Rod’s Blog 25.03.20 – Smile Club: The Making of a One Woman Show.
It feels very strange that only a week ago we were still touring our new play Smile Club, and this month-long week now sees us self-isolated and all theatres are closed – A play set in a fictional dystopian near-future has been postponed and we are living in a strange near-dystopian present.
Honestly, we didn’t do that deliberately!
Smile Club started life two years ago.
Andrea Heaton and Adam Z. Robinson had a coffee based meeting and chatted about the premise of a government response to everyday sexism that would limit women’s freedom and seek to re-educate them to smile and put up with male dominance.
I was invited to a ‘scratch’ performance of work in progress at Halifax Square Chapel Arts Centre in the summer of 2018, and I absolutely loved the extracts I saw – Andrea’s subtle skills of storytelling and multi-role performance, and the whole Black Mirror style dark comedy potential of the piece. When Andrea approached me to suggest Red Ladder might help by producing the piece alongside her and Adam as a co-production I was very, very, keen.
Over the last six months we have been developing the script with the support of Lindsey Rodden, the Red Ladder dramaturg. Lindsey is writing a PhD at the University of Leeds using Red Ladder as the focus of her study.
The main challenge was to present this narrative using just one actor, Andrea, retelling a flashback account of a Smile Club re-education institution after the protagonist had escaped. Could we make something that Andrea could perform without it being too long for a performer to learn and sustain, or too long for audiences to engage with?
Adam has already written and performed his own gothic ghost stories with considerable success, so he was confident he could co-write this piece with Andrea. But a ghost story has a long tradition behind it: the Victorians loved fireside stories – indeed Dickens wrote his novels in episodic chapters that could be read aloud by subscribers monthly. M.R. James wrote ghost stories in a similar way – to be read aloud.
Could we create something similar in the science fiction genre?
We quickly realised that we could – key to the success would be Andrea confidence in her use of dialogue as a solo performer, switching characters instantly and holding an audience’s attention and understanding.
I was confident that my method of rehearsal could be a great way to work with Andrea to prepare a physical portrayal of several characters. I use what is known as The Whelan Recording Technique. I have used this approach for the last two years and I love it. In WRT the actor records a reading of a single unit of a play and then puts the script down. We then step onto the floor and play the recording through a P.A. The actor doesn’t try to learn the lines, they listen to themselves and they move according to how they feel – They learn the emotional journey of the words. Painters paint with colours – actors paint with emotions. The actor records the feelings of the text and embodies these, essentially mapping them out on the floor.
The process involves doing 5 separate new recordings of each unit – each time listening and understanding more about intention, attitude and feeling. Between each recording we discuss what has been felt and learnt and each reading gets clearer and performed with more authenticity. After the fifth recording the actor steps on the floor and performs the unit – usually 95-100% “off-book”.
I love this technique – it generates really strong performances that are so authentic and engaging.
On day 1 of rehearsal we started this process, when suddenly Andrea stopped. The complex story and number of voices was overwhelming and the enormity of the task ahead suddenly loomed in front of us both like Everest.
What do you do as a director on occasions like this? If you have faith in your process you reassure and you keep fear out of the room – fear is the big enemy in a rehearsal room. The beauty of the WRT is that when the actor gets to the end of tape 5 they ‘know’ the script and they can perform it – often without any prompting or help. Once Andrea got to the stage of performing the first unit, word perfect and after just two hours of work, our Everest had shrunk to the size of a gentle hill!
We were very lucky to have Emma Williams’s beautiful set built by the second week of rehearsal, and so we moved into the brand new studio theatre in Leeds City College (the students were on a reading week). Smile Club was there for us – a three dimensional world – and this helped us to really inhabit the world, and the different voices that come out of it.
The first run through of the show was nearly two hours long. That evening, Andrea performed a preview and without obvious speeding up she reduced the performance to 90 minutes. How? She did this partly by performing the dialogue between characters without a pause between each speech. Think about that: being able to perform two or even three voices, physical presence and facial expressions without a beat or breath between each. No wonder we felt overwhelmed on Day 1.
The day the show opened in the new Bramall Rock Void studio at Leeds Playhouse was also press night. That’s always a dilemma. We want reviews to help sell the show and ideally good reviews as early as possible to sell the rest of the run. On the first night there are always still small teething issues that can be improved – so press night and opening night places even more pressure on the performer.
Andrea clearly thrived playing to a live and responsive audience – and the next day the four and five star reviews came in – including the very important Guardian review which as a national publication carries more weight for the venues outside Leeds.
The second night Andrea performed the show in 82 minutes. Confidence, familiarity, skill, all coming together at once, and the word was out that this was a show to be seen, and we sold out the rest of our shows at the Playhouse.
Outside in the real world, Covid-19 was spreading across the UK at an alarming rate. The more we investigated this the more we felt this was the very worst time to be sending a touring team across the UK in a van to immerse themselves into different small studios with audiences who might be infected. With a heavy heart, we performed our final performance just a week after opening at the Theatre Deli in Sheffield. We began the difficult task of informing venues that we wanted to postpone, not cancel. Although this was an unpopular decision with several venues waiting for us to arrive, 36 hours later Boris advised the public to stay away from theatres, and a week later instructed all theatres to close.
The crazy world of Smile Club had suddenly been replaced by the real crazy world!
If you weren’t lucky enough to see Andrea perform Smile Club don’t despair. We will remount and retour – one day.
Stay safe and stay at home – I’ll write more blogs over the coming weeks.
About Rod: Rod became Artistic Director of Red Ladder Theatre Company in 2006, following his role as associate director at the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth. He has also ran The Hub Theatre School in Cornwall and been an actor with several companies including Kneehigh Theatre. Directing credits for Red Ladder include Where’s Vietnam?, Forgotten Things, Riot, Rebellion & Bloody Insurrection, Ugly, Sex & Docks & Rock ‘N’ Roll, Big Society! and Promised Land. Rod is both a life-long Liverpool supporter and a believer in Proudhon’s principles of anarchy – the two might be connected.