The Odyssey Rehearsal Blog

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:

  • Kerry Frampton – Artistic Director and Inventor of Splendid, who was in charge of adapting the story, wrote some of the songs, and will be one of the extraordinary performers.
  • Genevieve Say – an old Splendid friend, physical theatre ninja and another of the extraordinary performers.
  • Cordelia Stevenson – is the third of our extraordinary performers. Today is her first day working for Splendid, and in fact her first day of work since graduating in June. (Fun fact: Cordelia first met Kerry when Splendid came to her school with ‘The Trial’. In a funny way that makes Kerry Cordelia’s mum.) Cordelia’s name has been shortened to ‘Cords’, probably against her will.
  • Matt Wilde – is one of Splendid’s enormous roster of regular directors. We like to pool our brain-resources, and often this means there are more directors in the room than cast.The arguments can last for days. However today Matt is the only director apart from…
  • Me, Ben Hales – ‘Associate Director’ (which is a nice way of saying ‘assistant’) of Splendid, husband of Kerry, co-writer of the script and musical supervisor, blog-writer and eater of doughnuts.

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?

Kerry Frampton, Cordelia Stevenson and Genevieve Say as Polyphemus the Cyclops and his sheep
(photo: Lucy Cuthbertson)
 
DAY 6 – Monday 25 August 2015

The weekend passes almost instantly in a blur of prop-making, script-tinkering, costume-buying and line-learning, and all of a sudden it’s a rainy morning in Kidbrooke and we’re rehearsing again.

It’s quite difficult to devise with a script in your hand, but annoyingly it isn’t possible to know you’ve got the script right until it’s on its feet being acted. You can’t get the words right without getting the action right, and vice versa, so everyone has to be very tolerant of the constant tiny changes. Hopefully each change is something that makes the story clearer; are we saying what we need to say, and is that what we mean to say?

This week’s director is our great friend Lucy Cuthbertson, Head of Drama at Corelli College, and a great expert in finding clarity in the storytelling. She is also a great advocate of animal rights, and seems a lot more concerned about the fate of the sheep and cows in the story than all the humans.

After a quick recap of what we did on Friday (which turns out to take nearly all day), we have a look at Penelope (a monologue), the Land of the Lotus Eaters (choral movement and speech) and get our first sight of the Cyclops (constant multi-roling). What a lot of choral speech these women have to learn…

Somewhere along the line, Cordelia’s name has morphed from ‘Cords’ to ‘Claude’.

DAY 7 – Tuesday 25 August 2015

First thing is to try on the costume, which after many variations, has been fixed as: big blue t-shirt, cut-off, rolled up jog pants, cream knee-socks and navy judo shoes, with a triangular bit of sheet over the top which can become all manner of character signifiers, like a sash for the warriors, headscarf for Penelope or weird gap-year cravat/scarf for the ultra-posh suitors.

Today has been designated PUSH ON TO THE END OF THE PLAY day, as there are still some scenes we haven’t blocked, so we start straight in with the Bag of Wind. How does one embody a bag containing all the power of the four winds? Well, you will have to come and see the show to find out, but one thing that is made very clear is that it is a drawstring bag of tanned leather with very fine stitching – a handsome artifact all round.

Next we have the family of giants, who seem to have come direct from EastEnders. Lucy tells us that there is an epidemic of the word ‘basically’ amongst her students, and some are physically unable to start a sentence without it. So we gave this attribute to the giant daughter, in tribute to the young people of Kidbrooke.

The giants are responsible for sinking most of the boats and killing most of Odysseus’s men, so out of that scene comes the Song of Loss. It’s a very simple, folky tune that has an inherent mournfulness, so even after the comedy of the giants and the tiny paper boats the tone changes completely with the song. At least, it does this afternoon. Hopefully it will happen with an audience there too. Sadly there is no one with hands free to operate the Shruti box, so it’s another item that gets struck from the stage.

We don’t quite make it to the end of the play today. Maybe tomorrow?

DAY 8 – Wednesday 26 August 2015

The wonderful Lucy Hopkins is back in today, so with stereo Lucys we look at physical shapes and movements, and Cordelia gets a go at Calypso, the lonely Goddess who falls for Odysseus. I say ‘we’, but actually I was at home waiting for the telephone engineer (which is a job title that sounds extremely quaint here in the twenty-first century).

We don’t quite make it to the end of the play today. Maybe tomorrow?

DAY 9 – Thursday 27 August 2015

Guest director for the next two days is Molly Bertrand, another fine member of the Corelli College drama department. She has a great passion for puppetry, so she’s on special lookout for how we use our paper boats, Odysseus-symbolising wooden spoon, and of course Claude’s cardboard Cyclops eye. She’s also here to see if anything makes sense at this end of the rehearsal process, because you can sometimes get so fixated on the detail that you forget the basic storytelling.

We only have the final scene with the Suitors to block, and then the actual ending, but we decide to try and work through from the beginning. Putting all the parts together requires a lot of remembering: where do the sticks go? When does the beard come off? How many boats are left? How did the obstacle course go? … But the shape of the whole thing is gradually appearing through the mist… It is surprisingly big.

By the time we work through the Suitors it’s the end of the day, so we don’t quite make it to the end of the play. Maybe tomorrow?

DAY 10 – Friday 28 August 2015 – the end of my blog, since the devising is done and the final few days are for refining and polishing

Last day of week 2. We’re running this sucker if it’s the last thing we do.

Again we work from the very beginning, which means tackling the pre-show section. The audience will be met by the Old Men of the Sea, who will be giving them various tasks and epic names as they arrive. This is the kind of thing that is very hard to rehearse with an audience of three, but we’ve learned a lot about using the audience over the years, and it always becomes a highlight.

After that Lucy and Molly have some important questions about the introduction. Are we being clear enough about who these old men are, whose story it is, and how the audience fit in? The introduction distils the intention of the production into about a minute, so it’s crucial that its meaning is precise. But this does mean doing a bit of painful rewriting with a lot of focus on every word. It’s like solving a crossword, except it’s a crossword that doesn’t have any clues.

Once we have solved it, we press on and tighten up some of the other flappy bits before attempting the first ‘stagger-through’ (ie, we’re getting to the end without stopping for directions). We’re aiming for a final running time of around 55mins. Of course, the stumble-through is not expected to be that slick as everyone is still just getting their heads around words and logistics. But if it’s much over 70mins we’ll know that there’s too much material and we’ll have to do some major cutting.

In the spirit of leaving you with the requisite amount of peril, the run takes 1 hour and 40 minutes.

HOW ON EARTH ARE THE MIGHTY TEAM SPLENDID GOING TO SURVIVE THIS EPIC SETBACK???*

*They did, and you can see the final result here

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