The Sewing Group is a very hard play to talk about. More than any play I’ve worked on before it operates through invisible currents of thought and feeling and so far the rehearsal room has been a perfect for the text. There are no games or wild warm ups for me to tell you about, just a feeling, an exciting atmosphere of concentration that has imperceptibly grown throughout the week. Director Stewart Laing charges your imagination to wander with conversation and gentle questioning, and E.V. Crowe’s text seduces you into piling associations into the gaps. So I guess all I can do is try my best to reflect this subtle magic in a blog. Taking provocations from the room as a starting point, and hopefully setting your imagination off too.
The above description is not to make you think Laing’s process isn’t precisely calibrated, and there is one simple daily task that makes a particular impact that I’d like to talk about. Before we even open our scripts, we spend around an hour and a half sewing every morning. During this time we talk about our personal connections to various things in the play, with one person leading and gently questioned by the writer and director.
On a purely practical level it means everyone gets used to sewing which is pretty crucial since the cast will be sewing during every performance. We’ve been lucky enough to have Ruth De Courcy Shepherd coach us through the sewing. She’s been dropping in with tips and new techniques every few days throughout rehearsals. This week we’ve been focusing on embroidery, and we’ve already learnt:
- Cross stitch
- Running stitch
- Borders (I’ve recreated one above)
- Thread Counting
- Trying to thread a needle quickly can either make you feel like a superhero or that your head is going to explode
As a group we started to decide the details of what the characters are sewing. Using references to the text, we all spent a session creating what we thought the embroidery pattern might be, and then chose a final pattern taking bits and pieces from each other’s designs.
Next week we will look at quilting but embroidery has been particularly useful in transporting us back in time without artifice to a sewing group in the 1700s “a picture ripped out of a history book”. Embroidery is a technique that stretches across time from as early as 5th – 3rd Century BC with very little change to the tools and techniques across the millennia. Obviously the context is massively different, but otherwise nothing else separates our rehearsal room embroidery from the sewing groups of the past. I find myself thinking of the women before us, research I’ll share in weeks to come.
We’ve also naturally begun to explore all the physical consequences of sewing and talking, or sewing and doing anything else at the same time. Already we have an incredibly attuned sense of the rhythm of different stitches, of how moving topics or the tone of conversation affects the sewing, and of the very specific gaze sewing enforces – complete focus on the speaker, but usually averted eyes and only glances punctuating. Most surprisingly, we’ve all fallen under the spell of the sound a needle makes when it punctuates fabric stretched across an embroidery frame.
Obviously the choice to have the cast sew onstage is very deliberate, and I’m really excited to see what people actually doing something for real will do to a play that depends so much on the audience’s imagination. I’ve been thinking of The Presentation of Everyday Self a huge amount in rehearsals, how there is an element of performance in inhabiting different societal roles. Looking at it this way, a sewing group is a highly pressurised situation where every member must play their role correctly. In the very least, having the actors sew for real onstage will create real stakes onstage – they really do need to perform well in the group!
Maybe the biggest impact our morning session has on the rest of rehearsals is the atmosphere the sewing creates in the room, which lingers for the rest of the day. It inspires concentration and collective listening that makes even initial reading of a scene charged. The trust and calm instilled from talking to each other while sewing means conversations about the text are totally open and new ideas come readily, even into the last ten minutes of rehearsal we’re making discoveries. More difficult to describe is how this atmosphere perfectly suits the play. During the sewing, time seems to slow. More thoughts seem to fit in a sentence than usual, silences are heavy and light at the same time and everything just echoes. And already by the end of week one we are indisputably a team, an interlocking pattern with open arms around each other.