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Thursday, 25 August 2011

A Valuation of Despair

Despair is vital to the artistic process.  I like despair, in small quantities.  The small quantities element is important.  Laughter is the same.  You should encourage laughter, but not too much.  Take the rehearsals - I do like to encourage laughter in a rehearsal room, a little banter, a few double entendres and then good natured verbal abuse.  Nothing gets a rehearsal room going than reminding everyone that they're barely adequate.
I, of course, joke.  For the most part the rehearsal room runs on a fair amount of waffle from me, some actual running of the material and then carefully judged judgements - based not on the quality of the work I've just seen, more judgements chosen by how much the person on the other end can cope with.  Push the cast... push... push... oh, are those tears in their eyes?  Pull back!  Pull back!
Again, some exaggeration there.
Keeping a rehearsal room moving forward is the key.  Keep the work from bogging down, make sure everyone feels like they've got just that little bit better at their job by the end of the session, but not letting the room go too far.  You mustn't have too much fun.  The odd rehearsal will descend into hysterics, nothing will get done and everyone will go home feeling elated but also just that little bit dirty.  Dramatically soiled.
If the whole rehearsal schedule runs the way of laughter then you're in danger of sucking all the magic of the play into yourselves, like fun hogging self satisfied lumps of smugness.  When the audience arrives they feel they've missed the party, the in jokes are isolating, the fun has killed the fun.
That said, whenever I'm directing or writing I tend not to feel in the least bit like having fun.  It is an active chore to keep everyone ticking over, keeping it light, when deep down every minute of the process is a knife in my soul.  All directors and writers know this feeling - it's partly built out of the despair of inadequacy (nothing I can stage will ever reach the heights I dream of, boo-hoo, woe is me) but also because you have to appear cheerful on a semi-professional basis, so any problems you have with the cast, the team or the universe have to be stuffed down into a deep dark hole for the duration of the work.  'Ha ha, we're doing that scene I hate again, God why do I bother with this worthless existence, pass the valium.'  Again, some exaggeration.
Why then do I continue to work during these patches of despair?  Well, because much of my best work is done during periods of immense emotional turmoil.  I had to direct a play I really didn't like this year.  I really didn't like the play, I really wanted to do anything other than direct the play, I really wanted to be doing anything else in the universe rather than sit through another run of this dull interminable second rate text which seems to have bewitched the cast into telling me every rehearsal that it's the best play ever written, and I've been ordered to pretend I like the play so can't say what I really think, and you know what?  EVERYONE LOVED IT!  Typical.
The last show, The Natural History of Trolls, went through a few dips like that during the writing.  I worked on it for several weeks hating the damned thing; it wasn't going to work I convinced myself.  As the show got closer I got more and more stressed about the text, finding it remarkably difficult to learn the lines (another good sign that the text isn't well written) and then, on the first night, it all came together beautifully.  I got to sit and watch about 1/3 of the show and sense how it was coming across.
Blow me, the show worked.  People liked it.  Because it was good.  Because I was just being paranoid.  I remember this little trials as I prepare the return of Trolls later in the year, to Suffolk and London.  It's a revival show now - it's about doing the text well, not about hueing words at the coal face of drama.  Which brings me back to the fun at rehearsing it during the run at the New Wimbledon.  If you'd like to have a little look at the process of rehearsing Trolls have a little look at my vlog.  It's an old one, but worth watching if you missed it.  Look at my Wallace and Gromit hands.
So, in conclusion, for artists out there who are wrestling with a text / production that is stabbing you repeatedly through the heart, don't worry: despair can be good.  But you do need to fight the despair and work through the project till you come out the other side.  Sometimes the work you're doing is actually quite good.  Except when your paranoia isn't actually paranoia, when they are actually out to get you and everything you've produced is really rubbish.  Then you just have to take it on the chin and become an accountant, like all the other failures.

The Natural History of Trolls will next appear at the Quay Theatre, Sudbury on Sunday 20th November at 7.30pm.  Tickets are £7 and available now from the Quay Box Office: 01787 374 745
It returns to London for two weeks during the run of Storyteller, at the Barons Court Theatre from Tuesday 29th November.  Tickets will be available shortly.

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