Sunday, October 24, 2010

'After you left, I felt dead...completely empty...'

...says Tilly in a letter to Frank.

I've just finished the final performance in this, Tilly No-Body's first incarnation. Before the show started, Miles had already left Davis to drive back to LA, and as I watched the set being taken down after the performance, I felt dead, completely empty.

Incarnating a character is a curious, mysterious and somewhat unsettling experience. Although I know we're performing the show again in a month's time at a big conference at UC San Diego - the UCIRA's 'State of the Arts' conference - I feel bereft.

I am back in my apartment. Dead. Completely empty.

I could barely walk the mile home, my bones were so weary. I was too tired to eat, yet managed to sup on a piece of lovely fish that Miles had left in the fridge. Did I want to take myself to the movies? Not really. Did I want to compile a list of all the things that I have to do next week, now that the delicious and overwhelming distraction of Tilly has gone? I suppose so. Get some order into life. Did I want to contact my folks? Yes, that would be nice. A short email, just to let them know I'm here. Did I want to take down the pictures of Frank and Tilly that have surrounded my desk for the last 10 months, since I started writing the play? Uh-uh! Not yet. Not ready to wipe the slate that clean yet.

I can however share a few secrets with you now - things I didn't want to say before in case they spoiled the moments...

I start the play in a big trunk on stage. The only way into the trunk is through its lid. That means I have to be in the trunk before the audience arrive. So for 15 minutes before the play begins, I am scrunched in a trunk - in 5 costumes (a body stocking, a trapeze artist's outfit, a pierrot costume, a ringmaster's woollen jacket and boots, a huge fur coat and a hat ). When we first tried this in the technical rehearsal, I was worried I might get claustrophic or just simply too hot. I had a flask of ice cold water, which - even if I didn't drink it - I could cool my sweaty palms on. What I discovered, however, was that it was blissfully calming. It's like a womb in there. I can hear muffled sounds as the audience arrive. A few footsteps. The odd laugh or cough. But it's dark and cosy and zen. Often, backstage chatter before a show can be a little unsettling, particularly if you have a role involving a lot of concentration. Here, I could just be with my breathing, my imagination, and Tilly's story. The first I knew that the show was starting was the announcement to switch off mobile phones, and then...the first few notes of the opening music and we're off... Out I crawl, like a bewildered animal...

The other secret I want to share with you is the moment in the show when I....

No, maybe that should still remain a secret...

As for walking on the 28" acrylic circus ball - yes, I am as terrified as I look. In the rehearsal room it was easy to balance as there was full light, so I could spot a place out front and focus on that. Here on stage I'm blinded by bright lights and gazing out into the total darkness of the auditorium. Added to which, the sprung dance floor in the Vanderhoef Studio means that walking on the globe has a slight bounciness to it that wasn't there with the harder floor of the rehearsal room. And as for Miles, Reed and Sabba suggesting that I also play the lute and sing a song while walking on the globe...why did I ever think that was a good idea? There is no acting required at this moment. I repeat: I am as terrified as I look.

And yet, what wouldn't I do for that fear now...?

Back to the silence of my apartment. The sound of cars on the rain-drenched street. Fall has arrived in Davis, and it's as wet as it is back home in England.

Miles has phoned me a few times in the last hour on his way back to LA. But the network keeps breaking up. Communication is down. Dead. Completely empty.

I think it's time for some quiet contemplation. Although (I repeat) I'm not yet letting go of Tilly and this is just the beginning not the end, I do find as an actor that a little part of your soul is relinquished whenever a run of a show finishes. Energy, time, emotions are expended at vast rates. And then suddenly...nothing. No 7pm adrenalin kick. Instead... A minor bereavement. A brief time of mourning.

Acting and Creating Identity Symposium

Friday October 22. The day was spent hosting and partipating in a one-day symposium springboarding off Tilly Wedekind's life into issues of how we micro-manage and create our own identities. Participants came from across disciplines, campuses and countries. From 10am in the morning till 10pm at night, discussions of who we are and why we are abounded. We also addressed issues of practice as research.

