Our guest Sarah Eve on actions, quizzes, and something called the “fucking game”
When I saw the Our Country’s Good open rehearsals advertised on Twitter, I jumped at the opportunity to see Max Stafford-Clark and Out of Joint at work. Having heard all the horror stories imaginable of the dreaded rehearsal room, I wanted to see what is expected of professional actors for myself.
Max began by welcoming us to what was the first day of a paying open rehearsal in England, and addressed the fact that open rehearsals are a way of funding theatre as well as educating. I really hope that other companies see the benefits both financially and educationally, as I can’t tell you how insightful it was to watch actors playing parts and working with a director you can only dream of, and with no pretence or façade.
There is a scene early in Our Country’s Good where Ralph has to audition convicts to be in his play. Max told us, “Directors know when you walk through the door whether they like you or not,” joking with the actors, “You’re all here because I chose you!” The cast then discussed whether they can tell when a director likes them in an audition, stating that they sometimes get a good vibe, or that the directors can be bluffing. Max revealed that he would “rather have an actor who is 7/10 talented, but enthusiastic about the play” – giving us all hope!
This was only the second rehearsal, so the actors were obviously not on their feet yet: Up to two weeks is spent “actioning” the text round a table. [Actioning is a process where every line an actor says is given an “action” – a transitive verb – that describes what their character is trying to “do” to the person they are speaking to by saying the line.]
The actors began to read, stating their action before delivering each line. Max would ask “which action do you prefer? Can you think of something else? What was the action for that last line?” What I found interesting was that these actions had already changed from yesterday’s first rehearsal, and that the actors were already using accents and gestures to find the right characterisations. Helen Bradbury, who is playing Dabby, said the line “I’ve seen load of plays”. This provoked a discussion as to whether the character was lying, bragging or exaggerating, and what theatres would have been near her at the time that she might have visited. This became clear: you have to know your character, the play and era inside out.
Next, the actors played the “fucking” game, where you insert the word “fucking” into any line in order to find emphasis or aggression. It was met with huge laughs from everyone, which created the right tone. Another technique involved Max picking a card from a deck beside him and showing all the actors apart from one. The actors had to play a direction subtly or strongly, depending on how high the card number was, with the remaining actor having to guess the number on the card from the intensity of the performance. (The direction was “fancy” and the card was an 8, which the actor guessed correctly. Max said that that strength of emotion was about right for the scene.)
Then we were put into quiz teams with the actors, who were friendly, funny and encouraging – with one saying “so you want to be an actor? Good girl!”. They didn’t seem fazed by having an audience in rehearsal. The quiz was on the history of Australia: the ships that the convicts arrived on, ratio of men to women, the year the last Aborigine died, and so on. I noticed just how many history books were on the table. Afterwards we were able to ask Max any questions we had.
I’m interested in political theatre, and there seem to be obvious criticisms of Thatcherism throughout the play, due to the funding cuts to the arts and the prison system during the eighties. Sharing similarities with today; making the play all the more relevant. I remember being moved by the letters from prisoners printed at the start of the published script of Our Country’s Good – they spoke of having felt free when involved in theatre, although they had not been so in years. A line from the play: “We may laugh, we may cry, we may even think” will hopefully be fulfilled in the production both directly through the action on the stage, but also indirectly through the need to fund theatre in order for society to realise that it is a necessity not just a frivolous expense. The main theme of the play is that of the redemptive power of theatre and I think that is why the play has kept touching actors and audiences alike. If the process alone can inspire, then the play itself will be incredible.
Sarah Eve is a third year training actor from Lancaster.
For more about rehearsal methods, see the books Page To Stage: Our Country’s Good; Taking Stock; and Letters to George, all available in our shop.
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