Orlando | Rehearsal Diary
Orlando– Week One
Associate Director Anna Girvan provides a day-by-day account of rehearsals for Orlando.
Monday 17th October 2022
On the first day of rehearsal we had what is called a ‘Meet and Greet’, where all of the Creative Team – cast, management, Technical Team and anyone else involved in the production – come together to meet for the first time over, usually, a cup of tea and a biscuit. It is one of my favourite times as there may have been people you’ve been communicating with for weeks over e-mail but have never met face-to-face, and there will be others that you will see on that day but may not see again for five weeks until you enter the theatre. And then there are those people that you will get to know very well over the rehearsal period and run of the show, who will end up being like family. Yet in this first moment of meeting everyone, you’re just desperately grabbing at and trying to remember the names of this huge extended family.
We stood in a circle and introduced ourselves – our job role and our preferred personal pronouns. Included in this circle was a COVID-19 Officer who talked us through the protocols for keeping our company safe throughout our time together, which for us will include daily testing. It’s quite incredible how quickly all of this has become ‘the norm’ for theatremakers now. Another addition to our circle, which is also becoming more common in rehearsal rooms, was a photographer, who was documenting this first meeting to use for future promotional material.
Next, we got to look at the model-box of Peter McKintosh’s transformational set, which will essentially create a theatre within the Garrick Theatre, where we will open in six weeks’ time. It is a great opportunity for the director, Michael Grandage, and other members of the Creative Team to talk the cast through the vision for the piece in a sort of scene-by-scene storyboard.
It is quite common in the early days of rehearsals for all the actors to sit around a table and read the play together for the first time, but Michael explained that his process didn’t include this element as he prefers to work from the body and putting the text immediately into the space, letting that experience generate questions rather than analysing the text from sitting down.
After the room was cleared of everyone but the cast and Stage Management, writer Neil Bartlett did a question-and-answer session with the actors, who asked about how the play came to be written and why Neil had wanted to write an adaptation of Orlando. It was an excellent opportunity for the cast to ask such questions and it is the real privilege of working on a new text with a living writer that we have this ability to go straight to the author for our answers. Neil explained that he obviously didn’t have this same privilege when adapting Virginia Woolf’s text and Michael spoke about the fact that we actually have two authors in our process and that, luckily, we have one of those authors in our rehearsal room for the rest of the week.
We lunched and then afterwards Emma Corrin had many costume fittings for their character Orlando, who travels through multiple time periods and gets to wear a huge array of outfits. The rest of the cast – called ‘The Virginias’ as Neil has nine different actors playing Virginia Woolf – stayed in the room to ask Neil more questions about the text and we assigned them lines and started getting the opening of the play ‘on its feet’. Michael explained that this would be the way we would be working this week: talking a little about the scene with Neil, sketching an idea of what it will be like in the space, and then moving forward so that we would get to the end of the play by this Friday.
Tuesday 18th October 2022
We started the day with Emma Corrin and Deborah Findlay, looking at their first scene together. Deborah’s character is called Mrs Grimsditch, though her name is never actually uttered by any of the characters in the play – we just call her ‘Mrs G’ for short. She is a character in the novel who is occasionally and briefly mentioned as one of Orlando’s many house servants. Neil said that he wanted there to be someone in the play who could speak directly to the audience and help move Orlando through the eras, so he evolved Mrs G into a dresser/Stage Manager role. She brings a lot of the humour to the piece and is the sort of glue between Orlando, the Virginias and the audience. Neil also mentioned that he was inspired by a dresser he worked with for many years, who he could always confide in and was a complete truth-teller.
Next, we brought in Lucy Briers to the call, who is playing one of the Virginias but also has a starring role as Queen Elizabeth I. I am particularly excited to see her costume! The scene between Orlando and Elizabeth is written in Shakespearean verse as Neil has played with the form within the play so that the style of speaking within scenes reflects the time-period in which Orlando is currently living. He also mentioned that there are lots of quotes and references littered throughout the play, from the sixteenth century to the present day, and challenged us all to spot them with the promise of a prize to whoever got them all right!
We then brought in the rest of the Virginias to look at staging moments that we had assigned lines to the previous day. What I am learning is that we can work at quite a pace, sketching the play in the space and also asking questions as we go. What I think we are learning as we are doing it is that the moments the Virginias work best together is when they really pick up the lines quickly after each other and don’t ‘let the ball drop’.
After lunch our Movement Director, Ben Wright, was with us and did a little warm-up with the company, which was a disco routine that was a great bonding exercise. He then got the company moving around the space by asking each actor to try to keep a triangle between them and two other actors. They weren’t to tell the other actors who they had chosen, so naturally the actors all just moved through the space seemingly without any rhyme or reason but with a deep-rooted purpose. He said it would be useful in the ‘choral’ elements of their work that they have a feeling of this connection to their fellow actors, almost like they are always tethered in the middle to their colleagues.
Michael and Peter have proposed an exciting lighting effect within the design to create an impactful arrival for Queen Elizabeth I, but Michael also wanted something physical for the whole company to be involved in for this moment, so Ben worked with them on this. He then took a look at what we had tried for the opening of the play yesterday to share his thoughts from a movement perspective.
