I have been so blessed to have been given an opportunity to direct one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues, and feel very lucky to have been given Soldering On as the one to make my directorial début with. This week as we enter the week of dress rehearsals and welcome audiences to our performances I thought it’d be time to reflect on the past couple of months of rehearsals and bringing our interpretation of Muriel to life.
The Crescent Theatre is an awesome theatre – both as a building and as a company. They’ve given me opportunities in the past to perform in a family show, a show that was so dark even the most cold hearted people may have found it difficult and also appear semi naked in a calendar due to me appearing in Calendar Girls at the start of this current season. I’m also in rehearsals for my first Shakespeare for Merchant of Venice opening next month, but for the last few months I’ve had the chance to direct – something I’ve wanted to do for several years.
Directing is strange but exciting. You can read a play and imagine it in so many different ways, and your way may and will vary from another’s perception. When you’re working with a cast, whether it be of one in this case or many, you have to try to persuade them to give your way a try and it might work, but it might not work too. You have to be able to let go of ideas you may have had for a while to give something else a try and those things, more often than not, work better!! It’s not compromise though – both director and the cast and anyone else involved are all trying to create the best thing possible. Ideas don’t get compromised, they get improved and they evolve. One that has become apparent is that the role of director isn’t to dictate ideas, but to be the ringmaster of the ideas and to work out the solutions, transitions, the props and the furniture, the routes the actor takes and to discuss things through with the wonderful team of creative people working behind the scenes.
Anyhow, let’s go back to how this all started. I originally had submitted to direct another play in the season – as did Ellaina, the director of the second monologue (Cream Cracker Under the Settee) that’s playing alongside Soldiering On. As both of us were first time directors it prevented us from getting the other play but the theatre’s art managers still wanted to give us a chance to train us up as it were. There were two Talking Heads monologues left over from the last season and so these were offered to us. On the same day both myself and Ellaina were both involved with the opening night of Calendar Girls, both appearing towards the end of the play and so we spent a lot of that week in discussion about which one of us would direct which and coming up with some very early ideas.
It might not be the right way to do things, but one of the first things I did was think about music. My original idea was to use sections of Bach’s Cello Suit which didn’t last long before I considered Gymnopédie. Both well known pieces of music which would suit the monologue quite happily. But then by chance I stumbled upon the Cinematic Orchestra’s ‘To Build a Home’. The first thing that struck me were the lyrics and how they reflected the general plot of the monologue and then the music had haunting tones and also managed to sound like time passing that I felt as though this was the music I needed. I debated for a while whether to have the lyrics too but made the decision early on that it could be distracting and so instead chopped up the instrumental version to give us different variations to use throughout.
After casting Jo Hill to play Muriel we started rehearsals and for the first few rehearsals all we did was talk. We would find questions we wanted to answer in the text and discuss them coming up with our own ideas. These answers might not be what Bennett would want us to come to, but they helped us interpret the text for our production. We also produced a time line detailing all the important family events and details from when Muriel and Ralph met up to the end of the monologue. We created back stories for all the characters mentioned, some more serious than others though, but all the same important steps for us to take. Quite by coincidence we managed to spend a full rehearsal on each scene so that by our Christmas break we had had a concentrated rehearsal on every scene and managed to run it through a couple of times. Seeing words come from a page to a performance is really quite exciting. Jo has done a fantastic job of bringing Muriel to life and to take on constant changes and suggestions as well as bringing in her own ideas.
It’s been apt that I have been directing a show called Soldiering On as just before the auditions I found my personal situation changing massively. If it wasn’t for the play I don’t think I’d have hung around in Birmingham for long. This project has at times been the one thing that has kept me going when times have got really tough and the one thing I would leave my house for on some occasions. I remember keeping a lot to myself and it wasn’t until a couple of weeks into rehearsals when I admitted what had been happening. The support I had from everyone – whether they know they’ve helped or not – has got me through an incredibly tough time and has kept me motivated for the future ahead.
So, tonight I go to the theatre to see the first dress rehearsal. I cannot wait for Thursday to come along and I can share my experiences with an audience. I’m not usually one to blow my trumpet or to self promote, but I’m so proud of what we have achieved with this and want audiences to come and enjoy the show as much as I have enjoyed directing it. I will be a very proud director at the end of this – in fact I already am.
Talking Heads by Alan Bennett at the Crescent Theatre Birmingham.
Thursday 21st February to Saturday 23rd February 2013 at 7:45pm
Matinee Saturday 23rd at 2:45pm
Rehearsal photos taken by Graeme Braidwood