So I’ve recently returned to in-person rehearsals after a year of life being entirely online.
And gosh – it was wonderful! Inspiring! Three Dimensional! Creative.. Collaborative..
..but it was also a lot.
I know that day will be approaching for lots of other people so I thought I’d document how it went for us, what we put in place to protect our bodies and our minds after a year out of the game and how those things made a difference to us.
There’s definitely some parts of this which I will aim to keep, as I move forwards – I suppose it’s my own little mini version of #buildbackbetter?
Apologies, I didn’t really want to let COVID into the room first but (all together now) ‘it is what it is..’
The very best COVID policy is one that is simple, clear, and easy to police. I was nervous about having to enforce the rules but the truth is that if they are logical and simple enough, you don’t have to enforce anything as everyone just gets on with it. Our producers designed the policy and it was part of the agreement from the very beginning which I think is the best way – sometimes it’s tempting to open the conversation up to ‘what’s everyone’s feeling on this?’ but actually the truth is that we all have varying levels of personal anxiety and not everyone feels empowered to speak up so it is best to have it already in place in a way that can protect everyone. I recently learnt from the wonderful Ned Glasier that although egalitarian rule making can seem wonderful and tempting, it’s easier to break a rule you’ve created yourself than one outlined by someone else.
We were all asked to test twice a week. Our stage manager refined that to Monday and Thursday, to make it easier to remember. Everyone sent their results to her or posted them on our group chat. Anyone visiting the rehearsal room ad hoc had to test before they came. We kept the windows and doors open (it was like rehearsing in a wind tunnel at times) and creatives kept their masks on at all times when not sat behind the tables at the front. Initially it was a ballache having to remember to mask up every time I jumped in to look at something but we all got used to it – and we kept tight on it too. It really felt like we were actively keeping ourselves and each other safe. Within the wider building there were already protocols around sanitising, masks and temperature checking so that was another layer of security. The actors and stage manager were the ones we needed to protect the most – without them, we had no show at all – so we kept as far away as possible from them and gave them separate tables on the other side of the room (which felt odd and a little offensive) BUT THERE WE GO.
Mindfulness in rehearsals
I had no sense of how I or anyone else in the team was going to feel about being back in the world. Leading up to the first day, I had the usual nerves and excitement, usually both at the same time – but the things that were tiring were unpredictable and more often than not they caught me off guard. More on that later.
We were a very small team (usually 2 actors, SM, 2 writers, Choreographer/ AD, Director) so we started each day with a group check in – everyone in the room taking a moment to articulate how they felt that day. Sometimes physically, often mentally or emotionally. It was helpful in steering the course of the action and adapting plans – in the absence of being able to have a quiet word in the corner with someone (which was obviously still possible but also harder with masks and a 2m distance) it was so useful to know the mood in the room, who’d had a crappy journey or needed a better night’s sleep that evening. Sometimes we might end the day with a check in too. When we got to tech and didn’t do it one day, we all felt very odd and distant from each other so our SM gathered us up at lunch time and made sure we caught up with ourselves.
Routine and scheduling
We had a really solid routine for rehearsals which served us well. The room was open for warm up from 9.30, we started at 10 sharp and we worked until 5. Every day (except one, where it all went a bit off piste) was the same shape and format.
I’m experimenting with scheduling EVERYTHING in advance at the moment (including the sessions where you catch up on the things you haven’t managed to finish and/ or go back over things, before other directors reading this break out in a sweat)
It’s basically always obvious where your first and last run through need to be, right? So if you plug that info in, do a quick calculation on day 3 being the day when everyone is knackered and you need to stop and eat Jaffa Cakes, give yourselves more time to catch up at the end of the week than the beginning, timetable the tough stuff early in the day and the fun stuff at the end, it’s absolutely possible to rough out a plan for the whole lot before you step into the room at all. It also has the bonus that the cast can understand what gear they are going to be asked to work in and plan it like a marathon, AND the director doesn’t have to spend time at the end of the day working out what to do the next day.
Of course there were times when we deviated from the plan, we got ahead, we got behind, we went back on things and left stuff for a later date. But 90% of the time we were on target. The other reason I like this approach is that although our team were in all the time, in a different process to ours when people would be called for different sessions, actors would be able to schedule childcare, make travel arrangements, dentist appointments, go to the zoo, whatever.. Since becoming a parent I’ve realised how important it is to have that info as early as possible.
So on that note, I scheduled the breaks too. 11.30 and 3.30 – wherever we were in a scene, however far we’d got with something – we stopped. So everyone knew at that point in the day they could make a phone call, run an errand, go out for air, whatever. I’ve been a terrible culprit in the past for getting overexcited and forgetting to call breaks and it does no one any good at all. In my first conversation with our SM I asked her to be really strict on it – and having another strong voice in the room was good for everyone too – we all enjoyed the fact that coffee was king – the decision was made, white americano please.. In the moments when things were unfinished sometimes we would sketch out a rough as hell ending that would magically right itself after we’d all slept on it, or agree to park it where we’d reached and assign a catch up session to it. I do believe that scenes get better the more sleeps you have between rehearsing them.
