Behind the curtain there’s a cacophony of last minute rehearsing, seemingly bizarre warm-up routines and stage hands prepping. It’s opening night and the audience have arrived en masse. Amongst the chaos everything has its place and the night is perfectly scheduled. The cast and crew’s excitement is palpable as programmes are handed out at the door.
The casting may have only been mere weeks ago, but the actor’s lines are crystal clear in their minds, their characters fully formed. The countless unseen processes that lead up to that moment of delivery unseen by the audience.
I took a look behind the scenes to find out what goes on during the dramatic process. Like any student I enjoy going to occasional student-led and written plays, whether it be through UEA’s Drama Society or the Minotaur Theatre Company. I talked to some directors, stage managers and even got some first-hand backstage experience that showed me the various stages of theatre production and opened my eyes to the numerous tasks the director and co. attend to.
The actors I spoke to acknowledge a necessary faith they must inhabit for any project to truly succeed. As they are developing the play’s structure and script, which doesn’t happen overnight, the assurance that the conception is solid and believable is what keeps the process evolving. From memorising lines, actors embodying their characters and engaging with scenes, my attention then turned to the more technical elements of production: set design, often a team of students devoting a good portion of their free-time to help realise the director’s visualisations.
Then there are costumes, stage directions, lighting and sound effects. The cast and crew often vary from incredibly intimate with as little as two actors, to the more extravagant casts with props galore.
The 2015 UEA Spotlight Shorts have just been announced and auditions are now underway. I talked to the director of Cloud 9, Rory Horne, about what was involved in putting together a short: “The cast of my short is small, only four, so hopefully it should be a really enjoyable collaborative experience, like Cloud 9 was. My short this year is being directed by my friend Charlotte Rhodes”.
When asked about the differences in the dramatic process of a short he said: “I think that doing a full-length play is a far more intense process, particularly with Cloud 9, as each of the actors had to really get under the skin of two characters, and there was just more to learn and get to grips with. With the short however, it’s all in one scene, the events depicted are a lot more finite and concerned with the present, and there are fewer pre-established character relationships to explore and build up”.
Rory Horne then spoke of his experiences in directing Cloud 9. “I’ve always found that the most successful theatre comes from collaboration, and so Imogen (my co-director) and I were very keen to let those characters belong to the actors, and allow them to bring them to each rehearsal as their own, showing us what they made of them and allowing them to apply those feelings to the scenes we were rehearsing. It was also important to separate out the two characters they were playing”.
Not long ago I saw The Head That Bears in the UEA Drama Studio written by UEA graduate Lewis Garvey. Its use of puppets was effective and at times disconcerting, with the actor’s fantastic imitation of a child’s speech and comportment. The play’s set design perfectly depicted the twisted tales the characters portrayed.
I spent some time with the director, Gemma Aked-Priestley, who wrote and directed a piece of verbatim theatre: The F-Project. It’s a play based on interviews and online questionnaires about feminism, to raise awareness and money for the charities: Leeway Norwich and Rape Crisis England and Wales. She said: “We looked at real issues, real people’s words, compiled questionnaires, sent them out on Facebook and in emails. They were filled out anonymously, some turned into face to face interviews and others even into debates. Rehearsals were only a few weeks, so there were difficulties to overcome, such as working with a new script. On paper something may work but when you translate it to stage it doesn’t always quite work. So we introduced new scenes, cut scenes, and that of course makes it difficult for actors to pick up lines.” When asked if there were any more difficulties she said: “Staging verbatim is quite difficult as I think theatre should merge reality, the truth and real words, real people; with this aspect of still being theatrical and being entertained”.
From puppetry, verbatim theatre, stage managing, rehearsals to lighting tech, the production of a play is perfectly encapsulated in this quote by E.A. Bucchianeri, Brushstrokes of a Gadfly: “Theatres are curious places, magician’s trick-boxes where the golden memories of dramatic triumphs linger like nostalgic ghosts, and where the unexplainable, the fantastic, the tragic, the comic and the absurd are routine occurrences on and off the stage. Murders, mayhem, political intrigue, lucrative business, secret assignations, and of course, dinner”.