Rehearsals week 6

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Rehearsing with a stand-in Michael

Three big developments this week.  The first you already know about – the dance which finishes the show.  Not exactly the cast’s favourite rehearsal activity, and I do know how they feel, having that same sense of utter helplessness myself, but it has to be done. In fact, we tried to squeeze in another short rehearsal at the end of Wednesday’s rehearsal, but them being tired made it even harder. We shall persevere. 

Wednesday brought the arrival of young Michael, the boy playing the human Christmas cracker which concludes the story.  His name is Sajad, and he is the younger brother of one of the cast.  He had learnt his lines, which was very sweet, but at first he was as wooden as Pinocchio.  Hardly surprising when, like the rest of the cast, he had never acted before, but after a fair bit of coaching, he was getting the hang of it – “I’m a real boy!”

Even more important in lots of ways, it seems as though I have got a good stage manager.  Zarifeh speaks excellent English, and also appears to be very well organised; immediately, she proved to be a great help.  Like the other capable and talented students at Gekko, she is much in demand, but I think she could prove to be the final – and vital – piece in the puzzle.

On Thursday it took a while for people to arrive – and, worryingly, one boy is missing quite a few rehearsals – but once we were there (and the cast discovered there was no dance today) things started to come together promisingly.  We went from the very beginning, and, while there have been some strong individual moments already, they were now starting to tie them together.  I know that my belief in the production swings wildly, depending upon how the last rehearsal went, but it is good to end the week with some real optimism.

Every little thing…

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This post is all about props, and why they are more important than you might think. (And because, in its own way, a post is a prop.  Boom boom.)

In order for a production to have some quality, props (and costumes) need to be given some thought.  Of course, in the professional theatre, responsibility for both those elements are delegated, but the director still needs to make them fit with the overall approach.  At one end of the spectrum (say, the RSC) there is total geographical and historical accuracy.  And the opposite of that is not, as you might think, actors all in black miming everything (say, Steven Berkoff) for that too displays a consistent vision (and requires enormous skill).  The opposite is the actors or wardrobe person just cobbling together stuff, with props a mixture of just stuff lying around with bits of mime when nothing suitable comes to hand.

So what idea ties together The Chalk Circle (and which end of the spectrum are we closer to?)  For a start, I am responsible for both wardrobe and props, so it’s all down to me.  And the production as a whole, story and cast, reflects the refugee experience.  Recycled, scavenged, acquired, bought when necessary.  Which is not as random as it might sound.  And is not to do with saving money (except where that fits in with the refugee experience as well.)

The soldiers’ weapons and the Prime Minister’s staff are cardboard tubes rescued from the rubbish binson the corner of every street, tarted up with some electrical tape.  The chair too was destined for the bin, having been chewed to near-death by some cat. The cloth bag of diamonds used as a bribe I found lying on the street; I washed it and filled it with stones.  The Queen’s jewellery box was a discarded shoe-box I picked up on the street, prettied up in Yiola’s workshop; the feather for a quill, and the two walking-sticks (both from broken umbrellas) came from the same place.  I borrowed the rope for the bridge from Tassos, my landlord, and the trunk was lying in the cupboard at Gekko X.  I drew the architect’s plan for the King’s new palace; Shukira wrote out the two official proclamations in Farsi.  I did shell out good money for the lemons (from the local veg stall), the basket (from a Roma street-trader) and the brush (from the corner-store.)

And then there’s the baby. A couple of different people offered me a baby doll, and I hope they were puzzled rather than offended when I turned them down, and tried to explain that actually I preferred a small pillow wrapped in an old sheet.

Dancing queen

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 I have always enjoyed performances which end with something more than just a formal curtain call, so wanted to end our production with a dance; the fact that Brecht’s original play leads towards a joyful celebration made this both easy and appropriate.  Not all the cast were entirely in favour of this: Isaq, who plays both the Storyteller and the character of Azdak, was adamant that he was not a dancer.  I was equally adamant that he had no choice; Isaq might not be keen on dancing, but Azdak was positively enthusiastic.

I asked Eirene, the school receptionist, but also a keen dancer, to be our choreographer.  At the beginning, she taught some basic steps… though like most dancers she did find it difficult to keep it slow and simple, and was soon whirling round the dance floor, which had our cast dropping out in droves, as the music sped up.  As, inevitably, it did – we were using the famous soundtrack from Zorba the Greek, probably the most famous piece of Greek music ever.  But then she took a more measured approach, teaching some manageable steps and establishing a basic structure.  By and large, the actors stayed with it, and could be seen to be making progress.  I was pleased with their perseverance.

