Life Raft: Rehearsal Diary – Week 3

by Amy Kemp, Company Member

Day 13 – “If we all look out for ourselves we’ll be OK”

17th August

I was reading Max Johns’ interview about Life Raft, and a particular part caught my eye. He mentioned the design of the show felt ‘incredibly urgent and political in today’s climate’ with a ‘surge in media images of refugees drifting on makeshift rafts in the Mediterranean’. It was the only this morning that I was sat next to a lady called Susan on the bus, who asked me directions to the Watershed. After a while, she began to tell me her story, about how she had lived in Syria and then moved to the UK. She began to get very upset, describing how she had lost everything, remembering only harrowing images of her war torn country. I did my best to comfort her, both of us getting off at the center and parting ways. Susan’s story struck me in a way that I cannot shake, and has added a new level of understanding about what the children in Life Raft might have experienced that is just too real to remove.

Amy in rehearsal for Life Raft

Today was a difficult day of rehearsals. As a company we have not until this point rehearsed so intensely together, so tiredness and concentration levels are on the edge. Our work is still strong, but having a cast of thirteen brings difficulties in itself. Being focused and ready to pick up your lines is tough in such a large group, especially when we move into new sections of the script. It was a rehearsal full of giggles and chatty outbursts, but despite this the company worked extremely hard to get through into ‘Day 4’.

And we did. Toby and I had a session working on our scene together at the start of ‘Day 4’. It is a very intimate scene between Allan and Ann, for their relationship has built up to a moment of hysteria from Allan, who has become fanciful and opportunistic. Whilst Ann attempts to bring some gravitas to the situation, she too is swept away by his spooky yet captivating ideals. The connection between these two is so important, and I think Toby and I are both aware that when we are staging these scenes with Melly, that we must think carefully about what they represent. I feel very lucky to get these small rehearsal periods with Melly, because we really get to focus on the minute details. For instance, today we explored the levels of trust vs. manipulation in their relationship; finding out where the balance lies.

There were more tears from me as we heard some more music composed by Dave. During the funeral of Lilly, Zara poses as the Virgin Mary and sings a Eulogy. A peacefully solemn melody that caused me to tear up during the scene the first time. Most actors long to produce real tears on stage, but it is an even greater task for me to hold them back. This might be because it is very easy to get deeply invested in the emotional journey of the characters, I am sure my fellow cast members would agree that it is extremely hard not to do so. We were then taught an accompaniment for the song, giving it a mighty stance within the scene, and enhancing an atmosphere of unity.

I met my friend for dinner in the evening. It was nice to see a familiar face (as I am staying away from home for the month) and to catch up on all the general and results day gossip. But my adventure away is worth it – there is so much joy in being involved with Life Raft. The week ahead promises to be special and I cannot wait to begin!

Day 14 – “There are a pair of lovers on the boat”

18th August

I’ve only just released how privileged we are as a company, for we are getting to create these characters, along with Melly, almost completely from scratch. It is really exciting to shape and mold a character, so much so that you become very precious of them. Ann has become my little baby, in a fashion, and I feel as though I know as much about her as I do myself, which is weird and amazing all at the same time. I do feel very fortunate for having the opportunity to create Ann… Just a quick first thought of the morning.

I arrived super early as I had forgotten my script and revisited the lines for ‘Day 4’, which I was dreading slightly. My lines seem to multiply in ‘Day 4’ as Ann assumes the position of leader because of (spoiler alert) Allan’s injury. It is a very intense day, where we see the effects of hysteria in all of the characters. Many of the lines become biblical and preached, and sweet characters such as Archie (played by Llewy Godfrey) are overwhelmed with darkness. It was important to get that intensity exactly right, so for a part of the rehearsal we worked on the language, the warning in our tonalities, and the affect this has over the group.

The manipulation running its course through Allan and Ann’s relationship finally comes to light. Allan’s constant reference to marriage is shared by Ann in a moment of aggression, where there could potentially be bloodshed. What I have learnt about Ann is that she doesn’t like conflict, or mess and gore for that matter. She will do almost anything to prevent it, and her suggestion of marriage as a ceremony that will break the ‘thirteen curse’ is evidence of this. We all know that with a wedding, comes kissing…

Now, I cannot speak for Toby, but kissing on stage isn’t a problem for me. It is always awkward at first, as it is a staged kiss. Having had a cheeky snog on stage before, I was no stranger to the weird staged world of kissing in front of a crowd of people. What I hadn’t prepared myself for, which I should have expected knowing the company, the over the top hysterical laughter and uncontrollable excitement over the Allan and Ann kiss. Particularly from Callum (playing Sam), he could not help but wet himself at even the thought of us kissing, and would constantly ask probing questions. After the embarrassment of everyone’s giggling and getting over the first attempts, like true professionals, Toby and I were completely comfortable, and totally over it.

