Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Half A Sixpence - The Great Unlearn!

We’ve all experienced those moments in the life where we’ve had to try and forget something we’ve spent hard-won hours learning. Days and weeks forcing the seemingly impossible into our over-crowded brain, only to desperately try and erase all memory of it once it has finally germinated and taken root. New theatre teases you - a little like the way a mischievous child, once discovering how annoying mimicry can be, will taunt you mercilessly with their new-found power. For actors, creating a new piece of theatre is a little like that. We spend hours outside of the rehearsal room working on script and songs and moves, only to be handed new pages, or harmonies, or even entire dance routines the following morning. It’s a huge part of the development process and a necessary, though sometimes frustrating, evil.

When it came to developing a new version of an old classic, our creative team had the framework to build their show upon, taking the very best bits of the original Sixpence production by composer/lyricist David Heneker and bookwriter Beverley Cross, and shaping it into a completely new show. When you visit our Half A Sixpence you’ll spot familiar songs sitting alongside new material by Stiles and Drewe, woven seamlessly together with a brand new book by Julian Fellowes, which draws upon material in the original inspirational novel Kipps by H.G. Wells. It was only by starting all the way back at the beginning that this was possible, and the process of picking apart, stitching and re-stitching is one which takes time and patience.

Where it all began....

There is much work that happens ahead of the script and score making it to the cast and rehearsal room. Workshops, table reads, rewrites, demo recordings – all happened in the name of perfecting this piece as much as possible before it was presented to the cast on that first day. I was fortunate enough to be involved in some of those early demos, but much of that material has changed, even if only incrementally, since then. Equally the pages distributed for our auditions, faithfully learnt and committed to immortal memory have also shifted and this is where The Great Unlearn begins.

As actors we’re taught to memorise vast amounts of material so that no matter what, come fire alarm going off mid-show, disruptive audience member or costume malfunction, you are able to carry on regardless. Stiff upper lip and all that, eh? Learning to ‘unlearn’, as it were, is one of those necessary but impossible to describe skills. For me it’s more like learning an alternative version and hoping that the original one will eventually fade away to the recesses of my mind, only to be dredged up at cast parties when you loudly exclaim ‘oh god, do you remember that first attempt with the unicorn and fire dancing?!’ [NB there will be neither of these in Half A Sixpence… at this moment in time…]

Helen Wals(h)ingham's first appearance in the novel

But whilst it’s hard, it’s also part of what makes working on a brand new show thoroughly exciting. Every day, as the material begins to settle, little tweaks make their way into the script. Tiny cuts to make the flow of the narrative clearer, to keep the pace fast and the humour and pathos balanced. It’s a tricky part of the job, but sacrificing part of your role is sometimes necessary for the good of the show overall and being able to recognise those moments is key.

Only today we were handed an alternative version of one of the big numbers called ‘If The Rain’s Got To Fall’. It’s essentially the same song but arranged alternatively, making it more exciting and interesting. The harmonies are the same but the lyrics have shifted around a little. I think that’s even harder than learning a totally new song as you’re singing the same words but to a section of the tune that you know other words to. It’s beautifully befuddling and a testament to the patience of our wonderful Musical Director, Graham Hurman, that he was still smiling by the time we’d finished despite it being the end of a VERY long day.

Putting new pages into the script and score

Furthermore these changes can sometimes mean re-choreographing big chunks of the show. Andrew Wright, our fantastic Choreographer, has an organic approach to dance, which makes routines flow out of everyday movement rather than the entire company suddenly bursting out into a massive dance routine every time they sing. It feels more realistic as a performer and gives the audience much more to look at as there are little storylines happening all over the stage. However this also means that, when a big change needs to be implemented, there’s much more work to be done. In a company that consists of every permutation from highly accomplished dancer to potentially awkward mover, Andrew makes sure that everyone is shown off to the best of their ability and with Dance Captain, Jaye Elster, they’re whipping us neatly into shape.

Add in Rachel Kavanaugh, our phenomenal Director, and we’re incredibly lucky that such a great Creative Team is helming this brilliant new show. Their unflappable spirit and passion is unrivalled, and the lack of fear they show in being ruthless with material that isn’t quite working as well as it could or should, makes the company more able to try out alternative options with aplomb. It’s a true team effort and whilst we still have a way to go before previews and the further changes needed that can only be discovered through presentation to an audience, I have a feeling we have the makings of something truly magnificent on our hands.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Half A Sixpence - Multiple Personalities!

The third week of rehearsals for Half A Sixpence is now complete and we’re halfway through the process. As director Rachel Kavanaugh announced a few days ago, “We open in a month!” – EEEEK!

