I’ve been given the incredible opportunity to take part in three directing workshop weekends at Cygnet Theatre in Exeter. Cygnet is a training theatre and a bit of a second home for me – I’ve been part of the backstage team for several productions over the last two years (operating lighting, requisitioning items from friends, family and employers to use as props, reupholstering furniture with a staple gun…).
The first directing weekend took place in October and gave four directors the chance to work with actors on a series of short scenes, led by Amanda Knott, Artistic Director of Creative Cow Theatre Company.
Here are my reflections at the end of the weekend.
I am a fierce self-critic and have struggled with accepting that I’m a beginner at directing and am bound to make mistakes – mistakes that have doubtless been made by many people before me.
This weekend has changed my view of that, and of myself.
Directing isn’t something you can learn from a book – as Amanda said at the end of the weekend, it’s different every single time, affected by what you’re working on, and who with.
Her workshop was a chance to throw myself into making mistakes with an open mind, learning from my experiences and the work that other people created.
Where to begin?
For each of our scenes, we had around two hours’ rehearsal time, with either one or two actors.
For me, the first 15 minutes or so of each rehearsal were somewhat terrifying – the text streamed away into the distance before us with limitless possibilities and paths to take. This made me inclined to get everyone up on their feet and acting immediately to relieve my internal stress, and indeed, a scene doesn’t start to take any kind of shape until the actors are moving around.
But as the weekend went on, I found that holding out and allowing that start of rehearsal time to involve discussion of the text made the rest of the process much more cohesive. After a first read-through, stopping to look over the text in detail and resolve any confusion or disagreement about meaning meant that we all had a more unified idea of the shape of the scene, particularly the shifts in emotion within it.
An alternative way of looking at that first 15 minutes is as a moment of great excitement – limitless possibilities are a pretty brilliant thing to have at your disposal if you can avoid being overwhelmed by them. Everything you begin to do with the actors starts to forge a path, or several paths, through that unfurling text. Ultimately, too, there is no wrong path – you might change your mind about the direction you’re going in but that’s part of the process of developing the piece.
That moment of potential panic can become a gift to the director to start to guide the rehearsal in a direction of your choosing.
A moment of potential panic can become a gift to the director.
Who, what, where, when?
Our first task was to create a scene without words, using two actors and a chair – a seemingly simple task but one that probably caused the most confusion of any that weekend. The possibilities should have been limitless, but as an English grad, I initially found the idea of a scene without text perplexing.
With some great ideas from the actors, we developed an awkward encounter between a light-fingered cleaner and her former employer in a doctor’s waiting room.
In fact, having no text to fall back on made me concentrate on the location, movement and backstory. As Amanda then explained, one of the first rules* of directing is to ensure the following things are clear:
- Who are the characters?
- Where are they? (Inside/outside? Somewhere familiar/unfamiliar? In a formal/informal situation? What’s the weather like?)
- When does the scene take place? (What time is it? What period?)
- What do the characters want?
It sounds incredibly simple but it was impressive how many of us had at least one of these questions vague or unanswered.
Similarly, in my second scene (an abusive moment between Roy and Lesley in Jim Cartwright’s Two) I think we could have a built a clearer, more detailed shared image of the characters’ lives outside the scene. We spent some time discussing the characters as individuals, but (perhaps due to my first-15-minute-stress) less time working out what their life together looked like.
The resulting scene was brilliantly performed, but there was a sense that it existed in a vacuum. If I were to come back to it, some improvisation of other moments from the characters’ lives might give the scene extra depth.
* I use ‘rule’ very loosely: if directing does have rules, there seems to always be examples where the best course of action is to break them.
Sound and vision
For my third scene I was given a monologue from Jim Cartwright’s Road – Helen’s speech to the soldier (from Act 2). On first reading I was uninspired and confused. Home from a night out, Helen brings back a soldier who is absolutely smashed off his face. Deploying a series of cringeworthy strategies, from dancing around him to feeding him chips, to forcibly moving his limbs, she tries to get him to sleep with her. While there was comic potential, it felt like an embarrassing and frankly weird thing to do – I couldn’t make sense of her as a character.
Overnight, I did some research about the play – written about Thatcher’s Britain in 1986 and set in Lancashire, at a time of high unemployment with the coal industry in decline. It is typically staged in traverse or promenade, and walks its audience through the lives of one road’s residents. I worked through speeches that, at a glance, look dense: noting where pauses are implied and working out Helen’s train of thought.