We managed to power through ‘Day 4’ with plenty of time to spare, so we took a short break, then started on ‘Day 5’. Due to many cuts and changes to the script, lines for today were rusty from everyone. Luckily we had already roughly staged this day during the Saturday rehearsals, so we were able to get through the motions, with help on the words when required. My makeshift sail veil came back into play, and Melly decided that Toby and I will be singing a duet as Ann walks down the aisle. I will now spend my evening learning the hymn ‘Abide With Me’ by William H. Monk.

Day 15 – “Let the world bear witness!”

19th August

Something unexpected happened to me today. Walking to the theatre, I bumped into Susan who I had met only this Monday on the bus. We had a quick catch up and she told me a bit more about her job. A pleasantly surprising way to start the day.

What an amazing day of rehearsals. The room was so positive and full of life, with a new found energy and excitement brought about by Melly’s absolute genius. Before we began, Melly sat us all down in a circle for a group heart to heart. She explained to us how she has worked on productions with a similar ‘solemn intensity’, and how living this journey as an actor, you naturally and unconsciously carry some of the plays tension into your own life, affecting your responses and relationships. We all agreed that this had had a strain on us as a company, with many of us being asked to carry a great deal of weight in terms of emotional intensity. So, Melly came up with a brilliant solution. Each of us would tell the person to the left of us in the circle three great things about them. This was a beautiful way to bring the cast back together, and it was so lovely to appreciate everyone’s brilliance as people as well as actors. I went last, and to my left was Melly. Due to my sensitive soul, I did get very teary, but I stand by everything I said. Melly is a genius, is the most incredibly passionate teacher, and we are so lucky to have her in the rehearsal room.

Amy and Melly in rehearsals for Life Raft

This positive start to the day worked, and the rest of the rehearsal was one of the best we’ve ever had. After one of Miriam’s super warm ups, we began work on the wedding scene and the dancing, or as we like to call it, the ‘Swan Rave’. We revisited the swan puppet work devised with Corina on the 8th August, as well as adapting the dance. Dave reminded us of the wedding rave song, and we loosely pieced all these elements together. This day is one of the most euphoric moments in the play. It is an attack on all of the senses, and is exploding with uncontrollable energy.

The company left the room for a while, allowing Charlie Leaver (playing Foxy) to stage a technically challenging movement in the play. The rest of us scattered around the theatre; the company rehearsing the dance whilst Toby and I practiced ‘Abide With Me’. We found a quiet room and began to practice. Little did we know that the meeting on the floor below could hear our rehearsals… apologies if we interrupted anything!

There was even more excitement in the air, as we were about to run the performance, from ‘Day 1’ all the way to ALMOST the end of ‘Day 5’. So close to finishing! What an emotional journey that run was, one of our best ones yet and certainly the most exhilarating. It is one thing to work on a scene, but it is another thing to piece them all together and see what has been created. We all shared cheers and a group hug, feeling proud of all we have achieved so far!

Finishing of the day with games was a fantastic way to celebrate such an amazing day, full of hard work and overwhelming happiness.

Day 16 – “He must pay”

20th August

Two weeks from today and it will be opening night! It’s all getting very real…how exciting!

I wasn’t feeling 100% today, but powered through the rehearsal none the less. We are so close to staging the whole performance, and the anticipation of having a finished product can be felt throughout the company

We started the day with a group session receiving notes from yesterday’s run. Our performances develop and get stronger each time we run the show, and to be able to share our improvement was a good opportunity to understand where we needed to collectively up our game. The main notes revolved around making the main moments of shock, discovery and excitement even more extreme, heightening these moments to their fullest capacity, in order to demonstrate their significance. Another piece of sound advice given, was that, each time we run the show, to imagine we were speaking our lines and hearing the other lines for the very first time.

The main focus for today was to finalize the wedding scene, making sure the puppetry was perfect. Corina came into help finalize these movements. In order to bring these animals to life we needed to focus our attention onto the puppet, to give it ‘center stage’ making it appear as an independent body rather than being animated to appear real.

