Orlando | Rehearsal Diary
Orlando– Week Two
Monday 24th October 2022
One of the things Michael is keen to get into rehearsals as early as possible are costumes, as Emma has many changes and several of them happen on stage facilitated by Deborah Findlay. The more we can introduce to the rehearsal room early on means less stress during technical rehearsals, when lots of new elements, such as light and sound, get introduced to the play. So this morning we worked on the first scene between Emma and Deborah, when Orlando is first ‘created’, getting dressed in Elizabethan stockings and breeches.
We then carried on into the next scene, in which the Queen arrives, and discussed with Lucy, who plays Elizabeth I, about playing age through voice and body, and also how we can explore the Queen’s status when speaking to Orlando. It can be a very unnatural feeling for an actor to look straight ahead of themselves, into the audience, when speaking to a fellow actor on stage, but sometimes if felt like the Queen might do this to make a point of her status – that she doesn’t even need to look at her subjects.
After this, we gathered our ensemble of Virginias together and carried on working through the play, seeing what we could remember from the previous week and making more discoveries about how they could tell the story they are writing in the moment – how sometimes they have confidence in this, and other times Mrs G has to take control. We got about a quarter of the way through the script before the end of the day, and got to touch a little of the Sasha and Orlando scene as well. There were a few text cuts that Neil had suggested last week, which Michael introduced as we looked at the scene again today, and they worked well.
Michael has kindly given the last hour of rehearsals over to me to work with the understudies, which is quite a luxury. More commonly in rehearsal processes the understudies are a second thought and the work that is done together is much later in rehearsals, if at all. Frequently, work begins once the show is up and running. Over the past few years, the importance of having understudies prepared for first preview – or even to step in during rehearsals – has been amplified and so, fortunately, has the time and attention given to their work and process. We have six understudies who are in the company playing Virginias and two of them cover multiple roles as well as playing their own. I took this first session to just sit and read through the script, making sure the actors all know whose lines they were taking as our multiple Virginias share lines and thoughts.
Tuesday 25th October 2022
Today photographer Mark Brenner was in rehearsals to take photos of all the actors to use for publicity and programmes. We picked up with the ‘Sasha Scene’ and introduced the Virginias into it but knew we’d have to wait until Friday, when Movement Director Ben Wright rejoins us, to look at specific movement elements, including what we are calling ‘The Banquet’, which takes place in the background of the scene.
In working with the Virginias, we realise we really want to avoid the danger of it becoming a typical Greek chorus, where everything is spoken in unison or without character. Instead, we need to keep reminding ourselves that they are each playing a character, it just happens to be the same one – that they are always being Virginia in her own right. Also, when Orlando feels something, it is probably something that Virginia has felt herself, so we can reflect this in how the Virginias observe the scene or speak.
Pushing on, we explored some more on-stage costume changes and experimented with different ideas about how Orlando can go to bed as a man but wake up as a woman. It feels like this is going to want some sort of gesture, or for it to be a sleight of hand. We felt we discovered a way for Emma to make the change without being noticed, but it is only a first option and we will explore more when Ben is back with us.
Again, I had the pleasure of being able to work with the understudies for the final hour of the day and we continued working through the text, discussing which duties would be given to whom and checking that everyone had the correct lines allocated. A large part of my job is looking after the understudies and it is interesting that for every one of these actors it is their first time taking on cover roles, yet they already seem very much on top of it.
Wednesday 26th October 2022
This morning was an example of how an understudy can be necessary even during rehearsals. The first scene we wanted to work on was the ‘Ship Scene’, in which Lucy Briers plays a Naval Officer, but she wasn’t available today so her understudy, Jessica Alade, stepped in. At this early stage we are still playing around with the staging, or ‘blocking’ as it’s called, so it didn’t matter too much that Jess hadn’t watched this scene to know what was going on. It is always useful, though, for us to be able to visualise it, even if it isn’t the principal actor.
Lucy returned and we brought in some more actors and pushed forward, through the second half of the play into the Restoration period. This will require a little help from Ben Wright from a movement perspective as Emma has a big costume change off-stage, so we need to create a transitional piece of movement to help maintain momentum while telling the story that we are moving into something new. We also have two actors playing ‘Wits’, who attempt to woo Orlando, and as they are such a particular type of person from a specific era, we want to get them moving and presenting themselves as such. We discussed them probably needing a cane and a handkerchief to achieve this.
