We began our first ever rehearsal with a read through of the play, it felt good to have all the cast together in one room, along with the writer and director. This read through was massively insightful and despite having scripts firmly in hand, the family tribe at the heart of the play already leaped off the page; their dysfunction was clear but their dependency on another and appreciation and exchange of wit, language and academia showed their charm. Also all the more poignant was the placid and often muted presence of Billy; whirlwinds of chaotic conversation literally washed over him. Couple this with the entrance of the outsider Sylvia, who poses an immediate threat to this setup and the dinner table became a battleground, where ownership for Billy was literally fought.
As various cast members edge outside for a cigarette or a cup of tea and a biscuit there was mass excitement about the production. Nina has written a play that provokes so many questions about language, parenting, belonging, community and especially communication. We just couldn’t wait to start working on it and maybe answer some of those questions ourselves before opening it up and sharing it with an audience.
Immediately after the first reading we became lost in discussion and began our proce
ss of unpicking the scenes, starting with what we know from the text itself first. We then progressed to thinking about the unspecified details, for which Nina was a great resource and openly shared the world of play she had created. We also decided to look for any underlying character traits that would help us tell this story, we naturally bombarded Nina with more questions about the qualities of the characters she has created and scrutinised her intentions.
Some clues were more obvious than others, for example we determined it was autumn at the opening of the play because Beth had collected walnuts from the garden. Other decisions were harder to make and incredibly subjective; like the derogatory ‘sideways look’ that Sylvia recalls being given when speaking in public after losing the last bit of her hearing. Roger decided to set up a plausible scenario for this ‘sideways look’ to feature, and so Stanley became a shopkeeper and Phoebe a customer. Sylvia entered our imagined newsagents and asked for 20 Marlborough lights; the slightly distracted shop keeper behind the desk looked confused by what he had just heard and asked her to repeat herself before giving the aforementioned ‘sideways look’, which was full of both confusion and pity.
After this improvisation we revisited the original scene and Sylvia’s retelling of that look to Billy was even more horrific and I could really feel Sylvia’s diminished confidence all the more. Due to the lack of eye contact our shopkeeper offered Sylvia, he was impossible to lip read and Sylvia not knowing the price handed him a note as payment to avoid getting into further conversation. Jacob’s observation of this matched his own experience with lip reading in retail situations; he explained the term ‘deaf pockets’ as pockets of abundant change due to consistently using notes rather than asking repeatedly for the cost of items. ‘Deaf pockets’- of course, it all makes sense now! It’s exactly these sorts of discoveries that will illuminate our understanding and I hope improve our production.
Most of the first week was spent deconstructing the play around a table and discussing the events that must have occurred between the scenes; we also improvised the lead up to the starts of scenes to provide the actors with the right energy at the start of mid action scenes. There were also a series of presentations led by whoever had completed some research or discovered something interesting to share with the group, a lot of this revolved around linguistics and opera which feature heavily throughout the play. The exchange of knowledge in the room has been a massive education and added a lot of depth to the characters. Once we had worked through the play in its entirety in this manner the actors were ready to start week two with all the major events marked and plotted and a good sense of the overall tone of the piece. By this stage it was also expected that the actors would have learnt their lines (they almost had!) and would be ready to start putting the scenes onto their feet, utilising the entire set and experimenting with the blocking.