Thursday, 23 January 2014

MOARS- My experience so far by Shaun Blackstock

Whenever I come back through the doors of Talawa Theatre Company I always get that ‘home/welcome’ feeling … literally every time! However this time was a little bit different because I didn’t know any of the Moon On A Rainbow Shawl cast. I’m one of the newbies so I’ve had to settle in again. 

It reminds me how I settled into TYPT when I first ever came to Talawa in 2009 and how long that took, but how great the results were in the end. I still speak to the TYPT: 09 company 5 years later and I’m looking forward to developing long-lasting and positive relationships with this cast as well. Everyone in the cast is older than me and that’s also how it was with TYPT so there are loads of similarities with that experience, although it’s very different in many ways too.

This industry can be really hard so working with a company like Talawa and doing a programme like TYPT is giving me a confidence in my ability. My desire to do well is running deep within me. Having this opportunity to be working for Talawa again professionally makes me proud. The bonus is that I am not just working for an ordinary company, it feels like friends...or more like family.

My experience so far with the cast and stage management has been an educational one. I’m learning so much, not only about the play and its characters but also discussing different aspects connected to the play. Like how Trinidad was in 1953 and how people were living at that time, including issues such as status and skin colour. At the moment I watch Martina Laird while she works on her scenes. She is brilliant, using her initiative whenever necessary and always works from the heart. After the tour, I aim to do more classes and keep talking and taking advice from people who have been in the industry longer than me.  
Last thoughts........Before we began rehearsals I asked myself what do I really want out of this experience? The answer came back clearly......I wish to continue moulding myself into an actor that will get work consistently and that approaches every audition, casting or general meeting with a positive attitude and fully focused.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

All My Sons Rehearsal Blog Week Four

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!

Sunday, 15 September 2013

All My Sons Rehearsal Blog Week Three

With the final week in our rehearsal room complete, we move to the theatre from Monday to start placing the picture in its frame. Whilst shaping texture, detail and pace, this week's work has been about finding the tonal movement within and between acts so that individual dominoes become chain reactions, building momentum to climactic explosions.

On Wednesday we did our first full run of Act One, forming the lion's share of the play. Only now, when seeing the whole played out at full pelt, does the play's true power start to emerge. "It's all mixed up with so many other things", says Chris of his sexual inadequacy; as this process of discovery, dissection and analysis continues, the real complexity of Miller's interwoven plotting still staggers. Just how much cause and effect is at play between story lines and individuals' conflicting objectives is hard to describe-this family's security is a house of cards built on quicksand.

Considering the play's structure-three monolithic acts that bring to bear 40 years' history over a fraught 24 hour period-maneuvering through an hour's nonstop action without scene breaks or breathers takes the right combination of steam, moulding and practice. Imagine setting off on the brink of a sheer slalom run, featuring twists, turns and pitfalls-every moment counts and has an impact on the next; you're only home and dry when the lights go down.

"Violence is a loss of reason"
Sage words from our fight director, Brett Yount made us consider the full narrative behind a slap or a shove. From reading a slap on the page to seeing it happen in the landscape of an argument, you realise that there are many choices to be made about the quality it should have and the story it should tell. In this intense family drama where years of denial erupt in volcanic conflicts, there are occasions where words give way to violence and, as key moments, they have to be given the right consideration. 

During his visit this week, Brett asked us to examine the numerous options behind the quality of hands on storytelling. Asking incisive questions about relationship dynamics, we were able to ensure that the physical moments become deeply truthful and tell a thousand words in an instant. Whether an attack is deliberate or spontaneous has the effect of altering the entire family narrative-if cold and decided upon, it can tell of a violent history; if an uncontrollable explosion that occurs through proximity and anger, then it becomes a more isolated incident. Also important is what frames the violence in the moments before and after, so that cause and effect serve to complete the full story of a violent instant.

We also had decisions to make about whether the violence should be contact or non-contact-with implications for the actors over a five week run. Realising just how much goes into a fight director's work was fascinating and we were lucky to have Brett's expertise.

