Wednesday, 30 September 2009


Show #5. Press Night

I remember once seeing a piece of research on learning done by McKinseys.

The big message was this: it’s not the quality of the first learning session that matters most.

(Although of course it matters a lot.)

What makes the real difference is the quality of the second session. The recap. Not the initial visit to the information, but the re-visiting of the core insights, the information, the application.

So – yesterday, when Andy and I met to discuss what notes to give before the show, we decided that actually there was nothing new to say.

What was needed was a recap. A recapitulation.

So we looked back at the things we’d done on the journey to today.

What we'd done and why we'd done it.

And we then quickly articulated - formally - the rules (if you like). The rules we’d all slowly and informally co-created throughout our time together working on the show.

But how many did we have?

And how many did we need?

I spend lots of time telling people that three is the magic number, so to go back on it (now that I was practising rather than teaching) would be hypocritical.

We needed three rules.

So I came up with seven.

Andy had about six.

Our challenge was obvious: to make 3 from 7 and 6.


So here they are: the three necessary rules for performing The Author.

Just the headlines first - and subsequent details for anyone who's interested.

1. Tell the story.
2. Support each other.
3. Be present.

1. Tell the story.
Every theatre show that’s ever been made will have reminded itself of how important it is to 'look after' the narrative. It’s what we hold onto as listening, plot devouring human beings.

There was once an old King with three daughters.

Or... A man woke up one morning with a scalpel in his hand.

Or... Gordon had alway loathed party conferences. But this one was going to be different.

Whatever the story, there's one question at the forefront of our mind:

"What happens next?" It's human nature - so work with it. (As David Mamet might say.)

It's not a new idea to maintain narrative drive; to tell the story.

But in The Author, it's about more than maintenance. More than a reminder: it must be a rule.

Different 'presents' (or more clearly: present tenses) co-habit deliberately and provocatively; they need to. The writing is asking us so even more reason for each of the characters to be clear on what their 'now' is. Otherwise our audience won't stand a chance.

So with our audience in mind (always) here's what this rule means in practice:

No words required apart from the text (except when Adrian and only Adrian specifically improvises)

No cheap gags to be taken at the expense of the storyline, no matter how tempting or delicious.

No telegraphing - don't 'help' the audience. It doesn't help them. It leaves them with not enough to do.

2. Support each other.
Something happens when a group of people work together. When they work
for each other. With each other.

It's about confidence. It transmits. It radiates.

So, tangibly:

Always be aware of each other.

Pick up a cue when you think someone else might really feel the benefit of that.

And don't trash the audience. Ever.

N.B. (Trashing the audience can take many forms, most notably in our case asking them sincerely for a response and then not acknowledging it. It's not about pursuing a line of improvisation with them and disappearing down a blind alley... We do after all have a story to tell. A play to do. A script to get on with. But you can acknowledge a response. Hold it. Honour it. Take it on.)

3. Be present.
This is about listening.
Really listening – to the audience, to the story, to yourself.

Pay attention to what’s happening now, not what you thought would happen, or indeed what happened last night or the night before. Or even worse in a yet unperformed version of the play that you had in your head before the play started.

These simple rules - and a positive attitude towards them - formed the core of our notes session.

And the show - was terrific.

Better than before.

More responsive and responsible.


And more exciting.

And for a Press Night (so often laden with tension and fear) it felt relatively relaxed and at times close to fearless.

So - in the hours left before the show is publicly judged, before the views of just a few reasonable and well-intentioned people disproportionately affect the ticket sales (and more importantly the sense of adventure), it feels right(er) to say...

We're learning.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Boys night

Show #4. Our first Saturday night.

I take my two boys in - to watch just the first 20 minutes of the show from the technical gallery.

After that, I hide them in Tim, Adrian and Vic's dressing room (and remind them they were given permission by the actors to eat as many sweets as they like.)

The content of the show isn't for an 8 or even an 11 year old, no matter how liberal or enlightened.

It was odd leaving the show just for a few minutes.

A first.

And a good step to leaving the actors on their own for a while to just get on and do the show, as Andy and I will both do this week, after press night on Tuesday.

I'm glad I did though. I heard and saw it when I came back with a slightly chilling objectivity.

And it was a tough one. In new ways.

Small moments troubled me.

In a big way.

So I got a bit frustrated. And found it hard to know what to say afterwards.

So we thanked everyone for a great week. Not a great night. A great week.

And I texted Tim and Andy and said what I needed to say.

And I felt better. But still troubled.

So - I slept. Eventually.

And on waking early - very early on this beautiful, sunny September morning (God this show has spanned the whole of September), I realised that it was a great moment to have a performance that went slightly awry.

As Vic taught us to say in his treat (where we played keepy-uppy with a cardboard box): "the only unusual thing about this game is that when the box hits the floor we don't groan with disappointment and get frustrated..."

Instead, we joyfully throw our arms up in the air to celebrate and shout "CARTON!"

So - I'm not shouting...

I'm not even throwing my arms in the air.

But I am just gently saying: "Carton."

I spoke to Tim this morning, who's always brave enough and man enough and usually ready enough to have whatever conversation is needed.

Andy and I will speak later. And we'll take candour to our heart. Again. And again.

Two boys with whom I can really work. Really talk to.

Talking of which....

On the way home last night, Bill and Stan told me how much they loved the first 20 minutes.

"Why did those three people leave before the end?" said Stanley.

"Because they wanted to" said Bill.


Saturday, 26 September 2009

We're learning... past and present.

Show #3. Our first Friday night.

And we're beginning - just beginning - to assimilate and learn a few things about the show.

No crazy teenagers in the audience tonight. (But neither the free gift of the sense of a 'gathered' meeting we had with our very grown up audience for Show #2.)

Tonight's audience was as rich, in a different way.

