The moment of first contact with a play is crucial. It is a time of great anxiety, as companies form opinions, negotiate new relationships and coordinate themselves in a new landscape. Terms of engagement and vocabularies established on first reading, will prove difficult to alter.
How do we unlock text for the actor? How do we remove terror from the first meeting with the text?
Exercise A: What is a Play?
Ask the company what makes a play. Not a production (lights, sound, actors) but what is required to give us the playscript we have before us now. Ideally, write their offers up onto the wall in chalk, unmediated except to remove repetitions of the same idea. Generally the answers will cover this territory – though the vocabulary will be different each time:
Character, writer, story, plot, events, intentions, time: tempos and chronos, setting, themes, genre, style, structure, words.
Take time to assess and define each of these words. A common understanding of them will be at the heart of establishing a company, and a fluid, dynamic rehearsal process. For the purposes of this document let us agree them as the following:
Character: The as yet uninhabited voices, individuated and real, which people the play’s circumstances.
Writer: The person or persons who made it all up in the first place.
Story: What happens.
Plot: What we see happen.
Events: Moments of change. The things that happen, which change what everyone on stage wants in one moment. The stone thrown through the window; the gunshot off stage; the exits and entrances of new characters.
Intentions: What each character wants moment to moment, event to event.
Tempos: Rhythm – lento, andante, largo etc.
Chronos: The timespan of the play. When are we?
Setting: Where are we?
Themes: What are the big ideas at the heart of the play? To qualify, every character must relate to the theme directly. Think primary school for your terminology here – not long words, but accessible, tangible stuff we all understand.
Genre: Farce, tragedy, restoration comedy, black comedy… each has its own code of conventions and behaviour.
Style: Symbolism? Naturalism? A lens through which a play can be read and understood. Primarily, style is the authors choice of given circumstances – the logic and physics of the world they have created (where people might become rhinos, speak monologues, break into dance).
Structure: For a 5 act play, you deliver fireworks in act 3, and save the canons for act 5. For a play with one act and lots of fast moving scenes, one has to be filmic in ‘editing’ the scenes together cinematically.
Words: Central imagery (linked to theme), verse (and the associated challenges of a play with a sustained breath line), heightened rhetoric. The way the words work together.
Exercise B: Read through
Read through the scene or play in question.
In this first read through, ensure the actors do not read their own parts. They take each other’s parts. Deliberately ask actors to read parts they would never normally play or be cast as, to avoid comparisons being made. This is the only opportunity an actor will get normally to hear their part read aloud to them. They get the chance to assess with some perspective their character’s journey, before they must begin to inhabit it themselves. The actors are licensed to listen. It also removes the pressure of performance from this first reading.
Exercise C: Storytelling/Themes
What are the big themes and ideas in the play? What ideas are confronted by every character in it? Break into groups of 3 or 4, and take 10 minutes to produce a list of 3 themes which every character relates to.
Ask the actors to feed these back to the group with examples or quotes showing the themes’ centrality to the play. There will inevitably be much cross-over between the groups, offering the same themes in different words.
Agree shared vocabulary for the key themes. Ask each actor to select one theme from the play, and think of a moment in their own life when they have had an experience related to that theme. They can have witnessed it, been involved, been the key player… anything, but it must be a first hand experience, not one they have been told about. Warn the company that they should choose moments they don’t mind being shared around the room.
Now ask the actors to pair off, and working to a time limit of 4 minutes, ask them to share their stories about the theme they have chosen. Warn them that this is an exercise in listening, not storytelling.
When the 4 minutes is up, ask them to thank each other for the stories, and move on to another partner. They should now tell the story they just heard (not the one they just told), to their new partner. They will tell the story in the first person, as if it had happened to them. They take possession of the story, and adapting details as necessary to make it their own. Again, allow 4 minutes.
Now move on again, with a thank you, to a new pair. Tell the story you were just told, but tell it in the first person.
Continue this for as long as you can allow. Actors may find the story they first told makes its way back to them, told by someone new, altered and adapted and changed. I am always surprised by how much this exercise throws up about the nature of theatre and storytelling. The raft of experiences relating to the play that it throws up, prove endlessly useful as reference points in rehearsal discussions. Allow time to discuss this exercise as a full group.
Exercise D: Scene titles
Return to the full company. Decide upon a title for the scenes you are studying. The title should be neutral, and begin with a noun. Do not begin with the name of a character – it makes life harder for your actors playing the other parts in the scene, and gives a false weight to the actor who the scene will then be ‘about’. Titles should be clear, descriptive, and helps us talk about the scenes in rehearsals. Be pragmatic.
Exercise E: Trigger events
Every play has a trigger event. This is the moment without which none of the play could happen, which occurs before the play begins. For Our Country’s Good this is arguably the moment when each character is called to the ship which takes them to Australia. It could also be the moment when George III’s government decided to relocate its prisoners to Australia.
Set up an improvisation or visualisation of this event. For example, you might improvise the discussion that took place around the cabinet table, and ended in the decision to send convicts to Australia. Randomly assign playing cards to each actor. The higher the card in the deck, the more avidly they will promote the transport. The lower the card, the more avidly they will oppose it. Give roles in the cabinet loosely defined (home secretary, foreign secretary, PM) and then let them get on with it.
You might also lead a visualisation of the moment when each prisoner or officer received the news that they would be sent to Australia. Sit the group down. Ask them to close eyes if they feel more comfortable doing so. Then take them through a series of simple questions, establishing the circumstances in which they received the news. Get real detail of place, time, environment, atmosphere, surroundings and objects in the room. Once these are clear, move into the detail of feelings which were prompted by this moment. These feelings will link to memories, and hopes / fears for the future. Leading this, one must keep to open, but specific questions. Resist the urge to suggest.
Exercise F: Events
Return to full company. Break the scene into its events. You are looking for the moments of change in the scene. These are the times when something happens (which can be something said by one of the characters on-stage), which changes everyone’s want or intention who is present in the scene.
Every entrance or exit is an event. Events are normally marked by a physical action, implied or stated in the text.
When staging the scene, each event must be marked clearly. They are the crucial hooks for storytelling, and how often they come defines the tempo of the scene. Ask the company how they might mark the events in staging it: sound cues, lighting shifts, or simply in blocking…
Touch on the fact that after each event, every actor’s intention changes. In each unit of action (which the events define), the actors must locate their objective or intention, which drives them forward.
Event G: Immediate circumstances
The moment immediately preceding the scene’s start is crucial. What expectations, tempi, assumptions and anticipations are brought to the scene’s beginning? How long has each character been in the scene? What was the trigger event for the scene?
Having established clearly the given circumstances of the scene, improvise the immediate circumstances that precede it. Split the company into small groups and ask them to improvise the 3 minutes that run into the first words of the scene.
Having found a shared vocabulary for discussing plays, heard and followed the scene; having established what big ideas the scene opens up, and connected to them personally; with a titled and united scene, whose moments of change are acknowledged and understood; having imagined where the scene comes from and what drives it forward, the company is ready to head into action.