From Page to Stage (Part Two)

Here’s the second part of Mathilde Berry’s notes of her directing work for our upcoming production, Death in High Heels (part one can be found here):

The rehearsal process: backstories, improvisation and choreography

The rehearsal process is where the magic happens. It starts with a read-through where the cast comes together to read the play for the first time in their own voices. This is how some of the lines that I had read several times before truly jumped at me! I started to take more notes, to reflect more on the characters and to get a lot of ideas for the rehearsals themselves.

This is what happened after these actors got the direction “Be funny!”

This is what happened after these actors got the direction “Be funny!”

I wanted to start shaping the characters with the actors’ input and individual personality early on - something which cannot be found in a script. For this, I used both backstories and improvisation: to help develop the characters and to understand where they are coming from. Without being stuck to the script, actors were able to explore in everyday situations at Christophe & Cie what their characters would be up to, how they would behave or relate to each other. We developed some of the backstories in character, i.e. over an improvised lunch break, Aileen, Irene and Rachel were trying to find out more about Rose and we explored all of these characters’ backstories in an unusual way, at the same time creating a special bond between them.

Other highlights of the rehearsal process involved playing with furniture: our swivel desk chair on wheels has now become a character in its own right, getting giggles from our cast during rehearsals (and secretly hoping for laughter from our audience!).

We’ve also explored playing with levels, using the balcony and differences in height, particularly in the Miss Gregory and Miss Doon scenes, to highlight the emotional tension between the characters - or in the Inspector Charlesworth and Sergeant Wyler interview scenes.

Photo op after rehearsals

Photo op after rehearsals

Having up to nine people on a limited stage space at once can be tricky, particularly to allow the audience to see all the important actions at the right angle at the right time. Ensemble pieces need to be choreographed pretty much like a ballet to ensure smooth actions and this is where the role of the director’s assistant becomes so crucial: meticulously taking notes of who needs to stand where on which line to allow the next action of another character to flow smoothly was at the heart of the rehearsals of Act I Scene 1 and I’m grateful to Birte for making sure that we kept a record of all these moves so efficiently.

A Few Words Before opening night

Being a director can be challenging at times, but it’s a rewarding creative challenge that I’m more than glad to take on: how many times do you get a chance to do some serious Lego building or to decide about which hat you want to have centre stage?

Thank you to my wonderful cast and crew for making this Death in High Heels such an amazing adventure!

More about the play here.

From Page to Stage (Part One)

What is it like directing a play? How do you find your cast and what exactly does the rehearsal process involve? Mathilde Berry, the director of our upcoming production of Death in High Heels, shines a light on what happens between preparing for auditions and getting ready for opening night:

Director Mathilde Berry (r.) and Assistant Director Birte Oldenburg (l.) in the rehearsal room - the mannequin in the middle is part of the set decoration of  Death in High Heels

Director Mathilde Berry (r.) and Assistant Director Birte Oldenburg (l.) in the rehearsal room - the mannequin in the middle is part of the set decoration of Death in High Heels

Directing a play is one of the most exciting, creative processes that I can think of, a true labour of love. I enjoy the challenge of turning a script into a “living thing” over weeks of rehearsals and then letting the play take on a life of its own once it goes on stage.

Before the auditions: colour-coding the script

When it comes to planning things, I love to use colours. There are 10 characters in Death in High Heels and apart from a couple of exceptions, you will always find 3 or more people on stage at once. But which ones?!

To help me see how significant the individual parts were, I started by colour-coding each character, their dialogues and their actions on each page of the script. This is how I discovered that there are parts such as Mr Bevan, Miss Gregory, Dorian Pouvier and Miss Doon where the characters come and go while Irene, Rachel and Aileen are on stage most of Act I and Inspector Charlesworth and Wyler all of Act II. Rose comes and goes, with hardly any text in the group scenes of Act I but her actions have to be perfectly timed for comedic effect. Finally, we get a chance to meet the characters individually over 20 pages of Act II through the police interviews.

Without this methodical colour-coding transposed in a 2-page spreadsheet I wouldn’t have been able tell the people coming to audition what kind of parts they could expect. That big piece of planning also helped me and my assistant Birte to plan for rehearsals much better based on people’s availability.

Casting the play

Casting the play involved making hard decisions because more than 30 people turned up to audition. I had to find the right chemistry between actors that fitted my vision of the potential characters, and consequently I had to send home many good actors that I couldn’t cast. But I did find the right cast and at the time of writing, the play’s appeal keeps growing. I‘m truly enjoying the rehearsal process with my lovely cast, who keep bringing out of the script some little gems!

The cast, still working on their poker faces

The cast, still working on their poker faces

Storyboarding with Legos!

A big challenge was presented by some of the directions relative to entrances and exits, particularly in Act I - and with up to nine people on stage at once. I had to deal with all sorts of questions, for example about the number and positioning of doors, the balcony and the stairs, and where best to position the table, desk, clothes rack and mirror.

With all these questions in my head, I had a Eureka moment: I could use my daughter’s Legos to find answers to these questions!

