Rod's Blog May 10th 2019 - Red Ladder Theatre Company

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Rod’s Blog May 10th 2019

Reviewing … reflecting…delivering…and Whelan

Like a lot of organisations who are funded as part of the Arts Council’s National Portfolio, we are required to review our business plan and let the funders know whether we are hitting our targets – our SMART  targets… don’t ask … it’s far too ‘New Labour’ to explain (!).

Cynicism aside – it is actually very useful to look back over our year and see whether we have actually done what we promised to do! I’m sure there are plenty of fairy tales being told by organisations …but when I look back at 2018 I am really pleased to say we have surpassed all our expectations.

As you are well aware, 2018 was the 50th birthday year for Red Ladder. And you should also be aware that we celebrated that milestone in real style – with a challenging and ambitious production of ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’ by Bert Brecht. The success of the show, the standing ovations every night, the wonderful praise in the press and online, the pages and pages of wonderful audience comments on Twitter and Facebook … this is lovely to reflect on – but much more important is the feeling that we provoked discussion and thinking about our  war-torn world and the trauma that is felt by ordinary people like us who have no choice but to flee those war-ravaged lands to find safety here. Leeds is proud of its role as a city of sanctuary and yet this means nothing unless these stories are shared and the people of Leeds understand what it means to seek protection from another society.

But when reviewing a year like this I have to also review my own work as an artist and what the journey has been to me. And 2018 was for the year I met Whelan. When Roddy met Whelan sounds like a film made 30 years ago … and when I say it was the year I met Whelan I don’t mean Ronnie Whelan who played for Liverpool or Noel Whelan who played for Leeds United !

A theatre and opera director I really admire, and indeed I’m inspired by, is Phelim McDermott of Improbable. Phelim is the most generous, modest and gifted artist I know – that sounds like an exaggeration but it isn’t. He heads a long list of artists I have met and worked with over the decades – but he is top of that list. What I love about Phelim is his courage – the show that put him and Improbable ‘on the map’ was called ‘70 Hill Lane’ and I saw it in Edinburgh in 1997. It was one of those shows where you walk out into the bright sunlight blinking and unable to speak to your friends because your head is filled with images and ideas and questions. It was a beautiful childhood memory told by Phelim and two other performers using selotape ! I doubt if risk assessments would allow the show to be even staged today because selotape is highly flammable. There was no set – the architecture of the set was merely a framework upon which each scene was built using strips of selotape. The final image was of a small ghost puppet made of scrunched up selotape which glowed as the theatre lanterns focussed upon it. Gorgeous. Magical. Emotional.

Phelim is a charismatic and inspiring leader who leads by holding the space safely so that others can shine and develop. (When his opera Akhnaten won an Olivier Award, Phelim was delighted when someone came up to him and asked ‘And what did you do on the production?’. He is a rare being in theatre – a director with zero ego and no apparent neuroses!).

His approach to directing springs from his research into process psychology which led him to set up the ‘Devoted and Disgruntled’ theatre conferences that use the Open Space Technology approach. As a facilitator who opens and closes these ‘open spaces’ Phelim is one of the world’s experts. ‘D&D’ has now been running for 14 years and is an essential event in every theatre-maker’s calendar.

It was Phelim who encouraged me to start using The Whelan Technique. He described himself as a ‘fundamentalist’ in this technique and famously he has used the approach with all his work from Shakespeare, to Opera, to the West End show ‘Scrooge’ starring Jim Broadbent. A director with a large ego and a deep fear of other directors would have hidden the approach like an Ace card – jealously guarding it as his own. That’s not how Phelim operates. He generously encouraged me with advice and reassurance. He even suggested we should record a podcast about how it works!

