Life Raft: Rehearsal Diary – Week 4

by Amy Kemp, Company Member

Day 18 – “Who are they?”

24th August

The countdown begins. Ten days until opening night. Over these next days are scheduled countless runs of the script, a number of tech rehearsals and a dress rehearsal. To top it all off we are moving into the Theatre on Thursday, beginning the tech runs and finally getting to see the set in its entirety.

The first part of the day, post-super-quick warm up, was a stagger through of the whole production, primarily for Iris (playing Amy) and the team to figure out Amy’s movements throughout the performance. This was a good chance for us all to have a specific amount of time to secure our lines and movements before our first full run through of the play, costumes and sound included. A couple of tweaks and few blocking issues were solved, and we got to prepare ourselves for our first full run through in afternoon – blood and all.

Life Raft at Bristol Old Vic

I won’t apologise for continuously raving about how much I adore Fin’s adaptation of Georg Kaiser’s 1945 play The Raft of the Medusa. The original play itself is inspired by true events of World War 2, with Fin’s play now approaching a more ambiguous setting that suggests a ‘near-future dystopia’ as Fin describes in article about the writing process undergone for the play. Life Raft has this universal quality, giving it the strength to adjust its themes of suffering and helplessness and so forth, to allow any generation of audience to face the harsh contextual realities of the play, and not be ‘let of the hook’ when it comes to the brutality becoming a reality in our own time. Fin has moved the play forward in a way that is both sensitive to the original Kaiser play, yet allowing for a powerful, universally relatable story to be told.

The company are blessed to have two amazing professional actors in the cast, and both Zara and Fionn display, is such an articulate way, the discipline and self-sustainability an actor is required to carry. Having seen Zara in several other shows, knowing the high standard of intelligence and professionalism she has under her belt, I was keen to tap into her understanding and experience of the industry (and to have a good old chat). We spent a good part of the lunch break discussing the industry, its misconceptions, realities, positives and so much more. Zara has help me realise what it means to be an actor and to live as one, and has also helped me to get clear in my head what I would like to do once I have completed college.

It is one thing to rehearse the show with the familiar faces of the director, assistant directors etc. watching, but when you are performing to a new set of faces, the prospect of performing to an audience of hundreds becomes even more real, slightly more daunting, and a whole lot more exciting. We completed our first full run with beaming smiles and cheers, and although it wasn’t perfect, it is amazing to see how much we have achieved.

Day 19 – “We have to stay strong, look out for each other?”

25TH August

As a company of young people I have come to realise that we are extremely lucky, in terms of the opportunity this show has given us to gain a number of skills that professional performers are required to have. For me personally, my ability to learn lines has improved significantly. Especially in the early stages of rehearsals when the script was being adjusted and redrafted regularly, and alongside revising for exams and school work we were required to know sections of the script. This was a demanding task at first. Fast forward six months, and now if I am given a section of lines to learn, it can take me just minutes to remember. It is not just lines, what feels most rewarding is a gain level of awareness about myself as a performer, how I respond to certain stimulus on stage and in rehearsals, and my ability to work with a diverse range of ages and people.

Life Raft at Bristol Old Vic4

During the vocal warm up I became very aware of a sore throat, which is always worrying. Yesterday’s run saw high energy performances from us all, and without thinking about my voice I must have strained it towards the end when Ann becomes hysterical. Another thing I have learnt from this process is the demand on an actor’s body and that it is vital to keep up your physical health. More and more of our warm ups have features the importance of safely projecting the voice, alongside clear diction and appropriate emotional communication. You can see a contrast in the company’s performance depending on whether we have or have not done a vocal warm up. Looks like a week of Lemsip and throat soothers for me…

It baffles me that I have not referred to this before, but it is important to mention the significance of the ‘Raft of the Medusa’ painting by the French romantic painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault, and the influence it has had in the rehearsal room. Tragedy is at the centre of this image, which shows starving desperate figures clinging to a make-shift life raft, surround by gruesome waves. The painting itself is haunting and has been a point of focus for us on many occasions in the rehearsal room, with the intention of exploiting its disturbing ambiance through our own physical language. At the very start of the play a number of the characters are given objects, and Melly found a perfect opportunity to mimic the paintings desperation to obtain these items. In the painting many of the figures have their arms outstretched at various obtruding angles. Our performance starts in a very similar way, for once we are on the raft we lay very still, bar a gentle rocking from side to side, with our arms reaching out in the hope being granted the ‘gift’ of a salvaged item. The ending incorporates the painting also, with the company draped haphazardly over the slices of furniture, some half dead from starvations, which is an idea that has derived from the painting and supports the children’s rising desperation.