As Toby and I are not involved in the puppetry, we had a session with Dave, with Toby learning his new harmony for ‘Abide With Me’ as well as teaching us a new section of song for the ‘Swan Rave’. This new song uses a verse from the Hymn, but the melody is adapted to fit to Dave’s music from the wedding, where it will sit alongside singing from the rest of the company. It was great to get to integrate even more of the music into the performance, for it really set the tone of the piece, and enhances the already beautiful atmosphere.

After an unusually relaxing lunch, we marked through the end of ‘Day 5’. So near to the end (only one more day to complete)! I have spoken about the fast paced nature of the play and the sporadic number of lines any one character can have. In order to get perfect fluency of the lines, we do what I like to call ‘the circle of lines’. We all stand in a circle and pass around an object from person to person (in the past we’ve used the tin opener, Allan’s scarf… today we passed around a plastic tub). The idea is that every time you have a line, you grab for the object. The next person will grab the object from you, say their line, and so forth. This then mimics the idea of the lines urgency, almost tumbling over each other, not only adding to that childlike spontaneity, but making the scene much more engaging. It is also a fantastic way to learn the lines! Not wanting to reveal too much, I will leave the end of ‘Day 5’ for you to watch in the performance. However, what I will say is… we successfully completed ‘Day 5’!

The Life Raft company in rehearsals.

That only leaves one final day to go, which we began setting towards the end of the day. We improvised with the plastic sheets, imagining them to be waves that bob as the children throw their items into the sea. All will be revealed tomorrow!

Day 17 – “You can’t even say his name”

21st August 

What an emotional day. Finally the journey is complete, and the whole play has been staged! What an incredible feeling to have been able to work on such an amazing project, that is truly beautiful in all aspects. The most amazing thing is that there is still so much to look forward to!

To say we have finalized and polished ‘Day 6’ is something I only dreamed of doing. It is such an emotionally demanding day, which barely spans four pages of script. But its intensity is rattling. I personally love this day, and have been looking forward to it since we started rehearsing way back in February. The ending itself has been changed and flipped several occasions, much like the rest of the script, but the premise has remained the same. This is the final altercation between Allan and Ann, and this scene was both a physical and emotional struggle for Toby and myself… but also pretty fun to do as well. I really don’t want to reveal too much, so bear with me.

We started the day working on the transition from ‘Day 5’ into ‘Day 6’. There is a moment at the end of the play where the children throw all the remaining items on the raft into the sea. The symbolic gesture of throwing the objects out into the audience (not literally) was brought into play again. It is used at several moments in the piece, with Ann’s flask etc. So it was unanimously felt that this metaphorical throwing should be mirrored once again, this time with the help of Zara and Fionn, but again, you’ll have to watch the play to find out more…

Toby and I then had a session with Melly working on the final dramatic moments of the production. We were given some extra dialogue to run with, which will be drowned out in the production by loud music, wind, and the sound of engines, but it gave us clear intent as to what are characters were feeling. Despite the noises, the way the characters are feeling will be clearly expressed to the audience, resulting in a much more harrowing display. After the rest of the company joined us, we ran the whole of the final day, and there were many tears in the rehearsal room due to the distressing nature of the ending. This is by far my favorite movement in the whole production and I cannot wait, even more so now, to get to performing it.

Melly Still in rehearsal for Life Raft

A significant moment happened when Melly made the comparison between the way the children view the character of Foxy (played by Charlie Leaver), and the current political spark in the news about migrants coming into Britain from the Mediterranean. One of Allan’s lines in the final moments of the play refers to Foxy as lazy and greedy. There’s a parallel to the thought that Britain are only allowing ‘useful’ people to enter the country, and because Foxy is clearly shell-shocked and incapable of speaking, he is deemed useless and unworthy of food and other privileges. Think for a moment of the trauma this child must have been through, the violence of war, surrounded by death and ultimately fighting for his life on a ship that was supposed to give safe passage. The comparison made with his character and the people seeking refuge from places like Syria, is reflectively unnerving.

Dave had a session with us in the afternoon to add and adapt some of the vocals. We also were lucky enough to have a visit from a fight director, who worked on some of our more violent scenes, as well as the final moments of struggle in ‘Day 6’. Great day!

Photos by Jack Offord

Life Raft plays in Bristol Old Vic Theatre from 3-5 September. Find out more and book tickets here. Check back next week for more from the final week in the rehearsal room before tech.

