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Wild Life - Rehearsals

Rehearsal blog: Nicholas Bone

Week 1

We started rehearsals this week. The first day is always strange as it is usually the first time that everyone working on a project comes together in the same place and so there's a bit of a first day of term feeling in the air.

In traditional manner, we all introduced ourselves and then heard the script - this was a new draft so it was the first time this particular version had been read. Some scripts sound exactly how you expect them to when you hear them read aloud, but Wild Life works differently outloud compared to how it is on the page. This is a good thing, by the way, in case you were wondering. It means that it has been written to be spoken. The new draft has refined things and made its thrust clearer, but one of the best things was hearing the audience of 12 or so people laughing. You sometimes forget about the humour in a play when you've read it endlessly, analaysed its structure, pored over it for ideas to draw out, moments to highlight etc, so it was wonderful to be reminded of this. At one creative team meeting last year we had started by reading the script out - I had played Dave, while Harry (the sound designer) had read Daisy and I remember that, as I was reading it, I was thinking "oh, it's funny". This may seem curious but preparing a play for production is a curious process.

Anyway, the play is funny, though serious in intent, and one of the tricks will be to manage the shift from the lighter early part to the darker tone that starts to develops half way through. This is not easy to get right - make the humour too broad at first and the audience won't buy the shift (or think it's still supposed to be funny), make it too serious too soon and you miss the complexity of the writing.

So here we are, two days in and feeling good so far - we have some re-writes to look at tomorrow (tweaks to the first part in light of work we've done so far) and an afternoon voice session with Ros Steen. The phrase "voice coach" does no service to what Ros does as her work is about connecting the actor to the text in a truly vital way. I shall write more about her work as rehearsals progress - right now I need to do some more prep for tomorrow.

Week 2

It's Wednesday in week 2 and today we finished the first phase of rehearsals. We have been examining the script in detail, working through it scene by scene mining it for information and, in particular, looking for the events and intentions. Events are moments when something happens that affects all of the characters present in a scene in some tangible way; intentions are what one character wants to do to (or change in) another character. Characters' intentions change at an event, so by working through the play and mapping these out we create a path for the characters through the play. We've also spent time examining everything we know about the characters - facts that are stated within the text, or things that can reasonably be surmised - and also what we don't know, providing us with a list of questions to research during the rehearsals.

This stage of the process is quite slow and deliberate, but it means that we all share a common view of the play and understand how it works. As this is a new play, the process also helps the playwright make adjustments: tweaking lines, moving things around and generally tightening things up. I find the presence of the playwright essential at the start of rehearsals; it means the actors can ask questions, query lines, and get a sense of how the writer 'feels' the play. In the case of Wild Life, Pamela has been doing some re-writing in rehearsals (usually smaller things like editing lines, or changing words), while doing other more substantial re-writes in the evenings. Re-writes are then printed and copied in the morning ready for the day's work. Working on a script in the rehearsal room turns things up that were maybe not apparent before (on Monday, for example, we swapped two scenes around and found it helped the progress of the story work more effectively).

The work that we finished today means that we now have a well-honed script so tomorrow we start on the next phase, which is to find out how it works physically. From now on we will spend most of our time on the marked-up floor (with taped lines representing the edges of the set) and much less time sitting with scripts at the table.

For this stage of the work, I tend to use a method I first came across when I was working as an assistant director in the 1990s. A development of Stanislavski's later work, it involves the actors improvising the scenes around the previously plotted intentions. The idea is to free them from trying to work with a script in their hand and so enable them to find the physical life of a scene more easily.

