Week 1 – Exploring the play
Insights into the The Worst Witch rehearsal room from Assistant Director Sarah Stacey
We’ve just finished the first week of rehearsals for Royal & Derngate’s Christmas show, The Worst Witch (based on Jill Murphy’s much loved novels), and to say the least my head is spinning.
Day one begins traditionally, with a ‘meet and greet’ in which everyone involved with the production introduces themselves and describes their roles. Theresa Heskins (director) speaks about key elements of the production while Simon Daw (designer) introduces the model box (complete with moon, mountain and Miss Cackle’s Academy itself). The cast then do a read-through with the whole company present. This is the moment when, for most people present, the characters become more than words on a page.
The first day of rehearsal usually involves a lot of standing around, hand shaking and forgetting of peoples names. But the team, perhaps as a result of three R&Ds and nearly a year of planning, are chomping at the bit and we dive straight into the first scene. Theresa works fast and the first week is dedicated to covering the entire play in broad brush strokes. This is the time to explore challenges, to raise questions and to feel our way into the world of the play.
Each rehearsal begins with a read-through of the scene, followed by a quick round of ‘What do we know? What do we need to know?’ during which the actors establish what we’ve learned during this scene and what questions we need answering (anything from ‘what is the significance of Halloween?’ to ‘how are witches educated before the age of 11?’). We tried not to ask for easy answers from Emma Reeves (adapter) who probably spent most of the week biting her tongue as we muddled through the intricacies of the witching world. Luckily Friday saw her scribbling answers on post-it notes for us to return to next week as we flesh out Act 1.
Being set at a witching school, much of what the script asks of the actors is impossible: and because so much is impossible, anything suddenly becomes possible. A good proportion of the first week is given over to tackling these challenges (‘how to make someone appear from nowhere’, ‘how to create the spooky forest’, ‘how to fly away on a broomstick’). As real magic (courtesy of John Bulleid, our illusionist) is reserved for later in the play the cast must use actor magic – their bodies and their imaginations. Several times a day they divide into small groups and are given five minutes to offer up solutions. These offers come and go easily and the mood is one of playfulness and real collaboration.
Collaboration is the watchword for this entire process. Luke Potter and our insanely talented band of actor-musicians are surrounded by instruments, writing live underscore to half-improvised scenes, while Bev Edmunds Norris (movement director) and Theresa seem to converse telepathically.
Of course, the formidable Miss Hardbroom having forbidden the girls from bringing their cats to the theatre, the company have to construct surprisingly life-like kittens from odd gloves, socks and cardigans. Much of the week is therefore spent animating these glove-puppets (imagined by Paschale Straiton, our puppetry director): learning how to make them communicate, leap onto a chest of drawers and wrap themselves around someone’s shoulders. Pulling my gloves on as I leave the theatre, I have to remind myself that pretending your hand is a kitten outside of the rehearsal room isn’t actor magic, it’s just plain weird.
Theresa has a talent for speeding time up (which she says is more of a curse than a blessing), and the week is indeed gone in a flash. But the result is that the company has managed to erect the structure of the entire play: skeletal for now (not unlike Simon’s set which was being constructed in the rehearsal room as we leave on Friday evening) but begging to be furnished over the next few weeks.