In technical terms we have continued to map the garden's geography in the round. On Monday, after last week's work, Michael introduced an additional seat by the broken tree-a symbol of memorial for the Keller's dead son. This choice opened up a cascade of further staging options but also served to heighten the emotional resonance of the tree itself as a place to sit and reflect.

Whilst keeping staging free, within the bounds of what plays best in the round, Michael has focused on distilling the level of movement to a pure essence so that every gesture and step has a concentrated effect on the audience. The power to stand and hold your space in 360 degrees, so that movements are fewer but resound in effect on the audience, is part of Michael's knowledge about what works in the Royal Exchange space. For more detail on Michael's approach to staging in the round, there will follow a report on his directors' workshop this week, when 30 young directors came to learn about the All My Sons rehearsal process and discuss the nature of their craft.

Getting the tone and temperature of each scene right has been an important focus this week, and is particularly delicate work for the cautious intimacy of the lovers' scenes. Chris, the surviving son, and Ann, his dead brother's sweetheart, are trying to broach the subject of an unspoken love for one another. Hard enough with Larry's ghost looming between them, but the family garden setting also means that privacy is always under threat, surrounded by prying ears and eyes. Finding the awkward, tentative nature of these scenes takes detailed work and experimentation.

We have also been spending time orchestrating some complex symphonies of off stage dialogue and stage action that run simultaneously at certain moments. The offstage world of the house overlaps into the garden through a heated telephone call that is heard from within. Staging these sections so that they become natural but achieve full dramatic potential takes some conducting so that the right parts of each speech reverberate through each other's gaps.

Characterisations are also becoming more full bodied. Our cast are finding new rhythms, idiosyncrasies and tendencies on a daily basis. As the characters' rhythms start to take over, it is spooky to watch physicalities change, tempos shift and expressions contort so that the actors we know are lost to the heavier, more dangerous and brooding characters of Miller's world. The full musculature of Miller's character psychology is rich and damaged and, as emotional states are embodied, they start to affect the tone of the play. In particular, Kate Keller's delicate emotional state, caused by a vivid nightmare the night before, has an enormous impact on the atmosphere of Act One.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Q&A with Michael Buffong – Director for ALL MY SONS

Hello Michael and welcome back! All My Sons is your sixth production at the Royal Exchange, after Private Lives, A Raisin in the Sun, All the Ordinary Angels, Six Degrees of Separation and On My Birthday, but your first time as an Artistic Director of Talawa theatre company. How have you found your first two years as AD of Talawa?

It’s always going to be difficult taking over a company like Talawa with its vast legacy, but I must say I think we are heading positively into a great new phase. As Artistic Director it’s fantastic to be in a position of enabler, getting new writers’ work heard with our new writers’ season, Talawa Firsts. Our summer season for new theatre practitioners – TYPT continues, this year it was the fabulously outrageous SWEET TABOO. I have also been able to commission writers I’ve always wanted to work with - Arinze Kene’s GOD’S PROPERTY, which we produced at the Soho Theatre, and also commissioning Roy Williams to adapt the Sam Selvon’s classic THE LONELY LONDONERS. Next spring sees Talawa on tour with the National Theatre in a remount of the NT production of Errol John’s MOON ON A RAINBOW SHAWL. And of course to be able to work as Talawa Theatre here at the Exchange is fantastic!

You’ve directed two other American classics here by high profile writers [Lorraine Hansberry’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN and John Guare’s SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION] – how do you prepare to direct another, probably even more, well-known classic in ALL MY SONS?  

At the beginning the most important thing for me is what do I feel when I read this play, what are the emotions it stirs within me? How has the play done this, and why? The next question for me is ‘can I get an audience to
feel the same way I did when I read the piece?’ I think of directing a play as akin to conducting a piece of music. This music (with its rises and falls) should move you, you should be completely lost in it, not knowing where it will take you but not fearing the journey either. It should then deliver you to a different place from where you started, in a different mood, frame of mind, possibly exhilarated, possibly moved to tears. It should leave you asking questions of yourself, and of those around you.

Once I’ve heard the music of the play and the music I want the audience to hear, once I’ve researched the author, the time and place the play takes place in, the world of the play, I then need to identify all those with whom to collaborate in order to bring this world to life on stage, actors, designer, lighting and sound designers. This takes time and is ultimately where the production lies, getting the alchemy between the different groups just right. If I were conducting an orchestra these would be my musicians.