Week 3/4

We're now coming towards the end of our fourth week of rehearsals. This week we moved to Cumbernauld Theatre (where we'll open the production and with whom we're co-producing). We're rehearsing in the studio, which is in the part of the theatre that has been converted from a row of workers' cottages. The studio has been created from three cottages so is quite long and narrow but has beautiful stone walls. We're only few steps away from the main theatre and so are able to pop in during tea breaks to see the progress of the set. Yesterday afternoon we had some time on stage looking at positions for the furniture and discussing the costumes - Tristan and Charles (the designers) had some concerns about the colour of one of the pieces of furniture, but otherwise things seemed to be in hand. In the rehearsal space we have been working our way through the text, finding the physical life of the scenes and sometimes modifiying the intentions we had defined in the first two weeks in the light of what we discover. Rehearsals often have a sense of one step forward, two steps back as, at each stage, there is a new obstacle to overcome. At first it is the play itself - it needs to be mined for information and understood; then it becomes the scenes as you work at them in closer detail, uncovering details to incorporate and clarify; then there is the stage when the actors work entirely without scripts and, for a few days, rehearsals become about trying to hold on to what you have found previously while the actors try to embody their line-learning with the shape you have previously defined. Finally comes the stage where you refine everything you have already done and try to incorporate all the technical aspects at the same time. Each stage moves the play forward, but you sometimes have to work hard at holding on to what you are ultimately trying to do. Rehearsal is being in a constant state of negotiation - hopefully conducted with pleasure and a sense of purpose - as you try to connect all the different threads together in a way that reflects the entire team's work.
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Live Wild Life Rehearsal Chat 22nd Feb 2011

What follows is a transcript of a live web chat that took place during rehearsals for Wild Life in February 2011.

Nicholas:

Nick and Jonny here - we had a bit of trouble with our connection but we're now online. Technology eh?

Ruth Marsh:

Ah, I know...

Jonny, just wondering how working on Wild Life as Assistant Director has compared to working on Magnetic North's previous show, Walden?

Jonny Rogerson:

Walden and Wildlife are very different pieces. I think the most fundamental difference is that story-telling was at the core of Walden, and rehearsals focused on getting the actor to a place from which he could relate the experiences of Thoreau to the audience, recreating the imagery of the original text through vocal and physical means.
For Wildlife, development and rehearsals have focused largely on the characters of Dave and Daisy, and how their relationship, and the way they see the world drives their behavior in this play. Another big difference is that Walden, in terms of production, was very stripped back and simple. Wildlife has involved the work of a much larger team, and seeing how Nick has managed the work of a writer, designers, sound and lighting designers etc, bringing these individuals together on one project, has been very interesting for me.
Thanks for the question.
Jonny.

Ruth Marsh:

A question from The Skinny's venerable performance critic Gareth K Vile (who's just come into my office, ostensibly to chat about upcoming shows but really to pinch my Dark Chocolate Ginger Crunches) who's wondering to what extent you might class Wild Life as a dark comedy?

Nicholas:

Greetings to the venerable Mr Vile.

I would definitely class Wild Life as a dark comedy. At the start, the tone is quite light - Daisy and Dave seem to be a happy couple with bad neighbours. As they embark on their "education" of the virtual wild boy they've created, they start to uncover things about themselves and their relationship and the tone definately shifts into a darker tone. It becomes clear that they both had quite troubled childhoods and the influence of this starts to come out in their attitudes towards Victor.

Dani Rae:

Hi All,

With the script coming on such a journey since your original inspiration Nick, has that been fun to play with?

Nicholas:

Whenever I start a new Magnetic North project I never quite know where it's going to end up. There's always a starting point, but the interesting thing is seeing where the writer (and the rest of the creative team) go with it. For instance, with Dream Train, the company's very first project, I asked Tom McGrath to use Bach's Goldberg Variations as a structural starting point and then we talked a lot about were we would go with it. With Wild Life, the starting point was the story of Victor the "wolf boy of Aveyron" and the attempt to civilise him and teach him to speak. When we started talking about where to go with it, Pamela was intrigued by the documentary series The Scheme and the way that people reacted to it. It's come a long way from the original Victor, but I think we've ended up with a really interesting and quite provocative play.


Claire Brogan (Cumbernauld Theatre):

Hi All,

I think our audiences here at Cumbernauld Theatre would be intrigued to know a bit more about the rehearsal process for a project like Wild Life. Where do you begin and where do you find yourselves in the process now, 3 days before the first performance?

Nicholas:

Hi Claire,

We started with a lot of "table work", which involves sitting around a table (as you could probably guess) reading and analysing the text, talking about the characters and trying to find out what they want to achieve. We had the playwright, Pamela, with us for the first two weeks of rehearsals so that she could answer questions and also ask the actors questions about how they understood the characters and what they do. Pamela then did quite a bit of re-writing and by the end of the 2nd week we had a finalised script. After that, we started looking at how the scenes worked in action - improvising around the intentions we'd defined for the characters in each scene.