Oscar (playing Alfie) referred to it as ‘second night syndrome’, where the show after opening night isn’t as strong as the prior performance. It is fair to say that after such an adrenalized full run through yesterday, there was a feeling of disappointment that today’s run just didn’t have the same ‘oomph’. Melly was determined not to let this get us down, and after a group discussion addressing what we had learnt from doing that run and what we as performers need to better ourselves on, we were left with the drive to work on those improvements and focus on polishing the performance to perfection of the coming days.

Day 20 – “This is our curse!”

26th August

Yesterday’s run of the show seemed to produce a new atmosphere in the rehearsal room. There was a different level of focus, an awareness that allowed us to follow through with really polishing the rough edges of scenes. We all learnt a lot from the run, and as a company we felt prepared to tackle any obstacles that needed to overcome, so that we were ready to go for the oncoming tech rehearsals.

Before starting today, we went on a very exciting trip through the theatre to… our dressing rooms! As you can imagine excitement was rife as the reality of performing Life Raft drew ever closer. In our masses we made are way down into the lower levels of the theatre, and assigning of the dressing rooms begins. The boys were first, except Oscar, who gets his own dressing room because he is 16+. This meant that when it came to the girls dressing rooms I was by myself too. Whilst having the space and time to be alone is nice, and it will be when the nerves kick in during the show run, it does feel like I’m missing out on the giggles and laughter coming for the girl’s room down the hall. However they are only down the hall, not too far away to have a natter.

Life Raft at Bristol Old Vic

It is likely that this blog entry will be less of a psychoanalysis of the play, and will revolve more so around costume and dressing rooms, so please do spare me this one time! We were also told that we all had to stop washing our hair on Sunday, which (no exaggeration) seemed to be the biggest crisis facing us as a company thus far. With half of us starting back at school/ college next week, how could we cope with the ridicule of our friends and loved ones witnessing our unwashed hair!! I joke slightly, and as I recall Jake (playing Roger) did mention something about his human rights, but we were reassured that it was for the good of theatre and in the best nature of the show. I’m sure we will survive social rejection…perhaps…

Anyway, back to the play itself! We used today, not to do another run through, but to polish and finalise each moment that required it. We started with chairs, or rather chair movements. Fionn gave us a masterclass in expert chair moving, making it appear as though the chairs are bobbing above the water, as well as exploring with contrasting heights and levels when moving the furniture. We did the same with the oars, making sure we clearly portrayed the weight of the oar and the release of the tension once we placed them down.

Let’s talk about sponges. Alongside our matted hair and grubby faces, the children have also been in a storm. During the night between ‘Day 5’ and ‘Day 6’ there is a storm, which finds them drenched in the morning. In order to get the ‘soak to the bone’ look, each of us use a sponge, rinsing it over our heads, so that we wake up a bunch of damp and hungry children. We all got to use the sponges for the first time yesterday, with a warning from Melly not to use ‘too much’, for it would get her in trouble just as much us. I’m really enjoying the ‘dragged through a hedge backwards look’.

My evening ending with meeting my friend Sarah and her sister for dinner and to watch a play, but my mind was fix on the prospect of getting on the stage tomorrow.

Day 21 – “Back to England”

27th August

Crisis! When we arrived in our dressing rooms it appeared that someone had taken a blowtorch to our costumes. However, the burnt hems of dresses and mucky looking t-shirt were in actual fact the work of Pam (costume), or Auntie Pam as we like to call her. She had been getting them all dirty ready for our first day of tech.