In summary the technique encourages actors not to learn their lines but to embody them. Of course that’s not how I introduce it to actors as it would terrify them to be told – you are not to learn your lines! In Whelan the actors stand around a mic and record a unit (two or three pages of script). This is then played back to them through the PA and they hear themselves and the other voices in the scene reading the lines. Rather than trying to memorise these lines they are asked to stand in the space and listen and imagine how they feel hearing those words spoken to them and by them. The feelings either compel them to stillness, or the impel them towards another or repel them away from another. That’s all they have to concentrate on – how the words they hear move them. The recording is then wiped and they are allowed to make observations of comments – and often they have to be told to stop talking because they want to discuss and analyse. The scene extract is recorded a second time and they repeat the process but with the instruction to build upon what they had learnt the first time. They must not mouthe the lines just listen and feel. Amusingly, the first recording sometimes results in facial acting (!) when they roll their eyes a lot and raise their eyebrows. By the second recording this settles down and they move around the space – almost blocking instinctively. A third, a fourth and a fifth recording is made, and between each one there follow discussions and some side coaching from me (but very little of this – the directing is minimal because additional instructions would over complicate the process).

On the sixth run-through the actors are told to step on the stage and perform the scene. I absolutely LOVE the first time they do this. They always smirk as if to say, “Yeah, well this won’t work, I don’t know these lines …no script? This will be a car-crash!”.

Then they are nearly always word perfect. They run the scene extract off book. Off book on day one and more importantly they have rehearsed with the freedom to move across the space making real eye contact, making real connection to each other, picking up props, hugging… or whatever they feel the need to do in that moment.

Back in July I was invited to rehearse a new short play called ‘Ref!’ for Space Two and I decided to try Whelan for the first time – and luckily I had a group of four lovely actors who trusted me enough to let them be the guinea pigs! It worked.

I decided to jump into really deep water and rehearse ‘Mother Courage’ using Whelan …in just three weeks!! My excuse for using the technique was that I had cast Bea Webster in the role of Kattrin and as a deaf actor I wanted Bea to be able to use BSL with the other performers as part of the scene and they wouldn’t be able to do this with scripts in their hands. (I also lied to them that Bea would be able to hear the words of the script through the PA because she wears implants – but Bea told me she couldn’t hear a thing!!).

As we were trying to make a Brechtian world, after recording 3 I asked the actors to tell the story of the extract from the third person and in the past. This exercise generated a remarkable discussion about sub-text, intention, motivation …all the text work that usually takes hours sitting around a table.

What fascinates me is that the actors are not learning their lines in the traditional way – they are using their emotional response to the moment of the scene and feeling their responses. If the script is well written then these responses feel authentic. If the script needs cutting or rewriting this becomes immediately apparent because the impulse is difficult to find. From my very basic understanding of cognitive science,  they are responding more in their amygdala than their cortex and so the words they speak ‘feel’ more spontaneous and therefore less contrived or ‘performed’.

I used the Whelan technique when rehearsing ‘Glory’ and again my excuse was that I couldn’t have actors learning to wrestle with scripts in their hands – they needed to be able to be ‘off book’ sooner so we could place the fight choreo in there from day one.

I’m now convinced: I don’t need an excuse to ‘sell’ this technique to actors before we start – I know it works!

But I don’t really understand why it works and I haven’t had time to really ask actors what it feels like to rehearse using this technique. So – that’s my next project.

On June 8th a small group of actors are going to work all day with me exploring approaches to embodying text and exploring what happens when we examine the concept of ‘the present moment’. Live theatre is what it says: it is a live experience that is shared by performers and audience. The present moment is heightened by a room of people all witnessing the same thing at the same time. There has been much written about how an audience’s heartbeats become synchronised when watching a live performance. So I am fascinated by this and how much is verbal and how much is non verbal. The non verbal is our starting point. So to explore this I asked the very brilliant Russel Dean, who made the masks we used in Courage, to make me a beautiful new leather neutral mask. On June 8th we will watch each other be ‘present’ onstage, wearing the neutral mask and exploring what non verbal communication we see or ‘read’. This will be the first of a series of theatre laboratories I want to run where we play together and hopefully learn together. My very good friend Nicola Rosewarne is joining us from Cornwall. Nix was a core company member of Kneehigh for nearly 20 years and then she worked with the late great Bill Mitchell’s company Wildworks. She also uses Whelan and I’m exciting to see what I learn from her.