As the actors got to know their lines, we started to refine the action - adding things, taking things away. During the whole process we ask a lot of questions - what is going on here? what does the character want? how are they going about achieving it?
For each scene, we defined an intention for each character - this is something that the character is trying to do to the other person (for example: to get the other person to reassure them, to make the other character feel guilty etc etc) and look for the moments in a scene where something changes that affects the characters and their intentions (usually when one of the characters achieves one of their intentions). As we rehearse, we check the intentions and sometimes tweak them if they don't seem to be quite right. The intentions give the actors a pathway through the play.
We're now starting to work on stage with the set, which adds a whole new dimension. Our work now is to expand the performances to fill a theatre rather than the rehearsal room, and integrate all the other elements (like sound and lighting) into the performance.

This afternoon we'll have our first rehearsal with the full set.
Ben Torrie (Aberdeen Performing Arts):

Hello everyone
I am also intrigued by the rehearsal process for a piece like this - how much of the story and the concept changed once the actors were involved?
Also, fascinated by the idea of The Scheme influencing this - can you talk more about what impact this has had on the piece and how it is has changed?
Looking forward to seeing this up at the Lemon Tree
Thanks
Ben
Nicholas:

hi Ben,
By the time we started rehearsals the concept was pretty firm, but some of the details of the story were not finalised. During the time we spent working on the script with the writer during the first two weeks we firmed up details of the story - particularly how it ended. We looked very closely at the two characters' journeys in order to work out how the story ended. Endings are notoriously difficult to get right - if its too tidy, it can leave the audience just as dissatisfied as if it ends too openly (unless its a genre like a thriller where the idea is that the ending should be tidy). I like a play to end with a question - in other words, that the central question of the play has been resolved, but a new question has been asked - at the end of Oedipus the mystery of the plague has been resolved but we're left with the question of how Oedipus can live with the knowledge he has uncovered.
The Scheme was a strong influence on the writing both because of what it was about and also because of the furious reaction to it. Many people were genuinely shocked by the way the characters lived their lives, astonished to discover the chaos of other people's lives; many people were also quite uncomfortable with showing this on TV because, whatever the "educational" value of it, there was a bit of a whiff of freak show about it. Some of the message board reactions to the show have made their way into Wild Life - Daisy and Dave create a virtual wild boy called Victor: Daisy wants him to be a nature boy, running through the woods, while Dave wants him to be an urban wild boy. At one point they read out online reaction to Victor and some of the quotes are taken directly from reactions to The Scheme.
The thing that changed most in rehearsal was Victor himself and what exactly he was - it was clear that he was some sort of invention, but exactly how wasn't decided. as we worked on it, he became a sort of cyber wild boy - like a character in Second Life but existing in a world that reflects the world outside Daisy and Dave's flat.
Nick

We're going to start rehearsals at 2.00 so I'll be offline then, but if anyone posts a question after that I'll respond later on.
Thanks for all the questions so far,
Nick

Ruth Marsh:

Ben & Nick- I agree the influence of The Scheme is a really interesting one. One of the most insidiously addictive things about Reality TV is the way it sucks you into two types of class-based voyeurism on either side of the spectrum, either aspirational (Aga and barn conversion-envy in Grand Designs) or guilty pleasure 9The Scheme and recently Big Fat Gypsy Weddings)

Nicholas:

This is the view of the set from the seat in which I was sitting this afternoon while doing the web chat.
Thanks for all the questions.
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Putting together Wild Life

Well, opening night was done and dusted and the first great review is already here 'A smart script and two marvellous performances from Lesley Hart and David Ireland '

Over the course of the tour, the Open Source will host different notes from the various people who helped make Wild Life. If you have any questions for any of the team, just ask!

Our lovely lighting designer Simon Wilkinson kicks us off:

Lighting any touring show inevitably boils down to resolving the artistic with the achievable. In fact, that's part of the joy of working on them. In some cases, practical constraints lead to artistic discoveries that just wouldn't have been encountered otherwise. With Wildlife, the original concept had been to entirely light the piece with objects that were already within the room. There's something both magical and slightly sinister about a face lit solely by the light from a laptop or a mobile phone. However, translating this concept to reality posed certain problems. In a room, the light from a phone is just about enough to illuminate someone providing the phone is close and the room is small. In a large auditorium it just leaves people straining to see. This problem applies to table lamps and other room lighting too - as the theatre gets larger, either the lights have to be bigger, or you have to cheat. It soon became apparent that, short of setting the play on a film set, lighting the play purely with objects in the character's world was not going to work for some of our touring venues.

