A week in the Royal Exchange’s incredible theatre, and what a week it’s been! Transferring the work from the rehearsal room to the space is a seminal part of any process; everything immediately feels different going from the familiarity of a contained room, the majority of which is marked out as playing space, to the comparatively epic proportions of a theatre, where the stage is only a fraction of the auditorium’s architecture—empty space waiting to be filled with eyes and ears.
In the Royal Exchange’s unique module theatre this leap is an even more significant change. On a proscenium stage it is relatively easy to maintain some notion of familiarity with the stage space as it appeared on the rehearsal room mark-up—orientation is relatively straightforward because three of the four walls still surround you and the auditorium feels quite separate, extending in just one plane. In the round, however, the extension of space can be felt in all directions and the visual markers to aid the actors’ orientation are nearly all erased. As a result, the sense of wonder as the company entered the theatre on Monday was excitedly apprehensive. The height of the theatre was immediately apparent; the Exchange’s three tier levels rise directly over the stage in stark contrast to the rehearsal room’s low ceiling. Even without any bums on seats, everyone is immediately aware of the audience you have to reach in all dimensions.
In practical terms the immediate differences between the rehearsal room and the stage are the entrance aisles, which stretch a few metres to the doors of the theatre and affect entrance timings, whilst also providing new opportunities to find sweet spots where you can play without any audience behind you. Also new to us was the raised platform for the porch, which has been created with rehearsal rostra so that we can now feel the height difference between being near the house and being in the garden. Playing with these different levels instantly creates new dynamics and stage pictures. The most liberating difference is the sense of space; whereas in the rehearsal room moving to the edge of the mark-up didn’t feel like a good place to be because you either hit a wall or the stage management desk, now there are no boundaries to be inhibited by and the sense of proximity to the first audience row is electric.
Nowhere was the excitement more apparent than on the faces of our three child actors as they stepped on stage for the first time to run the play with us. Limitless as their confidence seemed to be, they couldn’t help but feel very small at first, craning their necks to see the second balcony level looming above them. They soon rose to the challenge, however, and filled the space with voices that could carry the length of a playground, causing a lot of laughter amongst the cast to see the great work they’ve been doing in rehearsal.
Performances have grown steadily to meet the new sense of space as we continued to run the play throughout the week in a gentle but steady magnification of every aspect of our production. During the first run in the space on Monday, things felt a little delicate and swallowed within the empty expanse. By Friday, however, voices, bodies and connections had been amplified to match the theatre’s enormity, embracing the scale of the play’s frame. As much as this growth is about the actors’ technical dexterity to fill a bigger space vocally and physically, it is fascinating to see the more intangible, reciprocal relationship between the space and the play in action—as if the theatre’s acoustic and scale feed directly into the dynamics of the play itself to make conflicts more violent, peaks and troughs more dramatic and the story a more epic drama. In the round, Miller’s play has become positively Greek in its proportions.
Our latest gift from the workshop is our swing, which was flown in by the technical team on Friday. Suspended from the grid of the theatre, this beautiful piece of Ellen Cairns’ set is every bit as fun as we’d imagined! For the last four weeks we have been rehearsing with benched seating, trying to remind ourselves always that this surface will actually bounce, swing and move. In fact it is being very well behaved and completes the stage picture beautifully.
We have slowly built an audience over the course of the week, with ushers, our photographer, theatre staff and the technical team all watching runs to help them plan for the next stages before our first preview on Wednesday night. Following Friday’s rehearsal we had a cueing meeting with our sound designer, Emma Laxton and lighting designer, Johanna Town to confirm the anticipated lighting and sound cues ahead of Monday’s first technical session.
This weekend our set is being constructed, the lighting rigged and speakers set, ready for us to start adding sound and light on Monday. The next entry will hopefully describe a very smooth technical process and confident first few previews. Book your tickets if you haven’t already, this show promises a knockout blow of Miller’s theatrical muscle!