Life Raft: Rehearsal Diary – Week 1

by Amy Kemp, Company Member

Day 1 – “Where are we?”

3rd August

There is a sense of apprehension as well as excitement when starting rehearsals for a show. Yet considering this is my first professional production (EVER), alongside performing in one of the UK’s most prestigious theatres, it would be an understatement to say that the apprehension/excitement feelings were slightly more exaggerated than they would usually be. To top it all off our first scheduled event for the day was a meet and greet with employees of the theatre, which included a model showing of the set. This, all being new to me, did instantly sound a little daunting (ok, maybe very daunting), as did the impending five weeks of intensive rehearsals.

Max Johns' model box for Life Raft - Photo by Duncan Smith

Max Johns’ model box for Life Raft – Photo by Duncan Smith

All my fears were put aside almost as soon as I entered the theatre and saw the friendly faces of the cast and crew, who I have already gotten to know, since our rehearsals technically began in February. We’ve been meeting most Saturday afternoons for around five months, with the focus of understanding Life Raft; what the play symbolises, the visual and emotional world of the production and how the dynamic characters fit into this world. After battling through a number of script drafts, learning and re-learning lines several times, the script became fully formed and writer Fin Kennedy’s powerful adaptation of The Raft of the Medusa was complete.

After introducing ourselves and being introduced, we began the first day of rehearsals. The focus for this day felt very much about getting the characters defined in our minds, so that as the show took form, we could see a clear path of progression for each individual. We each got the opportunity to try on our costumes for the first time, and I fell slightly in love with my deep blue coat. It was realised some time back in our early days of rehearsals that all the children’s clothing would need to be either pyjamas or mismatched items such as an odd socks or thrown on jumpers. The boat evacuating the children was hit during the evening, significantly on the 13th day into March, meaning these children would have had to get dressed into whatever they could grab in the confusion and distress.

We also got the opportunity to have individual conversations with Melly (Still, Director), focusing solely on our characters and really getting to grips with their lives and inner objectives and desires. I was particularly excited about this section of the rehearsal due to being an enthusiast for backstories and really getting to the core and acute details of a character. I knew that studying my characters (Ann) dialogue was the key to discovering Ann’s motives, and why her initial mission statement is “Every man for himself”. Interspersed with some incisive line learning recaps, we were all ready for the week ahead.

Now, when the director of your very first professional show puts just you in a room with two experienced actors, and says “I’m just going to work with the musical director, if you guys could do 20 minutes of improvisation work together that would be great” then subsequently leaves the room, you do slightly fill with dread and feel completely out of your depth. But as you have probably gathered all of my worries today were extremely misguided and it was such amazing opportunity to collaborate with Zara Ramm and Fionn Gill on a piece of theatre, observing their professional ability as actors as well as their passion and innovative thinking as performers. Even if this did mean Fionn rolling me along the floor spontaneously. I’m sure they know what they’re doing…

It is safe to say, as first rehearsals go, this was a pretty awesome start to what promises to be an amazing journey.

Day 2 – “Who made you leader?”    

4th August

It’s only the second day of rehearsals and already we have a broken chair…whoops…

Today we concentrated on the responsibility each character must assume in this extreme situation in order to cope with the crises that ensue – “The best person should be leader, not just the oldest”. The establishing of leadership is one challenge that the children face, which determines how their allegiances establish and alter through the course of the play. Alongside a variety of problems facing the children, which normally would have been dealt with by an adult, it is interesting to imagine a world inhabited only by children and how, although there is an element of childhood innocence from the characters, they feel the need to adopt adult ideals and use adult words to aid situations in order to survive.

I love that I get to work with an amazing cast of young people who bring spontaneity and joy to rehearsals, and bring out that childlike incentive in the dialogue which I admire and am learning from. Considering that I am 17, they make me feel extremely old at times. The thirteen ‘child’ actor’s ages range from 11 to 17, coming from all over the South West, some part of Bristol Old Vic Young Company, others not. It nice to have such a range of people in the cast, some who’ve met before and even worked with Melly on various productions, and others who’ve never set foot in the theatre. This will be my first show there, and working with Melly is incredibly inspirational. She brings her own childlike spontaneity to the rehearsal room, and keeps up a powerfully positive energy that drives the rehearsal. She appears to work entirely on instinct, and keeps us on our toes. Even with her seemingly spontaneous inclinations, her insight into the human psyche is awe inspiring, and her ability to tap into each characters emotional state in an instant is so essential to our characters development. I think each of us would agree that we are more than lucky to have Melly to guide us through life on the raft!

