I recently directed Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water for an MA final production, and once we’d done all the basics and established the imaginary world of the play and the actors began to embody the characters vocally and physically, as always another challenge presented itself: How to make the transition from rehearsal space to theatre? How to communicate with the audience without losing connection between the actors?
Our rehearsal space was actually quite large, but the Guildford theatre we were to play in was substantially larger with over 170 seats and a difficult acoustic. We’ve all seen performances that didn’t make the transition into the theatre, lacking energy, clarity and a reach beyond the first row of the audience. I knew the venue could be difficult, so prepared well in advance of the Tech and Dress rehearsals because, as usual, we weren’t able to get into the theatre for any rehearsal before this time.
First of all, any performance space requires a different energy from what you need in your living room. However small a fringe theatre may be, you still need performance energy to fill the space and connect with the whole audience. The degree of energy and projection or radiation of the performance depends on the size and nature of the space.
Secondly, this connection with the audience has to be an organic process connected to the actor’s creative process and what’s been developed in rehearsal – it’s not a purely technical question of just speaking louder and whipping up a physical energy. This will make the performance external, demonstrated and unbelievable, and kiss goodbye to all that sensitive, detailed work you did in the rehearsal room. Stanislavski’s approach gives us how to connect with each other and the audience. We need to make sure we’re not just playing a low-key ‘naturalism’ and attitudes and states. Have I entered the imaginary circumstances of the character while keeping rooted in myself – ‘if’ I’m in the character’s specific circumstances what do I do and want? Am I responding to other actor/characters and changes in the circumstances at every beat of the action, spontaneously within the structure of the play? Am I pursuing my objectives in an active and specific manner, aimed at the other characters to affect and change them and the circumstances? If I’m really connecting to the action and other actor/characters I’ve got a good chance of connecting to the audience.
If there are still tendencies to devoice and collapse physically, this will be despite rather than because of what you’re doing. So, some adjustments will need to be made. The objectives express the character’s will – and feelings and thoughts – and to radiate them fully we need to make sure we connect our spines and abdominal and pelvic support to the drive of what we want. As I said in my last blog, ‘the spine is literally the backbone of the actor and the vertical sense of identity within the imaginary circumstances: The words and actions expressing the objectives need to flow flexibly and responsively through our out-breaths, like a surfer on a wave, supported by the spine and other muscles.’
Also, we should become aware of the size and nature of the performance space while working in the rehearsal room. Imagine the new space in front of and around you, visualize how far back the audience will be seated, and begin to reach through the space beyond the imagined back wall. Be aware of the height of the theatre and how your eyeline needs to adapt and lift. Take special note of how the new acoustic may deaden voices and demand crisper articulation of consonants and of the beginning and end of lines so that thoughts are clearly carried through them. Accessing fuller body resonance, a clearer onset of sound and wider pitch range may also be necessary as part of the daily warm-ups. Actors should be made aware whenever there is a lapse in communication toward each other and the prospective audience.
If this is done, the actors will start to experience this performance level as second nature during the last period of rehearsal and the transition into the theatre won’t be such a shock.
Once we arrived in the theatre, we acclimatized to the space before even starting the Tech rehearsal, and continued these exercises before each subsequent rehearsal. These included not only exercises on breathing, resonance, articulation, range and onset, but connecting the identity of the actor/character to the space, finding focus points in the auditorium, and connecting to actual people sitting in a variety of seats. Have a look at a full range of such exercises on exploring and tackling the space in Chapter 14, The actor in the space, in Voice into acting – Integrating voice and the Stanislavski approach, written with Christina Gutekunst.