ALL MY SONS is a co-production with Talawa and for this production you’re working with an all-black cast – are you excited to be taking this approach to the play? And will it make a difference to the story?

I think it’s essential that this cast is doing a classic such as ALL MY SONS, it very important that black actors are seen in these iconic roles, as it shows the universality of us all, it breaks down prejudices as to the kind of roles and plays black actors can be seen in. While the story remains the same, I'm sure there will be added nuances and resonances to the piece by virtue of it being performed by a black cast. It was the same when the play was performed in Israel in the 70s - a non-American cast bought a deepening of the themes, by virtue of who and where they were.

The cast includes the amazing Don Warrington and Doña Croll – have you worked with either of them before? How do you go about casting that calibre of actor? Did they come to you suggesting this play or did you approach them directly?

When I first read ALL MY SONS, Don Warrington was the voice I heard as Joe Keller, as an actor he also has the stature and gravitas for the role. Kate Keller was also for me an easy choice, it had to be Doña Croll, again the stature and gravitas, the thought of these two on stage delivering the words of Arthur Miller would make me buy a ticket in a heartbeat. All I
had to do was ask them! Luckily I have known both Don and Doña for many years and it seemed like all that was needed was just the right opportunity for us all to work together, then along came ALL MY SONS, I asked and they said yes.

For those who don’t know the play, can you briefly tell us what it’s about and how you’re approaching this production? What can audiences expect?

The story concerns Joe Keller who runs a manufacturing business providing parts for planes in the United States Airforce. He is suspected of providing faulty parts that have caused the deaths of American Airforce fighters. This he has always denied, and has even be been cleared in a court of law. But Joe's world will soon come crashing down as the past comes careering into the present. Joe's mantra has always been that everything he does is for his family, one of the main themes of the play is do we have responsibility only for our immediate family or do we also have a greater responsibility for society at large. This is a big epic family drama, and I think the audience should be ready for a rollercoaster of an evening.

You’re working with the fabulous creative team who worked with you on PRIVATE LIVES and A RAISIN IN THE SUN [Designer Ellen Cairns and Lighting Designer Johanna Town] – how are Ellen and Johanna approaching this from a design and lighting point of view?

We have all been looking at the works of Edward Hopper and Jack Vettriano. We feel there is something about these works that chimes with the production we are trying to create. The way the light works in these paintings, and there is something in the quality of the figures in the Vettriano that appeals to me, there is something that is attached to the memory of that time, which I'm excited by.

So lastly, if you had to give people 3 reasons why they should come and see this production, what would you say?

1) It’s a chance to see the work of Arthur Miller one of the 20th century's greatest playwrights.
2) It has the fantastic Don Warrington and Doña Croll in the lead roles,
3) It's at the Royal Exchange Theatre.

Thank you very much for your time Michael!

ALL MY SONS runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre from 25 September – 26 October 2013. Box Office: 0161 833 9833 /

All My Sons Rehearsal Blog Week Two

Our first week at the Royal Exchange and a first pass of the play is complete, mapping the text scene by scene from start to finish on our feet in the rehearsal room.

Orientating ourselves in the space was the primary concern of this week’s work; learning the ropes of playing in the round so that there is always a degree of movement on stage. In the round presents a number of immediate challenges—where it is impossible to play to the entire audience at any one moment, conversely it is liberating to discover that wherever you face you will always be seen by some. As opposed to the proscenium arch, it is impossible to have your back to the audience. Equally, the sense of exposure means performances can be read from every angle. However, it is important not to get too close to one another and to ensure that angles are always at play so that bodies never all face in the same direction. From his five previous productions, including A Raisin in the Sun and Private Lives, Michael knows the Royal Exchange space very well and confidently ensured that angles and distance are always open to include as much of the audience as possible at every moment.

Whilst establishing the conventions of the space in terms of the garden and neighbourhood geography, we have also been discovering the atmospheric sense of every corner, choosing where in the garden space to best play certain moments so that public and private exchanges create a very different landscape. Our superb stage management team, led by SM, Scott McDonald and DSM, Amy Bending have had the rehearsal room fully kitted out with all furniture and props from day one so that we were able to launch straight into our discovery of the back yard.

