The Odyssey Rehearsal Blog - Week 1

The Odyssey Rehearsal Blog - Week 1

Splendid's Associate Director Ben Hales gives us a daily insight into the rehearsal process for The Odyssey.

Cordelia Stevenson, Kerry Frampton and Genevieve Say working on the script as 'Old Man of the Sea'
(photo: Lucy Cuthbertson)


DAY 1 - Monday 17 August 2015

Hello stranger, and welcome to this Splendid Rehearsal blog. Our task is to build a fully realised production of Homer’s Odyssey from a sketched-out script, a handful of songs, and several bagfuls of random objects.

Beginning is a familiar combination of excitement and anxiety. Even though we have done this every summer for the last twelve years you can never quite shake off the fear that this time there won’t be any ideas and we’ll just have to call the whole thing off.

The indelible characters you meet on this journey include:

We’re very grateful to be able to use the drama department at Corelli College to rehearse in once again. The place is suspiciously clean and tidy when we arrive, and someone appears to have built a new sports hall in the playground. But the fridge in the drama office is as warm as ever. It’s good to be back.

DAY 2 - Tuesday 18 August 2015

Some people probably arrive at rehearsals with a finished script, a fully-designed set, and perhaps some freshly-baked pastries. This is not the Splendid way (although you can get freshly-baked pastries from the Co-op if you want).

We do have a script, but for now it’s a kind of serving suggestion for how you might do a theatrical version of The Odyssey, and there is lots of room for it to stretch out in different directions. The only problem is we have two weeks to put the piece together, so it’s important to find the direction we’re going to go in fairly swiftly. Or we might just go round in circles.

We do definitely know there will be songs, and for once the songs have all actually been written before we start. But the next question is: what do they sound like? Who’s singing them? What’s the instrumentation? What do they say about the production as a whole?

We’ve had a few ideas about how to accompany the songs including our regular tiny guitar and tiny accordion, a little harmonium drone-y thing called a Shruti Box, and a set of Boomwhackers (tuned plastic tubes that make notes when you hit them on things).

We’re always looking for interesting ways to arrange songs which allow for the cast to move about and sing at the same time, plus we have a general rule that no item is allowed on stage if it’s only used once. This means that if we choose to arrange a song for Boomwhackers, we have to find another place to use an armful of bright plastic tubes in the show, otherwise they haven’t earned the right to take up room in the back of the car.

As it happens, the first song we look at (about getting the Cyclops drunk) is very chanty and percussive, and works well with just clapping and singing. The next one (about warriors feeling entitled to kill whatever they like) is a big set piece with lots of stabby action in it, so there’s no room for instruments, and it sounds great a capela anyway. This suggests that all the songs should be unaccompanied. The remaining two songs (a song of loss, and a song about eating cows) come together excellently, especially the cow one in a three-part barbershop/Andrews Sisters style. That is at least one decision made, although Kerry is very keen to use the Shruti Box as a drone for the Song of Loss. If she can find another place to use it, it’s IN!

DAY 3 - Wednesday 19 August 2015

It’s always nice watching things progress from horrible messy car crash to precise, joyful and effortless. Unfortunately we’re still in the car crash phase as Kerry, Gen and Cords attempt to combine half-remembered words, movements, tunes and harmonies with disastrous results. But even now you can see the beginnings of the expert thing it will become.

There is also the rest of the play to consider, so the morning is spent working on Tiresias, a dead blind prophet who has some advice for Odysseus from the underworld. In this production we want to use chorus in as many different ways as we can, and so we’re doing a chorus of Tiresias, which is going to concentrate on the words and the voices. It’s quite a compositional process, finding ways to speak together but in different tones and pitches, and then to vary pace and experiment with different vocal qualities to keep the listener interested. What’s interesting is how you can see Kerry, Gen and Cords becoming a tighter and tighter unit. There is a lot of laughing. And a lot of farting.

