Interview with Annabel Arden from THE ART OF REHEARSAL

Annabel Arden (born 1959) is a director, actress and co-founder of the company Complicite in 1983. Her career as an independent director encompasses theatre, opera and broadcasting as well as devising new work. She has directed for Opera North, The English National Opera, The Royal National Theatre, Almeida Theatre and BBC. This is an excerpt from an interview in The Art of Rehearsal: Conversations with Contemporary Theatre Makers, edited by Barbara Simonsen.


Can you describe a typical rehearsal process of Complicite – a basic pattern?

There were certain constants, but they did vary a lot. We would spend some time talking about the idea and the theme. I think Simon was very influenced by Jacques Lecoq and by the final part of the work at the Lecoq school, where you’re given a ‘command’. Which is essentially a theme. Finding the theme was very important. And sometimes it was easier than others. In the first few shows it was very clear what we wanted to do. I think it got more complex later. Let’s take a famous one: A Minute Too Late [1984]. That very strongly came from Simon, because he knew he wanted to do a piece about death. He had done his command at Lecoq about his father’s death, which was essentially the last scene of that piece where the doctor gives the diagnosis. He always knew he wanted to make a bigger piece from that. So the theme was death. Having decided the theme, we did research – we went to funeral parlours and talked to undertakers, and we went and sat in graveyards and looked at people coming to visit graves. We talked a lot about all the situations related to death, the funeral buffet, being alone in your flat… We’d make a huge list of these and then just try and do them, basically.

We always began the day with some kind of physical work. Play as well, we played a lot. A lot of ball games, a lot of stupid games. We’d make a lot of material, sometimes tiny things, sometimes extended scenes, and then we would try to document them. We tried to write down what we did or at least keep some kind of reasonable note. Because you think you’ve got it in your head, but at the end of the week you don’t know what you’ve done. We’d stick them up on the wall, those little scraps of paper, and keep collecting objects. Everything was organic at that stage, there were only a few people in that show, and me on the outside. We would invite people, friends, pretty much every week, every few weeks. On Friday afternoon, we’d play little things, to see what would work. And then we’d start to try to find what we called an ‘order’ – that was to write it. But most of the time was spent creating material. The order was the painful part. Because you have to cut. And then towards the end, it would become clear that certain things were numbers in the commedia sense. They were numbers that had to be perfect, otherwise there was no reason to do them. For example the dance that comes out of the church scene in A Minute Too Late, where it suddenly goes into a little jazz music and they start to dance, there is no excuse for doing that, unless it’s perfect. That was also true of the hearse, the scene where Jos [Houben] drives the crazy hearse. Those had to be practised every day.

So there was the creation of material, there was trying to find an order that worked – and sometimes, of course, there are tricky places in the order, where you can’t find how one scene develops into the next, so you’ve got writing problems. And then there was what we called ‘roder le spectacle’ – you have to really screw it down. To perfect it, practise it. Of course, there was never enough time to practise. Even though we had long rehearsal periods, we had to have a first night, because we had to book to tour. So we would go on working all the way through the tour. I can say that rehearsal never ended. Never. We played Street of Crocodiles on and off for about seven years, and we were still rehearsing at the end of it. You have to. Because things die, have to be got rid of or replaced or better ideas come, or actors get replaced.Things are re-rehearsed and change organically, or the space changes. Your relationship to the material changes. That is the great pleasure of working as we do and did. It’s not finished.

And did you find, when you redid A Minute Too Late – that the rehearsal process had changed in some ways?

It’s always different when you redo something. We redid A Minute Too Late many times. Each time there would be different imperatives. For example, somebody was dissatisfied with a thing they’d done and wanted to make it better. Or we couldn’t remember bits, had to reinvent bits. It wasn’t always videoed. And things changed with the act of remembering. We certainly made the physical environment more sophisticated as we got richer. The first graveyard was literally bricks and breeze blocks that we picked out of the road. Later we’d have more money to actually go and hire or borrow real gravestones. Because we were still in that stage where we thought that it had to be real. Years later, we found designers who actually could make you a gravestone that was good enough to look like a real one. We had different physical ideas, for example if the space changed. Sometimes you had to make it translate into a bigger space, like when we took it to the National Theatre.

The last incarnation of A Minute Too Late was twenty years after it was made [2005]. I remember there was a big discussion about what we should change and why. Would it work, and how would we relate to it if we didn’t change it? We had to face the fact that it was in some senses a period piece. There were certain things that we would never do, now, were we to make a show about death. And of course, we were much older, the boys were much older, and it was very, very hard. It was quite a moving experience, because they had to confront their mortality in the doing of it. And that’s what made it good. Nothing really major was changed. There were certain details. Some of the text was made a little sharper, a little cleaner, but really, mainly, it was as it was. But what was moving was, they were older. And my God, they had to work.

It was really hard. They did it, which was fantastic. We still talk, halfjokingly, about whether we should do Street of Crocodiles when we’re all sixty. Because that would be about right. And we couldn’t. But we would have to find another way of doing it. We also did Der Besuch der Alten Dame [The Visit, 1989] by Dürrenmatt, where Simon and Kathryn Hunter in their twenties played people who were supposed to be well into their sixties. And I often joke and say, ‘Well come on, it’s time now!’

The Art of Rehearsal: Conversations with Contemporary Theatre Makers is published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama and is available now at 10% off R.R.P.