Friday, 1 March 2013

“What do you do in the daytime?” February 23 2013

This tour of “Birdsong” is long, about thirty weeks in all, meaning most of our evenings, and a few afternoons, are spoken for until early August. One of the most frequent questions that actors get asked when they’re working in theatre is: “What do you do in the daytime?”, and so I thought I’d spend some time answering that.

An actor’s day is pretty well structured. Everything is leading up to the performance that evening, or afternoon on matinee days. The performance is where we channel our collective energies to present the play as well as we can. It might be our fiftieth or hundred and fiftieth performance, but for our audience it’s the first time. Filling a theatre with your voice, so that it can be clearly heard at the back, often high up in an upper circle, takes a lot of energy. I find I sleep much longer after performing in live theatre than I do when I’m not acting, often a couple of hours more. I find I have to conserve my energy for the evening show, and while it’s all right to do menial jobs, go for a walk or do some shopping I try to avoid the temptation of regarding a tour day as being on holiday. 

We’re all working, and it’s a high stakes working environment, with hundreds of people watching. If you make a mistake it’s a very public one, so there’s high adrenaline flowing when one is on stage. People often say things like: “You look so relaxed onstage”, and in some ways that can be true, as it’s our familiar workplace, but it’s also something of an illusion. If we look relaxed then we’re doing our job, and the audience will relax and be taken on the journey of the play with us willingly.

Getting yourself into the right energetic state for a performance involves timing. For me, I find I get up late, so breakfast will often be late morning and the main meal of the day taken between four and five o’clock in the afternoon, so that it’s digested and fuelling me for the evening. Our working day finishes in a different way to that of most people’s too: in that we end the play bowing while hundreds of people applaud. It would be odd if it didn’t give you a kind of “high” and so we generally need a couple of hours “down time” after a show before we can think of retiring to bed. “Birdsong” lasts for two and a half hours, so it’s often past midnight before I can even think of sleeping.

Another consideration on a tour this long is the whole question of understudying. In the event of, heaven forbid, a member of the cast becoming seriously ill, or being delayed on the way to the theatre, we have to have arrangements in place to cover that actor. Some members of the cast have been assigned to understudy other roles, but of course there’s a cascade of role-taking that has to happen. A cast member with one of the smaller roles takes over a principal role, and so someone has to cover the role normally taken by that actor; it’s a tricky, complicated procedure and one not taken lightly. Actors aren’t known for being “off”, (as we call missing a performance), and we don’t “throw a sickie”, as the expression goes, because we want to be on stage and not being there causes mayhem. So an understudy going on is, mercifully, a rare event. But we need to be prepared: so another thing that happens sometimes in the daytime on tours are understudy rehearsals: keeping those covering performances tuned even though everyone hopes they will never be needed. 

Last week, in Cardiff, the whole cast participated in a run-through of the play with understudies and cast members who weren’t assigned those duties co-operating together, taking over scene-shifting duties where necessary and generally helping each other recreate the atmosphere of the play to give everyone a true taste of what playing these other roles might be like. Sarah Jayne Dunn, who plays one the principal roles, Isabelle Azaire, was given a long list of what Emily Stride, who plays Marguerite and other
incidental roles, as well as stage management duties, does throughout the play. Sarah remarked to me that she had no idea Emily did all that, and was marvelling at it all. I think Sarah captured the spirit of the afternoon - as I think many of us came away even more appreciative of what everyone else does in the play- and how much a spirit of co-operation is essential. 

The afternoon also prompted what, for me, was the Comment Of The Week. We had just finished doing the first “french” scene, where we meet the Azaires and the main part I play, Berard, and the roles of Rene Azaire and Isabelle were being played by Liam McCormick and Polly Hughes. Both actors did the scene really well and the last line is mine, consisting of me stepping forward and saying “Same time tomorrow?” As we moved away at the conclusion Liam, in a sotto voce version of his native Yorkshire accent accent, murmured: “Ah bloody ‘ope not!”

More from me next week in Malvern. If you have any questions about touring and the acting life then please write in and I will do what I can to explain! 

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

“On The Road” February 12, 2012

We have been on the road with “Birdsong” for three weeks now and so some reflections on the process and where I feel we are now.

We had a long and gruelling technical week at the Haymarket Basingstoke where cast, crew, designers, director and writer began the journey of transferring the play from the rehearsal studio and placing it within Victoria Spearing’s beautiful set. This set, and the space in the wings beside and behind it, are our workplace for the coming months, and it was worth the long time taken in that technical week to ensure that everything and everyone had a place. 

The Haymarket Theatre is one of the smallest venues on our tour, a very friendly and co-operative place, and was deliberately chosen to launch the production. The idea was to begin from a point of feeling safe: so that the transfer to much larger venues would be something that we might all take in our stride.