We are far from having a complete dance after this first rehearsal, but I never imagined we would.  We established a shape, and a sense of progression, and something that the musicians would be able to work with (though whether James and Iman can recreate a bouzouki on accordion and guitar, let alone one that builds in pace and intensity, is another matter.)  Eirene was keen to continue the next day, but I told her I needed to rehearse.  The compromise was that she would return the following day at the end of the rehearsal, and try to move us forward, once she had had the time to plan the dance more thoroughly.

Doctor doctor

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I was chatting online with an old friend from Oxford, Jackie Keirs.  Many years ago, she had directed me in several productions, including some by Brecht, and she reminded me that in one of them she had used puppets for certain characters, mainly because she did not have enough actors.  That’s a co-incidence, I thought – I don’t have enough actors either, and that got me thinking.

There is a brief scene early on in The Chalk Circle when two doctors argue over the health of the baby Michael, and it occurred to me that having just one actor with a glove puppet on each hand, bickering with each other, might be an effective idea.  First, it would save me an actor.  Second, it has a Brechtian feel, appropriate for a play by Brecht; he advocated a non-naturalistic style, in which the audience is reminded of the fact that they are watching theatre, not real life, and puppets do that brilliantly.  Third, it makes a satirical point, literally portraying the “on the one hand this, on the other hand that” that is a bit of a medical cliché.  And finally – and this beats the rest put together – it is funny.

So much for the rationale; the practicalities took a little more time.  As it happens, my papier-mache skills are up to the task of creating a couple of glove puppet heads.  One was based on a balloon mounted on the neck of a plastic Perrier bottle; the other was formed from the square lid of an egg carton, with cereal-box card wrapped round to create the front (and with an egg-box section for a nose.)  I also had a place to work, for there is an upcycling workshop at the back of the courtyard in Mosaik, with work tables outside.  As I had the materials I needed – brown paper from bread bags, card, an egg-box and wallpaper paste – I was able to start on my own (with the assistance of a small girl called Fatima who tore paper for me.)

But then Yola arrived.  She is a Greek artist who presides over the upcycle empire there.  She was complimentary about the progress I had made, and gave me extra bits and pieces from her store.  That was an amazing Aladdin’s cave: stacks and stacks of every imaginable resource, all of it scavenged from somewhere, all carefully stored.  There were also examples of her magnificent creations – sculptures, picture frames, jewellery, etc, etc – all made from discarded stuff (which is what upcycling means.)  She helped me with the finishing touches that I wasn’t sure about – the hair, eyes, clothes – and eventually we were done.

All of this was about three days’ work, but at the end we had not only made two puppets, but friends as well.

Rehearsals week 5

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I suppose I ought to be used to this by now, after close on forty years of doing theatre with young people.  I used the roller-coaster metaphor last week, so let’s see: highs and lows, peaks and troughs, elation and despair.  To clarify, when you are preparing a production with the young, one minute you see glimpses of wonder, the next you are convinced you have an absolute disaster on your hands.

On Tuesday, half my cast – the girls – were missing from the rehearsal.  The swim program had begun, so they were 10 kms up the coast, and I had had no warning so had to re-think on the spot.  I do understand the problem: with volunteers arriving all the time, introducing their own enthusiasms (which inevitably disrupt whatever schedule existed before), and then leaving again, leaving a hole to be filled, this is bound to happen.  I am just another one of those disruptive influences, so can hardly complain.  But it did make for a difficult rehearsal.  There are just two short scenes which have only boys, and once we had rehearsed them… we played zip zap boing.

On Wednesday, things turned around 180 degrees.  I had already been told that Cecilia and Carol, from the REAL group, would be there, but when they were absent at the beginni9ng, I carried on with my original plan of working through the difficult final trial scene.  So by the time they arrived – parking problems – we had that scene ready to be seen (after a fashion).  They were suitably impressed, and told the cast so, which was good for morale (mine too.)

Next day, we returned to the beginning of the play, and the cast appeared to have forgotten everything we had done.  They were late, which made me fractious, and we also had Michele and Michelle from the swim team to watch.  Humph.  Still, we had another rehearsal in the evening – our first such venture, held to allow James and Iman, who would be adding accordion and guitar to the show, a chance to see it and try out some ideas.  The cast were all there, they were on time, and the rehearsal ideas we had worked on had stuck.