Session 1: Creating and Acting the Wedekind Identity was chaired by Simon Williams, Chair of Theatre and Dance at UC Santa Barbara. Himself a Wedekind scholar, he was eager - as indeed was I - that he should be part of the event. The colorful and eternally insightful Gail Finney (Professor of German and Comparative Literature) gave the first presentation on Wedekind and Lulu: A Cultural Context: here she put the specifics of Frank and his writings in the much broader context of sexual politics in the Western world at the turn of the 19th-20th century. The second presentation was from my German collaborator, Margret Greiner, who had flown with her husband (Professor Bernhard Greiner) all the way from Munich. Her evocative, passionate and intellectually witty contribution - Frank and Tilly: 'Marriage is the most relentless of human addictions' - provoked questions of whether Tilly was a victim or a colluder in her own situation: nothing is black-and-white in gritty drama. As the third contributor, I addressed Tilly No-Body as a piece of practice-as-research, and how I had striven to turn archives, biography, letters, plays and original interpretation of events into theatre, song and present-tense experience of the researched material.

Session 2: Creating Identity: Performative contributions from writers exploring Practice-as-Research brought together three professional writers - playwright Lucy Gough, poet Andy Jones and novelist Lucy Corin. All three are also academics, Andy J and Lucy C here at UC Davis, and Lucy G at the University of Aberstywth in Wales, UK. Lucy G led us intimately and honestly into the processes she adopts as a writer incarnating numerous personalities through her one imagination. She described how she 'walks' her way into characters, revealing that writing is far from a sedentary, head-locked activity, and she compared her experiences of writing for theatre and radio with writing for day-time TV soap (which she did on a weekly basis of 10 years). Andy Jones blended poems from Browning and Eliot with his own original poetry, illustrating how personalities are incarnated and dialogues created through condensed imagery and language: indeed, both of his own performed poems took a dialogue form between two characters in a very intriguing manner. Lucy Corin demonstrated through her readings of her own prose work the way in which she changes narrative voice - from first person to third person - while always playing with her own 'presence' as the writer in a narrative. Listening to Lucy reading her various characters, I was struck by her changing rhythms and the naturally shifting placement in her voice: having described herself as 'not a performer', her performative self was embedded and intuitive, and so I would have to disagree with her own description!

Session 3: Shaping Identity: A discussion panel was chaired by choreographer and Chair of UCD Theatre and Dance department, David Grenke, whose own choreographic work resonates with autobiography and expression of identity. The discussion opened with a virtual presentation by Bernadette Daly Swanson of the Shields Library, who is an infectious energy when it comes to propounding Second Life, the online virtual world where people re-structure and recreate their identities through avatars. This was fascinating. Bernadette was sadly not well enough to appear in the flesh, but her virtual appearance was extremely appropriate. Her introduction to Second Life - and the disparity between people's avatars and their actual faces, contrasted with the appropriateness of their avatars to their own voices - was extremely fascinating. It of course raised issues with Dave and his fellow panel member, actor Miles Anderson, of the role of the body in expressing and performing identity. Both Dave and Miles had incarnated Hitler at various times in their professional careers, and they had both encountered issues of their own shifting personalities when finding themselves afraid that they might empathise with some of Hitler's rationale. Miles also discussed performing Peter Pan at the age of 30-something, and finding his own inner child activated by the role while also being intrigued at Peter Pan's dark side. I was particularly struck by his connection to Pan's statement that death would be 'an awfully big adventure'. Fourth panel member, David Orzechowizc - a PhD student in Sociology - gave some fascinating insights into how actors in theme parks micro-manage their emotions and identities, not only in response to the 'feel good' factor of daily life in a theme park, but also in terms of gender portrayal and a sense of liberation behind the larger-than-life characters incarnated there. One of the recurring themes with Tilly No-Body is the paradoxical way in which we often reveal more of ourselves when we adopt masks and characters, or hide behind veils (and Tilly loves veils).

Session 4: Acting and Performing Identity: Examples of Practice-as-Research brought together four very inspiring PhD students from across the campus. Daniel Grace (English) raised issues of what it signifies to call yourself 'a writer' and how he feels in the process of writing. Dylan Bolles (Performance Studies) and his talented wife combined music and story-telling to open up issues of moving from Korea to the USA. Claire Maria Chambers (Performance Studies) looked at the performance of religion on the streets of San Francisco during Ash Wednesday and the crossing of lines between performance and reality. And Nita Little (Performance Studies) - an immensely gifted choreographer who specialises in improvised dance - demonstrated her use of actual body and virtual body (using quite a different definition from Bernadette in Second Life). She also described the dancer's desire to keep moving forward, as - in the moments of stillness - the present-tense can be too potent for the dancer. This raised some very interesting questions for me in terms of the actor's desire to be 'in the moment', and what stage fright might mean to a dancer.