The Lego cast on the Lego stage

The Lego cast on the Lego stage

As a family project, Charlotte and I spent an afternoon building a miniature set. And not only did we build the set, but we also used her Lego figurines to help storyboard the characters’ entrances and exits. And that’s how I found out that I only needed six doors, where it made sense to position the furniture and where I wanted some of the action to happen - deciding against some of the stage directions contained in the script.

In part two, we will take you inside the rehearsal room, so watch this space for more!

Hamburg Players' Directing Workshop with Phil Clark (10-12 August 2018)

The Hamburg Players hosted their second directing workshop involving leading professionals from the UK in early August. This time it was Welsh director and painter Phil Clark who led a workshop attended by 16 theatre enthusiasts from the Hamburg Players, the Hamburg Improv scene and the University Players, Hamburg. We were all blown away by Phil’s creativity and his lateral thinking approach to theatre, which will continue to resonate with the attendees.

Below, Niels Hamdorf, a long-standing Hamburg Player, shares his impressions of the weekend:

Just a quick note to say how much I enjoyed Phil’s directing workshop last weekend. And I’m probably speaking on behalf of most participants when I say that we left the clubhouse on Sunday afternoon with a feeling of an extremely rich experience. Thanks for organising the workshop which, I think, is likely to increase the pool of members willing to have a go at directing…

Phil had a great way of making this a truly interactive workshop where most of the ideas were generated by the Ensemble rather than by himself. He is a great believer in elliciting from the ensemble the ideas that “are in the room”. “It’s all there” he would say and proved his point several times over while we worked on Harold Pinter’s play “Black and White”: By first having us go through a brain-storming session on what everyone thought was its central theme and then having us draw (yes, with pen and paper!) the “shape, line, colour and texture” of the play we arrived at an almost overwhelming number of interpretations.

During the entire workshop Phil kept emphasizing how important the subtexts of a play can be, the inner voices, the things that are not said, the pauses. He also made it clear how beneficial it can be to involve the people in charge of costumes, the stage designer and props right from the start so that they are part of the joint effort of bringing the play to life. We discussed the role of the director, too, and how he needs to reconcile the need to be in charge with a great openness to suggestions from the cast.

Phil insisted that you cannot make mistakes in approaching a play. He regards the process starting with the choice of the play, the casting, the first read-throughs and then the actual rehearsals as a learning curve where inevitably certain alleys will be pursued and then given up again thus eventually guiding the ensemble to “the truth of the play”. But he also offered a wealth of brick-and-mortar stuff such as warm-ups (always to be specifically chosen for each rehearsal), diction and projection exercises and sprinkled this liberally with examples from his ample directing experience.

The workshop was very intense in the best sense of the word and kept its pace over the full course of the approximately 14 hours in total. In addition to the things mentioned above, this is what we managed to get through: We read a short excerpt from a modern play with strong language (I forget who the author is) in dozens of different ways, enacted a scene from Under Milkwood in two different versions plus the final chorus from Shakespeare’s Henry V in small groups of four or five people. All of this by way of preparing for Harold Pinter’s “Black and White” which we ended up staging (with props and all!) in four groups of three people each, one being the director and the other two the actors. You bet they came out very different, but they were all equally believable and received great praise from the "audience" and Phil.

Phil is a great facilitator and was very likeable in the way he conducted the workshop. I can only recommend you join in next time he honours us with his presence in Hamburg…

Thank you, Antwerp! A look back on FEATS 2018

Not to give anything away - but this photo shows an award-winning group of theatre people!

Not to give anything away - but this photo shows an award-winning group of theatre people!

The long weekend around Whitsunday and -monday is traditionally the time for FEATS. For those of you not in the know, the Festival of European Anglophone Theatrical Societies is an annual theatre event bringing together English-speaking amateur theatre groups from all over Europe for friendly competition and lots of socializing under the guise of watching (and occasionally performing) a row of short plays each evening.

You may remember it from when we hosted it in Hamburg in the Altonaer Theater in 2015. The Hamburg Players have a history of competing successfully in the event, so we arrived in Antwerp, this year’s FEATS location, in high spirits. We took part in the festival with “The Hunchback Variations” by Mickle Maher, directed by Rebecca Garron.

How to pass the time before you're on

As our play wasn’t on until the third evening, we had two nights to check out the competition and reunite with old FEATS friends. All in all, the Hamburg Players came to Belgium with a congregation of nearly twenty people. Those included the cast and crew, as well as a number of spectators who came to cheer for our play, give moral support and simply have a good time in Antwerp watching theatre.

Beautiful Antwerp

Beautiful Antwerp

Being such a big group meant we didn’t necessarily spend all of the day together. Some people went sightseeing in the beautiful city of Antwerp, some watched the Fringe, the out-of-competition afternoon programme at FEATS, some kept themselves otherwise occupied. Watching the Royal Wedding that happened that weekend was also high on some to-do lists. But in the evenings, everyone came together in the theatre for the plays and the following adjudication.