So, at the end of another yo-yo week (another metaphor!) I am reasonably positive.  Enough went wrong (and then some) for no-one to feel complacent; but enough went right (including the music!) to show that maybe, just maybe, it will be all right on the night.

Fists of fury

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I had always intended for the cast of the production to have a base costume, and when I spotted black t-shirts on special offer in the local supermarket – Eu.1.99 each – I grabbed them.  The next stage was to have some sort of simple logo on the front, but I was not sure how I was going to manage this, as it is outside my skill-set.  I did think at one stage that I might have a go at creating a very basic stencil out of dinghy rubber (of course!) – maybe just a circle, maybe with even a pair of C’s (for Chalk Circle) pained on with fabric paint.  Have to say I was nervous, having little to no confidence in my technical and artistic skill.  But then I met Jaime, a volunteer from Madrid, and I was able to up the game.

It turned out that. As well as being an English teacher back in Spain, he was also an artist, and I asked if he might be interested in creating a design.  It did take us a little while to come up with a design we could agree upon.  He was keen to avoid the obvious image of two women pulling a child between them, and I did not like his initial idea of a distressed child.  In the end, we settled upon the image you can see above (modelled by Jaime): two clenched fists within a chalk circle, as a symbol of struggle and conflict (though I did have a last minute crisis of confidence that it might come across as a fascist logo.)  The idea of a group of refugee children as members of a fascist cell was not attractive.

It was easy enough to find a t-shirt printing shop to do the job, and that is another production task ticked off the list.  And the kids will get a free t-shirt at the end, so that’s a win win.

Living in a material world

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Clothes sorting at Attika

Costumes for the play are going to be pretty representational and tokenistic.  That is an ideological decision in relation to the sort of theatre we are trying to create – storytelling brought to life – but also a practical one, as we have only the budget which I can raise.  People sometimes accuse Brechtian theatre of being merely a justification for being cheap, but I don’t have a problem with that; theatre ought to be cheap, or at least not just something you throw money at to solve your problems, or because someone has given you a big budget.

So.  The cast will wear a base costume of black t-shirt (of which more at a later date) and black long skirts for the girls (provided by Gekko) and trousers for the boys (provided by themselves.)  On top of that will be symbolic items to indicate the characters.  But even those have to be sourced from somewhere; it’s not as though the cast can raid their parents’ wardrobes, for they have neither. Nor is there an abundance of charity shops to go to.

There is, however, Attika, a warehouse a few miles outside Mytilini which recycles donated clothes on an industrial scale.  Andrew, one of the directors of Better Days, drove me out there, and we were able to solve some of our problems, chiefly some blankets which are going to be turned into cloaks for the royal family in the play.  There were a couple of long shirts and overalls which, with the sleeves and collars removed, will serve as peasant jerkins.  It was a little depressing, however, to see how much modern clothing simply does not survive very long, and has to be thrown away.

Other items – tabards for the soldiers, aprons for the servants – would have to be made from scratch.  With the help of Maro, owner and landlady of the volunteers’ house just around the corner, as well as finance officer for Better Days, I was able to negotiate a good deal for some offcuts and end of roll pieces of fabric from the nearby drapers’ shop.  Then it was a trip out to One Happy Family and the Women’s Centre there to hand it all over to Zahra and her friend.  They were going to turn our dross into costume gold, in exchange for a reasonable hourly wage and a donation to the centre.  If the costume question is not yet completely done, it can at least be parked for the time being.

Rehearsals week 4

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Of course, it would be nice if I were to get the full cast for every rehearsal, but that’s not going to happen.  In fact, if this is anything like the vast majority of productions I have directed, anywhere, I will be lucky to see them all together in one place before the opening night (and maybe not then.)

Even so, there are clear signs of real progress, as the books start to be put down and we see some real acting.  The one point I have to keep hammering at them is that they have to use their hands to illustrate whatever it is they are saying.  Maybe it is a cultural thing, this lack of digital demonstrativeness – they’re not Italians, after all – but it is very likely that a good proportion of their audience will not understand a word that is coming out of their mouths.  This means they have to convey what they mean using their hands (and their faces and their bodies.)

The most gratifying thing is that they all seem to have been bitten by the theatre bug, and all are growing in confidence.  Hossein was one of the shyest and quietest people in the group, but he was clamouring for an actual role, and at the time I happened to need the main bad guy, the Duke, brother to the King (or the Fat Prince in Brecht’s version), so he got the role.  And after a diffident start, he has just got better and better; I am as proud of him as any of them.

