‘No one has any road map for this’: Rehearsing theatre over Zoom

In Features, Interviews, London theatre, Native, Opinion by Justin Murray

Audiences staying at home have a choice of theatre to watch online right now.  But what about those artists who are developing productions for after lockdown? It’s hard to envision right now, but at a certain point, some theatres will reopen and gatherings will be possible again. Some theatremakers are still developing work that was already in progress when lockdown hit, and for some, like those in drama school situations, shutting down just wasn’t an option.

In the first of a series of Notes From The Front Line interviews, I speak to director Max Lindsay about his experiences working on a show over Zoom in lockdown, to find out about how he’s been getting on and see what tips or advice he has to share.

So tell us what you’ve been up to? 

I’ve been working with a group of 22 students on the Foundation course at East 15 Acting School, on Earthquakes in London by Mike Bartlett. And because of the situation, the project has become a self-tape piece that will result in a series of filmed clips of different scenes of the play. 

Self-taping is so prevalent in the industry now that it’s actually invaluable having an opportunity to play around with that and learn how to make it look good. My students have been broken up into three sub-groups and cast as the main characters. Their task as a group is to create and film edited versions of the main scenes but in different locations, so they’ve been matching up their homes and almost location-scouting bits of their homes as areas that could work for their side of different scenes: going ‘oh, I could my half of the scene here and you could do your half from there’ and stuff. 

How did you feel when you realised it was going to be seven weeks’ rehearsal process over Zoom?

At first, it was a bit of a panic of how to fill the hours. But honestly, we found we needed lots of time because you can only do so much in a day over Zoom – it gets very draining very quickly! We’ve been doing two-hour sessions, so four hours across the day. Any more than that and we’d all go insane.

How did you negotiate the beginning of the process?

We started off with fairly standard stuff, all of which took longer than usual – at the best of times it’s a long play and the read-through alone took two and a half days! Then we read it through again, and picked out all of the research points, and the tasks resultant from that took the rest of the week. 

But we’ve been using a tool called Padlet, which has been an incredible resource – it’s like a virtual pinboard, but it’s so much more as well – you can create pages, post research and links you’ve found, and use it for communications, music and playlists. We started out with a lot of the things you’d expect to do in a production, using Padlet to create a huge timeline, dividing up acts between cast members, and the format lets you scroll along every event and year in our timeline and follow links to research related to those years, which is great. 

“Self-taping is so prevalent in the industry now that it’s actually invaluable having an opportunity to play around with that and learn how to make it look good.”

I managed to keep quite a lot of week-one exercises I’d usually use, though by necessity ended up truncating some things  I’d normally have spent more time on. Obviously all the ensemble work and group games are out the window, but we ended up doing a lot more on exercises that they could explore alone, like archetypes or Laban efforts – I’d work through the Laban efforts with them, then send them off to play with them individually. I have a Laban playlist with a song for each effort, so I’d share that with them on Padlet for them to reference for themselves and keep it in their heads.

We’ve also been doing something I call Scrambles: I’ll give them twenty minutes to build something using objects around them. like coming back dressed as your character, or creating a den filled with things that make your character feel safe. They’ve reacted to those really well.

What’s it been like rehearsing actual scenes?

Lots of trial and error. In our groups we’ll all discuss the scenes together initially, making sure we’re all clear on what we want the rhythm to be, and what each character’s journey is, then I split them off into breakout rooms to work with their scene partners and think about how they’ll film that scene. I’ll then drop in on each group and see what they’re doing, give a few notes, make sure they haven’t missed anything huge, and let them continue.  

From a director’s perspective, what’s new for me is I have to trust them a lot and hope that what we’ve discussed percolates into the scene they go off and film. Once they move away from the screen, I can’t really see or hear them, so the extent to which I can direct it on its feet is limited. What’s fun is watching them find ways of staging scenes and bringing moments to life that I might not have thought of, and that collaboration is what I thrive on.

It sounds like everyone’s had to learn a lot about using video technology for themselves. How have they taken to that?

It’s been a slow buildup. Each week I’ve set them a video task that would build their confidence and skills with the new format gradually: making a video of what their lives are like in lockdown, then a video of what their characters would be doing in a non-lockdown world, then this week making clips that create one of the previous circumstances that lead into the play.

We’ve also been taking inspiration from things like Peep Show, the point-of-view style, and working on ways we can integrate things that have emerged since lockdown and mimic the visual style of Zoom calls, like that Little Britain sketch, or which create new relationships with the camera (a bit like the viral stage combat video above).

Everyone’s been quite excited by the challenge of doing it this way. It’s giving them more creative control than usual and they’re thriving on that. This way does also mean that every single one of them has a main role, so it’s a more equal project – great for a drama school group.

Any advice you’d give to other directors starting out with running a process over Zoom?

Accept that it’s all trial and error right now, and don’t be afraid of that. This is something that no one has any fucking road map for. Invest the time in planning more material than you’ll need: putting time into a really strong plan will help them get more out of it. That said, accept that not everything you suggest will work! There will be missteps, but take comfort from the fact that the goodwill you normally have around a production is multiplied tenfold – everyone needs lifelines right now! Which is strangely empowering, in a way.

Justin Murray on InstagramJustin Murray on Twitter
Justin Murray
Justin Murray is a director and theatremaker whose work has been seen nationally and internationally. He recently directed The Wizard Of Oz at The Scoop in More London Riverside as part of London’s Free Open Air Theatre Season. Justin was associate director of Actors of Dionysus for whom he directed Antigone (R&D and national tour). Justin is artistic director of Catharsis and has directed their previous five shows, Hippolytus (Hope Theatre), Hecuba (White Bear Theatre), purged (Brighton Fringe), The Complete Greek Tragedies (In One Hour) (Rosemary Branch) and Ashurbanipal (The Crypt Gallery). As associate director: FILTH (Camden Fringe) and Rounds (Southwark Playhouse / Bolton Octagon). Other work includes Bismillah! An ISIS Tragicomedy, at the Edinburgh Fringe. Assisting includes Helen for Actors of Dionysus, The Odyssey at More London Riverside, and The Cherry Orchard at The Union Theatre (both for Phil Wilmott).

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Justin Murray on InstagramJustin Murray on Twitter
Justin Murray
Justin Murray is a director and theatremaker whose work has been seen nationally and internationally. He recently directed The Wizard Of Oz at The Scoop in More London Riverside as part of London’s Free Open Air Theatre Season. Justin was associate director of Actors of Dionysus for whom he directed Antigone (R&D and national tour). Justin is artistic director of Catharsis and has directed their previous five shows, Hippolytus (Hope Theatre), Hecuba (White Bear Theatre), purged (Brighton Fringe), The Complete Greek Tragedies (In One Hour) (Rosemary Branch) and Ashurbanipal (The Crypt Gallery). As associate director: FILTH (Camden Fringe) and Rounds (Southwark Playhouse / Bolton Octagon). Other work includes Bismillah! An ISIS Tragicomedy, at the Edinburgh Fringe. Assisting includes Helen for Actors of Dionysus, The Odyssey at More London Riverside, and The Cherry Orchard at The Union Theatre (both for Phil Wilmott).