Routledge

Extras

a personal rehearsal diary

by Scott Graham

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

Day 31 (on the train back from Plymouth)

I feel rough. But not as rough as Lisa Maguire, our executive producer, who sits opposite me as I work on the education resource pack and gradually changes colour all journey.

After about an hour I get a call from Steven.

‘How would you feel about a four star review in the Guardian?’

He has been told that the reviewer is submitting such a review and it is here that we both confess to a very strange shift in emotion. I am utterly relieved. This is probably the most important National for us. This is the reviewer we care about most. A four star review is probably enough to boost the whole of the tour (although everywhere is already selling extremely well!). But then I am a bit disappointed. Why couldn’t we have five stars? What is lacking?

I am sure I was not thinking about four and five star reviews before the call so why am I disappointed? I genuinely do not know. I think about it for a while and then convince myself to test this news out on people. Lisa is very happy. My wife is thrilled. And then it starts to thrill me. It is still to be published but it is just great to know it is not going to be detrimental to our future.

As we arrive in London our PR officer calls and says that there is an excellent review in the British Theatre Guide (an online theatre magazine). When I get home I check it out and it really is all we could have asked for.

I know there are not many people that will see this but it is tangible. The Guardian is not. It is the evidence, the pat on the head, whatever you call it. I cannot help myself. This is ultimately what I am looking for when I read the reviews – praise and the promise that everything will be all right.

Days later (6 October 2006)

The Guardian review was followed by another full of praise in The Times. The Sunday Times gave it a good review but inexplicably three stars. There have been lovely e-mails to the office from people from Plymouth and the general feedback has been fantastic. Finally Mark Ravenhill gets to see it and is thrilled. I only find this out this morning and I am so happy to hear this. This is not just because I think we must have served his play but because I think we worked well together, I think we got on and it would have been a great shame if the feelings about the finished project were to tarnish how we felt about the process.

That said I still have to grow to love this show. I will see it again next week and I have not really missed it. I have not even thought about it much whereas on previous productions I have been phoning the cast after performances to ask how it went. I guess it is all a process of growing up. I am sure Rufus did not sit at home (if he ever gets a day off to go home) and worry about every performance of Market Boy once it was up and running. Surely it is not just because I have had a difficult time on this show and have not exactly found new best friends that I have a slight detachment from it now that it is made? No, the feeling I have is something far more interesting. It is a relaxed confidence in the show. I guess I believe in what we have done and I certainly believe in Mark’s writing. I also believe in the performers’ abilities to really pull off great performances night after night. There is no problem there.

The ambivalence about this show will fade, I think. I am looking forward to seeing it again, in front of a new and totally different audience. If the show works again I am sure I will grow to love it. And to be honest there are very few Frantic shows that I have loved wholeheartedly. There have been moments that I would have died for but when I have been able to achieve objectivity and detachment about shows I have often been underwhelmed by our work (Dirty Wonderland excepted). It is possible, and I am really hopeful at the moment, that the opposite will happen here.

Once I have had the opportunity to see the show again I will sign this diary off. I want to see whether all of the ups and downs of rehearsal are put into perspective by its success (or lack of). Part of me feels that, to be true to the diary, I must just finish here but I think there is one more interesting step to take. Once I have seen the show, taken part in the post-show discussion, I will then head back to London. It is on that journey home that I think I must finish the diary, full of the feelings of the nights before. I also will not read the rest of the diary until then. I made that promise at the start that this would not be an ego-led, considered piece. In reading this diary I have as much to learn about me as you do.

(After Liverpool)

I am on the train returning from Liverpool so I guess I am coming to the end of this diary.

It has been a strange couple of days. My first response when I got to the theatre was one of shock. The set has serious sight line issues. There are large sections of the show where substantial parts of the audience will see nothing. This is crazy. I do not know how this has happened. It has been a concern from the day the tour and set were finalised and I was under the impression that a compromise had been reached and the problem effectively solved. But this is nothing like it.

I set the cast off on a speed run of the show. I place the designer in one corner of the auditorium and I sit in the other and we stop the action when it becomes impossible to see. Some of these moments are easy quick fixes but others require complete reblocking of the work, replotting of the lights and the knock-on effects for stage management include the cutting of one of the most aesthetically pleasing lighting effects. After a while it strikes me that I could unpick the whole show trying to find some equality of view for the audience. This would be a disaster, turning the show into a homogenised lump. I realise that some moments will have to remain as they were to maintain the integrity of the piece and I am afraid that it meant that some seats would miss out. (Apologies – I am sure you know who you are.)

