Katie McCallum, recent University of Warwick History graduate, had the chance to watch the company of Pink Mist work in their final few days before opening night. Aspiring to work in theatre, she has embraced the opportunity to shadow directors John retallack and George mann this week hoping to find an insight into the world of professional theatre from her background in student theatre.
Here she tells us about the busy opening week:
I joined the company of Pink Mist today just two days before previews. For directors John Retallack and George Mann this rehearsal marks the last whose focus can be purely about their relationship with the text itself.
Just two days out of Warwick University myself, I join the production at perhaps a unique moment both for me and in its process. The company are set up in a small room in the maze of rehearsal space beneath Wickham Theatre on the Bristol University campus. A 5m by 5m square tapes out the playing space; a space never left by the actors during the performance. I had as little familiarity with the story as an audience member entering the theatre but I was soon immersed in the fourth act of the piece. This translation of Owen Sheers’ work for stage had now largely found shape and, as John would later describe, a physical language on stage. I could tell immediately that today was about realising the right nuance and intonation to this physical language.
I watch as George sets about finding a transition from Act 4 to Act 5. The five acts as written for radio were not to be introduced by language but rather physicalised by movement sequences. George builds the transition through re-imagining a movement sequence in the previous act, asking the actors to find their own rhythm and direction to the 10 or so movements. By watching one another’s movements they collectively find a new expression of the movement which seamlessly moves the action from Act 4 to Act 5, echoing what has come before and moving us forward.
As the afternoon progressed I realise how inherent sound and music were going to be to this play. I was told that composer/ sound designer Jon Nicholls had been in the rehearsal room almost from the project’s inception. The verse of Owen Sheers’ text, originally written for radio, constantly moves back and forth through the chronology of the characters. Not written initially for stage, the text doesn’t indicate set or a specific mode of performance. Sound, alongside George’s unique integration of movement, is the medium through which the verse finds meaning on stage and how it becomes an ensemble piece. George often vocalises a sound alongside a movement, thus enabling Jon to immediately find a moment of sound to express it. Sound and music definitely do not feature as an afterthought here.
The day ends with a run of the end of the play. The production’s accent coach spends just a few minutes with the cast, impressed with their almost seamless Bristolian accents. George and John are, as yet, unsure that they have quite captured what they want for the last few pages. As John tells the actors, Owen’s use of punctuation here increases twofold and that must inform their performance. They pin the last few pages of script for discussion tomorrow.
On my walk from the bus station this morning I pass the Army recruitment office which, having now read Act 1, I realise is part of Arthur’s inspiration to join up. ‘I wanted him… the man going somewhere, getting something done.’ The office is just round the corner from the theatre itself where the production moves into technical rehearsal today. I suddenly realise how poignant it is that the first onstage production of Pink Mist should be here in Bristol. The references to Thekla, Severn Beach, The Tunnels, Clifton Suspension Bridge only bring the stories of the three boys closer to this first Bristol audience.
I meet John and George in Coopers’ Loft, a rehearsal room right on the roof of Bristol Old Vic, where they had 20 minutes or so to have a last chat before the cast come back from their walk around the theatre. They raise a few last minute concerns and decide their time is best spent solidifying the transition worked on yesterday and the speeches from the last few pages. The cast return from walk around, the boys donning short back and sides hair, freshly cut this morning. They are buzzing with energy and keen to get going. I remember that three of the cast members are my own age and Pink Mist marks their very first professional acting role right out of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
An hour later and I can finally see the incredible setting in which this piece will be performed. The 5m by 5m square taped out on the floor of the rehearsal room in fact translates to a deck of the same size, covered in a light coloured canvas, which extends out half way into the stalls and, with its supports positioned inside slightly and painted black, appears to be suspended in the playhouse. This is mirrored by a white screen of the exact same dimension several metres behind the upstage side of the deck. Peter, the lighting designer, already has images back lit throughout gobos upon the screen. The white canvas provides an amazing base for the lights upon the main deck and, whilst the set is in many respects bare, the lighting used becomes an incredible source of atmosphere and energy as well as being beautiful in and of itself.
Whilst the tech rehearsal is undoubtedly a long day with a lot of stopping and starting, for me it went by quickly. It was my first opportunity to watch Act 1 and, whilst in fits and starts, I was able to see how the different acts and stories slotted together punctuated by movement. It is a complete balancing act with everyone needing as much time as possible. John and George offer last minute direction to the actors as they acclimatise to the new space and Jon, composer and sound designer, and Peter, lighting designer, needing multiple runs of specific moments to hone in on tech, alter lighting states and sound and adjust levels.
The cast leave tonight clearly knackered but buzzing with the prospect that it is less than 24 hours until the first preview.
