Five days to go till the preview. We are rehearsing every available hour.
One thing I have learned from developing this show on a shoestring, is that doing it purely for the love creates a powerful sense of commitment and team. Although I wouldn’t vote for such straightened circumstances in the future, this is a definite benefit. We all believe in the show and want it to work for its own sake – motivationally, this matters a lot.
My actor, Jules Hill, also a mum of two returning to professional acting after a break, puts in a sterling effort – adding extra rehearsals to her already busy schedule without a hint of grumbling. She works incredibly hard and as the show is essentially, at its core, a fifty minute monologue, a lot rests on her shoulders. She might look delicate but this girl is made of stern stuff.
For my part, I try to serve Jules by keeping any chat about the five hundred and fifty million practical production challenges outside of the rehearsal room and out of her earshot. This is harder than it might seem when often it is just the two of us sweating it out in rehearsal and the practical challenges are impinging on the rehearsal in various annoying ways. Somehow I maintain this discipline and we retain our good humour. I mean the only suitable response to me accidentally smashing the face off a key puppet prop I have just spent a third of the props budget on is, obviously, to wet yourself laughing! I think Jules laughs mainly out of relief, that it wasn’t her wot did it.
The biggest stress in my mind at this point, among the many things on the list, is the pressing fact that, after weeks of trying, I still haven’t been able to recruit a sound operator for the preview and shows. I never want to give in to the panic zone but this is now testing my nerve. I’ve placed all the ads, sent all the Facebook messages and spoken to all the contacts I can reasonably speak to and still there is a big yawning chasm, located precisely behind our mixing desk. Crap. In moments of mild desperation I wonder if I should just try and do it myself, teach myself Q-Lab in that spare three hours I don’t have and just hope for the best. Fifteen years of working life experience and instinct tells me that this is the wrong thing to do. Anything technical should be given the respect it deserves – we need a safe pair of hands at the wheel. Amazingly, at the eleventh hour, we are rescued by an incredible and generous £300 pound contribution that goes immediately into the budget for technicians. After two more days of wrangling, we finally have sound operators for all three shows. Thank God for that.
…and it’s preview night. In some ways preview is a misleading term, as there is no public audience attending, just the Octagon’s artistic team and, as it turns out, due to their crazy schedules, it is just Ben Occhipinti. While this lowers the stakes a bit as Ben has already attended a rehearsal and now feels like a friendly presence, there is still no shortage of challenges. For instance, the time-consuming nature of creating physical theatre that is precisely choreographed to track and the fact that this is after all, a works-in-progress piece, means we are really going to wire with some bits of the show. We have only had the chance to do one full run so far. There are a lot of technical cues for Jules to remember and in all honesty she is still digesting many of them, never mind fully inhabiting the piece and flying with it. The limited budget means I have never run the show with proper sound equipment before and we need to rig the gear and tech the show all on the day of the preview. Breathe!
With solid help from the fantastic Ellie J. Whitfield, one of our two sound operators, everything is rigged and tech-ed in time. Nothing short of a miracle. The preview begins on time to the second.
It is a very weird experience.
Every director knows that there comes a moment where you, as the creative conductor, must hand the baton over to your cast, to allow them to take full ownership of the piece of theatre you have created together and to trust that your joint work has created the right vehicle to carry the story through to the audience the way you envisioned. Despite my attention-to-detail type of personality, I am, surprisingly, quite good at this process of just….letting go. I see it as a moment of celebration and in many ways enjoy it. So this is not the problem. No, the problem tonight is that as I sit through the preview, watching Jules execute our choreography perfectly, a few terrifying realisations begin to dawn on me. The benefit of the critical distance afforded by this ‘letting go’ swiftly reveals to me that the immersive soundscape experience I have been aiming at, is falling very far short of the mark – it does not work. On top of this, a tighter full run is making very evident that the overall balance of the piece is wrong. The script edit, as it were, is dramatically unbalanced, with far too much emphasis on the experience of being lost inside the addiction of bulimia and nowhere near enough focus on the journey out.
I feel a bit sick. The show is in a week. This is not good.
For all my musings about the risks involved in stepping out creatively, it has never seriously occurred to me that this could be the final outcome – that it could actually, really, genuinely, be s**t. Errrr. Now what?
Thankfully, the ever wise Ben Occhipinti has already pre-arranged with me that we won’t debrief until the following day. So for now, it’s a case of ‘Well done all and let’s go home to bed!’ Not a whole lot of sleeping is done by me however, as I try to puzzle my way through to some solutions. I cling to the words of old-hand director John Caird as he defines a dress rehearsal in the excellent book Theatre Craft, “And it is just as normal to watch a horrible car crash of a dress rehearsal and feel that your work is total rubbish, that you have no business being a director and that everything is crap. Quite normal and quite understandable.” Gulp. Keep breathing.