Fortunately for three of the team this was our final week of ‘doubling up’. Myself, Ian Bartholomew (who plays Chitterlow) and Sam O’Rourke (who plays Buggins) have also been performing in another of Choreographer Andrew Wright’s shows – Mrs Henderson Presents – at the Noël Coward Theatre, whilst rehearsing for Half A Sixpence whenever we weren’t onstage! It makes for a heavy schedule as you’re working long hours and desperately trying to find extra time to do the necessary homework, whilst remembering the basic essentials like sleep! Fortunately Kristi, our amazing Company Manager, has been working her scheduling magic to try and keep us all sane. With Mrs H. closing on Saturday night I’m now breathing a sigh of relief that I can commit all of my time and energy to Helen and Half a Sixpence and ignore the guilt that’s been gnawing away at me for not being 100% in the world of 1900’s Folkestone, instead of wartime London!

‘Doubling up’ is quite a frequent occurrence in our industry, with great jobs often overlapping for numerous different departments. In fact, our composers George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have had several different productions in workshops and rehearsals at the same time, in the same building in recent weeks! I wonder if they all felt the same sense of giddy elation when visited by Anthony’s puppy? There’s nothing like some unexpected doggy daycare to cause minor disruption and major excitement in a rehearsal room. I do feel, however, that we may have the monopoly on her given that she’s called Sixpence!

The slightly camera shy Sixpence 
(and Daddy aka Anthony Drewe in the background).

You’ll even find doubling up WITHIN a production. One of the great joys of a show with numerous ensemble scenes is that you find yourself playing all manner of characters, regardless of the main role you’ve been hired to play. It’s known on contracts as ‘to play as cast’ and basically means that along the way you may find yourself donning a different wig, hat and outfit every other scene -  perhaps to pad out the stage in crowd moments, or maybe even for a little comedy cameo.

When Half A Sixpence was auditioning, many of the cast took part in group workshop auditions of the famous ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’ number, creating tableaux images and dozens of characters in a very short space of time thereby demonstrating physical and vocal dexterity through multiple role playing. It’s a real talent to be able to shift your performance from one character to another on a sixpence (forgive the pun), and one I can’t personally claim to possess in this instance as at the moment I’m only playing Helen. She is, however, about as far removed from my most recent other role as possible – which is something to be pleased about I think!

On the flipside, when you don’t necessarily have twenty-six roles to think about you may just be thrown a major curve ball instead. Our brilliant leading man, Charlie Stemp, is taking on Arthur Kipps with aplomb. It’s an especially heavy show for Charlie as he’s in literally every scene – acting, singing and dancing up a storm – and then, to top it all off, he plays the banjo too. Whilst doing all of the above! Watching Charlie tackle everything the creative team throw at him with such grace and vigour is dizzyingly brilliant. It may be something to do with his amazing youthful energy, or the two cans of coke he consumes a day, but to watch his complete commitment to honing and perfecting this role is utterly humbling. Stepping into the shoes once filled by Tommy Steele is hard work indeed, but he more than fills them and I cannot wait to see the audience reaction to this exceptionally talented young actor.

Charlie Stemp (Kips) and I take a brief rehearsal break

Outside of the rehearsal room, things are also moving with great speed. Costumes are coming together nicely and wig fittings with the wonderful Wigmaker, Campbell Young, are moving on apace. I can’t wait to see what Helen looks like when I get to my own fitting next week. Apparently I’ll be blonde for this show – a surprising rarity for me despite being a natural blonde in real life, although that could all have been changed by the time I see the real wig. You never know with theatre.

The Stage Management team of Lou, Tinks, Adam and Alice are also cooking up a storm with their tireless efforts. I never fail to be surprised whenever someone requests a random prop for a scene and Stage Management can somehow make it magically appear, no matter how absurd it may seem. I swear one of them must have Mary Poppins’ carpet bag hidden beneath their stage management desk, which is constantly strewn with dozens of stage plans and technical drawings for the design. It’s such a help to have an amazing team to support our creatives. Without them we truly couldn’t do the show and I wish audiences were more able to understand quite how fully we rely on their constant hard work.

Taking a rare dry weather lunch break in the car park with 
Gerard Carey (James Walsingham) & Vivien Parry (Mrs Walsingham).

We have two more weeks left rehearsing in London and then it will be off to the south coast to begin teching this brilliant new piece of theatre into the recently refurbished Chichester Festival Theatre. If only the British weather would settle long enough for me to figure out what to pack, but I suppose ‘If the rain’s got to fall, let it fall’…

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Half A Sixpence - Fashions and Frippery

‘Can you go any tighter, Emma?’