Finally, Ben worked with the three Virginias who play the debutantes, all of whom want to marry the eligible Orlando. We knew we wanted them to have an entrance that would be fun, tell us something about their characters and be memorable for the audience, so Ben has worked with the actors involved in what we have given the shorthand title ‘Debutante Voguing’. Our Composer and Sound Designer, Alex Baranowski, had created a really cool piece of music for this moment, which Ben was able to work with at home before coming in to teach it to the actors.
Wednesday 19th October 2022
This morning we began with the Sasha and Orlando scene. Sasha is the first person that Orlando falls in love with, so this is the first really romantic moment in the play. Neil explained how it was a reflection of Virginia Woolf’s love for Vita Sackville-West, with whom she had an affair. The character Orlando was said to be modelled on Vita, but there are certainly crossovers with Sasha too, who breaks Orlando’s heart. This scene takes place at The Great Frost Fair, so we discussed the idea of trying the scene with Sasha on rollerblades or skates. We also know that we need there to be a big banquet set up within this scene, which is another thing that Ben will help us with when he is back with us.
Another challenge for Millie Wong, who is playing Sasha, is that Sasha is Russian so speaks in Russian – and a little French – when she first meets Orlando. Millie had obviously done her homework as her pronunciation was exceptional, as was her accent, but she is also going to do more work with Richard Ryder, our Dialect Coach on the show, to make sure it is truly accurate.
We had a production meeting over lunch, which will be a regular Wednesday meeting. This is when all the departments working on the show meet to discuss the progress made that week, everything from sourcing props to wigs and costume fittings. Some of the people at these meetings are there in person, but some appear on Zoom as they are working on other shows in other parts of the world – like our Lighting Designer, Howard Hudson, who is doing a show on Broadway at the moment.
After lunch we continued working through the play with the Virginias and sketched through to the interval. This included Orlando going to Constantinople and his transition from ‘he’ to ‘she’. We discussed how we could do this for it to have some genuine theatrical magic. Neil spoke about how this transition is not only relatable to those in the audience who may have been through such a change, but also to anyone who has had a large event or change in their life over which they had no control – one has the choice to stand still, go back, or move forward.
The scene before the interval is set on the ship back to England from Constantinople and is a lot of fun. Neil described it as, ‘Round the Horne meets The Doll’s House’ and it feels great to end on a comedic scene just before the interval.
Thursday 20th October 2022
We started the day by working on the scenes between Harriet/Harry and Orlando. Harriet is played by Richard Cant, who is also a Virginia. The first of these scenes takes place in the seventeenth century and, as with previous scenes, the text reflects this being written in Jacobean, Thomas-Webster-style verse. Neil wanted the scenes with Harriet to have a slightly darker, more sinister edge to reflect not only theatre at the time but also to inject a little danger into the story. The second scene with Harriet takes place in the Restoration period, by which time Orlando is a woman. We discussed the complexities of staging such a scene and whether Harriet/Harry’s seduction came from a place of love or lust.
We then moved into the scenes that involve Nell, Prue and Kitty, whom Orlando encounters while anatomically a woman but dressed as a man. This scene happens in a brothel of sorts and is one of the moments in the play that involves intimate touch, so we discussed how our Movement Director, Ben, would look at this scene and those moments in more detail once we try to stage it properly. This scene also takes place during the Restoration era and Nell and co are all from the East End of London, so these are more accents for our Dialect Coach, Richard, to work with the actors on.
At lunch, Neil and Michael did a little interview for the programme and after this we continued working to the end of the play.
Friday 21st October 2022
Ben was in today and did another great warm-up with the company. We then looked in more detail at the top of the play, from the first arrival of the Virginias to them introducing Orlando. This is an interesting moment to interrogate as it’s the moment in which we make a number of contracts with the audience so that they can get a sense of what our relationship is going to be with ‘The Author’ throughout the evening, and also what our author’s relationship is going to be with Orlando. We know that we want to avoid the ensemble feeling like a Greek chorus without individual personalities. Neil wrote multiple Virginias so that he could show the multiple-selves that existed within her, but also within us all – that we are never just one person but can simultaneously be a mother, a child, a writer, a carer, a dreamer, a self-saboteur, etc. We discovered that to achieve this it is best the actors don’t try to talk in unison, but instead have their own attitudes and focus more on listening to each other to respond naturally, rather than trying to ‘come in on cues’. And also not to be fearful of speaking first but having the courage to take the permission to speak. ‘Courage’ has become a very important word in our rehearsal room with regard to our process, but also the message of the play.
In the afternoon we recapped some of the movement we had already looked at earlier in the week, but also created a language for Constantinople and a moment in the second half we call ‘The Darkness Bride’, where Orlando as a Victorian woman falls into the arms of Marmaduke, played by Jodie McNee. Ben looked carefully at how to make this fall safe but also effortless, and how it fits in with the rest of the style of the play. We had a great time exploring how Emma could stand on the bed, while it was spinning around, and speak their lines.