It was an early start today, with our call for 9am, so we could have enough time to get ready and get to grips with the make-up, costumes and all the jazz. The girls were presented with the wax and mouse that would grease up our hair, along with make up to make us look grubby and slightly scorched. Getting the right amount of make up on our persons was a trial and error process I must admit, with many of us looking like chimney sweeps on our first go. Wrong production for that I think. After an hour we were all kitted out and ready to get on stage. Or rather, offstage…

Without wanting to reveal anything major and ruin the surprise, I won’t be able to share the start of the tech run with you. But it took a lot of practice, a few stumbles and slips and around ten runs just to make we were all happy with it. We were all learning on the job, all the little tech ins and outs, like waiting for the little green light to go on before we begin the performance. Not to mention getting to know the people involved in the tech. I’m talking about the stage management crew, comprising of Becky Loxton (Stage Manager) Sally C Roy (Deputy Stage Manager) and Jen Warner (Assistant Stage Manager) who are the loveliest group of ladies. Sally has been with us for the past four weeks in every rehearsal, keeping tabs on our movements throughout the play, as well as being a friendly face to go to if we had any queries. Sally is also hilariously funny as well, putting my nerves at ease on countless occasions. Becky and Jen are just as brilliant, and I commend them for putting up with our cheekiness onstage during tech.

Life Raft at Bristol Old Vic

Another exciting and beautiful addition that we got to see for the first time today was the stage draped in plastic. We have been using the plastic for Allan’s dream at the end of ‘Day 3’, but this was a whole new level of plastic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much plastic in all my life. When I say it was everywhere I mean EVERYWHERE. On its own, the plastic has a gorgeous yet haunting appeal, but with added lighting from Tim Streader (Lighting Designer) the plastic is illuminated in an awe-inspiring way. It creates a transparency, adding to the heightened sense of reality, as well as enchaining the dynamic breath of the Bristol Old Vic stage.

It was a very successful first tech run, getting much further ahead than we thought, putting the team in a great position for tomorrow. We also all got given Life Raft t-shirts today. Courtnei (playing Enid) and her Mum had organised for us all to get t-shirts with our names and the show printed on them. I love mine, it has to be one of my favourite tops!

Day 22 – “I’m thirteen”

August 28th

I arrived at the theatre an hour earlier than call time. Alyssa (playing Margret) arrived not long after me. It was after a long chat about rehearsals and the show, and how it feels as though this process has been so short yet we cannot remember a time without doing Life Raft. We then came to the realisation that we only have 6 days left of production. I cannot believe how fast this has gone! It feels like only yesterday we were introducing ourselves back in February, ready to begin rehearsals. Look how far we have come. There is both a sense of achieving something and at the same time a great sense of loss, that soon this will all be over. Still, not wanting to wish away the next week, Alyssa and myself both decided that we should savour all the time we have left and celebrate how far we’ve come as a company, remembering all our hard work and the fun we’ve had doing it.

Right back into tech, and away we go. Today’s tech seemed a little more complicated, and there were many more stops and starts. All for good a cause, for the more lighting and music added to the show, the more it all seemed to piece together and the closer we get to opening night!

I’m also having to keep tabs on all the different movement or placing changes given by Melly throughout the run. Being in the theatre has not only meant the addition of lighting and sound, but also we have had to adapt our positioning on stage so that everything is clear and visible for the audience. Even thinking about having an audience in now fills me with anticipation.

Most of our tech was spent working on transitions and dream sequences. Particularly the anxiety dreams for the children between ‘Day 2’ and ‘Day 3’. Due to our playing space shape altering, we are all having to get use to expanding our actions and changing actions. Our dreams had been reduced to small, sharp movements to mimic the stress, but once they were put on stage it was clear that they would need to be enhanced in order to be displayed clearly. It is incredibly important to portray these small moments of distress soundly, for they give an insightful glimpse into the underscore of trauma that not only runs through their own lives, but acts as the backbone of the production also.

Life Raft at Bristol Old Vic

I must also commend the patience of Charlie (playing Foxy). The character of Foxy has absolutely no lines in the play, despite being one of the driving forces in the production. Charlie has had one of the hardest tasks out of all of us, for even though his character is not engaged in the action verbally, his concentration levels and engagement in the scene must be constant. That sounds incredibly tough, complete focus throughout. Foxy is one of the most compelling characters and Charlie does such an amazing job at portraying that essential silence that envelopes Foxy. Yet, despite Foxy’s silence, in a strange and moving way, he is loudest of all the characters.

Photos by Jack Offord

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


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