I also got the chance to work on the very opening scene between me and Toby (playing Allan) which is crucial for our characters as it establish the relationship that forms between them in this crisis, as well as establishing some of the plays main statements about human endeavour e.g. team work, rising and suppressing hysteria. Toby and I have worked intricately on this scene over the past five months, but this rehearsal helped us both to set in stone what our characters intentions should be. There are a number of these scenes that are interspersed within the play that are significant delicate and intimate moments between Allan and Ann. I think these duo scenes are helping us to build up a strong rapport between the characters and ourselves as actors, which then allows us to integrate our characters connection into all the other scenes. There is an air of manipulation to Ann and Allan’s alliance, which James (Kent, Assistant Director) mentioned in one of our earlier rehearsals. I am looking forward to exploring this side of their alliance at a later stage of rehearsals!

Day 3 – “I want my Dad”

5th August

After a 20 minute session of dramatic exercises and focus games to get us all into the zone, we then did a full run of what we had rehearsed so far. Today we did a focus game called ‘Tribe’ which involved us dividing into two teams, performing as a collective a series of movements and sounds as a tribe towards the other group to a beat, with some hilarious results (Particularly from Melly and Fionn, I wish I’d had a camera).

It has been decided that, at the start of each rehearsal day, we will run the play as far as we have got up to in the script. The rest of today was about establishing Day 1 on the life raft.

The play is split into six days in total, and it is this unique structure that marks the rising tensions within the play. Each day introduces a new universal obstacle that the children must overcome, without the help or intervention that would usually be filled by an adults.

This formed the basis of our rehearsal today, where we looked at the fragmentation between the adult world and the isolated world of the children. Many of the children have an item that in some way links them to their life “before”, to quote Ann, the boat attack and the war. Ann has her flask filled with milk, a mark of her maternal status in the group, and other characters have things like a watch, notebook and doll – “Thanks, my dad gave it to me, it never loses a second” (Roger’s watch). They desperately cling to these items which, in any other context would be view as ordinary or mandatory. Due to the plays distant setting from the seemingly mundane world, each of these items become heightened for everyone, not just as symbols of hope and survival, but as that characters lifeline; giving them purpose and connections to the ‘real world’. It is amazing to me how an isolated setting, such as a boat, can have such a profound impact on the environment we inhabit, and how this can shift your view on certain commodities, making them almost sacred.

We then had a short session with Miriam Battye and James (Assistant Directors) on some notes they had made during the run through of the script in the morning. We were placed into pairs, and we worked on the meanings of some of the lines, discussing how we deliver them and the significance of slightly changing the intonations on some words. But we were soon called back into the rehearsal room where Callum (playing Sam) and Toby, along with Zara, Melly and Fionn were working out how to set up the toilet bucket for, what Melly likes to call – “Crisis 2: Wee and probably poo”…

As a final note, I have discovered the main challenge regarding working on this show – cast and crew members EATING THE PROPS. And to make matters worse, the adults are the worst for it! (Yes I saw you pinch that biscuit from the supplies box, Melly).

I tried to make a quick exit at the end of rehearsals as I had a gym induction session to get to, along with cooking a curry for my tea (not simultaneously) but I am filled with excitement and am looking forward to finishing Day 1 in the coming week.

Day 4 – “Foxy Loxy…will he make the sky fall on our heads?”

6th August

Despite waking up with blistery red feet and achy muscles from this week’s rehearsal, I managed to power walk to Bristol Old Vic with two leftover curry meals in hand for me and fellow cast member Jake (playing Roger) to chow down on for lunch.

Upon arrival, and after pinching a few more of Courtnei’s (playing Enid) Quality Street chocolates, we headed up to the rehearsal room, beginning the day with one of the casts most loved game, called Ninja.  The aim of the game is to skilfully strike out your opponents who are your fellow ninjas. To do this you must hit them between the elbow and hand with your own hand, but you can only do this in one single movement, with the opportunity to defend. In the past this game had produced some hilarious results, with Jake diving to the floor dramatically, performing the occasional face plant (I’m pretty sure that counts as cheating). For the first time ever I managed to win Ninja! I’d say this is probably my biggest achievement of the week so far…

Whist we waited for a cast member to arrive due to a series of cancelled trains, we ran what we had be through yesterday, working on volume and refreshing our minds on what we have achieved over the past week, which to me seems to have flown by. The cast were reminded by Melly that theatre and plays are in their own right a form of art, meaning that the actions of the play can be exaggerated or heightened, but our dialogue and intonations must remain true.

Today I decided to set my own personal goal of discovering Ann’s drive throughout the play. What I love so much about the play is the pressure put on the children to tackle these universal issues, in such a short amount of time. Whilst Ann may at first appear defensive to conflict, there is far more depth to her. She avoids and discourages all conversations about the boat sinking or even the war that these children have left behind, and it’s this defensive nature that in fact reveals her instability and overarching trauma. Her depth comes in the form of her maternal role, and I explored today with subtle moments of comfort towards other characters physically, as well as testing out a more soothing tonality. I’ve had to remind myself on a regular basis not to be too condemning of the children and the decisions made on the boat, which we seem so quick to do in rehearsal room. After all, they are only children…

The crisis of ‘The Stowaway’ emerged today, and we were re-joined by our thirteenth cast member Charlie, who plays the mute who is named Foxy by the children. We came back from lunch, after sampling the curry and getting small notes from James from the full run today, and we were asked by Melly to lie down. She was going to read us a story!

