Hello. My name is Simon Coates and I'm one of the actors in Regeneration, which is beginning a UK tour at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton, then travelling to York, Edinburgh, Bradford, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Richmond, Wolverhampton, Darlington, Oxford and Blackpool. I will be blogging every week from the rehearsal room, giving an insight into how rehearsals are going and what processes are being used to get the play onto the stage and in front of an audience.
Week five began with a swift run through in the theatre rehearsal room, while the technical staff continued building the set on stage, ready for the technical and dress rehearsals. The wardrobe, lighting, sound, props, music and marketing departments were also hard at work preparing for the move into the theatre. The technical rehearsal is the time when all elements of the production come together, and it eventually took three and a half days to work through the play from beginning to end, starting at 9am and finishing at 10pm. It is always a very slow process, and involves working out precisely how lights, sound, music and action can occur simultaneously and with a fluidity that keeps the momentum of the play going according to the director's vision. It is the deputy stage manager who is responsible for ensuring that all these different elements are kept in synchronisation, and this job is known as 'cueing'. He/she sits in the stage left wing with the prompt-copy of the play, in which every cue has been marked. In front of her is a large set of panels which contain a bewildering array of lights and switches, along with two tv screens which enable her to see the stage even when it is in blackout. She is, essentially, piloting the production. Whenever a change in lights or sound is needed, she instructs, via headphones, the lighting and sound operators to change cues. In a fast-moving scene-change these cues can be very rapid and a calm head is needed. She also cues the actors onto the stage through a series of red and green lights behind the set - red for standby, green for enter. It is one of the many unseen backstage jobs, without which the production would grind to a halt and the audience would have to go home.
By Friday afternoon we were ready for our dress rehearsal, then our first performance in the evening. The first performance of any play is always fraught. A lot has to be remembered from the technical rehearsal, and with quick costume changes, wigs, moustaches and props thrown into the mix it can make for a stressful evening. The atmosphere backstage was slightly subdued as everyone concentrated on what they had to do, but with a few 'good luck' nods (actors never say 'break a leg') we were off. It seemed to go well, and the response at the end was very warm. Over the next three or four performances the production will tighten, and after our press night on Tuesday we will be up and running, and touring the UK until December. We hope you'll be able to catch it somewhere near you.
Weeks 3 and 4
Week three began where we left off, slowly working out where characters enter and exit, and what they do once in the scene. It's important to work out where characters have come from before entering, what they want during the scene, and where they are going when they exit - as Tom Stoppard put it: "Look on every exit as an entrance somewhere else". It's important also to gauge how characters have been changed by a scene - it may be only slightly or it may be profoundly, but it's a useful way of charting characters' journeys through the play, scene by scene. This stage of rehearsal is often more encouraging than the stumbling, faltering stage of week two. Our grasp of the lines is more solid, our familiarity with each scene is stronger, our understanding of the characters is fuller, and our physical journeys are becoming clearer. This means that changes can me made more rapidly than before - familiarity with what we are doing enables the director to suggest new ideas, and experimentation can be done swiftly. This week has also seen the wardrobe department begin costume fittings. As the play is set in 1917 the costumes will be historically accurate, some being made from scratch, others being hired from theatres elsewhere. This is the first time the actors get a proper idea of what they will be wearing. Design drawings are looked at during the first week of rehearsal but this is the time we get to put costumes on for the first time and any alterations needed are noted down.
Week four began with the difficult task of deciding how scene-changes were to be accomplished. There are 25 separate scenes in the play, each requiring some type of movement of furniture. The director and designer have decided that the cast will do all changes themselves, along with the help of two assistant stage managers. This means that they will be done in full view of the audience - no blackouts or curtains to obscure the mechanics of each change. Consequently, the cast have to memorise what they do in each change - a task that is more daunting than remembering the lines. The end of the week saw our first run through of each of the two acts. This is when we start to stitch the scenes together, and also get to see the scenes in which we don't appear, and an overall feel of the play is discovered for the first time. On the Saturday morning it was time to do our first full run-through. This is the moment when 'strangers' first enter the rehearsal room. Of course, they're not strangers - they have all been working hard behind the scenes on set, costume, light, sound, etc - but it's the first time in a month that new eyes are upon us and it's always a delicate moment. With the last day in the rehearsal room completed, it's now time to transfer into the theatre to begin week five - technical rehearsals, dress rehearsals and our first encounter with an audience.