The symposium culminated in a performance of Tilly No-Body and a post-show reception, which brought together the contributors and the sponsors of the event (Carolyn de la Pena and Jennifer Langdon from the Davis Humanities Institute; Laura Grindstaff from the Consortium for Women and Research; as well as representatives from the Departments of German, English and Theatre and Dance). The whole day was very filling and fulfilling, and I felt that seeds had been planted for further interdisciplinary discussions and collaborations. This for me is the true harmony of practice and research, of performance and pedagogy.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Week 6: Entry 4: What the reviewers said...

'Resurrected soul: Exhilarating play explores the nature of acting, identity... The magic begins the moment one enters the Mondavi Center's Vanderhoef Studio where set designer, John Iacovelli, has created an old-style circus ring... Composer/sound designer David Roesner's jazzy music fills the air... Watching the talented Merlin at work is a privilege. She's a consummate performer: under Miles Anderson's direction, she thoroughly embodies the character of Tilly... Costume designer Maggie Morgan has done a masterful job with the layers of Tilly's wardrobe... The mood is greatly enhanced by Thomas J. Munn's lighting design... I cannot leave out the wonderful puppet creations of John Murphy... In Tilly No-Body, Merlin gives Tilly Wedekind a body again: the result is entertaining, informative and utterly delightful.' (Bev Sykes, The Davis Enterprise)

'Tilly No-Body is now Tilly Some-Body: Thanks to the versatility, energy and spot-on acting by star Bella Merlin, Tilly No-Body: Catastrophes of Love, presented by the Theatre and Dance department is truly spectacular.' (Lea Murillo, The Muse)

Star rating: **** from Jeff Hudson in the Sacramento News and Review: 'Bella Merlin sings, plays the lute, manipulates puppets and even does a circus trick'.

Week 6: Entry 3: It's all in the timing

Time on stage is utterly strange.

As an actor, I've always liked to know how long a particular night's show runs. Fluctuations in minutes can be very revealing. Partly because of the importance of rhythm in acting: our emotions are very alterable through changing rhythm, and finding the appropriate rhythm for a scene can be exactly how to unlock its inner and outer life.

In a solo show, you become even more aware of time, as you're the only one governing and guiding the audience's journey. There was one performance this week which felt as if it was three hours long. And yet when Reed gave me the timing, it turned out to be 70 minutes - our shortest show yet. Indeed, he suggested that it actually felt rushed. For me, it was like swimming through treacle. I suspect there's a piece of research in the study of experiencing time on stage and in an audience, if I can work out how to articulate, monitor and evaluate the findings intelligently.

One piece of timing this week which was wonderful was the publication of the reviews... (While I'm not great at blowing my own trumpet, I suspect that should be another blog entry in its own right.) With regard to timing, there are only 5 shows left, and we really want to be sure as many people get to see the play as possible, given the amount of time and energy that so many creative beings have put into this. Although I don't tend to place undue weight on reviews, a good review can certainly boost audience numbers. And just knowing you're going out of stage with a good energy surrounding a production is infinitely more pleasurable than feeling that you're in a dud. Every actor on stage wants to have a good Time, as indeed does every audience.

Week 6: Entry 2: Captured forever

Tuesday night. Pick-up call (i.e. the rehearsal after a break in a show's run). As it was, we'd only had the Monday night off, and so it had been planned that this rehearsal would also be a perfect occasion to have the play filmed. Under the wonderful auspices of Joseph Rodriguez from the UCD Media unit, three camera operators and a truck, in which Joe undertook a live edit, appeared at the Mondavi Centre.

There was such a wonderful, calm atmosphere in the auditorium. Last week had involved four performances, at which reviewers had been present on every night. The natural excitement and adrenalin had obviously impacted on my inner rhythm. For some reason, tonight as we recorded, I seemed to open out into the show, to take my time, to let moments breathe. And indeed, we ran at 75 minutes, whereas the usual running time for Tilly No-Body is about 72. I'll talk about stage time in another blog, but the strange thing here was the paradox of an empty auditorium and the sense that I could expand Tilly out into that space. It was really fun.