It’s not the typical question for ten a.m. on a Wednesday morning, but as I stand in Production Room 2 at Jerwood space, slightly too full of marmite and toast for comfort, this is precisely what David the Corsetiere asks me. I’m being cinched into the bespoke corset he’s making me for Half A Sixpence. My waist is the smallest I’ve seen since I discovered my penchant for late night cheese and crackers, there are whalebones running like rivers through calico from armpit to hipbone, and my boobs are currently floating somewhere around my ears. It’s a beautiful, brilliant period shape and one the costumes will look stunning upon.

I love shows in a corset. I love singing in a corset, and I really love the posture I can only achieve when tightly embraced by one. There’s something rather delicious about the structure of period costume compared to the lycra-heavy clothes we wear these days. I’m sure I wouldn’t be quite so enthusiastic if I had to wear it day in day out but for now, it’s a pleasing experience, if somewhat restrictive in the sitting down department.

Learning how to adjust your frame to a costume design is quite a big part of finding a character, in particular making sure that your movements feel natural and unrestricted. We have a rail of practice corsets and skirts in the rehearsal room so cast members can frock up whenever they want. Getting used to how dance numbers and singing feel when your ribs are constricted is vital so that it doesn’t come as a huge shock to the body when we finally begin teching the show in full costume days before we open. Corset practice also makes you very aware of not eating a massive dinner before trying to put one on!

Shoes are also a huge part of building a role. There is a surprising amount of influence on the way a character walks in the shoes that they wear. We will often rehearse dance sequences in trainers for comfort and safety, particularly if trying lifts and jumps, but at some point the shift over to ‘show shoes’ must be made. Beautiful leather brogues and button up boots, small heels and pointed toes, they can all have an affect on the choices you make as a performer. It always amazes me how much the roles I play are discovered so much more through the design of them than just the words on the page.

A plethora of show shoes!

Many of the costumes for Half A Sixpence are being made from scratch as per Paul Brown’s designs, in particular when a number calls for a matching set of costumes for the full company. However a few costume pieces are being sourced from a brilliant costumier in North London called Cosprop. It’s a treasure trove of fabulous fashions from every period you can imagine and on Friday I had the pleasure of spending a few hours playing dress-up in some of their early 1900’s collection.

Before I arrive, Rachel, costume supervisor, and Paul peruse the vast warehouse for several hours, pulling out costumes for numerous characters in the show based on their ideas for the roles and our personal sizes. Obviously there’s no way I’ll fit into a size 2 dress, no matter how much you hoik the corset laces, but there’s always a chance that a slightly too large dress can be adjusted to fit. We need as many options as possible if we’re to find the right outfit not only for the show but also for my character Helen’s particular design so that it works seamlessly with the bespoke items we’re making.

We’ve been working on creating a cohesive colour palette for Helen based around blues, which I’m thrilled about because it’s my favourite colour. This helps to create a constant through line for a character. Entering the changing area at Cosprop I’m greeted by a plethora of outfits in every shade under the sun. Long skirts, buttoned jackets, lace blouses, crepe dresses… you name it, Paul has found it in the store’s vast archive of costumes.

Fabric colour swatches

Laced into my corset, we commence trying on outfits. It’s a fairly speedy process as we’re only looking for a few items to add to my character wardrobe and some items are dismissed rather rapidly, looking better on the hanger than they ever could do on my body shape. Others are put on one side to wait for one of the seamstresses to do a quick unpick, as they’ve previously been adjusted for other actors and need a little attention before we can see if they work. And then there are the items that are simply perfect. The ones that have clearly been waiting impatiently for your arrival as if to say ‘There you are! Where have you been?!’ These are the pieces that make mine and Paul’s eyes light up with glee, the outfits that transport me from Emma to Helen effortlessly and the costumes that are given a green light almost before I’ve finished fastening them up.

Fabric detailing for added pizazz!

Aside from these stunning pieces I’m also having several costumes made by the brilliant David Plunkett, he of aforementioned corset fame. At our first fitting David took a whole new set of measurements due to the way the corset affected my body shape, smoothing and lifting and hugging me into a more streamlined yet womanly version of myself. With this done I was slipped into a couple of different outfits that David had begun making based on my original measurements, before almost an hour of meticulous pinning. Taking tiny amounts of fabric out here and there with pins and tucks, David can thus ensure that the costumes fit in the most flattering manner, highlighting the frame of the performer whilst retaining the lines and fluidity of the era. It’s amazing to watch his already beautiful costumes being perfected and polished with incredibly fine attention to detail. I feel truly honoured to be having costumes made by him and if everyone else’s costumes are as stunning as Helen’s then the audience are in for a real treat!

Monday, 6 June 2016

Half A Sixpence - Kicking Things Off!

