Friday, 4 January 2013

Birdsong: Rehearsals Blog 1

“How on earth can you stand up on stage in front of all those people?”....... “How on earth do you learn all those lines?”........ “Who on earth are you?”.....these are questions that most actors get asked frequently. Well maybe not the last one. For this actor, standing on stage or learning lines is nothing next to the sheer terror of turning up for the first day of rehearsals and meeting loads of new people . Happily with “Birdsong” that first day seemed a breeze and all those “Will I like these people?” and “Will they like me?” questions seem irrelevant now as we seemed to gel instantly as a company, something that I’d say is rare. 
It’s certainly very encouraging, for the success of this tour. It’s very important too: we are going to be travelling and working with each other for nearly eight months in an exciting and emotionally high-charged production -it certainly helps if we all like each other.

Producer and Director Alastair Whatley has been inventive in finding ways to ensure that we work easily and well together, and that’s hugely important in a theatre company. We don’t have the time or leisure to employ the usual ways in which working relationships build: we may have to begin rehearsing a love scene, or a death scene for that matter, on Day One. This play has plenty of both, of course, so there’s no time to be coy about how we tackle it. 

We’ve been learning military drill, singing together in four-part harmony, learning how to carry and use a rifle, playing energetic ball games such as 9 Square and Bench Ball and learning to portray different ways of dying. All this in a heady atmosphere of seriousness and fun. 
The subject matter of much of “Birdsong”: the experience of being in a terrible war, can be pretty grim. To get to grips with it we need large reserves of humour - as the characters we portray did to be able to manage what might seem to us now as impossible tasks in horrifying conditions. Somehow we have to get under the skin and into the minds of these characters and bring them to life, six nights a week and twice most Saturdays and mid-week. This means breathing the same energy into what we do during week nineteen as we did when we began on week one. Every night is “First Night” for a new audience. 

We began rehearsals a week before Christmas 2012 and several activities have been Christmas-themed, including the wearing of Christmas jumpers. Having packed lightly while away from my home in Manchester I could only manage a burgundy- coloured one but it kind of fitted in. Others had entered into the spirit by buying very racy knitted Christmas socks from the local Primark - which I think showed great dedication to the cause. This made for a sparklingly colourful display when we were rehearsing perhaps one of the most harrowing scenes of the play when the Germans explode through one of the sappers’ tunnels, killing several. Emily Stride, playing a German, in a very nice red Christmas jumper, gets shot by Tim Van Eyken, who plays Evans, in a contrasting blue one. 
I watched with admiration as Emily jerked backwards at the moment of impact and fell convincingly (and safely) to the floor. What I wasn’t prepared for was hearing Emily, now supine and playing dead, remark brightly: “This is a really nice jumper to get shot in.” Where but in an actors’ rehearsal room would you ever hear a line like that?

Here’s another cracker: yesterday we had further exercises organized by our military advisor Tony Green: the company had to go on a 3km run while the rehearsal room was converted into a dark and forbidding No Man’s Land. Being injured through Bench Ball I was excused the run, as was Tim Treloar who is suffering with a chest infection, but we were called upon to help construct the set and play two contrasting “wounded” on the field. 
My job was to be a complete “dead weight” that my chums had to somehow pilot to relative safety (at 15 stone and 6’4” not an easy task) while Tim was to howl with agony when moved as a result of being shot in the chest. All this accompanied by a deafening soundtrack of explosions and rapid gun fire. An interesting experience for us all. It being England in 2012 it perhaps wouldn’t surprise you to read that it was raining outside for the 3 km. run and some of the company were concerned about dragging their wet trainers into the clean and spacious rehearsal studio. According to Tony Green this prompted the priceless command: “Don’t forget to wipe your feet before entering No Man’s Land”.

OK chaps, pip pip for now, more from me just as soon as I can manage it. 

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