I had mistakenly thought that if anything went wrong, we'd be able to go back and re-record. As it is, that's not Joe's remit. Since the University recordings serve as educational resources, then nothing is edited: if something goes wrong, then that in itself serves as a useful learning experience for the viewer and the educator to comment on.

As it was, only two things went wrong: the champagne bottle failed to magically appear, and the follow-spot went off at a noticeable moment. Neither of these was hugely detrimental to the show, and fortunately I didn't stop to try and correct them, or that would have formed part of the final film. Which wouldn't have been that great for my purposes. Not only do I want this to be an educational resource, but I also want to be able to send it out to prospective venues, symposia, and conferences, for future tours. Not to mention my overwhelming desire to share the play with my parents back in the UK. My mother and father have been devoted supporters of my own and my siblings' work all our lives. Indeed, the three shows I've done here at UC Davis - Elephant's Graveyard, The Seagull and Tilly No-Body are the only three productions in my life to which my parents haven't been able to come. I suspect that's something of a disappointment on both sides of the pond.

Knowing, therefore, that the film was capturing the production forever and for various purposes, actually gave me less anxiety than I'd anticipated and, curiously, more presence. A paradox, but a pleasurable one. Joe has informed me that the film will be sent to UCTV, a service run from UC San Diego for all the UC system. He has also told me that hits can run into the millions! Well, that would be a treat and delight. But for the time being, just knowing my family can share this enormous journey with me will be satisfaction enough.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Week 6: Entry 1: As the show unfolds

Acting is a very strange activity. And this show is a particularly curious beast. Tilly No-Body is very much about dialogue: that might sound strange given that it's a one person show. Yet, dialogue, as I've previously mentioned, can be with a prop, a sound cue, a lighting state, a piece of the set, and of course the audience. Therefore, every night feels very different, as the audience is such an important part of the experience, witnessing Tilly's journey, sharing Tilly's decisions, celebrating her successes and fearing for her failures.

So far we've had three more shows since the first night. Friday night included a talk-back, which was terrific. The audience's questions and responses were so intelligent and interested, illustrating the fact that not only had they followed the play attentively - and it's quite a demand on an audience with regard to narrative - but they had also been provoked by the issues. I could tell that some of the audience members were students perhaps assigned papers on the play, and they were so astute in their questioning. This is one of the exciting aspects of working in an environment that encourages excellence in practice, research and teaching: all three aspects of which interweave with this project. There's an element of intellectual curiosity, as well as enjoyment of shared story-telling. The educational part of the project is important to both myself and Miles, and we were delighted at the way in which both Reed and Sabba contributed so fulsomely to the talk-back, taking centre stage so that actor and director could stay on the sidelines.

Saturday night was a strange night for me, as suddenly the props seemed to have a life of their own. The Frank puppet decided to fall off his chair. The walking globe decided to take a stroll around the set. One of the hats decided to attach itself to my boot. The pompoms on the pierrot costume decided to pop off whenever they felt like it. I firmly believe in what the Polish director, Jerzy Grotowski, advocates: discipline encourages spontaneity. This show is very tight in terms of where everything is placed and the exact timing of moments. That allows for me to feel safe enough in the structure to be playful and unexpected. However...I could rehearse this play till the cows come home, and the props and costumes might still develop a life of their own.

Another anomaly of acting is that time loses all its usual structure. The show - on stage - felt very slow to me, and sometimes I almost felt as though I were wading through treacle. And yet, we ran at one minute faster than usual. Certainly, the audience was very warm, and Reed's dad was in, so I wanted it to be a good show to reflect Reed's contribution.

The Sunday matinee was interesting, in that the energy a performer has at 2pm is quite different from 8pm. I'd had a lovely breakfast, the day was a little rainy with the signs of Fall in the air, and I was really looking forward to the performance. During the show, I became aware of what a challenge the piece is to the actor: while the stages of Tilly's decline into madness might be cumulative for the audience, they are very episodic for me as the actor. In some ways, I hop in and out of the emotional content far more than the audience does: they are able to share in her journey, while I as the actor have to be a little bit more of a puppeteer, guiding the character through the turbulent seas. At the end of the performance, I walked out into the autumnal afternoon, and felt a great deal of affection for Tilly. What a strange life she led! What a strange thing acting is! What a delicious thing live performance is! Vulnerable and life-affirming, at one and the same time.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Week 5: Entry 4: First Night

What a lovely audience! They just seemed to get it. They laughed in the right places. They fell silent in the right places. They expressed their spontaneous appreciation of moments with a flutter of applause. They were just great friends to share the auditorium with. This play is about audiences and actors and the relationship between the two, and this audience was very good fun.