First nights are exciting, high-adrenaline times for everyone concerned with a production. Questions are asked of everyone: does this work? Will it all come together smoothly with little or no hitches? It takes a while for the timing and rhythm of a production to feel familiar to a company, and so for several days most of us were walking around backstage with notepads about the sequences in the play in which we were involved: “Picnic scene, then P.40 take chaise longue on with Josh.....” is just one excerpt from my lengthy list. 

Costume and technical crew have lists too - watching the play and seeing generally small things that need fine-tuning or adjusting. That the play opened to cheers and a small standing ovation is, I think, credit to everyone’s efforts in those preparatory weeks. For me, the first night was different from many I have experienced in the past. There wasn’t a sense of panic around me and within me: there was a heightened atmosphere of course, but that is necessary to produce theatre. We’d done thorough technical work and had three good dress rehearsals. We were ready.

The moves to Coventry Belgrade Theatre and, last week, Blackpool Grand Theatre involved expansion of the production. We were flattered by the amount of wing space we had, and also the set itself was wider, and so we had some adjustments to make with the placements of lighting areas, props and furniture as well as actors before we could begin. Every week these adjustments have to be made: how much space on stage do we have and how does it differ from what we had before? How large is the auditorium itself- will we all need to project our voices more to fill this space? Alongside all adjustments are the fine- tuning adjustments from our Director. He’s out there most performances watching what we’re doing and if he feels something needs to change then we take the time to rehearse the change. 

The production is growing all the time as our familiarity with the play and with each other deepens - so when someone says “I think that was our best show so far” it will often only be another couple of days before the same thing is said again. We have to guard against getting complacent though: the play is being very well received and getting terrific reviews, but every night is a new first night for the audience who are seeing it. The bond between us all is such that I’m confident we shall keep everything on an even keel.

One of the fine details that was rehearsed in the army sequences was never forgetting how uncomfortable, often cold, dangerous and generally grim the trenches and dug-outs were on the battlefield. One of those details is the fact that lice was a very bad problem for all the men. “Don’t forget the lice” has been a frequent reminder from our Director: prompting a renewed urgency onstage of scraping armpits and other areas. I’m not one, I hope, to blow my own trumpet, but my own efforts in this activity led to what was proposed
by Jonathan Smith as Comment Of The Week when I remarked in the dressing room “I think I may have over-liced”.

More musing from the Birdsong tour next week. 

Monday, 21 January 2013

“Memories and Ghosts”

“Memories and Ghosts”

January 17 2013

We are now into our final week of rehearsals before opening at the Haymarket Theatre in Basingstoke for our first preview performance on January 22.
So much work has been done to craft this company into a close-knit unit of people who can work intensively and co-operatively for the seven months or so that we shall be touring. Technical rehearsals can be times when things can get tense, tempers can get frayed and the experience can be anything but glamorous and fun: but this wonderful company of actors and technical staff who I’m privileged to be working with are proceeding with energy and loads of good humour. We all seem to like each other a lot, and this is not only going to help us on the road, but also on stage. I believe audiences can usually tell whether the company they are watching are getting on or not - it’s a feeling that seems to seep over the edge of the stage into the auditorium. Of course we have to work closely with each other or it just doesn’t work. Acting is partly an individual pursuit, but a cast needs to be generous with each other and support and help: particularly our leading actors Jonathan Smith, Sarah Jayne Dunn and Tim Treloar whose roles as Stephen Wraysford, Isabelle Azaire and Jack Firebrace are the centre around which everything in the play revolves.

This week we’ve been hugely inspired by our first sight of, and first day working on, Victoria Spearing’s beautifully designed set. It’s stunning, but you’ll have to just take my word for it and come and see it as, for obvious reasons, I can’t spoil the surprise and show you a photograph of it. Technical rehearsals are about us all getting familiar with the set, our true workplace and finding out how to safely move about it and place actors and furniture and props to the best effect. Taxing days and some late evenings are ahead, but it has to be done and the hours we put in getting things absolutely right will pay off on the more than two hundred shows we shall be performing on this tour.

We’ve been spending many hours in singing rehearsals with Tim Van Eyken. For those reading this who have ever performed close harmony singing, you will doubtless know what a powerful and moving experience it can be for both performer and listener. One of the pieces we sing is a beautiful arrangement by Tim himself of a traditional folk song. I am taking one of the bass parts and it’s been a source of worry for days whether I’d ever get the opening harmony notes into my brain - but it’s there now. It’s exhilarating to hear everyone blending together to produce this lovely music, and of course it’s yet another element that will help to keep us listening and staying in the moment as the weeks on tour progress.
“Birdsong” revolves around the memories of the principal character of Stephen Wraysford. 