The cast assembled again on Monday morning after a weekend of line-learning. 'How do you learn your lines?' is a question actors get asked a lot, and it's a difficult one to answer. The act of learning lines is only a small percentage of an actor's workload - it's the relatively easy bit - and so the topic rarely gets discussed. It's a task that gets done as quickly as possible, and with little fuss, so that we are ready and armed for the rehearsal room floor, where the real work begins.
The journey onto the rehearsal room floor can be a tricky one. Week one has been spent around the table, discussing in detail each scene. However, the time eventually comes when we have to do what we're paid to do: stand up and say the lines. It can be a peculiarly vulnerable time. You only have a tenuous grasp of the lines, you don't know how you are getting into or out of a scene, you don't know where you are going once in the scene, and you don't yet fully know why you are saying what you are saying. In short, you have no idea what you are doing. Luckily everyone is in the same boat, so we can all fail together. This is why rehearsal rooms are always closed to everyone except those most closely involved in the production. The last thing you want is tens of people witnessing you stumble your way through a scene. It's tempting at this stage to hold on to your script, as it provides a kind of security blanket. But you've got to put it down at some point, not least because you need to work out what to do with your arms. Luckily, the deputy stage manager is your friend and saviour at this point - he/she will call out your line every time you say 'yes please', which at this stage of the process is often.
The question of why your character is saying what he/she is saying is an important one, and our director is keen to use a technique called 'actioning' to discover the answer. This involves choosing a transitive verb for each of your lines in order to explore how your character might be seeking to change another character, or what the characters are trying to do to each other. Take these lines from the play, for instance:
A: Do your patients ever relapse?
B: Couldn't tell you. No idea.
A: Is there any incidence of suicide after the treatment?
B: I shouldn't think so. Haven't heard of any. As I say, you're welcome to watch, but I normally do these treatments on my own.
Now with some possible actions:
A: (quizzes) Do your patients ever relapse?
B: (resists) Couldn't tell you. (conceals) No idea.
A: (probes) Is there any incidence of suicide after the treatment?
B: (warns) I shouldn't think so. (challenges) Haven't heard of any. (belittles) As I say, you're welcome to watch, but I normally do these treatments on my own.
Of course an audience won't know what these actions are and nor should they. But by exploring the characters' motives in this way and experimenting with different actions we can suggest, and it's this suggestion that keeps the text alive and active and the audience's ear engaged.
Monday morning was largely taken up with the theatre staff meeting the cast, creatives and stage management team, and people generally getting to know each other. Audiences would be amazed at the number of people involved in getting a play like this on and touring round the country. They will only see the 9 actors on stage, but there are scores of hugely dedicated people involved, most of whom remain invisible and silent. Once the greetings were over, the cast, writer, deputy stage manager and director slowly read the play out loud for the first time, including all stage directions. By the time this had been done and the wardrobe department had taken all the actors' measurements the first day was over and rehearsals proper could begin.
Rehearsal methods vary depending on the director's approach, and the first day or two are often concerned with him/her setting out how the rehearsal period will progress. Our director, Simon Godwin, is keen to thoroughly examine the text of the play, and the remainder of our week has been largely taken up by doing so. This began by slowly reading each scene and noting down, collectively, any present/historical facts, and then creating questions arising from those facts. For instance, we know that the play starts in Craiglockhart military hospital for the shell-shocked. From this fact we asked: How long has it been a hospital? How many patients are there? How big is it? What is the layout? How far is it from the station? Do the patients wear uniforms? How big are the wards? Do patients share rooms? Where do they eat? How long have the doctors worked there? How long have the patients been there? Do the doctors eat with the patients? Where are the doctors living quarters? Where is the sick bay? What do their dressing gowns look like? Can they smoke in the hospital? What disciplinary procedures are there? Are the doctors military men? How many nurses are there? What are the medical methods used? Is there a library? Do doctors socialise with patients in the evenings? And so on. By slowly working through each scene in this manner we have ended the first week of rehearsals with a series of many questions arising from the facts in the play. By spending the next three weeks rehearsing with these questions in mind, we hope to build a believable world in which the characters can exist.
The actors have also made timelines for their characters leading up to the date at the start of the play. This involves deciding on what year they were born, where they went to school, whether they are married or have children etc. This is made slightly easier for the actors who are playing real-life characters such as the war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. For actors playing fictional characters this is where imagination comes in. A timeline for the play has also been collectively decided upon, so that we know on what date each scene takes place and the exact time of day. With a quick trip to the Imperial War Museum, two movement sessions, and two guest speakers, it has been a long and stimulating week.