Actors have no real purpose without an audience. And Tilly uses the audience as a friend, a confidant, someone to whom she can confess true feelings, and give them some insight into how she feels about Frank and his plays. I don't like audiences to feel they don't have an importance and an input, which is why I love live theatre. It's a new thing every night, and it's very exciting to feel the atmosphere that can exist.

This is quite a short entry, because I'm just off to warm up for the second night. I like second nights even more: there's something slightly more 'real' about second nights. It's the 'real' show. Last night, some of the props played up: they were mischievous. Not that that really bothers me: I like anything being a partner - a prop, a costume, a sound effect. But I'm looking forward to feeling the play's real rhythm and story telling. It takes me about 3 1/2 hours to prepare for this show. From 5.30-6.00, I warm up my voice and body, and scamper through some lines. From 6.00-6.20pm, I warm-up the theatre space, tuning the lute and testing out a few other little things. From 6.20-6.40, we curl my hair. From 6.40-6.55, I put on the make-up. From 6.55-7.15pm, we finish styling the hair. From 7.15pm-7.25pm, I sit quietly and contemplate a few photos of Tilly, Frank and their children which are stuck to my dressing room mirror. From 7.25-7.40, we get the costumes on. From 7.40-8.00pm.... Well, you'll have to come and see the show to find out what happens for those 20 minutes...

Week 5: Entry 3: Dress

Dress rehearsals are like a mini performance, and we were fortunate to have a number of students come along to form an audience. Suddenly the piece sprang into a whole new life. We suddenly were reminded just how funny the play is. Tilly is really quite a quirky character: she has humour and charm, and is touching in her desire to please. While we knew this was latent in the text, it took the live presence of the audience to ignite that dialogue and texture.

Just like tech rehearsals, I love dress rehearsals. There's an excitement and preparatory state, and Miles, Reed and Sabba have been perfect in creating a good, collaborative, working environment. And the Dress rehearsal is about Dress! And I have 6 wonderful costumes, which under the lights look even more impressive than in the fitting room.

Also, there's now hair and make-up. I have a terrific dresser, Myrelle - a Design major - who just knows how to create a perfect dressing room atmosphere. Myrelle has learnt how to do something with my hair to make it look appropriate to the period, and she's a natural. I've also been taught how to create an appropriate amount of dramatic make-up, with the dark German Expressionist eyes and the bright red lipstick. I find it hard to recognise the person looking back at me from the mirror. Myrelle is particularly good at creating a very calm atmosphere. She knows at what time we need to start curling the hair, at what time to step into the costumes (I wear 5 of them all at one time, so once I'm in them, there's no getting out! There's no last minute rush for a pee!). She's great at setting the personal props that are put in pockets in the costumes. She's terrific. And she's never done it before. She intuitively understands the rhythm of the backstage life and the gentle build-up to performance.

Week 5: Entry 2: Tech time: Let there be sound!

How our composer David Roesner got through the technical rehearsals is almost as impressive as the soundscape he has created. David stepped off the plane from the UK with no sleep for over 24 hours on Friday night and found himself straight in the technical rehearsals. On Saturday morning, the spotlight was metaphorically on him. David has designed a soundscape across 5000 miles and 8 hours' time difference, responding intuitively and artistically to many of our demands. Often he had nothing but a few moments of filmed rehearsal on YouTube, and yet the soundscape that he has created adds a texture and a personality to the production that I could never have imagined.

David often works against the dramatic texture of scene: if the scene is already melancholy, then he finds a pulse or a key that counterpoints that to add to the audience's emotional journey. If the scene is frenetic, he finds an atmospheric cranking up of tension in a different time signature from the written text. In this way, he weaves a whole new thread into the fabric of the production. There are times when the sound acts as a partner to the actor: Frank Wedekind's spirit is often conjured up by the soundscape. Other times, Tilly's inner state is revealed. Some of the melodies that I have written for the cabaret songs are reconfigured in motifs within the music. Sound effects are given a life that renders them more than just a ticking clock or a tram screeching or a train bell clanging.