Life Raft: A near-future dystopia – Fin Kennedy, Writer

When Melly Still first asked me to read German playwright Georg Kaiser‘s 1945 play The Raft of the Medusa, I couldn’t help but be struck by its bleakness. It is a play about survival, and human nature. But far from being about optimism, cooperation or triumph in adversity, it is about survival’s dark side: madness, paranoia, and the desperate need for control. The play examines how, under the pressure-cooker circumstances of a life and death situation, these instincts can cause us to turn on one another with lethal consequences.

The Raft of the Medusa was German playwright Georg Kaiser’s last play. Written in exile from Nazi Germany, it takes place on a lifeboat adrift in the Atlantic, filled with children after a passenger liner carrying British evacuees to Canada was torpedoed by German U-boats. Undiscovered for seven days, the thirteen children become obsessed with the idea that they are cursed, and that only some kind of macabre sacrifice will save them. It was Kaiser’s last play before he died and reflects his despair at seeing the civilised world he thought he knew tear itself apart.

It was shocking to discover that these events were supposedly based on a true story. My first port-of-call was to scour 1940s newspaper archives in the British Library in search of the original event – but strangely I could find no record of it. But in a way, it didn’t matter. Kaiser is also concerned with allegory, and with anatomising the psychological weaknesses in all human beings, which had so recently destroyed his home nation. My search did turn up plenty of triumphant tabloid reporting of Allied victories against the Germans – including the bombing of civilians. The play is a searing indictment of the adult world of which these children are a product.

This historical material was useful stimulus for a workshop week in 2013 with Bristol Old Vic Young Company, in which we deconstructed Kaiser’s original and built it back up again, adding more detail and personality to each of the characters than Kaiser had. (In the original, with the exception of Allan, Ann and Foxy, all the children simply have numbers rather than names). We also made two important further changes.

The first was to elide Allan and Ann’s culpability for the ending. In the original, Ann was the manipulative and malevolent force with Allan the innocent (though impotent) saviour. In our version, it is the nexus between the two of them which is to blame. (We also swapped which of them experiences the great howl of regret at the end).

The second big change was a steer from Bristol Old Vic’s Artistic Director Tom Morris, for which I remain grateful. Tom felt that the 1940s setting let a modern audience ‘off the hook’ – that the events in this context, though horrifying, could easily be written off as the baffling behaviour of a different age, when superstition was more powerful and people more easily-led. For Kaiser, there was nothing baffling about human beings turning on one another in the most brutal way. (Indeed, Kaiser had in turn taken his title from an 1819 painting by French Romantic painter Théodore Géricault, depicting the aftermath of another real-world naval wreck when the desperate crew resorted to cannibalism).

Any adaptation which is to remain true to Kaiser’s original intent would need to implicate its contemporary viewers as powerfully as its two historical predecessors.

And so it was that we alighted on a slightly timeless, though clearly modern, near-future dystopia, in which the children have grown up against a backdrop of a nameless war so long-lasting that none of them can remember anything else. That our version should be taking place as part of Bristol’s Green Capital year feels appropriate; if wars are fought primarily for resources, then the clear and present danger of climate change ought to galvanise us all.

In Melly Still’s and Bristol Old Vic Outreach’s stunning production, Life Raft does not make for easy viewing. But nor it is without hope. There are moments of kindness and selflessness; the fundamental decency which is childrens’ default mode is a strong bulwark against which the forces of hysteria must pit themselves for some time before they prevail.

Looking back on our process, I am comforted by the reminder that I found no evidence that the ‘real event’ which inspired this play ever actually happened. But the fact that we can imagine such an event in the theatre, our greatest arena for collective self-reflection, is our single best hope that it never will.

Photos by Jack Offord

Life Raft plays in Bristol Old Vic Theatre from 3-5 September. Click here to read exclusive diaries from the rehearsal room.

Martyr: Theatre as crucible for political debate – Ramin Gray, Director

Plays live – and die – in the world. Sometimes a play needn’t be a great work of art, it will serve it’s time and purpose better by simply being useful.

Having known this playwright since 2000 and directed two of his plays (The Ugly One and The Stone, both at the Royal Court Theatre), I can vouch for Marius von Mayenburg’s quality as an artist. But with Martyr he goes one step further serving up a piece that creates a space where we can confront one of the most pressing issues of our time: how should secular society deal with the challenge from extremism?