The following day my early call with Ben never materialises. The day wears on with no sign of contact and despite my best efforts to remain calm and focused, some of the more monstrous doubts start to intrude on my consciousness. You can probably imagine the sort of thing. After quite a few hours of this sort of head-mashing nonsense I have had enough. I come to my senses and remember that it is me that got myself into this mess and me that will need to be getting myself out. This harsh truth is actually an excellent dose of reality. I start making decisions. Big, fat, radical ones. The kind of changes you don’t expect to be making a week before the show but who cares about the rulebook – I am not letting this much time, money, energy and creative effort come to nought. I cut several scenes entirely, deciding there simply isn’t time to make them work, cut a large section out of the addiction cycle and, following a somewhat delicate conversation with my assistant choreographer, completely axe the formal dance choreography of the current closing scene. It’s not that his work isn’t great, it’s that it can’t be digested in time. He is incredibly gracious and totally backs the rationale but still, it’s a rough phonecall to have to make. Jules, ever the trooper, is fine with the changes as I have, at least, put a lot of thought into how to make radical cuts that won’t require her to learn much new material.
At 6pm, I get a text from Ben. He is uber, uber apologetic. He has been maxed out at The Octagon all day. We arrange to speak early tomorrow. I am actually glad it happened like this, because now I know that the solutions are my solutions. This actually builds my confidence a lot. I run though my ideas with Ben the next day and he agrees it is a good way forward. He is also at pains to argue that it is not a s**t show and that it has a lot of potential. Maybe, just maybe this is all gonna be ok after all. My spirits lift even further when some welcome cavalry arrives in the form of local actor/director Kash Arshad. Kash has been assistant directing on #Chip Shop the Musical and is a thoroughly nice bloke. He pops into a final rehearsal and sets about hanging bits of set and generally being helpful, in an understated sort of way. He even offers an inspired idea about how to adjust the final scene slightly, which works really well. Things are looking up!
A week later and it’s hard to believe how far we’ve come. So much has happened in the past three months to get to this point. Against what at times seemed like impossible odds, we have made it to opening night and I am feeling super proud of our team, including late arrival Eilidh Browne, who turned up out of the blue as volunteer crew from the Bolton University Theatre BA Hons course. It’s perfect timing. We’re so on top of things that at 1.30 pm the cast and creatives leave our sound operator happily setting up while we all head over to the Octagon for a meet and greet. It’s lovely to meet the wider Octagon staff and also chat with some of the other companies in the festival – Monkeywood Theatre, 12 Miles North and writer Anna Clarkson, among others. I cannot say enough good things about the Octagon’s artistic team. At risk of looking like a massive suck it has to be said that the support and input of Deborah Dickinson, Ben Occhipinti and Elizabeth Newman has truly been amazing. Venues looking for an approach to follow in the light of this debate, would do well to knock at the Octagon’s door for a chat. After an hour or so of drinks, cake and good vibes we say our goodbyes, we have to get back to Third Space to finish set up for the first show!
At 4 pm the house begin to arrive, fumbling with bags and coats, rustling programmes and chattering excitedly. No way back now – we are all locked in. I take a precious five minutes for a final backstage chat with Jules. She knows it’s her show now. You’ve done all the hard work, now it’s time to celebrate it. Over to you girl.
And she flies!
For the duration of the three shows Joy Unspeakable comes alive. Imperfect, sure, but filled with so much to celebrate and be proud of. Jules is amazing and the technical stuff all comes together brilliantly. It’s hard to believe only a week ago I was almost in despair at the thought of the public performances.
The audience feedback is fantastic. Although of course I hope for positive feedback; knowing it’s a works-in-progress piece, I also anticipate quite a lot of critical feedback. In fact, I welcome this as it is very useful. So I am genuinely surprised in the post-show Q and A’s when people make a lot of really positive observations, and not just anodyne, wishy-washy gush that is too afraid to be honest but useful, critically specific positive feedback, as well as at times painfully honest, personal disclosures. This, more than anything else, lets me know that whatever the remaining flaws in Joy Unspeakable, I have hit my intended mark: truth-telling that breaks the silence of eating disorders sufferers and creates a space for dialogue and restoration.
I can go home happy.
And I do. To pack and prepare for a new adventure. This time in America!