This is all very fortuitous, as David and I had not worked together before, but I just had an intuition about him as a person and a musician. I can't imagine what the play would be like now without his sophisticated and subtle score.

Week 5: Entry 1: Tech time: Let there be light!

I love technical rehearsals. This is the first time everything really comes together: the lighting, sound, costumes and set, and much of the focus is on the technical aspects in a way that the actor can actually feel quite free and exploratory. The darkened auditorium, fractured by the light of laptops working out lighting plots and call-sheets, is a-whirr with the excitement of artists in creation.

For the lighting designer, it's the first time that they can really get to work. With costumes, props and set, the rehearsal period allows usually enough time to fine-tune much of the design. But it's only once all the colours of the costumes and set, and the style of the piece is fully evident, that the lighting designer can really weave their magic.

And Tom Munn is just the man for such magic. Tom is the Professor of Lighting Design in the Dept of Theatre and Dance, and he plied his profession at the San Francisco Opera for 25 years. This man knows his stuff. He knows the emotional effects that can be created through light and colour. He understands the rhythm that can be evoked by fade-ups, fade-downs, picking out moments with a follow-spot, etc. Because this is a particularly theatrical piece, Tom also has the chance to create some great theatrical effects with shadows. Frank Wedekind's style of performance was hugely influential in the development of German Expressionism, all those black and white, shadowy images of Gothic streets and castles, vampires and maidens in distress. And Tom is using the impact of a large shadow against a small person in some truly exciting ways.

Usually in a tech, I spend time as an actor sitting in the auditorium watching the effects being wrought with light. This is a one person play so sadly I can't do that this time. So I shall be relying on photographs and video to let me in to the textures and colours.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Week 4: Entry 3: Split focus

Last night's rehearsal was terrifying! It was 8pm. We'd just had a fairly intensive first faculty meeting of the quarter, and with scarcely a shift of gear, I was suddenly performing the show for four members of that faculty - the design team and the Artistic Director of Sideshow, Della Davidson. It was honestly like doing an MFA practical exam. I felt extremely vulnerable, and somewhat 'in my underwear'.

The props decided to play up. The costumes decided to be awkward. The puppets developed a life of their own. The 6-stringed lute suddenly felt like a 24-stringed zither. And my brain was taken up with the technical aspects of the show far more than with the actual living, breathing and listening to what I was saying as Tilly. Stanislavsky talks about 'dual consciousness': my consciousness was split in a hundred directions.

This last stage of rehearsals brings with it an inevitable, unavoidable fracturing of focus. Suddenly nothing is experimental or provisional any more: we're now in the terrain of saying to the world, 'Hey, we've made these choices. Waddya think?' No longer can you say to the visitor in rehearsals, 'Oh, we're just trying this...' You're now saying, 'This is my story. Can you follow it?' The psychological shift for the actor is huge: particularly when the play is new (as this one is), particularly when the rehearsal period has been very intimate and focused (as this one has). It's another big part of the creative process which - although the audience will never see or necessarily know about it - impacts significantly on the final steps towards offering up the creative goods to public display.

We're blessed with Tilly No-Body in that technically we're well ahead of the game. The Costume department and the Set department have been so fabulous about letting us use costumes, props and set in rehearsals, that we're actually making the kind of minute tweaks now that normally would be made in the venue during the technical rehearsals. I doubt anyone but an actor would understand how considerable the upheaval can be if suddenly the final prop you're given is a blue silk handkerchief, when all along you've been rehearsing with a white linen napkin. The door you've been used to using in rehearsal was 4 feet wide, and the one you now have in performance is 6 feet. These are huge psycho-physical changes that affect rhythm, delivery of text, physical choices for an actor. But hold on a sec, Bella...isn't acting just about learning the lines and not bumping into the furniture?? Deep breath...

Monday, October 4, 2010

Week 4: Entry 2: Amidst the pumpkins

Saturday October 1st. 6.45am. Farmers' Market. What a community!

My director, Miles, and I - dressed to the nines as Frank and Tilly Wedekind - set up a store at the Farmers' Market, Davis, to promote the show, as well as the Theatre and Dance department in general. I confess, I don't get to see too many 6.45ams on a Saturday. Yet, I was delighted by the sense of community among the stall holders - be they local farmers laying out pumpkins and peppers and potatoes, or local bakers luring us with chocolate croissants, or organic coffee makers supporting impoverished communities across the globe, or jewelry makers or school district campaigners.