It was only as we got back into rehearsing the script when we all understood why she had recited to us the childhood classic ‘The Story of Chicken Lickin’. I hadn’t realised the connection between the child’s tale and our own resident fox on the life raft, and how by the children naming him Foxy, it instantly attaches to him connotations of danger. Another element of the play we have been discussing is the significant of names, and how it gives the children a sense of identity and purpose. The nameless ‘Foxy’ is only isolated and dehumanised further without an identity.

Callum (playing Sam) and I also did an interview today for the Marketing team with Duncan and Karen, talking about the show and what it’s like to be performing at Bristol Old Vic. We do hope we did the play justice!

Day 5 – “Well let’s get going then!”

7th August

Our final day began with a much needed vocal warm up with Miriam, focusing on pronunciation of the consonants ‘ggggg’ and vows ‘aaaaa’. Also, to get us ready for our run of the script, we each chose one line from the play and individually said that line, getting advice on breathing between the words to make them audible and making sure we finished the words off so the line didn’t ‘drop’ and its energy wasn’t lost. This naturally lifted our performance of the script as a collective, making it one of our best runs yet.

We were so close to the end of ‘Day 1’, and today’s mission was primarily to power on to the end and get everything finalised. It is an amazing feeling to have completed what is nearly a third of the play, and I am in love with how the performance is taking shape.

There is a sense of reality now about performing on the Bristol Old Vic stage. I’ve seen so many performances from the seats, and to now be on the other side of that feels like a big achievement. Having finalised a large section of the script has really hit home for me just how soon we’ll be performing Life Raft.

It is probably worth mentioning that my character Ann has the responsibility to open the tins of food on the raft. It’s clear from the past few rehearsals that opening tins is not my forte, and may be the thing I rehearse the most over the next month…

The rising hysteria at the end of ‘Day 1’ is a proleptic marker for the rapidly rising irrationality running its course through the spine of the play, introducing for the first time, through my characters suspicious disposition, the bad luck of the ‘thirteen’ children. The seemingly irrational statement from Ann that this number of people together is ‘bad luck’ allows an unsettling atmosphere of envelope the children. Add this to a dwindling food supply and everything becomes heightened, and irrationality is all they have to go on.

My intention for this rehearsal was to work on emphasising this hysteria, through what felt like a dramatic tonality change. Ann’s aggression at this point seems to dent each individual character, some more than others, with the reality of just how vulnerable these children are. It’s really important for me to emphasise that they are only children, and their ability to comprehend the overarching situation is somewhat limit, but also they are not numb to the truth.

At the end of the day our mission was complete. ‘Day 1’ was done, and was watched by our usual audience, plus Becky Loxton (Stage Manager) and Jen Warner (Assistant Stage Manager), who seemed to find Sam’s rather humorous lines about wee and poo extremely entertaining…

Day 6 – “We’re going to get married”

8th August

A pre-planned extra rehearsal was called today, only for a few hours, with the exciting opportunity to do a puppet workshop with a lady named Corina Bona, who is a brilliant puppeteer and maker. Not wanting to reveal too much, I will try and give as much detail as I can.

A particular animal that is significant to Ann’s past becomes the centrepiece of Ann and Allan’s relationship, and makes a reoccurring appearance within the play. But only verbally, until a particular day when this animal materialises and can be seen by the performers, using unlikely materials and rave like music in a breath taking puppetry display.

With the help of Corina we worked on giving these discarded objects life, putting our characters energy into the animal, as well as using the specific characteristics and movements of the real animal and adapting those traits into our puppets. Putting all of this to music was beautiful, with moments in the performance that attack the senses and will hopefully inflict this joyous distorted sense of reality upon the audience.

Zara and Fionn, who arrived an hour earlier than us are also manipulating puppets, but theirs are larger than ours. In a particular moment these two graceful birds (that is all I will reveal) begin to represent Allan and Ann’s romance and their fanciful ideas of marriage and messages from beyond the grave.

At a point in the play the sail hung up at the back of the stage is used as a makeshift veil for me to wear, attached with hairbands to my head. For the past Saturday rehearsals we’ve been using a very light sail, so for the first time today we used the actual sail I’ll  be wearing. It was at least 3x heavier, almost impossible to move in and apparently made me look like an eccentric bride/Indian chief. I thought I looked pretty good…

Check back here next week, when Amy will report from the second week of rehearsals…

Life Raft plays in Bristol Old Vic Theatre from 3-5 September. Find out more, and book tickets, here

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