My pal and director wonder woman Jemma Gross uses the last hour of the day as ‘quiet hour’. I decided to adopt it for this process and it’s a gamechanger. You know that awful 5 – 6pm witching hour when nothing constructive gets done anyway as everyone is too knackered? Well, you don’t aim to rehearse in that hour. Everyone stays in the room and uses the time to work quietly and individually on the bits of work they need to do. Writing up rehearsal notes, scheduling, organising printing and script changes, playing with props, listening to underscores, prepping for the next day. Once or twice on the big days the actors wanted to leave at 5 and that was fine too. There was one day that I went for a run at 5 while everyone caught up on paperwork and I came back at 5.30 in a completely different mood and ready to answer a thousand questions (and also very red in the face – I kept more than 2 metres away from everyone on that day..)
Quiet hour is a totally different headspace to the rest of the day and I found it like a mental warm down and a chance to collect my thoughts. It also meant that when we left at 6pm, we weren’t all going home and sending a thousand messages and questions on the WhatsApp group. Occasionally the actors would actually WANT to spend a bit of quiet hour going over some blocking, or finishing off something we’d got very close to completing – but psychologically, handing over the last hour of the day to someone else to be in charge of was an excellent feeling! It was useful for us as a team as well – less wrangling over who is coming in at what time and when the fittings might be and when could we schedule that quick chat about this and that – whatever the question, the answer was quiet hour. Well done Jemma Gross.
Talking of running, I kept my running stuff in rehearsal and would get changed during morning coffee and break and tell everyone I was going out for a run at lunch time. As soon as 1pm arrived I’d go for it. Get back at 1.30 and still be able to eat a little something before starting rehearsal again at 2. I’m terrible for letting all my good intentions about exercise slide when I’m in the middle of a project and this was a great way to make sure it happened.
Saturday rehearsal – the endless question – to come in, or not? I’m a big fan of two whole days off for everyone and usually find that it’s a day to relax and a day to think about the show, so it’s not really two days off anyway, is it? Because this was a 1 hour children’s show, we had a short rehearsal period overall and I was keen to keep Saturday clear – but as ever the balancing act of wanting a whole weekend of downtime vs wanting everyone to feel confident and secure with where we’d reached by the end of week one was a tough one to call. Saturday was the only tbc day in our otherwise complete and clear schedule – and I thought we’d know by Wednesday lunchtime whether we were rehearsing on Saturday. Then Thursday. Then Friday. The arguments were strong on both sides. Eventually the only sensible thing was to use the check in system we’d put in place and actually ask everyone where their heads were at with it, which found hugely in favour of taking Saturday off. The cast wanted to spend some proper time with the script, the team wanted to be able to go home home, everyone needed 48 hours to press the reset button and be ready to go again. Of course it was easy for us to open out the discussion as we were such a small team on this show but actually it threw up an interesting question about how decisions get made and where the power is in a team.
Being in the world
I don’t live in London anymore so I was away from home while in rehearsal for this show and the sensory overload was HIGH. Trains, tubes, buses, Tesco’s, talking to people all day every day, smiling all the time (even in genuine love for a project way) – it was a lot. It was also a lot of fun, but I had to go easy as it wasn’t quite the slide back to usual I had expected. I declined evening invites and definitely didn’t make use of my time in London – I couldn’t – I needed to be back in the home of the friend I was staying with and in my pjs gearing up for the next day. It wasn’t that life outside home was stressful, exactly – it was just very overstimulating. My brain is like the velodrome, once something is in there it goes round and round and round forever – thoughts, memories, lists of stations between Dartford and Deptford, that thing that person said when they arrived this morning – it can get very busy very quickly at the best of times and a sudden smash back into a world I wasn’t used to was quite overwhelming.
I had to take a moment out of rehearsal one day as it all swamped me for a bit, and typically I panicked about that and the machine grinding to a halt without me there – well, the actors and associate director kept things moving forwards constructively and creatively and I’m not sure anyone really noticed that I wasn’t there. I was also lucky to have a supportive friend and colleague in one of our writers who made it perfectly fine to stay outside in the garden and offload a brain dump of all kinds of everything for a while. This was the moment I couldn’t have predicted – I was having a perfectly brilliant day, everything was going swimmingly – and then all of a sudden the last year and a half was in my brain and the reality of being back in the world and in rehearsal and in full flow came at me like a tornado.
I encourage everyone who’s returning to IRL work to remember that we are all driving in different gears at the moment. It might be impossible to operate at the rate we used to – and honestly, even if it were possible, is it desirable?
I’m working on this project with awesome people who are striving always towards best practice and magnificent communication. They decided from the outset that there would be a robust evaluation of both process and production and knowing that was on the cards when we got to the end has been useful – it’s kept a degree of analysis in any situation at all times and even in the moments where the stakes and the stresses have crept up, it’s been handy to remember that all of it will be documented and thought about in terms of how we make the next project more effectively. It has also concentrated my thoughts on proactive things that could be approached differently rather than dwelling on moments that didn’t go exactly to plan.
Some of the subjects we are thinking about include –
If we had extra money, what would be useful to spend it on?
If we had extra person-power, where would it be most useful?
I’m curious to see the practical applications of what comes out in the evaluation process – and even though we have only discussed broad strokes, already we’ve made a tough and strong decision about the next project we are all working on together.
I’m really keen to hear from others how they evaluate projects and what kind of questions they ask of themselves and the work – will leave it on that note and hope this provokes some discussion.