a personal rehearsal diary

by Scott Graham

from the making of pool (no water) by Mark Ravenhill

Day 1

I am going to try to write a rehearsal diary. I have never, ever, written a diary so it feels a bit strange. I have to say the voice doesn’t sound like me. Probably a bit too considered. And that is my problem with published diaries (possibly not some posthumous diaries). I have never thought they could be as honest as they seemed. My instinct always screamed this was the work of an unreliable narrator, for how could honesty and spontaneity survive the process of writing it all down, checking the spelling, correcting mistakes and the whimpers of a fragile ego? So far, it is very hard. For example, this is an afterthought. It was written after what follows below, after the initial scribblings of day 1. If I hadn’t told you, you may never have known. Perhaps this is the first presumption we make about diaries – that of linear chronology. Day 1 means day 1. So I will do my best to be truthful and put aside ego. I will only promise to be truthful. The ego bit might take some time.

When I first mentioned to our previous producer that I was going to do this he sought out a rehearsal diary written for a Théâtre de Complicité show. It is still in a drawer somewhere, unread. I don’t know how I feel about this. Is it liberating or am I missing a trick while I flounder around trying to find a tone that feels right?

I think I will ramble on a bit too. But hopefully only at the start. Please forgive this but I would rather do this to find my feet than go back and edit everything down. Once I know what I am doing I am sure some days will be very short. I will try to find an economy.

I want to give an insight into the ups and downs of the rehearsal process. I will touch on the discoveries and details of the process but I want it to be an immediate and honest appraisal of each day. It could well be just as emotional as academic. And while I try to settle into an honest voice and tone I will make mistakes and sound like a pompous git, a stroppy child, etc. Apologies in advance. In fact if it all goes tits up I might just get that Complicité diary out the drawer and copy that. Here goes ...

It is always a terrifying thrill to see all the people involved in the production in the room for the first (and only) time; producing partners, production managers, marketing departments, composer Imogen Heap, writer Mark Ravenhill, wide eyed actors last seen in the audition room, and other parts of the creative team with whom we have only notionally talked about this project ... and suddenly we are all here. Day 1 in the rehearsal room. And everyone wants to know what they are about to get!

Steven talks to the assembled, thanking them for their support etc. and we hand over to the actors for a read-through. I was nervous about how it would be received and it occurs to me to wonder if Mark is feeling the same way but he always exudes such a confidence. I am inspired by this but still can’t help a few glances at the ‘audience’ to assess how it is going.

Are they still ‘with it’? Do they ‘get it’? Is it too long? It reads at an hour. I expected 45–50 mins!

As it happens the read-through is very well received and the room empties out leaving only the actors, stage management, and the directors.

We initially seek the actors’ responses. How was it reading out the text in front of an audience? Hearing it with three other voices and not just your own? This seems a polite way to start and the responses pick out some interesting points. Initially the question ‘what type of artist am I?’ interested us as Steven and I had discussed how it was important that the characters’ art was credible and not just pretentious or laughable. If they were only mediocrities then we would not really get a true sense of injustice. This is not Salieri and Mozart. This is less clearly defined. The work they produce must be more similar. The modern twist that defines this play and destroys ‘the Group’ is the phenomenon of celebrity. We discussed the responses to the work of Ron Mueck at the Edinburgh Art Festival and how that had thrown up the credibility and the definition of ‘good’ art. We also touched on the presentation style that we were interested in employing and its inspiration in the judiciously edited documentary. (It is always a risk to go into rehearsal convinced you have already found the defining style of the production. We state that everything is up for grabs but we have to remind ourselves this especially as our conviction about this idea is particularly strong.)

A lot of this, while of use and completely relevant, was probably just a technique to get us closer to a credible stopping time for lunch. Make it to lunch, regroup with Steven and work out how we will proceed in the afternoon.

We decided to give the actors a taste of the warm-ups we will be putting them through. Possibly not the wisest thing after waddling back from lunch but it had to be done and if it proved anything, it showed that physically we have a long way to go and that the physical development of the actors must not be overlooked in the early stages. We cannot afford to spend too much time on the text, despite the presence of Mark in the first few weeks, if the performers are not being given the time to build strength, stamina and technique.

(We also inform the actors that Mondays and Tuesdays will be hard physically, Wednesdays will be soft to allow them to recover, and Thursdays and Fridays will be hard again. This approach is inspired by the process of Australian Dance Theatre and is intended to put the actors at ease by letting them know that they are never more than two days away from a ‘rest’ day. I am intrigued to see if we can stick to it and if it yields the right results. I think it sounds brilliant.)

After the warm-up we have another read-through and it is mostly a tired affair, although I think this is due to the actors sitting around the table reading from their scripts and the absence of an ‘audience’ rather than the effects of the warm-up!

We talk about the unheard questions that could possibly inspire the responses in the text. Put simply, what has the character been asked to provoke the statement and first line of the play, ‘A pool she had a pool’?

We set the performers the task of working out these possible unheard questions or provocations for the first six lines of the play. This unearthed an extremely complex world of possibilities for the performers – a world that looked like melting their brains at one point yet the process yielded the perfect results. Suddenly there were four characters talking about the same subject but with slightly different viewpoints, as if inspired by slightly different questions. And this was the intention – to suggest the presence of another character. The Editor. (This was a device to help the performers feel that they did not have to link their lines to anyone else’s, that where ideas get picked up or finished off by other characters is due to the editing of an observer, the maker of a documentary. This meant they were never responsible for connecting their chain of thought in the gaps where they do not speak. It liberates them but also creates more work. What is happening in these moments? The intention was to avoid a smug, complicit style of delivery; for them to be innocent and unknowing of the other protagonists’ words. It means that there is then the possibility for them each to have slightly different takes on the events. It also makes the telling of them less considered and allows the story to run away from them to a point where they divulge far more than they probably should have.)

Generally it was a good day 1 and if we have learnt anything about day 1s it is that there is very little point doing anything other than allowing a bit of discussion, introducing a bit of play, and giving a bit of process. But don’t get carried away and set anything! It will seem brilliant! Everyone will be so excited and you will rush home and tell your partner how brilliant everything is, how you have cracked it, etc. But what you have set will pale and fade and eventually crumble to be replaced with something much better in week 3! Talking from experience, this is me, and I have promised myself not to do that this year. Slowly, slowly catchy monkey, or whatever they say.

I have also spent the whole day trying to exercise restraint! I have been scribbling notes during the read-through, notes I am quite excited about. There are exercises I am thinking about that I just want to jump up and start straightaway but I need to hold back. There will be days when we all just look at the text, look at each other and we will not know what to say or do. So for those days I force myself to hold back despite the enormous impulse to jump in with both feet and say ‘Everyone, listen to me.’