Ode To Nonsense blog two: in the rehearsal room

by Jane

On a Wednesday morning, the third day of Ode To Nonsense rehearsals, I enter the rehearsal room for the first time. I received a message from director Andy Packer the night before, telling me he was looking forward to having me in the room, but just so I was aware, the repetiteur – the rehearsal pianist – won’t be there that day due to unexpected family circumstances.

A rehearsal room for an opera without a pianist. It’s perhaps not the most auspicious start for me in observing the process.

But on the rehearsals must go, and so I sit at a table at the back of the room – covered with books about Lear, collections of his nonsense and his paintings – with notebook and pen, ready to watch and learn. Without the use of the piano, the company focuses on the small sections of unsung text from Jane Goldney’s libretto. Perhaps never more than a dozen or so lines, the space without the piano is giving Andy and the cast the space to focus in on these sections: on intent, tone, and character.

Working with the three principles – Nicholas Lester as Lear, Johanna Allen as Gussie, and Adam Goodburn as Giorgio – Andy constantly asks questions: “I wonder if …”, “There could be … ” “Perhaps …” The process feels like a constant conversation between him and the performers, his suggestions through words, their suggestions back through performance. As he explains things, he tells the cast he is using this time to develop a shorthand language with them, so when they’re in the theatre it will only take a few words to remind them the ideas they found in the rehearsal room.

I get a kick out of watching Stage Manager Stephanie Fisher and ASM Marie Docking take reference photographs of the prop arrangements with their iPhones – the future is now – but then problem solve in delightfully low tech ways. A letterbox is mocked up from an old box and some paperclips. When the letters won’t stay put, a bit of gaffa tape over the front solves that.

I feel somewhat awkward sitting in the back of the room, not quite sure of my place or what I’m doing or if anything I scribble down in my notebook makes sense. But everyone in the room is endlessly welcoming. During lunch, the cast sit and talk about operas – particularly contemporary performers, composers, and directors – and when I’m back at my table I write down a list to go home and listen to. Listening to passionate people talk makes me want to find out more, in a way I hadn’t been interested in before. I end up downloading Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee at the suggestion of Andy, and then find myself singing the songs. Completely unexpected.

Lines and scenes are repeated dozens of times, end on end. On the tenth time or so I find my mind drifting away without even realising. If I hadn’t seen the scene already, I would have never known I’d drifted off. I wonder if I do this when I watch plays in theatres: loosing lines without knowing.

But watching lines again and again is such a wonderful way to observe the craft of these actors. So often, it’s hard to grasp a full perspective of this craft while sitting in a theatre. Here, though, I watch the cast try lines again and again, slipping in and out of character as the scenes are discussed, problems are solved. We all laugh as the actors purposefully push too far into slapstick for fun; I find myself tearing up in the tender moments. The repetition allows me to catch quiet moments that perhaps I would loose on only one viewing. Johanna quickly catches Gussie’s sadness through her hands to her stomach; I catch my breath in my throat. And for me, watching the quiet moments of introspective process were sometimes more interesting than watching the result.

In the late afternoon, we’re joined by the Musical Director for Ode to Nonsense and AD of State Opera, Timothy Sexton, and for the first time I get to hear a bit of Quincey Grant’s music and the lightness feels instantly recognisable from all the theatre I’ve heard him compose before.

***

The room is busier the next time I enter a week later. Teepees are now here; where once stood a milk crate taped to a stool stands gold birdcage.

Today, Andrew Georg sits at the piano. Again, I’m stuck at my luck at getting to watch the actors so intensely, to sit mere metres away from the piano. As I wrote before, Ode to Nonsense is by far the biggest scaled work Slingsby has done – yet here I get to sit so close to the action.

With choreographer Larissa McGowan, the cast and Andy are working on capturing childlike play for the song Nonsense. Larissa instructs everyone to play, and then there will be a process of “cut and paste”, finding the jolting and constant refocusing you often see as children jump from one activity to another. The cast embrace this easily, playing with a paper hat and hi-vis orange safety bunting – Andy assures that this will be replaced by “Wes Anderson bunting.” 

On this second day, I’m even more aware of how I’m only seeing half and quarter pictures of the work. I feel like I’m trying to put together a puzzle in my mind. But of course, it’s not my job to put the puzzle together. I’m watching other people put it together for me. I think about how I enjoy watching people and wonder how much of my love of theatre is just that it’s an acceptable social construct for this? Or do I enjoy watching people because I enjoy theatre?

***

It’s the last day in the rehearsal room, the show starts bump in at Her Majesty’s on Monday. There is a different energy to the room, the air has a different buzz to it. But that’s probably the presence of the youth chorus.

Andy works with them on the blocking of one of the final scenes, where through a few small movements, a major set piece is built out of suitcases. “Through the magic of nonsense, magic can happen” he explains. “Just through slightly altering our perspective of things, magic can happen.”

Thinking about nonsense, I think about how much more familiar I am with the nonsense words and worlds of Lear than I am with the world of the rehearsal room. The show starting to form in front of me reminds me in ways of Play School, but I can’t be sure how much of that is just because that’s possibly the place I first heard Lear.

Today is the most packed the rehearsal room has been: not only the performers, but also in terms of the design and production team sitting and watching, planning, discussing. Sitting there gives me a really obvious and beautiful reminder not so much of how many people it takes to make theatre, but how endlessly fascinating I find all these people. Being in the same space while they’re working ignites a want to sit down with each of them with a notebook and dictaphone and talk and steal their thoughts.

While the energy of the room might be slightly different, Andy’s directorial style feels the same. Today, I’m watching more precise blocking than I did on other days and he is asking less of the questions I’ve seen him use before, giving more direct instructions. The youth chorus and the acrobats are in their element.

Before the cast do a full run, Andy talks to the youth chorus, reminding them again that this is work. But, he says “I do a job every day, and I just happen to love my job. So you can work, and love your work.” This time, he says, isn’t about seeing the show – this is only the process of two weeks work. And much more work is going to come in the theatre before opening. He invokes images of Lear going out and sketching landscapes: he still needed to return to the studio, to add colour and shade and detail.

Even just on the piano, you can feel the emotional manipulation in Quincy’s work, and I try to pick out how it will sound with the seven musicians. I can’t. I smile seeing images that were developed one day when I was in the rehearsal room picked up and repeated in other scenes.

I use the time to watch the production team as much as the performers. Tim sits at the front, conducting Andrew and the performers. Larissa and Andy have ways of conducting, too, motioning action through to the cast.

Watching the work in full for the first time, I’m stuck at how short it feels – although it must have run over the eventual 70 minute playing time. After seeing small scenes repeated so much, after spending hours with the work, seeing it in full goes by in a flash.

I pack up my notebook and my pens, still not certain how I’m going to write about this process, but armed with a long list of questions to talk about with Andy on Monday. Many questions so I can write more about the show; many more just for me so I can get a bigger perspective, fill in the gaps that I didn’t previously realise were there.

***

The original plan was to write after each day I spent in the Ode To Nonsense rehearsal room. What fast became apparent, though, was with no real perspective on rehearsal rooms, how was I supposed to write about this one? What are the interesting strands to be picked up on, what would people be interested in reading about, what was worth commenting on? To even begin to find the answers to these questions I needed space. Have I been successful? I don’t know. I suppose there is much much more that I could have said. So much more I could have observed if only I knew to look for it. But then this is what first times are all about.

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