Assistant Director on Waste, Henry Bell, tells us what's happening in the rehearsal room:
This week has been tech week, which is when all the technical elements of the play come together. It is infamous for long hours, short tempers and occasionally moments of danger and excitement. However everyone is really well organised at the Almeida and the whole thing went very well indeed.
Guy [Hoare], the lighting designer, has been in rehearsals for four weeks, knows the show back to front and was able to plot and focus with maximum ease. Peter [McKintosh], the designer, has done a fantastic job at creating a practical solution to having three completely different locations for a four-act play. John [Leonard], the sound designer, seems to have every sound effect – and to Sam [West]’s delight, bird song, at his finger tips and the Stage Management somehow manage to combine working incredibly hard whilst remaining incredibly well humoured. I think there’s something in the water round Islington way.
Once we have been through the play checking the technical elements it is time to do a dress rehearsal. We managed two of these, typically known as the moment to make your mistakes. After the tech and dresses it is time to preview – a terrifying prospect of letting the general public in to see months of work. The whole creative team are there furiously trying to not distract punters with constant note scribbling. Sam has been relentless with his noting and subsequent rehearsals through the preview period; it’s great to see nothing get compromised (apart form the hours of sleep he has), and the cast are equal to his commitment to very high standards.
So we are nearly there. The press are in on Thursday, it’s been a joy to work on and I hope that this show goes down well among the general public. Eavesdropping conversations outside (another essential Assistant Director duty) and working on the play with local schools has gone some way to reinforce my belief that the issues of this play and the world it reflects are relevant to our society and ought to be discussed and thought about right now.
After going through the play twice in considerable detail, this week was more about going back to basics: the primary principles of intention, given circumstances, listening and being, not acting. As the actors started to see the bigger the picture the week followed a peculiar paradox – I could see them relaxing into their characters but also see them tense up at the prospect of opening the show in just over a week.
This paradox creates an electric atmosphere in rehearsals and it has been a great week. Special mention has to go to Phoebe Nicholls and Will Keen who have been working through the Fourth Act constantly beating themselves up despite making some spectacular theatre. It’s fantastic to see such high standards and, when we ran the play for the first time I think it was no coincidence that the Fourth Act, which is a really tricky piece of text, was the most exciting.
After running the play Sam [West] gathers the whole company together to give notes. I think that your ability to give notes is the litmus test of a theatre director – get them wrong and you get the company unnecessarily anxious and disillusioned with their work – get them right and you manage to create the piece of theatre you’ve been working towards for the past four to five months. Sam’s notes are a delight to watch – I think his work as an actor prepares him ably for the task since not only does he understands the needs of the cast – sometimes it’s good just to get technical notes about your performance – but he also brings his ideas across in a way that makes each note seem like a performance in itself!
This week has also lead to another theory on being an assistant director. Part of the duty of the role is to be bought a pint or two by the director after runs and to share ideas. Sam has been incredibly generous with both buying and listening and occasionally I have something useful to say. Now there are moments when Sam will bring my ideas across to the company and introduce them as my idea and there are times when he does not. It may sound strange but it is much more satisfying to go uncredited and there have several moments of personal pride this week when Sam has worked through a note I have given and the cast not notice that it is an idea from the AD. You never know, I might even be learning something from this experience.
Next week is tech week. Bring on the caffeine!
A great deal of this week’s work has been spent creating the scenes that happen off stage in the play. In Waste there are several crucial moments and events that are reported on but we never see. For one moment, at the beginning of the second half of the play, Sam found a section from the 1907 text which covers the exact ground of the conversation taking place before the lights come up. I think starting scenes in the middle of conversations is a great dramatic device and Granville Barker does this at the beginning of Act 3. However it is important for the actors to be able to come in at the right level of intensity and it was fascinating to see how Sam created this.
This week also saw the first bit of the run so far in the rehearsal process. On Monday Sam decided to run the whole of Act 2. This was because the Act is a series of duologues featuring Will [Keen] and he felt it was good for Will to get a sense of the arch of the progression of his character. Watching the run, then giving my thoughts to Sam afterwards, reinforced ideas I’ve had about what an assistant director needs to look out for.
In my experience the director usually deals with the big stuff and the interesting stuff – leaving the assistant director to look out for the fiddly stuff and the boring stuff. It’s actually a really fun thing to do – I make notes on sight-lines, whether I can hear certain lines, to slam a door or to not slam a door, historical posture and it’s important to have something of the idiot about you when working out the clarity of the scene. I’m proud on this show to be Sam’s idiot and, despite this being a show full of ideas, my idiot persona hasn’t been too confused. I’ve also occasionally made notes of the big stuff and the interesting stuff but just enough to not get too big for my boots.