This fiasco meant that this pressured day had just become almost impossible. The implications of this were evident in the performance. The lighting was too dark as our relighting designer never had the chance to do his job completely as I had taken up the best part of the afternoon reworking the show. It meant that the performance never really connected with the audience in the way I believed it could. The performers themselves were doing nothing wrong but as it was too dark we could not really connect with them and their performances fell short of the audience, never really getting over the unnatural gulf created by pushing our set back as far as possible as a futile concession to sight lines.

That said there is a very good response at the end. I am slightly disappointed by the experience but interestingly I have not lost faith in the show. I fully believe that it is an easy fix (apart from the sight line issues) and it will be a much better show tomorrow. It occurs to me that, just like the actors cannot whisper their performance on their bigger stage, neither can the set and lighting whisper. It has to be unashamedly bolder. I have no qualms about requesting this even though it is a director cliché to ask his lighting designer to bump up the lighting levels.

The next day myself and Lisa have a meeting with the artistic and executive directors of the theatre. My impression is that we are there to talk about our planned body of work and pitch it to them to see if they are interested in developing a long-term relationship. When we get there we are also joined by their literary director and other associates.

The first thing that happens is the artistic director launching into a tirade about how ‘pissed off’ she is with the sight line issues and how disappointed and frustrated she is that this has happened! We are being told off!

Then just as quickly they start to pitch their idea for a show to us! I do not know whether I am coming or going. This is a very strange meeting.

I have sympathy, of course, about the sight lines. I am frustrated and disappointed by this too.

Back in the theatre I work with the actors on some notes and adjustments until it is time for them to break and prepare for the show. I am still not entirely comfortable with this cast. They do not embrace ideas as quickly or as fully as I would like. Sometimes this is challenging in a good way and allows me the opportunity to see that I am wrong before exposing the idea to an audience. These are the moments where I feel that their attitude is only new to me and all part of growing up. But there are also others that betray their insecurities through a resistance or moodiness. I guess it is all about people management. They have all had a good run of the show in Plymouth. They all know that it works. They have had uniformly brilliant reviews for their work. Their friends have said all the nice things that they need to hear so at least that atmosphere of doubt and lack of confidence in the direction seems to have dissipated.

***

Last night’s show was much better. It really connected with the audience. The improved lighting made all the difference. And yet, I am still not completely in love with it. There were moments where it dipped for me. What is crucial is I believe that these moments are all eminently fixable. I leave with complete faith in the show. Not necessarily that it is firing on all cylinders but that it will eventually.

The post-show discussion was with around 150 members of the audience and was quite challenging. They put forward good, difficult questions. Knowing the difficult nature of this production I felt nervous about this. I have written extensively on the ideas in this show but this was different. Some of the questions were clearly a challenge for me to back up and explain the idea. While I never began to doubt my answers I was aware that I stuttered uncomfortably and I was never really convinced by how I sounded. We have spent the past 80 minutes challenging and provoking the audience. This further 20 minutes of questions seem like a fair revenge. But unlike other shows I do not think it will ever get comfortable.

***

I think I might have reached the end. There is no conclusion yet. I have not read it. I am resisting. At the moment I think this has been a fascinating exercise for me. I am afraid that by reading it I will find that it is not this for anyone else. I am also aware that it has been rushed, written in snatched moments to and from rehearsal. It is written in moments of doubt and weakness. And written in moments of confidence and arrogance. And I think it is these latter moments that I am scared of. There is a dignity in standing in front of you naked and saying ‘I am human. I am weak’ but there is no dignity in doing the same and shouting ‘I am great. I am great.’

We have come back to ego again. My initial fear about writing this.

But it is done now.

So this might be the end. But then again it might not be. If there is a need and desire for a conclusion then I will do that. But for me to do that I have to sit and read this and it strikes me that I would probably be more comfortable reading someone else’s diary than my own. But that is one of the fears and one of my fascinations. It might sound exactly like someone else’s diary. And I don’t yet know whether that would be a good or a bad thing.

(And when did it become OK to start nearly every sentence with ‘but’ or ‘and’?)