Directing and Performing in Lockdown
Updated: Aug 7, 2020
The production of Education, Education, Education I directed for Horse Box Theatre Company was released on Wednesday 29th July, 6 weeks since the first read through of the play. Now I know that a six week rehearsal period is quite a reasonable amount of time to usually be given to rehearse a play, but these have been anything but reasonable and usual times in which to put on a play. Education, Education, Education was auditioned for, cast, rehearsed, directed and performed (not to mention filmed and edited) in those six weeks all whilst everyone involved worked in isolation from one another during lockdown.
Throughout the time we have all been in isolation from one another during lockdown there has been some great theatre and performance created. This ranges from the headline-grabbing performances by Headlong, Jeff Pope and Sheen & Tennant, as well as the lesser-known (but I think better) work by NST Young Company, Siobhan O'Loughlin and Nathan Ellis. Personally, I feel the latter three have particularly responded with inventiveness and skill to the times in which we find ourselves in by fully exploring the means in which to create, perform and consume (as audience) online and in isolation to build on the immediate relationship between performer and audience we thrive on in theatre. Whereas the works by Headlong, Pope, Sheen and Tennant relied on a relationship between performers over video conference software which just made us as an audience feel like spectators - no different to the usual fare of relationship we get through the TV. So when I was asked to direct this show I wanted to commit to creating a performance which worked hard to find the actor/audience relationship with an ensemble of performers who are missing out most whilst our theatres are closed.
The first step on this journey was to assemble a cast. What I thought might have been the easiest task was made far more difficult when nearly 50 actors auditioned for only 12 roles (8 in Education, Education, Education and 4 in The Girl's Guide to Saving The World directed by Emily Bradshaw). Watching through the audition tapes quickly made us realise that a we would have been very lucky to work with any of the brilliant auditionees. Making the final decision was very difficult and one which took the creative team a considerable amount of time. In the end, the cast for Education, Education, Education consisted of performers from across the South of England as well as from Birmingham. In a slight tip of the hat to the isolation in which we all also were experiencing, over half of the cast came from two islands: Barry (and Isle of) Wight. This group of performers had never worked together as an ensemble before, only half of them had an existing link to at least one other, and only two of them had worked with me previously. This unfamiliarity of one another and how we would work together in isolation during lockdown was a direct reflection of how we found ourselves in an unfamiliar time where we were isolated from others due to lockdown.
Cast of Education, Education, Education
Clockwise from top left: Henry Charnock as Tobias, Fleur Moore as Emily,
Ollie Fry as Hugh, Hannah Stedman as Louise, Andrew Butcher as Paul,
Anna Mallard as Donna, Dee-Jay Lane as Tim, Susy Nutt as Sue
With the cast assembled and the performance air date of Weds 29th July given by the Artistic Director, attention quickly turned to just how little rehearsal time we had available to us to put together our production. In this time we needed to cast the show (I like to finalise the assigning of characters after the first read-through); research the context; develop characters; interrogate the script; explore relationships; and get to know one another better. When we took into consideration that it would then take about a fortnight to film and edit the performance, as well as working around everyone's work commitments, we were left with only three weeks in which we could fit in a total of 20 hours of rehearsal time. And that's really not much... So we had to come up with a way in which to get the best use out of this time so that all performers felt comfortable with knowing what they wanted to get from their performances before they were to film them (more on this later).
The first decision was to focus our rehearsal time together on developing the performers' understanding rather than concentrating too much on their execution. I'd already seen in the audition tapes that the cast were great performers and I was confident that in this new way of working they didn't need for me as director to go through the intricate details of their physical and vocal embodiment of their character(s). So we spent the little time we would have together in our Zoom rehearsals to collectively dissect the text, explore the relationships and clear up contextual questions. Time would then be given to the performers to read through their scenes together to build their awareness of how the other actor(s) would be performing before we would finish the rehearsal by recording the Zoom conversation so that we had an audio recording of the vocal performances the actors were putting into the rehearsed scene(s). Having been away from a rehearsal room for so long, it was a joy to be in a 'room' with fellow theatre-makers discussing at length the text given to us and what it has to say today.
The vocal recordings made were then edited by me to create versions of each scene which could be used by the performers and myself as we proceeded with the rehearsal process. To do this I used in Logic Pro X to separate the original recording of the whole group into individual vocal tracks of each performer, so that they could have two versions of the recording: one of all cast and the other with their dialogue muted.
These recordings had a number of uses in our production:
1) To assist the performers in learning lines;
2) To remind me of the intended performance of the actor;
3) To be used by the performers when filming their scenes
Although it was a time-consuming process, this was something worth undertaking to enable to make the rehearsal and recording process for us all as comfortable as possible, also ensuring that the cast had an additional resource to assist them with their line learning and recording of their scenes.
The audio recordings were a resource I worked away at in response to the rehearsals, but another resource I created in my role as director was the 'camera shot' directions pages which would be prepared prior to the rehearsal of the scene. As this process was asking of me a different way of working with actors and as a director, I felt that the creation of this resource enabled me to play around with the visual language of the performances which I would usually have time to do whilst in the rehearsal room with the performers. Not only did it offer me the chance to consider how to play on the actor/audience relationship through the confines of the TV/laptop/tablet/phone screen that the performance would be played through, it also provided the space to consider how we attempt to replicate the one school environment in 8 isolated homes across the UK.
