A co-production between the Royal Shakespeare Company and amateur companies across the UK

This is an arrangement developed between the RSC and Equity

Rehearsal Room Diary: Hello!

Lucy Ellinson, playing Puck in #Dream2016, reflects on the first week of rehearsals and the technology allowing the 14 groups to actively participate in rehearsal together.

The team from the RSC have asked us to write and share an insight into our rehearsal process with RSC supporters around the world – so here we are!  Sorry it took so long… it’s been a busy week!

“Day 1”: Monday 4th January

Our first day began with a warm welcome from Artistic Director Gregory Doran who shared news of the RSC’s projects for 2016 – Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary – and a meet and greet with the Hamlet acting company and production teams also working in the RSC’s London rehearsal space.

It was a jam-packed day, bursting with information, questions and answers.  Our heads were spinning as we tried to download everything we could about A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation project.  With 12 venues, 687 cast members, “Dream Team” creative work happening in hundreds of classrooms across the UK, a BBC documentary in the making and 4 months of touring ahead – it feels not so much like a theatre production, more a planet in its own right (massively exciting).

We learnt more about our partner theatres and fellow cast members, from 14 superb Amateur Theatre companies around the UK.  We discovered that there will be 580 fairies from local schools joining us on stage throughout the tour (many of whom sent us New Year cards – thanks everyone!)  We were briefed by our Stage Management, Production and Digital tech teams; the ‘model box’ was revealed, ideas shared by our designers and – we even learnt a dance routine.

Heading home that evening (head now throbbing with a sort of joyous migraine) it was so clear that all these talented people – working in direction, text/voice/choreography, production, education, casting, administration, development, technical, digital and design… are not just months but years deep into work and preparation… and we (the RSC Dream16 acting company) get to turn up and call it “Day 1”?!

One question remained: “Is all our company here?”

Day 3: Wednesday 6th January

Wednesday night was another first – our first full cast rehearsal of scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and fittingly it was something of a strange encounter.

In our London rehearsal room (we rehearse in Newcastle and Stratford-upon-Avon too) actors gathered from the RSC professional acting company and Tower Theatre (who will be playing the Mechanicals when we visit the Barbican in London).  Joining us online in a live link up were 13 (of 14) Amateur companies who will be bringing the house down in Newcastle, Glasgow, Blackpool, Bradford, Canterbury, Norwich, Nottingham, Truro, Cardiff, Belfast and Stratford-upon-Avon. The actors in the rehearsal room in London began by reading scenes together – and our online colleagues watched via their screens.

The technology we’re using is designed and maintained by Jon and Sean with support from the digital tech team at the RSC.  They have created a bespoke system that enables all 14 groups, around the UK, to actively participate in rehearsal together.  Erica Whyman (A Midsummer Night’s Dream Director and RSC Deputy Artistic Director) facilitated the whole session with flair and we quickly cottoned on that patience, listening and cooperation are what we mortals can offer to the process, in order to make both conversation and ideas flow.

Erica began the session by passing round the ‘dream pad’ which allowed us all, to briefly introduce ourselves!  In any *typical* rehearsal room (if there is such a thing!), this part of the process – getting to know your fellow performers – is really important – but we were up against time constraints and the peculiar reality of most of the acting company not physically being in the room – so we smiled and waved and decided to dive straight in.

Act 1 Scene 2: The Mechanicals meet to assign their roles… I was sat next to Tower Theatre’s Adam Moulder (playing Flute) and seconds before we began we whispered to each other: “Here we go”… Before you could say “French-crown-coloured-beard”, Tower Theatre actors had brought their Rude Mechanicals to life.  They had us (and the BBC team) and 13 other ensembles in *stitches* and if Tower Theatre actors were nervous – they certainly didn’t let on; it was absolutely fantastic.  It really is a pleasure hearing your colleagues’ voices for the first time in a reading – it feels like the moment when the play says “Hello”.

Next up, Act 3 Scene 1: Puck spies the Mechanicals rehearsing in the Palace Woods; who are unaware of being watched.  Erica asks us to try something different.  We bring The Nonentities company up on screen, live from their rehearsal space in Kidderminster and it is their turn to play their Rude Mechanicals.  I am asked to switch seats and read in Puck – so we can perform together.

This is where it gets a bit weird.

The screen (with our Mechanicals) is to my left, the camera is in front.  At first I wasn’t sure quite how to engage – I decide to speak to camera, choosing to directly address our ‘online’ audience (and try to also include my colleagues sitting with me).  The scene began, Nonnies reading from their scripts in deep concentration and full flow.

From where I was sitting – there was a strange feeling: a disconnect.  Yet with all this complex technology, something simple and authentic was emerging.  We had the power – as a large body of people – to secretly watch a small group of actors rehearse (almost) unaware of our presence. Puck’s asides worked with a particular exclusivity in this respect.

As the scene progressed to Puck’s taunting of the Mechanicals – who run from the forest in fright – I expected our exchange to draw to a close but Erica silently gestured for those of us in the London rehearsal room to continue.  Puck slipped out of frame and Queen Titania (Ayesha Dharker) hovered nearby.  Chris Clarke – somewhere in a room in Kidderminster instinctively and brilliantly turned the page of his script and bravely kept going into the next scene.  Bottom – now cruelly transformed – sang his song, unaware of all the many sets of eyes fixed on him and in that moment he seemed truly vulnerable.

Titania: “What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?”

Chris looks up from his script and sees her smiling face onscreen.

“I pray thee, gentle mortal sing again”

It was a lovely moment and for me – a tiny bit extraordinary.  Inside this encounter – this first time of seeing – lived a genuine “Hello.”

I wish I could have bottled it.  All the way home on the bus I kept thinking about how we do “hellos”.   Not just in the rehearsal room sense (our attempts to find and make authentic the first time a character sees or meets another) but also in the world of the play *and* the world in which the play was written; the one we live in now.  How different folks encounter one another, how we meet, greet – and treat – one another.

Thank you to our tech team, for locating this ‘marvellous convenient place for our rehearsal’ and for bringing us all together.  Hello to all the amateur companies and theatre teams we’ll be working with in the coming months, we’re so looking forward to it!  Hello to all at planet Play for The Nation who we’ve yet to meet – including 687 performers across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  Hello and nǐ hǎo to all RSC supporters and friends across the world in this 400 anniversary year!

Goodness only knows what Shakespeare would have to say about the technological capability we are using in order to make A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for The Nation come into being – but – I do know that it has helped us find (with a dose of Whyman-wisdom and a touch of Bottom’s bravery) a little bit of magic and a glimpse of what’s to come.

Look out for our week 2 rehearsal diary from our work and play at the tremendous Northern Stage Theatre in Newcastle!

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