Introduction to Directing with Unanima – weeks 2 & 3


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Today we worked with two actors – Phoebe Brown and Sam Warren – to explore different texts and how we might go about staging them. The focus of the session was to learn how to speak to actors in a way that could influence their performances, as well as to explore the different meanings that emerge from a scene when played in different ways.

The first scene we looked at was the one directly following King Duncan’s murder in Macbeth; a good example of two characters pulling in different directions in a situation. Lady Macbeth is pragmatic and urging them to leave the scene of the crime, Macbeth insists on staying. Why Macbeth won’t leave the scene is one of the questions we first debated, as would any acting company. Is he in a state of shock with what he has done, or has he had a moment of absolute clarity? Does he blame Lady Macbeth for the deed he has performed or is he staying here to invite his own damnation? We got the scene on its feet and tried out each of our various questions. A number of the participants had instinctive reactions to how the scenes should be played; that an actor should be faster or angrier or move around more. We discussed the limitations of giving direction that only commented on external factors (speed, attitude, movement) as it can make actors only focus on solving their appearance rather than what lies behind it. Instead we explored finding narrative reasons for the direction we gave. For more speed someone gave Lady Macbeth the note that dawn was already breaking and people would be awake soon to discover them. For more movement in the scene someone offered the idea that Lady Macbeth continually wanted to touch and calm Macbeth who in turn could not bear to be touched.  We played it end on and then traverse, the latter giving the scene “a tennis match” quality as one participant described it. One participant wanted something from the scene that she couldn’t find the words for, so she got up and improvised the scene with Macbeth herself.  As Macbeth spoke his lines, she interjected forcefully throughout, eventually backing him into a corner. While actors aren’t always happy about being fed lines, being fed the attitude behind the lines was quite useful here, as it led the actress to think about why Lady M might use these lines to push back her husband.

We then looked at the opening scene from Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information. With no setting or character description, nor even allocated parts, the scene was beautifully mysterious. However, the subject of someone withholding and then sharing a secret was something everyone could relate to. Having listened to the almost abstract scene, the group then pitched in their ideas of who the couple might be (friends, lovers, ex-partners, colleagues) then where they might be (home, a restaurant, a loud nightclub) and what the unheard secret was. We looked at how these readings totally changed the performances, the relationships, the body language, the tone of voice and the use of the space. We saw how new meanings came out and new resonances that certain words had. We started to explore underscoring the scenes with sound and music, looking at how we could use music to manipulate the audience and also to steer the tone of the performances. Taking this theme of a disclosed secret, the participants then devised their own scenes in collaboration with the two actors. Following on from the Churchill exercise we decided our three focuses were on relationships, place and event. Once these things were clear they could build a scene and would have markers to focus their direction as they watched each other’s work.


Armed only with some plastic chairs, the group split into three and were each tasked to create a representation of a space; domestic, public and external. We then wandered through each of the spaces, receiving a quick descriptive tour of their features. With plastic chairs as their main material, the spaces looked aesthetically basic but functional. The groups then rotated so that each would devise a scene within a space created by another group. After they had rehearsed their scenes and presented them, we started to realise the spatial limits of each environment and how we could alter space to become more playable to actors and watchable to an audience. In each group a person was a designated director. This was the first time in our sessions that participants were working as stand alone directors, rather than offering direction as part of a group. They showed great facility for discussing actions and motivations with each other, though I noticed that many of them directed the scenes very close to or sometimes inside the action. After the first run-throughs, the directors were asked to step out of the action to watch it from an audience’s point of view. This again opened up new ideas about staging and making action more visible. We discussed the notion of ‘cheating’ action, so that while it may lose some authenticity it becomes readable to more of the audience. “Why do you need to always see their faces?” one person asked. “Because the story is told through reactions” was someone else’s answer. One participant directed a scene with such attention to detail, guiding every movement and gesture to the exact second. However, she continued to give a running commentary of direction during the run-through which, although aesthetically quite fascinating to watch and listen to, left the actors slightly struggling to establish where to place their attention. This led to a conversation about trusting them to negotiate their own way through a scene and how a director’s goal is ultimately to create self-directing actors.  The director felt bad about over-imposing on the scene with her voice, though her rhythmic and spatial precision had been pretty astonishing.

Having looked at the functional use of space we then explored what was possible in terms of the use of material and objects that were more expressive. Each of the three groups were given two quite arbitrary materials; Group one received red and white knitting wool and two plastic buckets, group two received some green garbage bags and a large bunch of red and white carnations and the final group were given some fairy lights and a bag of lemons. They were then tasked to make a space that did not correspond to a functional logic, but had an internal logic between space, colour and texture. Each group set about making three quite beautiful mini-installations, balancing colour, texture and shape. Each of the pieces, viewed at model box size, would have made for exciting staging propositions. We then adjusted and expanded each of them to become playable spaces within the studio theatre we were working in. They therefore had to rethink the elements in relation to the wider environment and the human bodies that would interact with it. The knitting wool became and explosion of red and white entwined around the hands of the first group. “It’s the Macbeth murder scene!” one of them pointed out. We then discussed who in this environment would most likely be Macbeth and how could this be altered or reinforced purely though positioning. We went around to each of the newly playable spaces and made similar observations and adjustments.

We looked at another enigmatic scene from Churchill’s Love and Information, this time called ‘Fan.’; a dialogue in which two people obsessively compare their respective devotions to an unnamed celebrity. We explored how the scene meant different things in different spatial formations and how the actors based the tone of their performances depending on their setting. Effectively we directed the scene by directing the environment. We then placed the scene within one of the spatial installations one of the groups have made to see what chance encounters took place between performer and object. Playing the scene surrounded by flowers and debris added a broken sadness to their obsession. As the setting wasn’t functional, we saw how the actors were forced to make expressive use of the environment, rummaging through flower heads and garbage bags as they frenziedly competed in their love for the idol. Someone suggested projecting a large image of Justin Bieber’s face over the scene. Fandom has never looked more desolate.