Dress rehearsal and last-minute solutions

Two days passed in this way, but by Sunday, it got serious. The day of our performance, we got a two-hour rehearsal period in the theatre. This is part of the FEATS process. Every group can use that rehearsal time however they please, but typically it’s used to arrange the set and test lights and sounds. I originally came to Antwerp only as a spectator but was allowed to join the crew last minute and take part in the rehearsal. It gave me a tiny little sneak peek into our play which already at this point promised to be good. Every last-minute problem that arose was solved, the most creative one being the replacement of our Quasimodo’s carefully prepared hump with a handbag, because it simply looked better.

Quasimodo and the the magical handbag

Quasimodo and the the magical handbag

In the end, we were so effective that we finished our rehearsal half an hour early – something I’m sure must be unheard of in FEATS history. If you ask me, we should have been given the stage management award just for that. After all, it provided the hosting crew from BATS a longer break before the next group came in. (We didn’t win that, though. Turns out there are other considerations…)

There was some time to kill before the evening’s performance. After having lunch with all cast and crew, everyone fell back to their own methods to quell those pre-performance nerves. Taking a rest. Going for a run. Having an ice-cream. Whatever helps.

Finally, the evening had arrived. One minute into the play, it was already clear it would be a success. Audiences were laughing long before our two brilliant actors, Martin John Mills and Harald Djürken, even uttered their first lines. And they didn’t stop until the curtain closed after about 45 minutes of hilariously absurd theatre. The adjudicator, Ben Humphrey, had nothing but praise for our performance, both during his public adjudication in the evening and the private one with just our group the next morning.

And two awards go to...

After this, the hard part for us was over and we got to enjoy one last sunny day in Antwerp before the last three plays and of course the award ceremony on Monday night. While the first few awards went away to other groups for their great performances, our big moment started when it was time for the best actor award. Both Martin and Harald received a nomination, with Harald Djürken taking home the price!

Harald Djürken receiving the award for best actor

Harald Djürken receiving the award for best actor

This was only topped when “The Hunchback Variations” was awarded the Founder’s Trophy for best play! A well-deserved achievement by the two actors, director Rebecca Garron and everyone else included in the production.

Martin Mills (playing Ludwig van Beethoven opposite Harald's Quasimodo) with the award for best production at FEATS 2018

Martin Mills (playing Ludwig van Beethoven opposite Harald's Quasimodo) with the award for best production at FEATS 2018

Martin and Harald - Beethoven and Quasimodo - with the two trophies for "The Hunchback Variations"

Martin and Harald - Beethoven and Quasimodo - with the two trophies for "The Hunchback Variations"

We spent the rest of the night like every self-respecting theatre group would do after such a success: celebrating at the theatre bar until late in the night. It was well into the early hours before everyone finally said goodbye to all their FEATS friends. Until we see them again next year in Munich, for FEATS 2019!

Nele Giese

Four weeks to go until premiere night!

Peeking into the rehearsal room, the actors are doing their acting, the director his directing, and those allowed to watch their fair share of laughing – “The Ladykillers” is a comedy, after all. Everyone involved in this production is more than a little busy at this point during the run-up to the premiere on 6 June. Aside from those onstage, about 15 people are on-board as crew members as of now. They have agreed to work backstage, on the set, on costumes, lights, props etc. A whole lot more help will be needed with the set building, so if you feel like joining the crew, let us know!

Rehearsal for "The Ladykillers"

Rehearsal for "The Ladykillers"

With roughly four weeks to go to opening night, this seems like the perfect opportunity to chat with someone who has an overview of how the production is going: Lexi von Hoffmann, the producer of “The Ladykillers”. (Like all other parts at an amateur theatre group like the Hamburg Players, producing a play is a voluntary job and will change from production to production.)

What is the biggest challenge awaiting the production between now and the premiere?
Lexi: “We have a complicated set and a lot of things need to be built – and so sturdily that they will survive some rough-housing. Oh, and I have to find a way to make killing someone onstage with a very visible knife in the head look real. Anyone with ideas, get in touch! But that’s just the technical side of things. For the actors, the challenges are of course different. One of them has to learn to play the cello! And all of them are involved in intricate physical comedy that has to look real, and natural, and easy, while being entirely safe for the actors.”

For those who might not be in the know: what exactly does the job of a producer at the HPs entail? Are you the boss of the director?!
Lexi: “Ooooh, no, most certainly not! Producing is an organisational job designed to free the director to do the artistic, creative work without having to worry about the nuts and bolts of the production. It is the producer’s job sometimes, however, to tell the director that something that he or she would like to get, build or do is simply not possible from a financial, technical, or logistical point of view. Setting limits here may look like meddling in the creative process – but it’s really more of a reality check, in terms of what the Hamburg Players can do, than trying to influence artistic decisions.”

What is your favourite thing about this HP production of "The Ladykillers"?
Lexi: “Can I only name one? The genius criminal derailed by a little old lady! The prize-fighter who struggles with the cello! The cross-dressing colonel! The assassin who is scared of old ladies! The bank robber with a cleaning fetish! The incredibly ugly parrot! The scarf! The constable who can’t see the wood for the trees!”

More about "The Ladykillers" here.