After our first day’s work we had our full team to meet; the Royal Exchange staff who are the engine behind our production and the day to day running of the theatre. Designer, Ellen Cairns introduced the model to all departments and we had a few generous glasses of wine with everyone from Education, Finance, Marketing and Production. As a coproduction there is an amazing sense of warmth and collaborative energy between everyone involved.

This week we also had our first rehearsal with the younger members of our cast, Mayowah, Nyah and J’Mai, all playing the vivacious 8 year old Bert, who polices the neighbourhood under the instruction of Joe Keller. They were over the moon to be with us and even after a long day at school brought buckets of energy into the room, excitedly telling us that no one at school yet believes they are acting at the Royal Exchange!

Between costume fittings, hair consultations, interviews and rehearsals the pace feels thick and fast as we advance our understanding of the textual nuances, build the musculature of characterisations and lay early foundations for the crescendos to come.

On Thursday evening, Michael Buffong and Talawa’s Executive Producer, Christopher Rodriguez, led a workshop for emerging playwrights to identify the structural dramaturgy that makes All My Sons a powerful drama on a human, societal, and philosophical scale. Beginning by analysing the changing shape of the relationship between husband and wife across the course of the play, Christopher outlined how growth and change in an interpersonal conflict’s dynamic is key to underpinning dramatic movement throughout the entire play and any drama. Using this as a model for good playwriting, Christopher explored how all drama must include elements of inner, interpersonal and societal conflict, so that individual scenes always show different facets of individual personalities and express movement within relationships. To read more about the content of this workshop, please click here…

After an energetic week on our feet, with a sense of satisfaction to reach the play’s conclusion on Friday afternoon, we disbanded on a high to take a well-earned weekend’s rest. Check in next week for another bout of epic drama in the American Mid-West!

Talawa Writers' Workshop

On Thursday Talawa’s Artistic Director, Michael Buffong and Executive Producer, Christopher Rodriguez joined Bruntwood Hub writers to discuss successful dramaturgy and Michael’s approach to his forthcoming production of All My Sons.

The Bruntwood Hub, a unique partnership between six leading theatres in the North, have been interested in exploring what makes a ‘Great’ play; one that transcends the local and transitory aspects of time and place to become a universal and enduring part of the canon. Christopher used All My Sons as a perfect example of a play that is able to intertwine a number of stories to make a family drama contain societal and philosophical questions that make it forever relevant to humanity. Choosing specific flaws for his characters, antagonistic objectives between relationships and a world in which individual goals come into conflict with the State, Miller creates a drama that explodes the personal stories to a political level. Right down to the choice of a garden setting, Miller sets up a very public space for the deeply personal drama to play out so that the neighbours and outside world are always felt to impose on a struggle that might find a more peaceful resolution in a private space.

“Inner Conflict”: That which exists within a character, whereby needs and wants meet obstacles from within the psyche to complicate the achievement of their goals.

“Interpersonal Conflict”: Where the needs and wants of an individual precludes or antagonises those of another, so that they must compete with each other for dominance.

“Societal Conflict”: Where the codes and laws of the establishment operate as an obstacle to impede the expression or survival of the individual.

Within a ‘Great’ drama all of these conflicts are intertwined with inextricable links between characters, their relationships and the world in which they live; each works to magnify the problems at every level. As a playwright it is a useful tool to analyse your own work and dissect the brilliance of others’ to tease out the separate stories by labelling them alphabetically and tracing them from inciting incident to their conclusion.

SPOILER ALERT! Read on to follow a dissection of the various interlinked plots in Miller’s All My Sons

The ‘A’ story (heavily rooted in the story’s past—showing Ibsen’s influence on Miller): This begins with Joe Keller’s growing business during the war. Building engine parts for military planes makes him a fortune but presents a personal crisis when his process becomes defective. Faced with a choice, he seeks to hide this failure to save his life’s work, at the cost of pilots’ lives and the imprisonment of his business partner. The burning dramatic anticipation over whether past guilt will catch up with Joe drives the play’s tension throughout.