Introduction to Directing – with Unanima

Each year New Perspectives offers tailored mentoring to an East Midlands theatre company – this year we are working with Unanima Theatre. They are an inclusive Community Interest Company based in Mansfield working with people with and without a learning disability and/or Autism Spectrum Disorder. New Perspectives have been supported by the Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme to run a five-week ‘Introduction to Directing’ course led by their Artistic Director Jack McNamara with Unanima’s participants. Over the next five weeks he will keep a short blog on their work together. 

Love. Life. No Sat Nav
My first encounter with Unanima’s work was seeing their production of Love. Life. No Sat Nav; an impressive mixed media show built out of the participants own experiences of disability. During one scene a young performer, who had remained noticeably silent throughout the show, started communicating with the audience through words written on cards. Through this simple device she was suddenly able to talk to us, giving a strong sense of the personality that lay behind her silent demeanor. I was reminded of how actors fundamentally need clarity from a director, and how many of them might relish being directed through a selection of carefully chosen words on cards. I became keen to explore how this group might be able to harness their individual modes of communication in a directing context.

As a result I was pleased to get a grant from the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme to run a  five week ‘Intro to Directing’ course with ten of Unanima’s participants. The scheme is the one I trained on some years ago, and it has now been expanded to include entry-level programmes for directors less represented in the wider industry. While there is a lot of conversation and activity at the moment surrounding the creative case for diversity, what is specifically exciting about this opportunity is its focus on leadership. This is not simply about making people feel included or adding a sprinkle of diversity to mono-cultural institutions, but about investing in future decision makers, be that in a rehearsal room or leading an organisation. It’s exciting to think that, if enough people support and embrace it, the scheme could genuinely change what theatre directing in the future looks like.

Session 1: Scenes

IMG_0019 Session 1 We started with  a basic question: What, as directors, are we working with? A cluster of words came together: actions, words, actors, characters, changes, music, light, story etc. We put them on the floor as a reminder of what our business is and ultimately what scenes are made of. We then played a few games that each said something about the nature of scenes. The first involved standing in a circle with each person taking turns to walk to the opposite side. As they crossed the centre something discernible had to ‘happen.’  The event or moment of change could be as minimal as they liked, as long as we could somehow read it. While some could not resist the urge to break into a dance when they crossed the centre others decided on smaller gestures that left all of us debating our various readings of them. It opened up a conversation about physical language; is it easier or harder to express something physically and how do we talk to each other about achieving physical clarity? I like this game as a small version of what most narrative scenes are: a journey from A to B interrupted by a change (or a dance).

The next game was the usual crowd-pleaser ‘Bomb and Shield’, in which you secretly select someone as your ‘bomb’ to keep away from and another as your ‘shield’ to keep between you. This created a bit of noise against the more studied earlier game, but it was also a crude demonstration of the balance of relationships that can make up a scene. We then did an Augusto Boal exercise in which we arranged chairs in the space in order of the least to the most important. The participants then entered one by one and attempted to position themselves as the most prominent figure in the space. While the first few adopted high status positions, the others attempted to undermine them with increasingly disinterested and low status poses. The last person entered the space and simply stood in front of the others with her back to the audience, instantly becoming the most prominent.

This led us to thinking about stage composition. On a large screen we projected the same scene from Hamlet over four different contemporary productions and discussed how the elements were managed differently by each director. The participants each came into their own, relishing the complexity of the tableaus and the differing choices across them. We analysed eyelines and body language, we talked about who was in the most and least prominent position, we discussed how individuals were lit and dressed. We talked about the feeling we get from a scene, and the society reflected in a staging. We then discussed the more subliminal features of a scene, the design decisions that brought less logical ideas to the surface; how shiny walls were being used to cast ghost-like reflections or how soil on the floor brought death and burial into our thoughts. Some of the participants became passionate about how ‘wrong’ certain stagings were. “That is not my Hamlet!” someone called out at an image of a French production. “What is your Hamlet?” I asked her. She launched into a passionate tirade about the anger of the characters, the ghostly atmosphere, the pain of having parents who disappoint you. Hers was a Hamlet I definitely wanted to see.

I encouraged the participants to make their own short scenes, drawing from their background as devisers. The content of the scenes, prepared quickly with little thought, were less important than their staging. Group by group they presented their scenes and the remaining participants gave notes to each one; our aim was to gain greater narrative clarity, rather than embellish what was there. Which key moment of change do we have to mark to make this story clearer? What happens if we alter the characters formation or whether they are still or moving? What object or environment can we add to the scene to open it up? Soon these fragments began to take shape into focused mini-scenes, each participant making clear contributions to improve what was in front of them. It was a safe environment where each voice mattered and none of the suggestions offered were taken personally.IMG_0020 Session 1

Given the company’s devising background, I had initially feared that the processes of directing might be too low energy for group members over a sustained period. Yet it seemed the more focused and studied the exercises the more active their contributions became. There was a real appreciation for having the space and time to look, think and talk as a group, and a basic joy in being able to constructively influence what is in front of you and make stories clearer and more engaging. It struck me that directing simply calls for a sharper focus on the imaginative and communication skills that we all use daily. There is no foreign language being learnt here, just a bit of room to put our heads together and explore what’s possible.

Next week: Working with actors