Over to Phil…
Hello again! With our time in London now at an end and rehearsals starting in Plymouth for a final week, I thought an update on our progress was due. Following a first week filled with research and discussion, the subsequent fortnight in London was primarily focused on using the information we had discovered in those initial days to help give the seven scenes April has written physical shape. We haven’t had the set to rehearse on – that’s a luxury which will be waiting for us in Plymouth, where the workshop are constructing Michael Taylor’s design as I type! – but stage management expertly marked out the shape of the acting area on the floor with tape and the various items of furniture we’ll be using have gradually replaced the stand-in rehearsal room chairs as they’ve been sourced by members of the creative and production team.
During these two weeks we’ve worked through the entire play twice, and both times when arriving at each scene Sam has asked the actors to begin by reading it aloud from their scripts. From the start of rehearsals the actors have all had a good grasp on their lines, but this exercise has nonetheless proved extremely valuable – it both reminds everyone of the essentials of the scene (that is, the words the playwright has written) and highlights any small inaccuracies of vocabulary or syntax that may have developed since an actor originally learnt the text. We then gave the scene physical life within the confines of the performance space, finding moves to support the action and pausing as questions arose or if a moment felt false. To help them navigate their way through each scene Sam asked the actors to identify what their character’s ‘intention’ is at the start of each section. An intention is an prevailing ‘need’ or ‘want’ which drives a character’s choices until either the intention is fulfilled or a stronger intention takes its place – examples of intentions are ‘to find my wallet’ and ‘to stop my girlfriend from leaving me’. Intentions help prevent actors from feeling lost within a scene as they provide them with a concrete objective to work towards. Then, to prevent their performance of the character pursuing this intention from becoming repetitive or generalised, actors can assign individual lines specific actions, which together work towards achieving the section’s intention – examples of actions might be ‘to soothe’ or ‘to provoke’. Actions are also very useful for directors as they provide a means of shaping and refining an actor’s performance without prescribing how an actor should deliver a particular line or moment; the focus is instead on the impulses driving the character’s behaviour, which gives the actor greater creative control and encourages performances which are alive and ever-changing. ‘Don’t play feelings, play actions,’ Sam has said more than once, and watching him rehearse with the actors makes clear the value of using actions to clarify a character’s journey through complicated sections of the play.
Whilst scene-work has been the focus of the majority of rehearsals, we’ve also set aside time for activities we hoped would further our understanding of the story we are telling in other ways. Last week we spent an afternoon reading Sophocles’ Electra, the Greek tragedy which April drew on when writing the play. After Electra is by no means an adaptation of the ancient story – indeed, you don’t need any knowledge of it to understand and enjoy the piece – so I wasn’t sure how useful it would be to spend time exploring the original, but taking a pause from regular rehearsals to hear the actors read this classic alerted us to some interesting parallels. Both plays feature strong, complex and flawed female protagonists, and both consider the effect an absent father has on the relationship between a mother and her adult children. Numerous times Sophocles’ characters uttered phrases and articulated ideas that wouldn’t sound out of place in April’s play, and one phrase in particular struck us as encapsulating an idea central to After Electra:
οὐ γὰρ θανεῖν ἔχθιστον, ἀλλ᾽ ὅταν θανεῖν
χρῄζων τις εἶτα μηδὲ τοῦτ᾽ ἔχῃ λαβεῖν.
Death isn’t the most hateful thing –
Worse is when someone wants to die but cannot.
Reading Electra encouraged us to consider the complex relationships and ideas running under the surface of what appears on the surface to be a black comedy, and furthered our enthusiasm for the play April has written.
In the session after we discussed Electra, we had the privilege of meeting with the artist Tom Phillips. Given the central character is After Electra is a painter, we’d already done a lot of research into the art world and various movements – the photo above shows just a tiny proportion of the books we’ve brought into the rehearsal room, and we’ve also watched documentaries on female artists like Sandra Blow. Hearing Tom speak first-hand about his life as an artist, however, proved especially helpful – there was a real lack-of-pretension in the way he spoke about his work, and he made clear that (for him at least) there was no separation between the ideas fueling his art and the act of creating it – it is all ‘labour’. We were able to ask Tom questions about the kind of experiences Virgie might have had as a woman artist in the ’sixties, ’seventies and ’eighties, and later in the week some of the cast went along with Michael to visit one of Tom’s studios. The knowledge they gleaned from this experience – the look of the studio and the way Tom works within it – will feed into our staging of the play as we continue rehearsing it on the set in Plymouth.
After Electra will be performed at the Theatre Royal Plymouth from Thursday 12th to Saturday 28th March before transferring to the Tricycle Theatre for performances from Tuesday 7th April to Saturday 2nd May.