The focus is back on Act 2 this morning and the creative team move quickly to ensure the cast and team feel prepared for the dress run at 3pm. The designer Emma has adjusted costumes overnight and is now ensuring every element of her aesthetic is working as she has planned. One slight hiccup has been raised by the directors regarding the three helmets that make up some of the only set used by the actors. The helmets are indicative of scenes in the past when the three boys are in combat and are critical to the telling of Hads, Taff and Arthur’s stories in Acts 2, 3 and 4 as well as aesthetically important. In these three narratives, which describe moments of combat and how each sustained their devastating injuries, there are significant sound and music cues used to underscore and depict the action. The original plan was to use radio mics in all three but today in the run it became clear that the mic packs inside the helmets were causing them to jaunt off to one angle perhaps a little too comically for such poignant moments in the play. The creatives and rest of the tech team briefly discuss potential solutions. It seems that there must always be last minute adjustments like this; until in the space and in costume so many elements cannot be finalised.
As the dress run is about to start George admits to me that he hopes it doesn’t run too smoothly. He says he does tend to agree with the idea that if the dress run is brilliant then the first performance might lack in energy and precision. The dress falls somewhere in between. For me, seeing the production unbroken for the first time, it is mesmerising. Objectively though, and as George says probably for the best, a few moments on stage were lost. The team and cast debrief and get ready and geared up, armed with the slight errors to perfect for tonight.
The preview meets a standing ovation and very well-attended Q and A with directors and writer afterward. I can feel the buzz of the audience in the interval who seem to know already that they are witnessing something truly special.
I make my way to Spicer and Cole café this morning to pick up a coffee before first call, and bump into John poring over the script. He is about to meet with Owen to debrief on the first preview and talk over the very end of the play of which John wishes to rework. The preview was the first time Owen Sheers, the writer, has seen the play since watching a rehearsal a week ago. He has been heavily involved in the production and very giving with his time for both the directors and the actors. The play’s development has thus been a continuous conversation with the writer which is a true privilege for any acting company.
Half an hour later I have the privilege of sitting in on the meeting with the company and Owen. He is boundless with his praise for the actors and gives them a short session of notes largely regarding intonation and delivery of specific lines. As the piece is written in verse and with many half rhymes, Owen hones in on particular moments and rhythms and also describes nuances in his thinking behind phrases, particularly the concentric circles of devastation caused by war all summed up in the beautiful last line of the first half: ‘blue on blue on blue.’ He also tells them a little about the inception behind the radio play which was commissioned by Tim Dee at BBC Bristol. As Owen had described in the Q and A last night, Tim had given him a crash course in being Bristolian after asking him to write the play. Owen immersed himself in all things Bristolian, and the slang, locations he visited and many of the stories of Tim’s childhood growing up here had found a place in the fictional narratives of the characters in Pink Mist.
John then tells the cast about his early morning meeting with Owen who was very open to the changes John proposed. Some minimal cuts to speeches, and the end of the play, were going to be made; both writer and directors feel that on stage some things are left better without reiteration in the last moments of the play.
With the end of the play reworked and moments of explosion re-teched and perfected, it is time for the second preview. An even larger audience meets the production with an even more potent response. As I dash off to get my bus, the excitement for press night tomorrow night is overwhelming. This is a production that simply needs to be seen and I can’t wait for the response.
The call time is late today as the actors and team undoubtedly need a little rest after the 12 hour days this week. I spend my morning writing up my notes for this blog and reflecting on my week so far. I had the privilege of meeting with producer Catherine Morgenstern this afternoon who gave me both a wonderful insight into the industry but also the intricacies of this production from inception to press night tonight.
In the theatre, John and George spend a final few hours reworking before the dinner call. That’s it, press night is here and what will be, will be. By 6.30pm the foyer is full and the atmosphere excited. I am on edge as I imagine the reviews flooding in over the weekend and on Monday morning. I have nothing to fear: everything about tonight’s performance is on point. Having now seen the production several times, there are still moments which leave me immensely moved. For a first-time audience I know these will hold even more poignancy.
Met with a standing ovation the cast come back for a second and then third bow looking both slightly shocked and overjoyed by this response on press night. It truly bodes well for the reviews but perhaps the best review of all came from an ex-serviceman who greeted John after the performance. A double amputee, like Hads in the narrative, he had worked alongside the directors briefly in the rehearsal room. His praise for the production was glowing as he slapped John on the back. ‘What you’ve done there,’ he said, ‘that’s something special.’ As I reflect back on my week I can’t help but agree. The opportunity to witness Pink Mist from rehearsal room, to tech, to previews was a perfect insight into the world of professional theatre. More importantly though, what an absolute privilege that that insight was with such an exciting project and talented company. It has been incredibly hard not to give away any more of the narrative, the performances or nuances to lighting and sound than I have above, but I am of the firm opinion that this is a piece that simply has to be seen.