The ‘B’ story begins with the Keller’s son, Larry training as an Air Force pilot. Through doing so he becomes instantly beholden to the sense of brotherhood between pilots and, when the crisis of the ‘A’ story occurs, he faces a personal crisis over his sense of hatred towards his father and guilt for being the Keller’s son. As a result he takes his own life and the loss of Larry combines with Joe’s imprisonment to further complicate the Keller family’s tragedy.

The ‘C’ story is the love interest between the surviving son, Chris and his dead brother’s sweetheart, Ann Deever. This story is woven into both the ‘A’ and ‘B’ because Ann’s father took the fall for Joe’s choice in the ‘A’, and the impact on all family members from the ‘B’ story’s fallout presents a number of complex obstacles for Chris to overcome before marrying Ann, including his own sense of guilt, his father’s fear of the Deever’s hatred, and his mother’s inability to rectify her husband’s guilt with the death of her own son.

The ‘D’ story, and that which drives a sharp wedge into any chance of a peaceful resolution for all plot lines, is the looming presence of George Deever, the lawyer brother of Ann. George’s taste for vengeance is sparked by the ‘C’ story when Ann decides to marry the son of the man who imprisoned his father; the outcome of this plot line causes all secrets to be blown wide open and ensures a tragic end for   Joe Keller that has loomed since the very beginning of the ‘A’ story.

Through this analysis one is able to see exactly how Miller manages to use universal human stories to explore major themes and monumental concepts such as the American Dream, guilt, greed and war, whilst asking the American people to face their own sense of righteousness over ‘winning’ a war that made some people very rich and cost a great number of lives.

Monday, 2 September 2013

All My Sons Rehearsal Blog Week One

Welcome to the All My Sons rehearsal blog. Here you will find a diary detailing the rehearsal process to immerse you in our journey to discover Arthur Miller's classic story of deceit and responsibility.

This co-production between Talawa and the Manchester Royal Exchange began rehearsals in London, with our first week spent in Talawa's Old Street rehearsal room. We began with an introduction to Ellen Cairns' fantastic set, which brings the back garden of the Kellers' home into the Royal Exchange's in the round stage.

The intimacy of the Exchange's auditorium is beautifully suited to this play, with the surrounding audience gathered around the garden as if seeing through the poplar trees, piercing the seclusion of the yard.

After seeing where our play will take place, we read through the play together with the creative team to hear it for the first time. As a play, All My Sons is a gripping read, but to listen to its rhythms brought to life by our enviable cast is truly exciting.

Characters in this play operate at many levels of deceit and secrets are buried under years of suppression. People rarely say what they are thinking and the storm that precedes the play is an early expression of the turmoil to burst out later on. To get to grips with the play's complexity, therefore, we had a lot to discuss. 

In order to amplify the play's many resonances and bring the characters to their full expression we had to uncover the thoughts that play between the lines, the unspoken intentions, historical context and the nature of 1947 America.

After a full first day of insights and discovery we moved to a process of combing through the text closely for the rest of the week. Informed by our earlier discussion, we read the play again together, stopping to analyse the intentions and significance of key moments as we went, revealing the secrets that individuals covet and those shared between family members.

Joe and Kate Keller (played by Don Warrington and Dona Croll respectively) are very complex characters, with a rich family history that has been broken in two by the Second World War. Set only two years into peace time, America is still scarred by those who were lost. The shadow of the Keller's lost son, Larry and the fallout from Joe's wartime business activities bubble away beneath the surface of a seemingly peaceful August Sunday morning. The iceberg of information beneath the play's 24 hour action was interrogated fully to discover what drives the characters' innermost thoughts. What is really intended behind every word...

Understanding the text and getting to know the characters constituted the most part of our first week's journey. Alongside this we had our cast measured for costume and spent time with our dialect coach, Mark Langley to find out what the Mid West accent sounds like. The lilt is very particular and pronunciations have many idiosyncrasies that we picked through very carefully to make the rhythms an integral part of characterisations.

Now we travel to Manchester to continue rehearsing at the Royal Exchange. Check back next week to find out more about the second week's process as we get up on our feet to start staging in the round!