A pile of coats lies gently steaming in the corner of the rehearsal room as I enter, thoroughly drenched by the glorious British Summer time, for the first day of rehearsals for Half A Sixpence. We’re rehearsing at a brilliant place in the London Bridge area called the Jerwood Space. Large light rooms, great acoustics and Dame Judi Dench as the voice of the lift. I kid you not. It’s theatrical heaven. There are witticisms on the walls, a lovely little café and even an art gallery – it’s well worth a visit should you get chance - and for the next five or so weeks it’s going to be the launchpad for our brand new version of Half A Sixpence written by the incredible team of Julian Fellowes, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

Familiar faces accost me almost immediately. Some I know from working at Chichester before on Love Story, some I’m currently working with on Mrs Henderson Presents (as I’m doubling up until June 18th!) and some are friends from my time working as a temp in the offices of Cameron Mackintosh Ltd. But that’s a whole other story…

We grab our coffees and croissants, throw our coats on the pile of drying outerwear, and head upstairs to the enormous main rehearsal space we’ll be using, where the air is buzzing excitedly. Almost 100 people from all areas of the production pile into the room, which has already been laid out with a large ring of chairs ready for the script read. We form a circle two people deep because of the numbers, and slowly go round announcing who we are and what our relationship is to the show. By the fortieth person I’ve already forgotten where we started and am thinking about campaigning for name badges. Even the headshot sheet I have of the cast isn’t a massive amount of help, as we rarely look exactly like our photos!

Rehearsal clothing? 'Corset' is!

Speeches from outgoing Artistic Director of Chichester Festival Theatre, Jonathan Church, and co-producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh follow, and Cameron explains to us quite why Half A Sixpence is not only important to him but everyone in the room. The original show was a catalyst in his meeting Stiles and Drewe, who are providing new music and lyrics to sit alongside the well-known tunes in this revised production and as we sit down to read and sing through the show, with Julian Fellowes’ brilliant new text, it feels like a deliciously new and exciting rendering of an old favourite.

The cast are reading aloud these scenes and songs for the first time, as much of the material has been revised since our auditions. We’re sight-reading from scores that are still slightly damp from the printer and it’s terrifying and exhilarating. You’re trying to do your best with text that’s unfamiliar and yet it’s so easy to get caught up in the story and watch, rather than read, that one of two times we miss cues for being enthralled by our fellow performers. At the ‘interval’, as it were, Julian gives us a couple of pronunciation notes and we hastily scribble these down, grabbing a quick refill before act two commences.

I have a feeling I’ll be 87% caffeine for most of the next few days as I try and get to grips with my new character, like most of the cast. Rehearsing any show is hard work but creating a brand new show, particularly based on something incredibly well-loved by the public, has a whole other set of challenges and it will require immense determination, dedication and creativity from everyone involved. By lunchtime we start to get a sense of the task ahead of us and burst into the fresh air to clear our heads and replenish our energy for the afternoon session, which will commence with the model box showing.

I LOVE a model box. Truly. They’re the grown up, theatrical equivalent of dolls houses in many ways. Miniature versions of the set and characters in exquisite detail, which are used to demonstrate to the company how a show is going to look without having to spend a fortune on a full scale untested version. Designer Paul Brown’s beautiful set is awash with resplendent colour and historical touches which conjure up a real sense of early 1900’s Folkestone, where the show is set. Indeed Rachel Kavanaugh, our director, and Paul took trips to Folkestone for inspiration whilst they were developing ideas for the production.

Tiny reams of fabric from Salford's Bazaar.

Along with the sets, Paul is also designing the costumes and displays some of his stunning artwork to give us a sense of the piece, each design beautifully rendered in watercolour and ink on parchment. It will be amazing to see these designs come to life over the next few weeks. For now we are restricted to basic rehearsal corsets and skirts to at least give a sense of how it will feel to walk, sing and especially dance, in such restrictive clothing compared to our modern day garb.

The afternoon is rounded off by a singing session with Graham Hurman, our Musical Director. Although many of the cast were involved in group audition calls, this is the first time Graham gets to hear all of our voices together. The score is frequently sung in 4 and 6 part harmony so the most important thing is to designate those parts appropriately. It’s a gentle process of balancing out the sounds and Graham takes his time until we are all placed into a group which makes the most of our vocal qualities, whilst also ensuring covers don’t have to learn several different singing tracks. It’s difficult enough having to play a different role but having to swap vocal parts can be extremely tricky even at the best of times!

At the end of the first day, we roll out into London overwhelmed and shattered and that’s before Choreographer Andrew Wright has starting putting us through our paces physically! There’s a lot to do but with the right amount of graft we’ll get it done in a Flash (Bang, Wallop)!

A Jerwood Space bit of wit and wisdom!