As with the audio recordings, these camera shot documents took time but it was time well spent as they were a handy reminder to the performers as to where they were, what was happening and to where they were performing (I wanted rid of the down the camera so heavily relied upon by the lockdown shows by the aforementioned Sheen, Tennant, Pope and Headlong). They also became an elaborate rehearsal working book for me, and a reminder of the ideas and images I had held earlier in the process.
Performing and Filming
The aspect of this production which was most different to the traditional creation process for theatre for the stage was the performance day(s) for our cast. Rather than everybody turning up to the theatre on the same day at the same time to perform to the same people, these performances could be scheduled for a time which suited our performers, (mostly) in their own homes and (usually) to only the camera - or the accidental audience walking past their stage when they were having to record outside...
The brilliant cast would get themselves into costume, set up their recording equipment and then record a number of takes of the scene(s) they had elected to perform that day. One of the great things of having the freedom as to when they recorded was that the actors would send their recordings to me at various times between week 3 and 5 of our process. This meant that I had the great opportunity to see different moments in the play being brought to life in different parts of the country by actors performing in rooms all by themselves. It was a testament to their ability, resilience and intuition that what they were recording in isolation was genuinely feeling as though they were all in the same room together - though the different decor in their various homes was a clear reminder that they were all apart.
One of the other differences for our cast in not being together to perform was the potential that they would not have the opportunity to benefit from the traditional positive elements of being a part of an ensemble. Performing and filming in isolation (all performers recorded their scenes using only the audio tracks mentioned above) on their own meant that there was nobody else in the room for them to respond to nor to bounce off of as they performed. This is something I feel does not become apparent in the final product - a testament to the skill of the actors. But the absence from one another did mean that the performers were also missing out on opportunity to discuss their performances with their fellow cast members. It was therefore a real joy for me to see that the group were taking the time to keep in touch with one another via both the group WhatsApp (is there any project that doesn't have one of these?) and their own conversations where they would share recordings, provide tips on how to record and also give feedback on the performances of the peers. This group of strangers had built a community through their mutual love for theatre.
Back in 2003 I elected to take A Level Media Studies when in sixth form, a choice that I thought would be of great use to my Drama and Theatre course which I was taking at the same time as it would enable me to build the skills to create films and videos. In a slightly unexpected turn of events, the closest I got to any sort of film over the two years was the repetitive watching of Unforgiven during our study of the gangster genre. Fast-forward to 2020 and I still had no experience of editing films at all. Meaning that the editing of Education, Education, Education would be my first ever attempt.
With this in mind I took the opportunity to understand how the programme I was to use (Final Cut Pro X) worked, how to make the most of some of its tools and how to bring the recordings made by the cast together. There are numerous online tutorials which are made for novices like me to build confidence and understanding without getting too jargon and tech heavy. Some of the best I found to help me and the various hurdles I faced were by Drone Film Guide, Matty Tripps and Bruno Quintana. These videos, and countless other forums online, helped me go from the basic one shot scenes with no sense of ensemble which I was making in my first attempts to what I was able to present as the final product where I believe I was able to bring the scenes filmed in isolation together in a way which made the audience at times forget that these actors were not in the same room together, but also maintained the magic of theatre through the use of some of Final Cut Pro X's brilliant in-built audio and video features.
The editing process was a lot of fun and one I look forward to doing again some day on another project. However, with the method we used to film the scenes in isolation it meant that the most time-consuming element of the video editing process was actually removing the unneeded audio from the video recordings. As the performers were playing these recordings at the same time as they were filming their performances, it meant that the submitted videos not only picked up the needed recording of their vocal performance, but also picked up the playback of the audio recording of their fellow performers performing their lines that I mentioned earlier.
Before we knew it, Weds 29th July arrived where our production of Education, Education, Education would be made available to watch for 24 hours only due to the performance rights agreement with Nick Hern Books (who have been brilliant in making shows available to perform in lockdown). The cast and I got together two days before to see the final edit and to have our own opportunity to celebrate the amazing work everyone had put into the performance.
With the show going out that day and being made available for all ticket buyers to see, it was a strange experience to not be sat in the auditorium with the first audience seeing the show being shared for the first time. On the day itself I busied myself around the flat, doing what I could to shake off the nerves and excitement. The WhatsApp group would go off with reviews and feedback from friends, whilst the giddy excitement of our show being out there was shared by us all. It was the strangest opening to a show, and then it was gone. All that hard work shared for 24 hours and then to not be seen again. But the joys of it being made available online was that our family and friends across the country could see our work, and even my mum - with a little help over the phone from me - could tune in from Devon and see what her boy has been up to (when not answering her calls...).
At the end of the day I took the time to sit back and enjoy watching the show one final time, though I still found a number of notes to feedback to myself!
And that was that.
A good friend of mine said something at the end of rehearsal process we were in together for a play he had written which has always stuck with me and I always endeavour to share with the people I work with on each production. "At the end of this, it's not the shows that matter but the people and relationships you make which truly matter." And nothing for me could be truer. Theatre is a collaborative art form, even for those making a solo show they have the people about who their stories are tied to. With this production not only was it for me getting to work with a brilliant group of people, witness amazing auditions right at the start and get the chance to work with Joe at Horse Box Theatre Company for the first time, but it was what we discovered together that really made this the most rewarding experience. We learnt how this could be possible, why this was something to be done now, which ways might be best to work with and for our audience, what we could provide for each other, and that theatre and performance really does not need to take place within the traditional four walls of the theatres, studios, rehearsal rooms, school halls, community centres in which it tends to reside.
I can't wait to get back to theatre in person, in whatever physical or virtual space I might create it in.