The idea of theatre as crucible for political debate isn’t new but von Mayenburg reinvigorates it here. Every scene is a model of compressed, almost Socratic dialogue as the author waltzes through the most urgent contemporary conflicts, highlighting the clash between fundamentalist and liberal positions on issues such as sexuality, race, equality, evolution and disability. And we the audience are pushed to decide where to draw the line.

Premiered at Berlin’s Schaubühne in 2011 and subsequently performed in Russian and Polish, the play has had an interesting trajectory, courting controversy in both those countries with their newly resurgent Christianity. In Germany and here in the UK (amongst the most secular European societies), one doesn’t feel especially threatened by the Christian church. Indeed, if there is a religion whose challenge to liberalism is most pressing, von Mayenburg goes out of his way not to name it. But with news stories such as Trojan Horse, school children leaving for ISIS and the Charlie Hebdo shootings, it’s not difficult to see how the play resonates today. And that, I think, is to be welcomed. Here is a play that sets out neither to provoke or soothe but which, by using the classic manoeuvre of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, allows us to see a clear pattern of cause and effect, thereby forcing debate.

A martyr, from the Greek ‘witness’, is someone who refuses to renounce a belief or cause of either a religious or secular nature. The German title, Märtyrer, encompasses both singular and plural making it clear that there may be more than one aspirant martyr in the play. By the end, one realises that von Mayenburg has in fact created a secular saint for today in the figure of biology teacher Erica White. She teaches, in passing, that ‘a theory is a model that helps you understand a complex matter’. In elegantly and humorously achieving this, von Mayenburg has provided us with possibly the most potent gift theatre can give: social utility.


Martyr plays at Bristol Old Vic from 9-12 September. Watch ATC Artistic Director Ramin Gray talk about the play here.

Life Raft: Rehearsal Diary – Week 2

by Amy Kemp, Company Member

Day 7 – “I hope your hands drop off”

10th August

The weekend had barely begun before we all found ourselves back in the rehearsal room ready to move forward into ‘Day 2’ on the life raft. Most of the days are more than ten pages of script long, so it was the aim to finish staging the second day during just two days of rehearsal… can it be done?

Amy and Toby in rehearsals for Life Raft.

Amy and Toby in rehearsals for Life Raft.

The script for this show is really a beautiful thing. Not only because it forces these children to deal with these universal dilemmas, but also the narrative and the emotional development of the piece mimics a child’s emotional journey. We are only on ‘Day 2’, and even now there is a radical change in the hysteria and morality amongst them, with life changing decisions being made in a snap instant, most without a conscious thought for their repercussions. The nature of the play suddenly becomes unpredictable and insecure, reflecting a child’s erratic behaviour, with a more serious edge.

This slightly darker element to the performance naturally must be accompanied by violence and blood, and blood on stage brings the difficult task for the design and stage team of deciding how to make these moments of bleeding look effective. We are thrown into blood and injury in ‘Day 1’ where the character of Amy has shrapnel wounds horrifically cascading up her left side. ‘Day 2’ promises even more of this. From blistered hands to a bleeding temple, we used the blood packs and various other gore inducing substances for the first time, and through a process of trial and error, we produce the most effective, honest and frightening looking injuries.

At lunch time we were introduced to Chloe, currently doing work experience at the theatre, who will be writing a little section about each of the cast members for the shows programme. She is also 17, which means that both of us will be collecting our AS exam results this Thursday coming, which I’m feeling very nervous about. It’s a good job the rehearsals are intensive, for it means I don’t have time to anticipate my results day.

Melly had finalised the devised work myself, Zara and Fionn did the previous Monday into Ann’s dream sequence at the end of ‘Day 1’. The task was to somehow implement Ann’s superstition of the thirteen children into her nightmares, which was much harder said than done. Once again Melly’s brain came up with a rather brilliant sentence for the three of us to play out, potentially baffling audience members in the process.

A good start to the week; I cannot wait to see what we do next.

Day 8 – “We’re not savages”

11th August

After a shaky start to the morning for me, Melly kick started the day with a pep talk to boost the company – ready for our morning run through. It was one of our less successful runs, but we were reminded once again (by our resident optimistic Director) not to disappear, to focus on how far we’d come in just a week and how much more we will achieve. What would we do without you Melly…?

Melly with the company in the rehearsal room.

Melly with the company in the rehearsal room.

