Two Cities Rehearsal Diary

Two Cities Rehearsal Diary

9 September 2016

"Rehearsals are the best of times, they are the worst of times" Actor Jonathan Dryden Taylor writes about A Tale of Two Cities rehearsals. 

Jon Dryden Taylor in the rehearsal room for A Tale of Two CitiesRehearsals are the best of times, they are the worst of times*. The thrilling sensation of feeling you’ve nailed the emotional and physical geography of a scene is only matched by the grim misery of finding that one scene or line or moment you can’t quite land no matter how you try.

The French word for rehearsal is ‘repetition’ and they know what they’re talking about. The solution to those tricky moments is to keep working at them until they yield. Building a performance is much like massaging tense shoulder muscles in that regard (stay with me…); when you find a knot you have to work away at it, painful though that might be, until it untangles. You can’t just ignore it and hope it goes away.

It’s amazing how often these problems are solved by simple, practical changes. You may feel that the line which felt unbearably fake when you were sitting down suddenly takes on a universal truth if you say it standing up. The moment which feels very uncomfortable on stage left suddenly makes perfect sense if it happens stage right. Something as mundanely pragmatic as doing it faster/slower can be transformative.

In a way, one of the director’s main jobs in the rehearsal period is to stop us acting. If we’ve done our preparatory work- either in discussion in the rehearsal room, or at home with the script- we’ll know what actions we’re trying to take and what emotions we’re trying to convey. Problem is, part of understanding that process is to demonstrate it, so an actor in rehearsal will often fall back on showing the audience what we want them to see rather than inhabiting it. Some directors will even address this issue head on, with a direct exhortation to ‘Stop acting!’. It’s a blunt instrument as a note, but it nearly always does the trick.

On A Tale Of Two Cities James Dacre used a process designed to solve this problem before it arises- spending the first week with the cast round the table, finding the events that bookend each unit of each scene, then working out how they affect each character on stage. The advantage of this approach is that once we were on our feet, we knew straightaway what we were aiming to convey and it was easier to bypass that intermediary ‘showing’ stage. If you know exactly what your character is feeling from the moment you step on stage to the moment you leave it, it’s easier to feel it yourself.

That clarity is particularly important in a big old beast of a play like this one. A core company of thirteen, a community ensemble of twelve, two young boys, twenty scenes, three courtrooms, a revolution and a half, some dances, some fights, some executions, some lynchings, six songs, a wedding and a steak and kidney pie. Our job over the last four weeks has been to take that huge canvas and focus in on every individual element of it, so every moment has detail and truth even when the stage is full and the action rattling along.

And then, once the show has been meticulously assembled, it’s time to add a whole other set of layers.  As I write, we have done our final run before starting the tech rehearsal tomorrow. There’s a wonderful fragility to the last runthrough in the rehearsal room, because everyone knows it’s the last chance to approach the show in shorts and trainers and natural light. Once we move into the theatre it’s all about enhancing the work we’ve already done with the talents of the lighting, sound, set and costume designers, and although that process is hugely exciting, it’s time-consuming. A line which takes seconds to deliver may also be the cue for countless sound and lighting effects: an entrance which was beautifully timed in the rehearsal room may need to be totally reworked when entering from the wings.

The beginning of a technical rehearsal is always a load of fun. Seeing the set, and our colleagues in costume, reminds us that we’re lucky enough to play dress-up for a living. By the seventh or eighth session, as we crawl through the play at a page an hour (often playing a game unique to actors in tech called ‘I wonder what time it might be’) the thrill can wear off a little. It’s worth it, though. The tech is the part of the process where you realise you’ve not just been rehearsing for fun, that you actually have to make a show- and that you are surrounded by people whose job it is to make it a far, far better show than you have ever done before. **


**not even sorry


A Tale of Two Cities opens at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, where it plays from 10 to 17 September 2016. It then tours to Oxford Playhouse, Richmond Theatre, Bradford Alhambra, Blackpool Grand, Wolverhampton Grand, Brighton Theatre Royal, Edinburgh King's, Cheltenham Everyman and Nottingham Theatre Royal. 

Get tickets for this show by visiting our tour page.