By Diana Miranda
The Royal Shakespeare Company flung open their locked playhouse doors with a new project that engaged audiences in a socially distanced but immersive manner: they put the making process of a play online for anyone to watch. From 1- 13 June, audiences (or rather Vimeo viewers) could join the cast and creatives of Henry VI Part One every weekday for live streams of the company’s morning physical and voice warm-ups, lunchtime rehearsals, and evening green rooms that answered audience questions and allowed the team to expand on their crafts, normally kept behind the scenes. All the live streams were available to watch until 25 June. If uncovering a rehearsal process doesn’t sound unconventional enough, the show did not hit the stage boards. Instead, the final performance consisted of a live-streamed, rehearsal room run-through from the RSC’s Ashcroft Room on 23 June.
During a green room session, Andrew Brooks (Screen Director) said that the intention was for audiences to feel involved in the room’s activities, not merely flies on a wall. That remark brought me back to the morning when I wore sweatpants to join the company in the warm-up before my daily jog around the park. Except that that day they did a session that involved working in couples, and, alas, I was by myself.
So perhaps becoming involved in the activities isn’t totally possible, but I certainly did not feel like a fly on the wall. Instead, I was a fly fluttering among the actors. A silent observant; silent but acknowledged. The fact that I could see a second camera moving around now and then reinforced this feeling. This project wasn’t a documentary approach that tried to camouflage the outsider, which also made the rehearsals feel candid and undisguised.
In addition, this closeness to the actors revealed the (reassuring) fact that they can have the same insecurities as audience members do when approaching a 400-year-old playwright. During a rehearsal regarding language in Shakespeare, some discussed the feeling of ‘do I know enough?’ that tends to arise. Anna Leong Brophy (who played Burgundy) mentioned her fear of missing a convention in a Shakespearean role, which is a reminder that, even as members of the industry, actors may also have questions when tackling these plays. This sincerity made me feel closer to the cast, and closer to Shakespeare’s work, occasionally labelled as distant or inaccessible.
The first session took place on one of those sunny days at the beginning of June. When the Artistic Director Gregory Doran welcomed the online audience members to the live stream, I was captivated by the space, the beautiful Ashcroft Room. From my virtual perspective, it looked like a huge wooden teepee with a large lighting grid hanging from above, contrasting with the warm, golden daylight that seemed to enter from the many windows around the room. Doran praised the view from that circular rehearsal space that overlooks the River Avon. I was sorry that, despite the cameraman’s effort, I couldn’t get a glimpse of Shakespeare’s birthplace from such a place, but I got to enjoy the room from my online standpoint. As the days went by, it started to feel familiar. As I fluttered in my camera-jar among the actors, I found myself thinking, “the terrace is through that door, the balcony is up there, the musicians are to my left”, and so on.
Secondly, I was hooked by the people. Each cast member gave a unique colour to the production’s palette, and it was great to witness how each person uniquely embraced a specific workout or responded to music while rehearsing a scene. Seeing that made palpable the endless possibilities in a room where the ultimate outcome is to create as a team. It was even better to notice how almost every warm-up, regardless of its leader, drew attention to teamwork. There’s a lot of acknowledging one another in rehearsal rooms: “Look at everybody as you breathe deeply”; “Hug yourself as you would hug the people around you”; “Inspire your movements in what you see around the room”; “Feel your heart-beat and keep looking at each other”. In a time when people are used to looking at their smartphones’ black mirror, those standard-issue gestures of awareness and togetherness are inspiring and moving.
Finally, what kept me glued to my chair throughout June (although, I admit, not always during the live streaming) were all the insights I gained: from delving into Shakespeare’s made-up words and rhythmic texts, to the dramaturgy in something as basic as punctuation marks; and from the new role of Covid Marshall (Rachel Barber) to the shape-shifting role of a Stage Manager (Julia Wade). Each session shed light on activities that work their magic outside the spotlight but make theatre all the more fascinating, like music (Paul Englishby) or stage combat direction (Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown). Every insight felt like discovering the outline of a piece within a finished puzzle.
Another idea that sparkled throughout these weeks is that each show entails learning the making process afresh, as Peter Griffin (Production Manager) mentioned. I’d say other team members might share this feeling of perpetual learning considering the classes on history, language, combat, and other things that the cast took. Like artists, audiences can (should) expand and refresh their approach to theatre, and open rehearsal rooms give us a chance to remember that theatre is not a machine that only a few can operate, nor is it a self-creating phenomenon, but a craft that opens itself up to discoveries each time, nurtured by human nature and diversity.
The final performance was a hybrid between a rehearsal and a show, a unique and somewhat strange experience. The atmosphere was unquestionably that of a rehearsal process: no set, only the bare Ashcroft Room, a black dress code instead of costumes, and a few props. However, the cast performed the run-through of Henry VI Part One with the awareness of having an online audience. They used the camera as a theatrical device, sometimes approaching the camera as if addressing us. There was even a cheeky moment when the Earl of Suffolk (Oliver Johnstone) gently pushed the camera’s lens away to woo princess Margaret of Anjou (Mariah Gale) in private.
I regret having waited this long to write about the RSC’s Henry VI Part One open rehearsal project. There is a lot to share in four weeks’ worth of conversation. Lesson learnt, and I hope this isn’t a fleeting phenomenon. There is plenty of talk about whether opening rehearsal rooms removes the magic of theatre, as stated by director Owen Horsley during one of the first green room discussions, but I cheer the opening of those sacred gates. Getting a glimpse of some backstage moments brings a new kind of magic to theatre, and it emphasises the teamwork behind it. This project is one of those times when I’ve felt that the whole team behind a show – as opposed to a specific character or actor – is the headline star.
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