By 8.10am, the market was already beginning to hum with shoppers and the grey-ish skies were brightening up. I was particularly endebted to the designer of the poster, Stephanie (who also set up this blog for me some months ago) as it caught the eye of many a passer-by in the course of the day. By 10am, Miles and I were joined by our indomitable Stage Management team, Reed and Sabba, who had also recruited her talented (and clearly devoted) boyfriend, Michael, and fellow thespian, Brendan. And now their acting abilities kicked into action impressively!

'Do you want to come and see Tilly No-Body?' invited Sabba, to anyone whose eye was caught by the poster. The majority stopped and enquired about the play. Very few scurried off in embarrassed silence.

'There's passion, laughter, tears, song, magic, broken hearts, romantic love...' Sabba declared.

'Ahh!' sighed many a Davis citizen. 'That sounds like the story of my life...'

'It's already in my diary,' chirrupped several people - which was terrific.

As Miles (in white tie and tails) and myself (in circus outfit) wandered up and down the market stalls, I truly had a sense of the hub of Davis that the market comprises. Fingers crossed, Theatre and Dance will be regular contributors to the early morning community. And heartfelt thanks go to the trusty team of Sabba, Reed, Brendan and Michael. And Miles is what you'd call in the UK a really 'good egg' - not many distinguished directors or leading actors (he's playing Salieri in Amadeus and Prospero in The Tempest at the Old Globe San Diego next summer!) would be so willing to pad among the pumpkins at dawn - unless, like Frank Wedekind, they'd been up all night drinking absinthe and were now on their way home to bed!

Week 4: Entry 1: Magic Moments

Last Friday, I walked into the rehearsal room to find almost all the pieces of the set in place and a little naked Tilly puppet sitting on a step. I was transported!

John Iacovelli's centre piece of a large, distorted doorway had been beautifully painted and 'gold-leafed' by staff and students in the shop. It was the perfect combination of circus, doorway, and castle. Wedekind's father had bought a castle in Lenzburg when the family were young, and this is where Wedekind had grown up. One of his plays is called Castle Wetterstein. And the door was a perfect resonance with this time and place. I was delighted.

The 'elephant podium' designed by Daniel Neeland in the shop was also perfect - a strange combination of levels and heights and circles and cut-offs. Divine.

And Byron in the shop had found a simple and effective way of securing the walking globe so that it no longer had a life of its own... But now, the Tilly puppet DID have a life of its own. 'Murph' had made the most wonderful head for Tilly, and although she still had no hair, clothes, painted features, I suddenly could relate to her absolutely as a little person.

There was a magical feeling in the rehearsal room, and I was excited by the innate collaboration of theatre. How everyone's unique and individual contribution forms part of the story-telling. Even those whose work is less evident - e.g. Eric, the production manager, keeping morale high - given invaluable contributions.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Week 3: Entry 3: Revving up

Next week, we start the technical rehearsals. So in many ways, this is the last week of 'comfort'. Not that there's been much 'comfort'! Our rehearsals in general have been pretty full-on. While we've continued to have the 'fun' advocated by our director on Day 1, we don't let up much. And yet the knowledge that the comfort zone of 'play' is nearing an end means that I, as an actor, am experiencing a different quality of energy.

And I don't think it's just me. The Publicity machine, under the auspices of Janice Bisgaard, has kicked into fast and furious action with a series of preview interviews, publicity blitzes at the Farmers' Market in Davis tomorrow morning starting at 6.45am (I hope this show will appeal to the early risers), and publicity campaigns. Budgets are being scrutinised; the painting on the set and floor cloth are under examination; the work on the puppets is finessing; the music is having various final tweaks; and details are under the microscope. Circus colours are appearing on the set pieces. Line notes are intense under the key eye of Sabba. And technical schedules are firming up.

The subtle ratcheting up of energies is exciting and energising. And the need for relaxation (the first tool in Stanislavsky's toolkit) is even more important... Maybe Sunday by a lake...

Week 3: Entry 2: Why, oh why, is acting so hard???