And our cast (who are boldly learning where no cast have learnt before) are beginning to find a balance between two essential ingredients for doing this particular show (and many others no doubt):

First, a heightened state of awareness (that allows them to be with an audience, that audience, not one they've imagined.)

Second, a knowledge and understanding of the play, of what we're doing. A strong sense of why we're doing it.

So a few lessons learnt.

1. Just because your rehearse something doesn't mean it will happen.
So we rehearsed today, carefully rehearsed the music cues, the exits, the sequences of the play that need to drive through.

And tonight - many of the things we rehearsed actually happened.

And lots of them didn't.

Other things happened instead - things that couldn't have happened if we hadn't rehearsed.

So - rehearsal isn't about getting it right. It's about preparing it right.

2. Rules and Tools
Tools are useful things. And having the right tools makes doing difficult things easier.

It's like that moment when we have to insert batteries into a present on Christmas morning. We've all tried to use a flat screwdriver instead of looking for the crosshead one haven't we? Haven't we? And sometimes it gets the job done. Right then. In that moment.

But it messes up the thread a bit and it makes unscrewing at a later date impossible. But who cares - it gets the job done. And while we feel slightly guilty at the prospect of someone else (possibly even the gift's recipient) struggling to undo what we've done, we tighten it up anyway.

So - could Andy and I as directors use the flat screwdriver of just telling the actors what to do sometimes? Which word to emphasise? How long to count for a pause? Give them a line reading even?

Of course we could.

And it would get the job done.

But later, when we're not there with our outside ears and eyes... what do the actors do when they want to go back and change the batteries themselves?

So - no flat screwdrivers. We've taken time to look together with the cast for the right tools...

And we've given the tools names. And we've practised using them.

And we've developed a common language, some guidelines for doing what we're doing. A set of rules. And we've needed them too.

One rule is clear: don't trash the audience. Not ever. Not even in a funny way.

Especially not in a funny way.

So... how do you sincerely ask a question of an audience member and then let them know you don't actually need an answer... without 'trashing' them?

We found a tool for that.

And hopefully we'll all remember where it is.

3.That's not normal at all.
We were reminded today that what we're doing, how we're treating each other, isn't necessarily the norm.

Someone we know went up for an audition this morning.

They weren't listened to.

They were told that how they looked wasn't right.

They didn't get a chance to share their point of view about the script or even the character they were potentially playing.

And they left feeling a bit bruised.

Not good.

And 'thoroughly normal'.


Earlier this morning I listened back to an interview Tim, Andy and I did for the Royal Court podcast a couple of weeks ago. It was useful - like going back to your written notes of a few weeks ago.

Something I don't do enough.

(Something Andy does all the time.)

Throughout this rehearsal period, I've written all my notes on the back pages of my script. Nowhere else.

Everything I've written during run throughs, on bus journeys home and in those few quiet moments I've taken to simply reflect... they're all on the back of my thirty-seven pages of script.

All the things I've learnt along the way.

All there in a present tense I've now forgotten about (like a podcast - proudly located in the present.)

Maybe one day I'll write them out neatly.

Maybe I won't.

Either way - I'm glad they're in one place.

And I'm glad too that even if I ripped them all up now, or lost them - what's been learnt in the past is finding its way into the present of the show.


We're learning.

Friday, 25 September 2009

We continue...

So - two previews in to the run of The Author.

A longer blog to come...

But for now...

So much being learnt. So many discoveries.

Some tough feedback. And some astonishing feedback.

For some people it's too close to home.

For some people it's the most brilliant piece of theatre they've ever seen.

My favourite response so far from someone who's just come back from maternity leave: "I must have seen hundreds of theatre shows my life. Hundreds. And this is the first piece of theatre that's made me think... really think about myself, for twenty years.

But I need to go home now and see my son."

Sunday, 20 September 2009

When is an audience not just an audience?

So today, we did our fourth run through of the play with an audience.

The first was in May.

The second was 4 months later.

The third was 10 days later.

The fourth was 4 days later.

The next run is tomorrow.

Then we'll have just 48 hours.

Then we open the show and the gap will become just one day.

We've deliberately compressed the time between our run throughs, gradually and slowly.

Deliberately and consciously.

The lighting, the sound, the cast and the directors have been allowed to try things out...

And so have our audiences.

They've told us what their experiences are - and we've responded I hope.

Sometimes it's been just about clarity of narrative - that the story isn't clear enough yet. (That one's been fixed - no question.)

Or that people can handle more than we think.

Or less than we think.

We've been listening hard to what people have said (and not said) after the show.

And we'll continue to listen. Not just after the show, but during it too.

Our cast are sitting with the audience. Our audience are sitting with our cast.

So Tim, Esther, Vic and Adrian can hear the intakes of breath, the gasps.

The silence of when someone stops breathing for a few seconds.

And because our audience (like our cast) are all lit - well lit, not in some cowardly half-light - we'll continue to listen with our eyes too.

Watching the body language. The shifts of posture, of position, of openness.

And if we continue to listen well, we'll continue to discover too.

So as we move into the week of finally opening the show, after many months of preparation and conversation and a few weeks of rehearsal, our core challenge is coming sharply into view.

There is no 'it'. Or 'there'. No final destination.

We're not moving towards a final version of the show that we're seeking to discover and then maintain.

Actually, our job as directors and as a production is to create the optimum conditions for listening...

To give our cast the best possible opportunity to speak - and to listen.

We're seeking to hear, and to be heard...

On behalf of a play that is very much about what is seen.

And what remains unseen.

So, directing The Author is absolutely an exercise in dialogue for me:

In a dialogue, you're seeking to bring out what might otherwise remain hidden.

And in the play - we're doing pretty much the same thing.

So, when is an audience not just an audience?

When they're being listened to.