In the afternoon, Matt Wilde leaves us to go camping, and in comes noted clown Lucy Hopkins who will be directing for the rest of the week. Over lunch an exciting rectangular package is delivered that contains a pair of stands designed to hold up sparkly backdrops. Kerry has an idea that they should in fact be uprights on either side of the stage, holding up a long rope that represents the timeline of Odysseus’s journey. Objects and props could perhaps be hung from the rope, like a washing line but more intriguing.

There follows several hours of what might be described as ‘dicking about’ as we experiment with different ways to arrange the stands, ropes, rubber rings, sheets, streamers and other items that might potentially be used. There is more laughter. And much more farting.

DAY 4 - Thursday 20 August 2015

One of the things I probably should have mentioned is that in our adaptation of the Odyssey, no one is playing Odysseus himself. The story is told about him by the people that he encounters, like his warriors, the Cyclops, and Circe, and of course his abandoned wife Penelope. This is partly to evoke something of the storytelling style of Homer’s original, and partly to make the point that a person is the sum of the stories told about them, and that anyone’s life could sound as epic and heroic as Odysseus’s if their story is spun the right way.

Usually in a Splendid show, there is a chorus who are in charge of the whole experience, and these will be characters the cast come back to when they’re not taking on another role. We have a chorus of the Old Man of the Sea, a mythical creature who tends a flock of seals, who has the power to tell you the future if you can catch him. In this case he’s a kindly old man with a Barnsley accent and a massive woolly beard that reaches down to the floor, and he’s very interested in the stories he can harvest from the audience. Gen, Kerry and Cordelia are three manifestations of the same character, with identical beards and sticks, but they can move independently.

Kerry’s mum Chrissie has created three brilliant billowing beards for us, but sadly however brilliant your beard, you still need to create the character that wears it, so today is all about finding the voice and physicality of The Old Man of the Sea. This means finding a quality of old-man-ness that can be both slow, warm and comfortable and excited and energetic, as if the act of storytelling makes them forget how old they are. It also means figuring out practicalities like how to whip off a massive beard in order to become someone else, and where do put it once you have?

It often seems to work like this. The devising starts off slow and feels difficult, but gradually you find a few solutions that work, and once you have got one element right, it seems to attract good ideas, until you end up pegging a paper boat to your big woolly beard, and then, like the sun coming out, the whole play suddenly makes sense…

DAY 5 - Friday 21 August 2015

If the sun was out yesterday, it’s cloudy today. While we have Lucy and her super clowning skills, we’d like to work through all the Old Man of the Sea elements, so that is our task for today. But it’s one of those mornings where you feel like every decision you’ve made turns out to make the next thing harder.

A lot of devising is about solving problems and defining rules. Kerry describes Splendid’s style as ‘structured play’ – the production will always have elements that are pre-set and exact, alongside elements that work as games. The games make performances unpredictable and exciting, but like any good game they still need some rules.

Two of our fundamental rules are that there is no ‘off-stage’ and no ‘neutral’ state. In other words there will be no time that the audience see Kerry, Genevieve and Cordelia. When they’re not inhabiting a character, they become Old Man of the Sea. But when they’re Old Man of the Sea, they have to wear a massive beard… and do they carry a stick?... If I’m carrying a stick I can’t unfurl this bit of rope… but if I put the stick down I’ll need to pick it up again so when am I going to do that? And now I’m being a warrior in the middle of the audience but I need to get my beard from the back of the stage, how am I going to do that…?

The logistics can take hours and seem painfully pedantic, but we also know that working out elegant transitions is part of the joy of the finished piece. Gradually, the transitions start to connect up with songs and other sections we already know, and finally it feels like progress is being made.

The day ends devising silent-comedy sirens, and a hectic obstacle course for an audience-member in a waterproof poncho. We’re about halfway through our rehearsal period. Do we feel like we’re halfway there? Probably not, but as everyone knows the first half is always MUCH harder than the second half… The second half is MUCH easier… Everyone knows that… right?

More about The Odyssey