Hikmat, who plays Simon, the love interest, was hanging around in Gekko Kids after today’s rehearsal, waiting for an English tutorial.  George, the Greek maths and computer teacher, asked him if he liked theatre.  “No,” he said,  “I love it.”

Rehearsals week 3

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A rollercoaster of a week.  We still had three big scenes to translate – hard, slow, tedious work, but necessary.  Deborah had sent me along a regular helper/interpreter – Isaq Ali, one of her more advanced students – but his English is a little shaky.  We struggled, therefore, with the text, and it did not help that Ali, my storyteller, decided he did not need to be there and left the rehearsal.  It was all a bit depressing, though did improve when we finished the wedding scene and were able to “stand it up”.

I woke feeling very worried about all aspects of the show, and very anxious.  It is a regular condition for me, but no less depressing for all that. We had two scenes to be translated, including the most difficult one of all, the final trial scene – long, complicated, but vital. And when Ali did not turn up, despite the fact that the storyteller becomes Azdak, at the heart of this scene, I whatsapped him, and he replied immediately, to say he was withdrawing from the production. Hm!

I turned to Isaq Ali – would he take it on?  “Of course.” And so we could get on with the rehearsal – translating, then putting it on its feet.  And suddenly things came to life.  Everyone was involved in the scene, and my new Azdak was a massive improvement on the old one.

The next day Isaq Ali and the two others involved in the final scene we had to work on came in early, and we were able to work on the text in the privacy of a classroom, without distractions.  The play is now complete – some lines in Farsi, some in English, enough, we hope for everyone to be able to follow the story.  A weight was lifted from my shoulders.

When everyone else arrived, I informed them that, as a reward for their patience and forbearance over the past two days, we would put the scripts away for the day and have fun.  They were predictably pleased.  And fun was what followed.  Some of you will know – a few from bitter experience – that I am a big fan of the game Zip Zap Boing, and I have now taught it on four continents.  But maybe this is the group who have embraced it with the greatest enthusiasm and sense of fun that I have ever met.  There was so much laughter that there were people curled up on the floor in hysterics.  And other games too.

Then we reminded ourselves of the joy of slow-motion, and how it allows time – time to use the face, for reactions, for slowly dawning realisation.  We finished with a popular improvisation structure: the Park Bench. Someone arrives, another person joins them, the first person leaves, another one comes, etc. A mini-scene with each encounter.  This was the first time I had ever used silence and slow-motion, and without a second of pre-planning there was the most fantastic theatre: funny, clever, imaginative.  As I told them afterwards, it was times like this that reminded me why I love my job so much.

Make ’em laugh

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After the disappointing – not to say non-existent – turnout to the comedy workshop last week, Syed, the wonderful, multi-lingual, ever-smiling receptionist at Mosaik, promised me that we would have a full contingent this time.  And so it proved.  At 2 pm, there were half a dozen waiting for me in Mosaik’s largest classroom, with all the chairs and tables put away.  At 2.05 we had about the right number, some 15 or so, including (but not counting) a baby and a small child.  I began the lesson, but still they kept coming, 30 or more (though this did mean a few were able to escape my attention and hide themselves.)

Mime was the subject of the first half of the workshop, the basic technique explained and practised, and then various objects created and used: a ball, something to drink out of, and then progressing onto their own ideas.  We tried the magic object, which changes as it passes from person to person.  It was hard going, of course – this was the first time they had encountered being asked such questions, and most of them had only the vaguest idea of what I was asking them to do.  All the same, there were flashes of imagination, and quite a bit of laughter.  I played the clown, of course I did, but they paid attention, and enjoyed watching each other; some of them were making rapid progress.

We had a break after the first hour, and I really did think I’d lost pretty much everyone; some had explained they had another class to attend.  But in fact the same pattern repeated, with the numbers swelling over the first few minutes, the numbers boosted by the arrival of a number of French visitors.

Slow motion was the theme this time.  Harder for everyone to be involved, because of the lack of space, so rather more demonstrating this time.  Some by me (try and stop me) though I did have one rather worrying moment, when, acting out a scene of a robbery, I found myself with my arm twisted up my back in an armlock.  Talk about a trust exercise – I had to rely on a total stranger deciding not to hurt me.  He didn’t, I hasten to add.

Handing out bus tickets at the end was surprisingly challenging, with various people I had not noticed in the workshop coming forward to claim their allocation, but it resolved itself amicably enough.  As someone said, better to be occasionally fooled than permanently suspicious.