So, it became a matter of working out what is so interesting about this kind of light. It's partly the colour - the cold grey light from a laptop is almost dehumanising, and partly the angle - the old trick of holding a torch under your chin. Colour and angle are never far from any lighting designer's mind, but they came to the fore with this piece. As a design team we had had many discussions about the reality of the world occupied by Dave and Daisy. Our eventual conclusion was to create something that was grounded in reality, but with some slightly surreal touches. In particular, I wanted to create the feeling of Dave and Daisy being trapped within their lives in their apartment. Both the colour and angle of the lighting would help with this. I decided to create a cold world within their home, inspired by the grey laptop light, and contrast that with the slight warmth of the world outside their window. Instead of lighting from above, I also wanted an intriguing world of shadows, with light coming from below, to the side and behind.


At this point, the tour once again nudged me along a design direction. It became apparent that one of our touring venues had no facilities for hanging theatre lights above the stage. In that venue, at least, the overhead lighting would be restricted to a single hanging bulb. Rather than try to work around that restriction, this lack of overhead illumination became a cornerstone of the design. The vast majority of the rig became clustered around 3 vertical poles (booms) in the corners of the space. The unusual angles from these positions contribute to the feelings of oppression and unease.
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Wild Life On Tour - Live Web Chat transcript

What follows is a transcript of a live web chat that took place during the tour of Wild Life in March 2011.

Nicholas:

Wild Life has been on tour for a week now and, since leaving Cumbernauld, has played in Banchory and Tobermory, and is in Aberdeen tonight.

Two weeks ago (the day before the first public performance), Pamela Carter (the playwright) and I talked about what we thought audiences would make of the show. We both admitted that we had no idea - it was something to do with the tone of the piece, which starts quite light and gradually darkens. Also there's quite a dark tone to the humour and you never quite know how someone seeing something for the first time is going to react - we'd had five weeks of rehearsal getting to know the play, but an audience doesn't have that luxury. I have to admit we were both a bit nervous - would people find it funny? would they stick with the characters on their journey?

Sitting in the auditorium on Friday night we were quickly reassured - people starting laughing from the off and it was clear that there was no problem with the conceptual leap of Victor being a virtual child who takes over the house in a rather real way. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the Tuesday night (3rd performance at Cumbernauld and the night the press came) when there was a big audience and some people were laughing pretty raucously - I could sense the actors adjusting to this, at first they carried on (losing a few lines under laughter) and then began to slightly ride the laughter.

The other interesting thing has been the differing reactions of younger and older audience members. On two nights in Cumbernauld there were groups of teenagers (one was a youth theatre, the other was from a local school). I was not entirely sure what they would make of it as it's probably a play that's more about the adult characters than the boy, but they seemed to enjoy it on the whole - probably laughing more at the stupidity of the characters (particularly in relation to the way they talked sbout the kids outside their window) than adults do, but missing some of the references which are very age-dependent (like the brief snatch of the theme from the tv series Black Beauty, which always gets a laugh of recognition from anyone over 30).

Last night at Mull Theatre, apparently there was an older profile of audience (I wasn't there unfortunately) who were very attentive, but quieter than other audiences during the performance, but very appreciative and warm at the curtain call.

Ruth Marsh:

Hi Nick

It's interesting how audiences feelings towards Daisy & dave is quite age-dependent. I'm just on the cusp of recognising the Black Beauty theme!

I was wondering about how much the idea of who 'Victor' is changed during the development process?

Not to do give too much away to people who haven't seen Wild Life yet, but I like his description in today's Skinny review as 'somewhere between a Tamagotchi [there's another age-dependent reference]and a Daily Mail feral hoodie'

Nicholas:

The notion of who 'Victor' was changed hugely from the start of development to the finished production. When we first talked about the project (that is initially me and Pamela; later joined by designers Sans facon, lighting designer Simon Wilkinson, sound designer Harry Wilson and assistant director Jonny Rogerson) we all imagined a 'real' person called Victor on stage. Right at the beginning, this was likely to be Victor with Jean Itard and Mme Guerin, the historical figures of the real events. As the project developed, Pamela became more interested in the idea of a modern feral child - how would we react to Victor now? What would this tell us about the way we relate to children, wildness and otherness nowadays?

