As an emerging artist myself I know how difficult it can be just getting into a professional rehearsal room, where you can learn and hone your craft. I was therefore really keen to open the doors to our rehearsal room to fellow theatre-makers. The idea being that it is an opportunity for students, emerging artists and those just needing a bit of a creative boost to observe our process: the hurdles, the challenges and the discoveries. The hope is that by observing another process that you are able to reflect on your own practice and enrich your creative process with these reflections. It's has also been hugely beneficial to us having observers in. It has given us a supportive test audience and a fresh energy injection into the room. One of these observers was Emma Jackson. She explains what she gained from the experience and gives advice to those thinking of doing something similar.
Being an Observer is a bit like being Alice for a day, if Alice was also a secret agent. It’s bizarre how just getting the title of Observer makes you feel the need to observe everything and everyone with a childish yet serious kind of intrigue - though maybe that’s just me... I didn’t know what I wanted to observe. You see I hadn’t really gone with something particular to observe in mind. I’d been sent a copy of the play when I was ill and had no idea who I was (quite literally) or what I wanted to do anymore. It was about midnight when I jumped out of bed at the opportunity to read it. With brew in hand I found it a comfort and challenge to absorb all the script had to offer, it struck so many chords with me. I quickly but quietly became very interested in how it was developing and so when the opportunity to spend a day seeing the work come to life was offered to me I couldn’t say no. I wanted to push myself after spending so long out of any kind of theatrical/creative environment.
Within minutes of those first tentative steps through the mirror and into the rehearsal room I felt nervous but excited to explore. Everyone breezily said hello and then with big smiles accepted my role as the Observer - which in my head is said in the style of “The Great and Powerful Oz!!”. Moving on. No one questioned why I was there they just accepted that I was and tootled on with their day. It was brilliantly disarming and immediately made me feel relaxed. After going to meet the photographer Ant outside I returned to see the actors taking turns in leading a warm-up before they worked with the Director, James. It was fascinating to watch them energetically switch between general vocal and physical warm-ups to working with excerpts from the script.
As the day progressed I found it refreshing to see how at ease everyone was with each other, how no one seemed more important than anyone else and how focused everyone was. Every minute counted. No time was wasted. Breaks were relished but then as soon as it was time to work again people slipped easily back into work mode. In fact the lines between what was work and what was social interaction were often playfully blurred which helped keep the energy high throughout the day.
This was week 2 of a very short 4 week rehearsal process and guided by the enigmatic James I could see the play taking shape and coming to life. James (Director), Steph (Assistant Director), Laura (producer/writer/actor extraordinaire), Arabella (actor) and Seda (actor) were relaxed but focused in feedback sessions which meant they could openly discuss changes and try out new ideas quickly. Owen the sound designer was pretty intriguing too. He was there patiently absorbing all the subtle changes as they all worked through the script only leaving once for a discussion with James. The relationship between the Director and Assistant Director was interesting to observe too. They popped off to discuss how things were developing and would discuss each other's notes too. It was great to overhear that their notes were similar and though I didn’t speak up I felt pretty chuffed that my secret agent/observer notes were not far off either!
I’ve a lot more notes on what actually happened on my observational adventure but I think what’s probably going to be more useful to give you some Alice Secret Agent/Observer Tips:
Immerse yourself in the day. Take the opportunity to see an incredible piece of work come to life in the hands of skilled professionals. Embrace the team’s process of shaping, refining and discovery over a course of a day - or more days if you have the time - because it’ll open your eyes to the kind of hard, yet playful and inspiring, work that goes into producing a piece of well written theatre.
Go with an open mind. If you go in there with a checklist of how you would do things or a textbook idea of how you think, or how Professor Theatre thinks a rehearsal should run, you’ll miss a great opportunity to see through someone else's eyes - so to speak. Also I think it's generally just a bit sneaky and negative to go in there with any other mindset than an open one.
Don’t be afraid to really look/watch. Being an observer is essentially you having a good nosey at what’s going on so don’t be coy about breaking about. It feels a bit intrusive/weird at first but with a professional bunch like the Parallel team you’ll have the freedom to engage with exactly what interests you.
Observe things that aren’t on your “I must observe this” list. So even if your interest is in Directing don’t just focus on watching what the Director does take note of how the actors and anyone else present is responding to what’s going on… Maybe ask yourself:
Be ready to join in. I never expected to be joining in a warm-up game and whilst my arse wanted to be firmly seated in the area I decided was my “observer area” it was great fun and made me feel a bit more confident/a part of things. When people potter off for lunch too see about going with them even if you’re anxious and sit on the table behind like me, haha, do it it’ll make you feel a part of things.
Final thoughts... promise!
Observations of another company’s way of doing things can lead creative insights of your own journey. If you’ve been out of the industry for a while, been in it for an age or are taking those first tentative steps towards a professional career in the arts I’d recommend this observing malarkey. There is no commitment to do anything with what you find and you get to meet some lovely people and see them working professionally. You get to learn with no strings attached. You get to just be you, live the dream of being a part of brilliant production for a day and also soak up the reality of what goes on in the rehearsal process.
So even if you don’t know what you want to do then maybe go step through a looking glass with Black Toffee you never know what tha will find…
Then fill up the glasses with treacle and ink,
Or anything else that is pleasant to drink:
Mix sand with the cider, and wool with the wine--
And welcome Parallel with ninety-times-nine!
(“borrowed” from Through The Looking Glass”)
Ta’ra, take care and stay warm!
A once-upon-a-time Theatre Maker and arts platform co-builder who is now happily an official Observer ;)
Working in partnership with West Yorkshire Theatre Network we'll be sharing the creative process of our next production, Parallel from start to finish.