The rest of the week was working through the play at a more rapid rate than we have done (no celebrity guest this week) so that we would have gone through the play twice before we get to next week when we shall run an act a day and then start running the whole play.
I always think that one of the great thing about working in the theatre is that each project teaches you something new and, three weeks into rehearsal, I feel a lot more enlightened on topics I never thought I’d know anything about
Disestablishment is at the heart of Waste – the main character, Trebell is trying to get a bill through Parliament that will disestablish the church and it is amazing to find out the exact position of the church at the moment. Any change to the structure of ideologue of the church has to passed by the House of Commons, bishops are appointed by politicians and they swear total allegiance to the Queen. What is even more incredible is that it has been this way since the 17th Century.
The actors met as a full company to havea round table discussion about their characters. I myself think it is very useful on a variety of levels; firstly it brings the company together a few weeks in an with a big cast like this is a rarity and secondly this is a political play and it is important that the company are actively engaged in discussing it.
We also had another visitor to rehearsal in the form of Martin Bell, the former independent politician. Alas, I was busy frantically writing for the programme whilst he was talking but I managed to catch up with him in the pub afterwards. He spoke, even in the King’s Head, with great passion and wit and pointed out how important independent politicians can be (Trebell in Waste is an independent MP) – they act as a vital thorn in the side of the establishment. He also pointed out the various cynicisms and corruptions of modern politics; it is interesting to note that these are also found in some of characters in Waste written in 1926 - it’s amazing how things change.
This week we have been steadily going through the play chronologically and at 13.30 on Saturday we have reached the end of Act 3. It has been a fascinating process and one that has revealed a great deal about the play.
The mantra from Sam this week has been ‘Don’t play the mood of the scene, play the action’. Before the rehearsal process Sam goes through the whole play and actions it for himself – this is to make sure that he has a response to every part of the text.
It has also been a great week for getting underneath the skin of the play. Peter Hall once described Waste as ‘The best play written about politicians since Shakespeare’ I think he has a point. The battle between the public and the private lives that politicians lead is always something we read about but rarely see dramatised and I think that partly because of this Waste is a great play for today.
It is typical of Granville Barker to present such a well rounded and fascinating study of people – I have worked on a Granville Barker play before and it never fails to amaze just how long you can spend dissecting a scene and discovering new things. Luckily there is a bell in rehearsal that anyone can ring when they feel we have been talking too long, Sam contributes a pound for each ring. I ‘m hoping this year’s charity will be the National Association of Assistant directors, at the moment, the pot has six pounds in it. I will keep you updated on its progress.
‘You are not, I hope, going to tell me that the fellow drops from the skies, ready-made, at the moment you walk on the stage?’ -Harley Granville Barker.
The first week has been a fascinating process of establishing the facts of the play. Day One started with the read-through which then lead to the erection of a huge roll of paper over one side of the vastly spacious rehearsal room at 108. “This”, said Sam, “Is for establishing the facts of the play.” And so we did. Many hours of filling what happens in the bits that we don’t see on stage followed. What happens the months between Act 1 and Act 2? When exactly did Amy O'Connell and Justin O'Connell get married? Who is related to whom? What is the exact make-up of the Cabinet in the play? I could create a list pages long of the amount of questions that were answered - and occasionally not answered - over this first week. As a kid director it has been fantastic to see the enormous level of detail that Sam and the cast have gone into in order to make Waste, as Sam said on day one, “a new play”.
We also got a huge treat on Day One when unofficial holder of the title ‘coolest pensioner in the history of the world’ Tony Benn came in to talk about disestablishment (separating in the Church of England from the Crown and the State). He himself, like Henry Trebell in the play, had prepared a disestablishment bill in the 70s and 80s but it didn’t even reach the discussion process. We spent a couple of hours going through exactly what it meant and got wonderfully side tracked by Tony’s amazing ability to tell fantastic stories. It was also a very useful way of getting the politics of the play alive and authentic on day one. It was also just great to sit in a room with Tony Benn for a few hours.
Sam quoted the quote at the top of the piece by Granville Barker (I found it but he must have forgotten to credit me!) to the actors early on in rehearsal, and for me it sums exactly what we have done this week. Granville Barker was a director obsessed with biography and back-story, he passionately wanted the actors to create well rounded, fully formed people. This is an idea Sam has grabbed and run with excellently; all the cast are making their four lists where you have to write out everything that the author says about your character, what your character says about him/herself, what your character says about other people and what other people say about your character. This is to avoid woolly and incorrect character choices early on in the rehearsal process.
It was satisfying to see the difference between the first read-through and the second which came a few days after we had gone through the play with a fine toothed comb. If this level of detail and commitment is maintained I feel this play could cause just as much as a stir as it did in 1907 when it was first banned from the English stage. Either way I don’t care, just as long as I can smoke a pipe with Tony Benn if he can make it to the press night...