There was always a bit of a spectre hanging over everything, which was the difficulties of portraying a child onstage - the laws surrounding children's appearances onstage are quite detailed and become even more complicated if you are touring as there is the question of schooling etc. This was not unsurmountable, and there was always the option of an imaginative, theatrical solution that might involve an adult playing Victor in some way, but this is a tricky thing to pull off well, particularly when you are portraying a pre-pubertal boy.

As it turned out, this was not an issue at all as Pamela came up with the idea of Victor never being actually seen on stage in person. At first, he was to be seen on-screen, but as a real person - watched via CCTV. As we mulled this over, we all felt that as Victor (and the idea of feral children in general) is such a universal idea that, in some ways, any attempt to personify him would be counterproductive - we all have an image in our head of a wild child, and no one person's is the same as another's. So we adopted the approach that had informed the design and staging of Walden. When we were developing Walden we realised that the book was really about what the idea of Walden represented, not the place itself - everyone has there own idea of a beautiful place of solitude, and this personal image is far more beautiful and personal than anything we could show. It's a bit like when you see your favourite book turned into a film or tv series and your first reaction is "But X doesn't look like that in my head". With Walden, we allowed the audience space to create their own image of what Walden looked like, and so with Victor.

The final version of Victor was as a virtual boy, created on a computer in something akin to Second Life - this introduced a whole other layer of meaning, because he became about what wildness meant to Daisy and Dave, and developed a new strand of meaning for the play.
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Rehearsal update - week 4

We have one more day in the rehearsal room and then we move on to the stage and start to work with the full set for the first time.  Sound is an integral part of the show and sound designer Kim Moore has been in rehearsals a lot to try out things - the soundtrack is a fifth voice, supporting and counterpointing the 4 human voices.  We're at the stage of running the play every day now, with one more rehearsal room run to go before we go on stage.  Simon Wilkinson, the lighting designer, watched the run on Thursday before finalising his lighting plan and we're all excited to see how all the design elements will come together at the technical rehearsals next week.

Because of the form of the play - 4 characters telling 4 separate, fragmented stories simultaneously - working out how to rehearse the production was a challenge.   Linda McLean's script is not divided into scenes, but is punctuated in two places by the instruction  BOOOOOM (if you come to see the production you'll be able to see how we have interpreted this).  In preparation for rehearsals I split the text into 8 sections, which was amended to 9 during rehearsals.  This division was made by following the 4 characters stories to find where there were events (points where something significant happens that completes a strand).  As I did this I discovered that there were points where all four stories had simultaneous events, suggesting a break in the overall narrative.  In order to visualise this, I made a 'score' consisting of 4 tracks (one for each character) running left to right, divided top to bottom by dotted lines for page breaks and more substantial lines (like bar lines on a stave) for section breaks.  This long piece of paper (made from 7 A3 sheets) is stuck on the rehearsal room wall and was a regular reference point during the first week of rehearsals when we were getting to know the text.  When you look at the score, the play progresses from left to right like a playhead running over a multitrack recording, with vertical lines marking the section breaks.

The 'score' for the play, showing the 4 horizontal tracks - 1 for each character

b2ap3_thumbnail_wallchart.jpg


The rehearsal process has been a mix of table work (reading and discussing the script sitting at the rehearsal room table), practical preparation (voice work with Ros Steen and Viewpoints with me) and staging work (exploring the physical life of the script).  Both the Viewpoints and the voice work are practical means of unpicking the play; this practical work complements the more cerebral process of discussing the play and its characters at the table.  We developed a technique of working the sections with each character in a separate lane (like runners in a race) before improvising the action on the set.  Through this process we have gradually built up the life of the play, adding details (or sometimes simplifying) and refining the work each time.  Linda has been in the room with us for almost the whole month, listening and watching carefully, occasionally making a cut or change, sometimes clarifying a detail.

Moments in the play are quite intense and there have been moments in the rehearsal room when we have all felt the emotions of the play very strongly (we've also laughed a lot, I should add).  Our work over the final few days is to try and transfer the spirit of the rehearsal room onto the stage.

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J. Sharp Taking A Walk
07 September 2014
Very much enjoyed your show at the Brunton Theatre last night and the silent walk to start was an excellent addition, creating the perfect atmosphere....