — when all the characters return after the spell is broken and the tower collapses.
At the start of the day, oddly, there was a lighting tower on stage that shouldn’t have been there. Little did I know at the time just how symbolic this would be! There were a few problems getting all the masks from the Scenography department, which were needed for the cast to know where to set them before and during the show. This was resolved eventually, and the show was looking brilliant in the space, truly magical with the masks, the whiteface make–up on the performers, the images they created, and the wonderful set.