How We Made We Are The Best - Part 2
Jack McNamara's Director’s Blog – How we made We Are The Best! - Part 2 Rehearsals, music, lights
Three main rehearsal weeks to get the whole show in shape. We added an extra week of rehearsals just for the three younger actors, so that they could have some focussed time getting to know each other and establish a shared world. Actors Bethany, Bridget and Elena came to us and we did a large amount of improvisation. Our composer Mariam put instruments in their hands and started to slowly turn them into a punk band. There were jam sessions every day. We’d read a scene and then put scripts away and improvise it. We’d do long improvs of scenes outside of the play. Our brilliant assistant director Bex Bowsher led daily checking in and trust exercises with the cast. There was a strong feeling of care throughout, upheld by our quietly nurturing DSM Gabi Oliver. It had to be as safe a space as possible for everyone to feel that they could be their creative best. Everyone’s voice counted. Everyone’s imagination was going to be part of this show. I wanted the three younger actors to feel that they owned the place. This was to be their professional stage debut but any fears that they would need a lot of handholding to be stage ready proved unfounded. These three seemed ready before we were. Their confidence and comfort together grew everyday and they continually pushed at new ways of doing scenes. They hung out together constantly, whether rehearsing or not. It was clear their friendship onstage was going to be very real.
After a week the three other actors - Anna, Stacey and Beruce - joined us in rehearsals. Suddenly the ghosts of scenes we had been running without them were with us. The room became wider, louder, more public. We continued our improvs but the sense of building a show began to take over. Most of these actors were entirely new to me, and yet I was constantly grateful for the courage they showed and trust they brought to the room. They were detailed and rigorous but also totally unprecious. No scene or character was too locked into a fixed shape. We kept things open for as long as possible. We brought deliberate irritants and obstacles into our staging. ‘Let’s try this scene lying upside down, let’s try this with a guitar in your hand, let’s stick a box on your head.’ The set was never going to allow us to get naturalistic, so it was clear we were dealing with something else. How could we take inspiration from the comic book and the music to create stage pictures or relationships that didn’t abide by the usual rules.
Our rehearsal room was open to anyone who wanted to come in. Staff, artists, a few interested audience members, visiting lecturers, young people. All were welcome at any point. I never really understood directors who had closed rooms, treating like them sacred spaces. This work is being made for the public and so in my view is that it should meet them as soon and regularly as possible. Only rule is that if you were part of the room you had to be willing to contribute. We would ask you your opinion and most likely listen to it.
I haven’t always had an assistant director - and most of my experiences in this role myself have been pretty awful – but having Bex with us (through an RTYDS placement shared with Northern Stage) was a godsend. As an assistant I had mainly been treated as a quiet observer, never to speak out or do much beyond fetch the cast cups of coffee (Michael Boyd at the RSC was the first to see and treat me like worthwhile person, maybe even an artist). Bex was always going to be a key part of the artistic team, but it was a double blessing that all of her insights and contributions were as razor sharp as they were. She got exactly where we were going and her challenges and ideas always enriched the direction of travel. I was reminded of my early days assisting where I was literally banned from having any alone time with actors for fear my suggestions might derail them permanently. How can a show not be made better when scrutinised by other brains? With Bex I felt complete confidence leaving her in charge of the room. She would only make the work better.
This is a show about music on a deep level. Not just how it sounds but what it does, how it feels, what it means, what it can unearth. Why certain qualities of distortion or tones of feedback are different to others. The composer I needed had to be someone who truly got it, not a composer who would try on a bit of punk for the job. Mariam is a multi-talented composer and performer, but more importantly someone who truly lives and gets this. She is deeply embedded in the experimental music world and has played with some of the most adventurous improvisers out there. She understands the meaning of sound and its very particular properties way beyond most of us. She knew how to make the band of non-musicians sound deeply authentic, so that we the audience felt their passion and skills grow. It would have been extremely difficult for someone more conventional to plot a band’s development like this. But Mariam, managed the chaos and by the second week of rehearsals the band were sounding punk in just the right way. She also went all out and made a host of original tracks that evoked the period but managed to make even ‘crap’ synth pop music sound great. I can’t underplay the particular skill needed for this and how delicate it was to achieve; to make music that wasn’t supposed to sound good but did sound good (though not too good). Anything too polished would betray the sense of genuine discovery, anything too rough would fail to convey the power of music to the audience. Mariam got the balance just right. It was a massive achievement.
I called on the great Lucía Sánchez Roldán to light the show for us. I had worked with Lucía on my production of The Fishermen when it transferred to the West End some years ago. That had been a very lighting heavy show and Lucía had been drafted in as a re-lighter, but her skill, aesthetic brilliance and amazing attitude stunned me. I brought her in again to light a show for me at Battersea Arts Centre (my last before the pandemic) which had no cue points or marks – she just had to improv her lighting as we went (and it always looked incredible). Someone who had that level of courage and openness was exactly what this project needed. She was a punk lighter.
As we proceeded through a very demanding tech Lucía never once let lost time or impatience get to her. As I continually pushed her to keep refining, keep reshaping each scene she would respond to me with ‘how about this?’ or ‘ah, here’s an option for you.’ Her optimism and invention knew no limits. With someone that good behind the desk, you knew that each scene and moment could look extraordinary. And so that became our standard. Bringing her lights together with Lily’s set was a dream union. A space of endless variation and possibility.
Next: Opening, reviews, reflections (coming soon)
We Are The Best! plays until Sat 18 June - find out more and book tickets at https://www.live.org.uk/whats-on/we-are-best