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Assistant Director Bex Bowsher on the rehearsal process of One Off

I was not supposed to be working on One Off. Initially, the rehearsals conflicted with shows I was already committed to, but due to some shifting of timings here at Live I had the opportunity to be part of the One Off team during rehearsals. If you’ve never experienced a rehearsal process, seeing the final product of a live show can really feel magical. Without seeing those tentative first steps into creating a show, it can be difficult to imagine all the failures, missteps and downright bad ideas that swirl around in the rehearsal room before it reaches the audiences. Even as someone who has experienced the creation of many shows, that end product still feels magic. But actually, the process of getting there is its own magic.

Often, directors and theatre makers can be protective of the rehearsal room space. For some, that creative space is the careful incubation of burgeoning baby play. And in some processes that has its place. Indeed, one break during One Off was spent debating the merits and disadvantages of this very thing. Generally, in the Newcastle theatre scene there is a move toward open rehearsal rooms, with Live, Alphabetti, and Northern Stage all making various offers to allow others into this sacred space. Under artistic director, Jack McNamara, Live is moving toward a much more open model of rehearsing. During One Off, we have invited outsiders to experience the first read through on day one of rehearsal, we have invited Live Theatre Friends and external freelancers and creatives to join us in the rehearsal room.

In my training, I was taught that the rehearsal room was a sacred space and most of my assistant directing has been with directors who favoured a closed rehearsal room. So, the idea of opening the very first moments of rehearsal up to an audience felt terrifying. Directing a show can leave you feeling vulnerable and fragile. The job of the director is to judge the work in the rehearsal room, and to act as the first audience member. Opening my work up for judgement before I’d even thought through what choices I wanted, or fully how I wanted to present it has always seemed the opposite of the right thing to do. What if they hated it? What if the funny lines didn’t get any laughs? Thankfully, as a mere assistant director, I don’t have quite the same level of anxiety about the show – that isn’t to say I don’t care, but ultimately One Off belongs to Jack not me. However, through the rehearsal period for One Off, I have found opening out those rehearsals nothing but a boon. The thing is, by getting real feedback about what is or isn’t working earlier on in the process makes it so much easier to adjust. I now can’t imagine sitting in preview one, having done all the work, to find the audience just aren’t getting it.

Even in a local industry that is actively opening up its rehearsals to outsiders, Jack made the bold choice of inviting some of Live’s industry friends – such as playwright Ishy Din, and Artistic Director of Unfolding Theatre, Annie Rigby – to sit with us in the first read through of the text. The first read through happens on day one of rehearsals and is often the first time the actors will have read the full script together. As the assistant director I was also tasked with reading in the stage directions and voices off – apologies to all the people who had to witness that. This read through gives the director, writer, actors and other creatives their first full overview of the text and gives them a sense of the flow and logic of the story. Marketing, talent development, technical and the participation departments also attend to inform the wrap around work they do with the production.

As a new writing theatre, any play that Live puts on is not ‘set’ on day one of rehearsals. Rehearsals function, in part, as an ongoing development of the play text -- this is why the first pages of One Off will contain words “This play text was published before the end of rehearsals, and so may differ from the final production” (You can purchase the text here). And boy did we work with writer Ric Renton, to make the text the best possible version of itself.

Week one of rehearsals was almost entirely dedicated to dissecting the script and establishing all the key plot points. My personal directing preferences mean that I do very little sitting around and ‘talking’ about the text, and so this was a new experience for me. From week two onwards we had platforms in the rehearsal room that helped mimic the final design; we began to play with the physical storytelling that supports the written word and look at how each character develops and changes throughout the story. In this time, we were visited by students from Northumbria University and The University of Sunderland, Friends of the Theatre, Freelance Creatives and staff of Live Theatre and Paines Plough. Each visitor created a different vibe and had their own suggestions on the direction of the work, whether that was through verbal feedback, or just in their function as an audience. In the second week of rehearsals, our actors even presented a rehearsed reading of scene 3 for the NE1 Business Breakfast – a special treat we were able to offer as October’s host of the event.

Every person who entered the rehearsal space influenced this production in various ways. Without a doubt, one of the most valuable voices in the room was Deputy Stage Manager, Gabriela Oliver, whose insights and understanding, of both audiences and technical aspects of creating a show, helped prevent many a wrong turn. The fabulous actors gave of themselves each day. Ric Renton as Shepherd not only provided the autobiographical story and the words of the play but adds a reality and authenticity to every scene. Ryan Nolan as Brown has filled the room with his bold choices, and endlessly pushes closer to the truth of his role. Ricky Shah’s balance of emotional vulnerability and gentleness versus the ability to fly off the handle builds a truth to the character of Knox that aids the inevitability of Knox’s demise. Malcolm Shields as Jock creates a kindness that continues to persist despite the brutality of the world around him. Every time the creatives; Adam McCready (Sound), Ali Hunter (Lighting), Verity Quinn (Set and Costume) and Alicia Meehan (Movement); entered the room their insights and understanding of their specialities only served to move the rehearsals closer to the clearest version of the play. Each insight and provocation allowed Jack and I to ask whether each moment helped tell the story or detracted from it. And honestly, having been terrified of having other people in the room, I’m now not sure I would want to rehearse without more voices in the room with me.

The benefits of having fresh eyes on your work in the process cannot be underestimated. Suddenly, that ad lib moment that creased everyone in the rehearsal room day after day, looks different under the scrutiny of an outside eye. Actors change when confronted with an audience, and it’s good to gauge how they are going to be affected by that early in a rehearsal rather than on press night. One Off in particular is ‘hard hitting’ subject matter and when you’re closely working on it day after day it can be easy to lose sight of what the point of it all is: having a new face in the rehearsal room reminds us that we are inviting the audience to discover a real world where the weight of deaths happening all around you creates its own kind of hopelessness. When someone new is in the space, you’re reminded that in a play with heroin abuse, anger issues and redemption through the written word, that the root issue of all these themes stems from a society where men are discouraged from talking and telling each other how life is affecting them.

This blog is my last for One Off, as I move on to my next role at Northern Stage. One Off is a complicated exploration of learning to understand emotions, and it is with bittersweet feelings that I move on – both sad to be missing the final phase, but happy in the knowledge it will be an excellent show. The actors and the creative team have been hardworking, dedicated, and astute creative collaborators. The room has been full of sharp minds who, when we have all focussed on the clarity of this story, have moved this play to the next level. It is disappointing that I am going to miss the final push for this play, as we add the technical details ready for preview audiences on Thursday, but I am confident it is going to be an exceptional piece of work. See you all on press night!

Companies like Live Theatre and Paines Plough who partnered to produce One Off are dedicated to producing innovative writing and play a vital role in developing new work, but they can’t continue to share these incredible stories without ongoing support, so please think about making a donation of any size using the link here.

One Off plays at Live Theatre from Thu 10 - Sat 26 Nov 2022. Find out more & book tickets here.

  • Arts Council England
  • Community Foundation
  • European Regional Development Fund


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