Making Smile Club: A Performer's Perspective on Whelan Recording Technique - Red Ladder Theatre Company

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Making Smile Club: A Performer’s Perspective on Whelan Recording Technique

By Andrea Heaton

At the beginning of March (remember those carefree days?) I opened Smile Club at Leeds Playhouse, written by Adam Z. Robinson and myself, produced by Red Ladder Theatre, and directed by Rod Dixon.

Adam and I spent months carefully crafting the Smile Club story, with expert guidance from dramaturg Lindsey Rodden. Back in R&D we decided that Smile Club could and should be a one woman show. By the time we’d completed the script there were a total of 6 different character voices.

In the run up to rehearsals Rod spoke about his plan to use the Whelan Recording Technique (if you know Rod you may have heard the pitch!). I had watched one of Rod’s workshops on Whelan but didn’t have any first-hand experience. Broadly speaking the technique involves reading through the text to identify where the gear shifts happen then splitting it into manageable units. Then working through one unit at a time we recorded and, leaving the script to the side, played back the dialogue a total of 5 times. Rod is strong advocate of the technique from a director’s point of view so I thought I’d offer my perspective of the process from the stage.

Stage 1: Play back. The first play back is about listening and responding emotionally to the text. What is happening to the character(s) emotionally in this scene? What is the driving energy? This was hard at first, the temptation to ‘do’ is massive especially as the only person on stage. This was further complicated by playing multiple roles, often in the same scene. However as we worked through the play I really enjoyed the opportunity to just listen, to momentarily visualise the story from the outside- not ordinarily an option for a solo performer!

Stage 2: Finding the scene in the space. During week one we had a taped footprint of the stage and from week two Emma Williams beautiful set. I have always been more confident vocally than physically on stage so give me a script and I will hang onto that thing like a life raft. Stage 2 allowed me to make the stage space my own, develop conventions in the way each character inhabited it and the further we progressed through the script, have an increasing sense of what might work well.

Stage 3: Mapping the scene. This is the point of realising how much you’re taking in. Bringing together the emotional and physical movement through the space the 3rd playback is followed by talking through everything that the character is doing in the third person. Again an opportunity to take an outside perspective on my solo performance: assess what was working, and discuss that with the director. Often I would find myself vocalising intentions and sub text that I hadn’t previously considered which in turn fed into the next recording and ultimately the final performance.

Stage 4: Improvisation. After listening to the fourth recording, listening and walking/mapping it on set the task was to improvise the scene. I have to admit this was sometimes quite hard, as the writer I found letting go of ‘getting the words wrong’ difficult- I’d spent so much time with the script. As we got further through the play I got better at relaxing into this stage. The sense of achievement performing the scene off book, without standing on stage with a script in my hand once, was amazing.

Stage 5: Consolidating. This final stage brings everything together. A chance to cement everything you’ve learnt about the character journey, how to operate in the space, and the key moments in the text before beginning the process all over again for the next unit. Returning to scenes a week later I had retained way more that I think I would have done otherwise.

Whelan recording technique really worked for me. I felt trusted in my instincts and in a genuinely collaborative process with Rod as the director. Working this way allowed me to put down the script, and my role as writer. The emotional, physical, and storytelling journey was tightly knitted together from the start, giving me an invaluable map as an actor. The Whelan structure gave me the freedom to explore and push my performance further than I had thought possible. Working with Rod was a real pleasure, he helped me understand and interrogate the technique and brought out the best in my performance.

Due to the current global situation Smile Club is on hold. We hope it will open its doors again, and we hope you will all come and join the club.