Feature | Dismantling Rehearsal Room Hierarchies

by Laura Kressly

In some of the recent popular discourse on the abuse that pollutes the theatre industry, hierarchies and the power they bestow on those at the top have – rightly – been criticised. A rehearsal room mostly populated by freelancers, but run by a single salaried person on staff with the production company or venue, creates a massive power imbalance that can be weaponised. Of course, many rehearsal processes are steered by good people who don’t exploit their position, but in my 20+ years of working in theatre, I’ve rarely seen these hierarchies dismantled, either partially or fully, when the production company operates with one in place. Power is clearly and consistently utilised, with the person in charge easily visible at all times.

But the three days I spent in Zoo Co’s week-long R&D for Care Crisis, an international collaboration with Indonesian company Sakatoya exploring the possibilities of international, live-digital hybrid performance, indicated another way of working in a large and busy rehearsal room. Over the five days, the Zoo Co team were working towards a short, live performance using digital backgrounds and a script that Sakatoya sent them, and creating the same for Sakatoya to use in their performance. Zoo Co divided their focus across both aspects of the work – creating content to send to Sakatoya, and responding through performance to the content Sakatoya sent them. The end result was a live sharing of each company’s short piece they made using the other company’s materials.

Given this split between making and responding, Zoo Co’s Artistic Director Flo O’Mahoney decided not to action the more common, hierarchical structure seen in rehearsal rooms. Instead, she divided the work across several small groups and worked within a group rather than overseeing from on high. Though O’Mahoney did a little bit of delegation, she seemed to trust that much of the work would to be done instinctively by each person in the team according to their expertise. Each group, for the most part, quietly got on with what they needed to do and consulted more widely on an as-needed basis. Each group’s function would change over the course of the week, and some people would move between groups, but the small-group approach to making a bigger thing was pretty consistently maintained throughout the week. As a result, the company hierarchy was rarely visible.

Often tucked away unobtrusively on the periphery of the large hall, working quietly on laptops, were the producers. Part-time company producer Olivia Monk was leading on the project, though she supported by the company’s other part-time producer, Jessica Bickel-Barlow. Usually working with them was the company assistant, Laurie Ogden. Sometimes the group chatted with each other, sometimes one or more of them were out of the room, sometimes they mucked in when more hands were needed. Monk occasionally worked with O’Mahoney on production logistics, but for the most part, they quietly got on and worked. They didn’t feel unapproachable at all, and there was a feeling of light-touch oversight that emanated from their corner. Maybe it’s the recent conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues in theatre about safeguarding, but their quiet presence was reassuring and calming. If I had a question or concern, I knew I could go to them.

The second group consisted of the technicians. Usually the smallest group, it was primarily the projection designer Rachel Sampley, and Zoo Co company member Nick Gilbert, who was designing the sound. These two regularly liaised with O’Mahoney when they had something they wanted to show her, though for most of the week this group quietly got on and did their digital magic, which we were all able to see on the final day when the Zoo Co actors performed in front of the video backgrounds Sakatoya sent.

Then there was what I thought of as the maker group. Led by Michelle Hudson, a Canadian theatremaker with experience in creating digital work, this group evolved over the course of the week in terms of who was in it, and what they were doing. Sometimes, this group would split into further small groups. On the first day, there was a focus on building a model set that would form one of the digital backgrounds. It was for a story Hudson outlined, a simple tale of a woman charged with the overwhelming task of clearing out her aunt’s house after she died. The aunt was a hoarder of waste and rubbish, and the house was on a riverbank. To make this backdrop, the company used a doll’s house, old clothes, scraps of fabric and rubbish from the recycling bin outside. By Wednesday, this set was mostly finished but Monday (and from what I was told part of Tuesday), was dedicated to making it. This was done through a series of small, finicky choices and lots of discussion that – to someone not used to the labour of a rehearsal room – could seem mundane and untheatrical. The outcome was delightful, though – it was a joy walking into the space again on Wednesday morning and seeing it pretty much complete – a worn-down, shabby house on a shimmery riverbank, all constructed in miniature.

The maker group very much had a resourceful, DIY aesthetic that could easily appear to look like some people just having fun doing arts and crafts as a hobby. But with closer observation, it’s abundantly clear that as much as everyone in every group enjoyed what they were doing, there was also a high level of expertise and creative vision at work. In order to fulfil this vision, the experienced artists drew on their instinct and collaborative abilities to achieve the desired outcomes. As much as this is the case in a hierarchical rehearsal room, this way of working gave everyone in the room more agency, and felt far more collaborative. Whilst it’s not quite the totally collective approach that some companies use, in a space that contained up to 16 people at one time working to a tight deadline it was still impressive to see leadership that was so trusting and actively empowered the other artists in the room.

The Care Crisis R&D sharing can be watched here.

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