Time switches constantly as, recovering from a near fatal wound, he moves into memories and scenes from his present and past. As with many things in theatre and the rehearsal process, unexpected comedy moments can occur. There are several moments when ghosts of Stephen’s and Jack’s past re-appear and rehearsing one of these has produced the Comment of the Week for this blog. 
Joshua Higgott, who plays Brennan, a character who survives, appears playing violin in a scene in which the ghosts of Jack’s comrades appear. Josh’s classic overheard and earnest comment was “Remember: I’m a memory, not a ghost.” Honourable mention must also be given to our Director, Alastair Whatley, for his shouted instruction : “OK....and stand by ghosts!” By my next blog we shall have begun our performance journey. I’m loving it all and just can’t wait. 

Friday, 4 January 2013

Birdsong: Rehearsals Blog 1

“How on earth can you stand up on stage in front of all those people?”....... “How on earth do you learn all those lines?”........ “Who on earth are you?”.....these are questions that most actors get asked frequently. Well maybe not the last one. For this actor, standing on stage or learning lines is nothing next to the sheer terror of turning up for the first day of rehearsals and meeting loads of new people . Happily with “Birdsong” that first day seemed a breeze and all those “Will I like these people?” and “Will they like me?” questions seem irrelevant now as we seemed to gel instantly as a company, something that I’d say is rare. 
It’s certainly very encouraging, for the success of this tour. It’s very important too: we are going to be travelling and working with each other for nearly eight months in an exciting and emotionally high-charged production -it certainly helps if we all like each other.

Producer and Director Alastair Whatley has been inventive in finding ways to ensure that we work easily and well together, and that’s hugely important in a theatre company. We don’t have the time or leisure to employ the usual ways in which working relationships build: we may have to begin rehearsing a love scene, or a death scene for that matter, on Day One. This play has plenty of both, of course, so there’s no time to be coy about how we tackle it. 

We’ve been learning military drill, singing together in four-part harmony, learning how to carry and use a rifle, playing energetic ball games such as 9 Square and Bench Ball and learning to portray different ways of dying. All this in a heady atmosphere of seriousness and fun. 
The subject matter of much of “Birdsong”: the experience of being in a terrible war, can be pretty grim. To get to grips with it we need large reserves of humour - as the characters we portray did to be able to manage what might seem to us now as impossible tasks in horrifying conditions. Somehow we have to get under the skin and into the minds of these characters and bring them to life, six nights a week and twice most Saturdays and mid-week. This means breathing the same energy into what we do during week nineteen as we did when we began on week one. Every night is “First Night” for a new audience. 

We began rehearsals a week before Christmas 2012 and several activities have been Christmas-themed, including the wearing of Christmas jumpers. Having packed lightly while away from my home in Manchester I could only manage a burgundy- coloured one but it kind of fitted in. Others had entered into the spirit by buying very racy knitted Christmas socks from the local Primark - which I think showed great dedication to the cause. This made for a sparklingly colourful display when we were rehearsing perhaps one of the most harrowing scenes of the play when the Germans explode through one of the sappers’ tunnels, killing several. Emily Stride, playing a German, in a very nice red Christmas jumper, gets shot by Tim Van Eyken, who plays Evans, in a contrasting blue one. 
I watched with admiration as Emily jerked backwards at the moment of impact and fell convincingly (and safely) to the floor. What I wasn’t prepared for was hearing Emily, now supine and playing dead, remark brightly: “This is a really nice jumper to get shot in.” Where but in an actors’ rehearsal room would you ever hear a line like that?

Here’s another cracker: yesterday we had further exercises organized by our military advisor Tony Green: the company had to go on a 3km run while the rehearsal room was converted into a dark and forbidding No Man’s Land. Being injured through Bench Ball I was excused the run, as was Tim Treloar who is suffering with a chest infection, but we were called upon to help construct the set and play two contrasting “wounded” on the field. 
My job was to be a complete “dead weight” that my chums had to somehow pilot to relative safety (at 15 stone and 6’4” not an easy task) while Tim was to howl with agony when moved as a result of being shot in the chest. All this accompanied by a deafening soundtrack of explosions and rapid gun fire. An interesting experience for us all. It being England in 2012 it perhaps wouldn’t surprise you to read that it was raining outside for the 3 km. run and some of the company were concerned about dragging their wet trainers into the clean and spacious rehearsal studio. According to Tony Green this prompted the priceless command: “Don’t forget to wipe your feet before entering No Man’s Land”.

OK chaps, pip pip for now, more from me just as soon as I can manage it.