The first half of ‘Day 2’ was complete, now all we needed to do was finish the rest. Despite this day only taking up ten pages of script, the action escalates rapidly, and the lines become a frenzy of confusion and aggravation. One of the challenges of working with a company of thirteen is that in some sections you could have as many as ten lines, then not say a word for the next few pages. On top of this, many of the lines sound the same and often merge together to keep up the pace. In terms of learning the lines and then keeping engaged in the action, it can be a challenge as a company to follow through with that engagement and stay motivated.

We had an afternoon session with Dave Price, composer of the music and sound for the show. At several poignant moments in Life Raft, the children begin to sing chorally, highlighting the characters heightened state of reality. During our prior Saturday rehearsals, we choreographed, as a company, a somewhat futuristic, feel-good piece of dance using Moby’s ‘Go’ as a temporary track to move to. Using his musical expertise, Dave has composed his own music to accompany the rehearsed scene, adapting the beats in ‘Go’ to fit in with our dance. He even composed a melody for us, with harmonies and bass line to accompany it. The company had its first music session today, and for a first practice, we are sounding incredibly harmonious. On a personal note, I may have slightly fallen in love with Dave’s music…

Day 9 – “I thought maybe it was all a dream”

12th August

The day began with myself, Toby and Melly working on Ann and Allan’s dialogue at the beginning of ‘Day 3’. Upon first read, the scene reveals the great loss and sadness in Ann’s life but, to my surprise, the rehearsal proved the scene to be very funny. Underneath his sad reflections on the past, is Allan’s determination to convince Ann to marry him, just to plant the idea into her mind. The humour comes in Ann’s attempt to discourage him with morbid yet casual remarks about death anytime Allan comes close to being romantic. Compared to the other scenes between these two, this felt, for the first time, a natural conversation between two friends. This scene is slap bang in the middle of the play, after the initial meeting and before the chaos that ensues. I like to think of it as the calm before the storm.

Our full run of the script was the most eventful run-through so far. I managed to cut my hand on a tin (completely my fault) and when it came to the scene between Ann and Allan, the faint giggling from the sleeping children at the back of the stage filled the room – they were obviously finding the scene just as humorous as Toby and I had earlier! Melly soon sorted out the gigglers, and told them to go outside and run around until they had let out all their energy – she wasn’t joking either! My bad luck wasn’t over. When I decided to use some of the hand sanitiser conveniently placed on the wall, it hit me straight in the eye. It just didn’t seem to be my day…

To end the day, we revisited one of our very first pieces of devised work; our characters’ dream sequences. Back in March, which feels like a very long time ago, each company member used character analysis and information from the script to comprise individual dreams. Dividing up into groups of three and four, we helped to form mysterious worlds which revealed the desires and anxieties of our characters. For me, the most memorable of those was the dream I worked on with Courtnei and Callum Harrison-Deans (playing Sam)  – Sam’s dream centres on his strained relationship with his father, and we built upon this in the hope of exposing his anxieties.

Today we played with these dreams. We made each movement very limited, and the sounds strained and barely audible. Spaced out around the makeshift stage (marked out with tape on the floor), we began to recite our dreams all at once. These small movements were then contrasted with swift movements from Zara and Fionn, moving the chairs around the set into their positions for ‘Day 3’. These chaotic contrasts are reflective of the children’s fears for the days to come, and while it is not clear what they are dreaming of, the isolation and jarred movements clearly reveal their worries. We also did some devised work on interactions between Zara and Fionn, or as we like to call them, Zionn! Eventually Melly settled on a moment of us breaking away from our dreams as either of Zionn brushed past us. Marked with a sharp intake of breath, there would be a moment of stillness for a brief second, until we eventually melted back into our dreams.

Fionn and Zara in rehearsals for Life Raft

Fionn and Zara in rehearsals for Life Raft

Day 10 – “Who’s evil? This is democracy”

13th August

A Level results day…dun dun dun…

Due to rehearsals I was unable to pick up my AS results from college, so my head of Sixth Form Mr Roger Madge (shout out to Roger) rang me in the morning to reveal my grades. It is fair to say that I was extremely pleasantly surprised with them… I managed to do more than pass which was unexpected! This positive start to the day definitely made me even more ready for the day of rehearsals ahead…

Courtnei bought me a congratulations cake (which the company shared over lunch), and after celebratory hugs of relief from Zara and Melly, we got going with setting more of ‘Day 3’. ‘Day 3’ is full of tension. It is the day they ‘democratically vote’ for who deserves the remainder of the dwindling food and water supplies. They each must state why they are valuable to the boat. However, their voting system is significantly corrupted – it’s flawed with discrimination and strict rules. Despite most of the children objecting, they are silenced under Allan’s harsh dictatorship (which Toby Yapp portrays excellently, with equally brilliantly bullish performances from Enid and Alfie). With the only voice of reason having been mortally wounded, who will defend the weak?

