Each week, during The Whipping Man rehearsals, Assistant Director, Chloe Mashiter will be bringing us the latest updates from the rehearsal room. This unique perspective will give insight into the process from the beginning of rehearsal through to the opening performances. Over to Chloe for this week’s update…
Only five days into rehearsals for The Whipping Man, and my head is fit to bursting with things I’d never have thought I’d learn. The past week has been all about getting to grips with the challenge of essentially travelling back in time 150 years to when the play’s set – the idea being that, the more that can be done to help transport the cast back to 1865 during rehearsals, the easier it’ll be to do that for audiences during performances.
Rehearsals for a lot of shows typically begin with such ‘table work’, where the director and cast will sit and go through the script, discussing and debating the characters, their relationships and the world the play is set in. It can be tempting – especially when a play feels as tense and thrilling as this – to immediately start acting it out and staging those exciting moments, but holding off and having those initial days of research and interrogation can make a big difference.
Following this week, I’m now an expert on improvised amputation (in theory, at least), know my Johnny Rebs from my Billy Yanks, and understand the chilling real-world background of the play’s title. An extra hurdle we’re having to jump – since this is the first production of The Whipping Man outside of America – is not just understanding the characters or the time, but the country too.
It’s been eye-opening to look beyond Hollywood versions of history to really understand everything that was happening across the Atlantic during the Civil War. The more you find out, the more complex the story becomes – you suddenly see the good in the supposedly bad people and the bad in the good. It’s a neat parallel to how I’ve found my sympathy shift between different characters in the play from scene to scene and my opinions of them change with each new conversation.
It’s surprising how quickly we’ve become immersed in the world of the play (though some have had a head start – we discovered yesterday that one of the cast members has firsthand experience of what it’s like to eat hardtack, a rather unpleasant staple of the Civil War soldier’s diet!). We don’t just know what certain events in the play would look like – we know how they’d sound and smell too.
I once heard directing described as, ultimately ‘being the person in the room who makes decisions’ – though that’s one of countless definitions! – and having all the information about everything from the battles that characters have fought in, to the finer details of their Jewish heritage, helps in making the decisions that tell the story as vividly and sharply as possible. It’s the difference between treating a line as a grand celebration or a throwaway comment, between someone being offered a drink and demanding it, and how all those seemingly small decisions build up to create the world of the play.
There’s already been so much to take in, but it’s this level of detail that means – hopefully – from the very moment the play starts, we can make 2015 Plymouth will disappear and, for a little while, create 1865 America in its place.