Another production meeting during lunch and after lunch we managed to work through to the end of the play in just a few hours. We are still sketching-in ideas to move quite quickly, but we still managed to work in quite a lot of detail on areas that needed ‘solving’, such as how to restrain Orlando in bed when it is the Victorian era. We are also learning a lot about where we will need music to support our movement, plus other moments when we will need Composer and Sound Designer Alex Baranowski to teach the actors things, such as the ‘Farewell and Adieu’ song, which is sung on a couple of occasions.
For the final hour I worked again with the understudies and we got to the end of the play. We discussed how we would move forward with practising the staging of it, and also that Akuc Bol, who is covering the role of Sasha, may have to learn to roller-blade as we are pretty sure we will be putting that into the show.
Thursday 27th October 2022
Today we knew Emma wasn’t available, so Michael took this as a good opportunity to work with just the Virginias in the morning and allow me to work with the understudies in the afternoon.
The aim was to get the company speaking like one person, but not necessarily like one voice or chorus. Michael set up a circle of chairs for the Virginias to sit on facing each other. He then got them to speak the lines at the top of the show, but really feeling like they are passing the baton to each other. I did voice recordings of these to share with the company afterwards so they could hear how it sounded when it really worked. It was amazing how it felt like they were listening and responding to themselves, but also like they were speaking from one consciousness. Jess Alade, who is doing a lot of understudying, is learning these Virginia moments as if they were one monologue and Michael suggested this could be a good exercise for the whole group.
We get to the first mention of ‘Orlando’, when Virginia essentially brings him into being – brings him to life. The tone with which this word is spoken is very important and we discussed the many ways it could be said. Michael doesn’t want it to feel declamatory and Debra Baker suggested it could be a moment of awe, relating it to having a child – you carry the baby around for nine months, getting used to it and knowing that it is soon to arrive, but it is only when it does that it feels real and awesome. We noticed that breath is really important in this respect, especially how we use the length of the word.
Another important aim for the Virginias is for the audience to feel safe and secure in their presence. So although Virginia, in creating and developing her character Orlando, might not always go in straight lines, the actors themselves should never be hesitant but always confident in their choices.
We also discussed Virginia’s relationship with Mrs G, as Virginia herself had many servants and certainly held attitudes towards them. Although it feels like Mrs G is sometimes an aid to the Virginias and sometimes an impediment, she certainly exists in the moment and is probably more practical-minded than Virginia. Mrs G would be the one bringing Virginia a cup of tea while she was writing, and maybe inspiring a tiny moment in doing so. She may also be a little of Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, who helped to support Virginia’s writing. It is Virginia’s job to keep Orlando alive, and it was Leonard’s job to do the same.
Michael explained that he likes working in the abstract and that we shouldn’t try to pin down the show too much to one convention. Much like Virginia’s novel, which doesn’t pin down gender or time but permits it be fluid and defy laws, our play experiments with form and doesn’t allow itself to be pigeon-holed as one thing or another. Therefore, we shouldn’t try to pigeon-hole it either.
In the afternoon I worked with the understudies and we actually started to get the play ‘on its feet’. I am in awe at this company and how much they can learn and retain in such a short space of time. We are going to have a complexity of ‘tracks’ – blocking, choreography, set and prop placement, etc. – for each of them to learn but I feel confident that we will be ready for first preview.
Friday 28th October 2022
Today was a Ben Wright day. It was an opportunity for him to go over all of the movement we have created so far and make some more. He started with what he called a ‘contemporary dance’ warm-up, where he played some music and asked the actors to move however they felt would warm up their bodies best. The only rule he gave them was to be aware of each other, so if one person stopped they should all gradually come to a stop and then try to start moving again together as a group.
We started with what we are calling the ‘Fan Dance’, which is when Emma is off-stage doing a large costume change. Ben created something to the music that Alex Baranowski had already composed, which felt fitting with the Restoration era but also took into consideration some of the pieces of set that will be flying in. When we are happy with a moment, I film it to share with the company and other creatives later on. After this, we looked at the ‘Constantinople Scene’ again. We still don’t feel we are telling the story of the monotony of Orlando’s job as Ambassador, contrasted by the parties that exhaust him, leaving him asleep for several days.
In the afternoon, Ben worked with the company on the Russian banquet, which happens underneath Sasha and Orlando’s scene, while I ran lines with Deborah Findlay, who plays Mrs G. When I returned to the room, it was magical to see what they had created in such a short space of time. It provided atmosphere while completely transforming the space.