Crucially, I also listened to the music mentioned in the stage directions, and discovered that music is enormously helpful for me in understanding character. For this scene in particular, Helen’s record choices are named as ‘Barry Manilow or Frank Sinatra’ (as a 90s kid, my knowledge of both was vague). Knowing this was, in Helen’s mind at least, a seduction, I went for Could it be Magic? (Manilow) and Fly me to the Moon (Sinatra), and hearing them changed the entire feel of the scene. At the heart of lines like:
“you’re the real quiet type aren’t you? Still waters run deep or what? … I like loners. That’s why I sent Maureen to fetch you over tonight. That uniform, dead romantic.”
is not lust but romance – in her tiny flat, in a rowdy road in a languishing town, Helen is imagining a Prince Charming who could carry her away.
I explained some of my research in rehearsal and we listened to Could it be Magic? together. I think it got across the mood of the scene as I envisaged it, in a way my currently stilted and limited directing vocabulary could not. We ended up using the songs in our performance to add another layer of meaning to the scene.
How much is enough?
Having spent some time researching, it was important not to then dictate my ideas when we came to rehearse, but instead to use that awareness of important and potentially challenging moments in the scene to guide where I focussed our time and effort. Although the short timeframe meant we didn’t spend as much time exploring different possibilities as I would have liked, the way Helen moved around the soldier in his chair as the scene developed grew entirely from rehearsal.
Interestingly, this scene which I felt was the least prepared and the most complex of the four, full of stage directions and intimacy, was probably my greatest success of the weekend. The audience response was fantastic and they seemed engrossed in the humour and sadness of the encounter. A lot of this was due to being blessed with a fantastic actor, but also being almost-but-not-quite-there in rehearsal meant that her outstanding performance happened on the stage rather than in the rehearsal room – the actors didn’t get over-comfortable in the scene which by nature needs to feel incredibly awkward.
Feeling my way as I was, over the course of the weekend I began to be more assured about departing from stage directions or textual conventions.
For my final piece, a scene between Falstaff and Mistress Quickly from The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act 3, Scene 3), we took Amanda’s invitation to “go wild” at face value – one of the actors had the idea to set it in a modern-day Hollywood movie studio, and we ran with it.
Falstaff became a Weinstein-esque producer sleazing on an up-and-coming female actor in her dressing room, and judging by the audience’s reaction, it worked – we got a good balance between comedy and creepy. At moments Falstaff’s behaviour was arguably uncomfortable to watch, but as the #MeToo movement has revealed, similar scenes have been many actors’ reality.
I’m not sure if the whole play would work in a Hollywood setting (I was asked about this after showing the scene) but I think it’s food for thought – the Merry Wives of Warner Bros?
Freedom to adapt the text was also important in Road, which includes intimate stage directions such as “She puts her tongue in his ear” – directing this, I was highly conscious of my lack of experience and anxious to protect the actors’ wellbeing while not shying away from the scene’s themes. With such a short timeframe to get something on its feet, and actors who’d signed up for the weekend, not for this scene itself, I reckoned I had to judge it based on the feel and mood in the rehearsal room – cutting the text as we went and asking the actors if they felt comfortable as often as possible along the way. I had here a brilliant guide in the actor playing Helen, whose consideration of and trust in her co-performer was an enlightened example.
Falstaff became a Weinstein-esque producer sleazing on an up-and-coming female actor
Ultimately, what I took away from the weekend was this: while directors need to project confidence (a trait I’m working on!) in their decisions, the work and the actors, a good foundation for successful directing is to bring honesty, trust and an open mind into the rehearsal room. Partly due to the warm, receptive attitudes of the actors I was working with, I was unafraid to say if I wasn’t sure about something or if I’d realised a previous idea wouldn’t work. That honesty and trust opened up room to develop – both the scenes and myself.
Directing tips to remember:
- Bring an open mind and your full attention and energy into rehearsals
- Explicitly give the actors time and space to share their thoughts about the scene
- There are no stupid questions and no bad times to ask them – the director’s role is to support the actors
- Take the first fifteen minutes to discuss the text and agree a direction
- Use research time to create a mental image of the scene, and note important events and potential challenges. Your ideas will inevitably (and positively) shift and adapt as you rehearse.
- Take a break and get away from the space at lunch. This is a chance to remember reality outside of the world of the play, but also to chill and not speak to anyone – as an introvert, that’s how I recharge, ready to engage whole-heartedly in the next session.
And points to improve:
- I would like to improve my vocabulary when talking about my work to others. I was so impressed by the fluency and accuracy with which my fellow directors shared their ideas.
- Notice my posture and body language when watching rehearsals. Are they supporting what I’m saying?