What I love about Fin Kennedy’s script is the embedded modern themes such as corruption of government. The way Allan’s leadership evolves (from working as a unit to survival of the fittest) is incredibly complex. The play allows us to see the intricate journey of his leadership and how he is forced into the role of a hardened tyrant – at first respected, then feared.

Whilst it is unanimously agreed that Allan’s character journey is the most explicit, each individual is shaped by their experience on the life raft. We have to remember that they have each had a life before the play begins, growing up in a dystopian war torn world that has had equal impact on their personalities. I was discussing this with fellow cast member Tilly Bennett (playing Margot) towards the end of the day. We brainstormed a backstory for Margot and I’m excited to see the end result. Her character is driven by her religious beliefs, and she makes with continuous reference to the bible which all back up Ann’s superstitions about the number 13. It is also important to establish just how much of the war these children have experienced, alluding the psychological damage they have endured…

Day 11 – “Use your penknife”

14th August

Tiredness. It seemed to be the theme for the morning, myself afflicted too. The rehearsals are amazing and I am learning an incredible amount about the process of making a production, and I’m working with some amazing people. However, the emotional journey of the play is exhausting.

As I have mentioned before, the action of the play is heightened due to a number of the elements – the war, the lack of food… This makes the play fast paced and emotionally spontaneous which, as an actor, is a tough emotional ride to be on. I find myself, particularly at the end of ‘Day 2’, trying extremely hard not to get upset. Luckily it is in my characters interests to be upset over the shocking actions, but it is almost surprising how emotionally invested I myself become when I am living that journey. Producing real tears does give a natural advantage into adding realism into the character, but after a full run through I am drained emotionally as well as physically.

Some fight choreography was devised today between Llewy Godfrey (Archie), Oscar Adams (Alfie), Jacob Bishop-Ponte (Roger) and Toby Yapp (Allan). It was important to be extremely careful with the fight, and each individual move was assigned by Melly so that no one was hurt. It was exhilarating and yet scary to watch, for it began to look incredibly real. My chosen quote for today is “use your penknife”, and I have chosen it for good reason. I guess you’ll just have to watch the show to find out…

The company rehearse.

Our second musical session with Dave Price sounded even more beautiful than the last. He has composed an adaptation of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ that we’ll sing as a company. Melly was keen to include a Gregorian chant-style piece of music, and Dave’s compositions create an enchanting atmosphere that mimics that of being in a church, voices soaring and yet very solemn. I cannot help but sing his praises, Dave has done it again.

Day 12 – “Oh no, it’s Lilly, she’s…”

15th August

Only a handful of us were called for this Saturday’s rehearsal, which turned out to be extremely peaceful. It was only a short three hour call, specifically to rehearse the scene of Lilly’s funeral, and Allan’s dream. We worked separately on those scenes, with Tilly and Alyssa Thomas (Margaret) working on a ‘funeral at sea’ for the doll, and myself and Toby working with Zara and Fionn to create the dream that inspires Allan.

Max Johns’ set for Life Raft is draped in plastic and will be lit spectacularly on the Bristol Old Vic stage. Today was our first taste of using plastic, and Zara and Fionn created a gentle sail like wave, moving it as though it were blowing in the wind. Zara then had the task of maneuvering it into a veil, draping it over herself to embody a vision of the Virgin Mary which Margot sees during the heightened emotional state of Lilly’s death.

After a quick tea break in the green room, we headed back to the rehearsal room. I never thought playing with plastic could be so much fun! Fionn poses as Ann’s uncle in Allan’s dream, and the large plastic acts as a smoke screen, which only adds to the dreamlike atmosphere. But the plastic is extremely thin, and it does break the illusion slightly when you rip it…by mistake of course…

Photos by Jack Offord

Life Raft plays in Bristol Old Vic Theatre from 3-5 September. Find out more, and book tickets, here. Check back next week for more from the rehearsal room.

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