Last night's rehearsal included a run-through, with some of the actual pieces of the set and a few new props. I've been rehearsing the play now for nearly three working weeks, so I'm familiar with the mise-en-scene. (This is my preferred term for 'blocking' which, I'm afraid, is a word from which I flee. 'Blocking' does exactly what it says: it blocks the actor from any true flow, connection, dynamic listening. Added to which it comes from the practice of directors working out how they are going to stage a play by using blocks of wood to position the actors. To be honest, this was how the director of my first job after drama school stated that she directed. She used chess pieces to work everything out in advance, before she'd even seen the whole cast working together and connecting organically...)

However, I digress...

I'm familiar with the mise-en-scene for Tilly No-Body, I've been working with the costumes, most of the props have been in place, and yet just having a few new bits and pieces last night significantly affected my 'dual consciousness'.

This Stanislavskian term - dual consciousness - allows for the actor's utter engagement in the script's action whilst also acknowledging that there's an audience or a camera witnessing the events. Most actors are aware of the fine juggling of consciousness in performance - and how the slightest thing can tip the balance one way or another. Last night, a new set of steps, an adjustment of one of the props, a sound cue just a little too low for me to hear, and I found myself 'going through the motions'. The words were coming out of my mouth (most of the time), but I was finding it very hard to really hear and connect with what I was saying or with the given circumstances of each scene. The run was 2 minutes longer than usual, and I was totally bored with myself in certain places.

So, imagine my surprise, when at the end of the run, Miles, Reed and Sabba said how much improvement there was...

I sometimes don't get this acting business. I remember one of my Russian 'masters' - Albert Filozov - saying that it doesn't matter how little or how much the actor cries or laughs: their job is to make the audience cry or laugh. And the irony of the acting process is that, sometimes, our least 'felt' performances are the most effective as far as the audience is concerned. We don't have to 'experience' what the character is experiencing: we have to tell the story in the most appropriate manner to the style of the play, and take the audience on the right journey.

I understand why many actors are reluctant to talk about the art of acting and articulate what they're doing. There is a mystery to it. Of course there is a system and a technique as well: it's not pure intuition and inspiration. For me, the mystery is how little we understand sometimes the difference between what we experience on the stage and its reception by the audience. So don't tell me it's just about learning the lines and not bumping into the furniture...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Week 3: Entry 1: Why is acting so hard?

At a recent conference in the UK entitled 'Acting with Facts', the film actress Sylvia Sims reiterated the old adage that acting is just about 'learning the lines and not bumping into the furniture'. Gosh...if only it were. Maybe that's why she has a resume as long as my arm, and I have one as long as her hand...

For me, acting is an unearthly and strange activity. How can we have at our command a whole range of emotions and sensations and actions at the flick of a wrist? How can we plunge deeply into our hearts, explore our imaginations, mould our bodies into all manner of expressions and experiences in the blink of an eye?

Last night's rehearsal was particularly difficult. It was a 'mechanical' rehearsal, in that I specifically requested looking at some scenes which had very precise staging or very rhythmic language. Tilly No-Body is something of a rollercoaster of a piece - highs and lows follow on from each other at great rapidity, and I realised in the course of the evening that there were certain moments into which I'd fallen with a specific rhythm. I had actually stopped really listening to what I was saying.

Miles is a wonderful director - chiefly because he's such a wonderful actor. He hears patterns, he see cliches, he understands the potency of language, as well as the ease with which we fall into routines as actors. And yet if we don't really listen to the words that our character is speaking - and I mean listen with the most impeccable honesty, verity and openness - then we're never really telling the true story of our characters' thought processes. And then we just utter 'words, words, words'.

There's a moment in the script where Tilly appeals to the spirit of Frank with the words, 'MUST I BE DEAD TO PROVE THAT YOU MEAN ALL TO ME?' As the writer, I'd written it in capitals, as it struck me as such an overwhelming thing for one person to say to another. It's a direct quotation from Tilly, but as I found myself honouring the capital letters by shouting the lines, I felt myself falling into the abyss of generalisation.

'Stop!' said Miles. 'What happens if you say these lines very quietly and earnestly?' Mmm, I thought, I'm not sure that will work.

'Okay,' I said... and gave it a go.

The minute I stopped playing the effect of the shout, and heard the enormity of the words, I could barely say them. The reality of feeling so abandoned by someone that you feel that they'll only realise your presence if you actually disappear (i.e. kill yourself) was just too awful. I suddenly felt the vibration of the words through my body in a way that had utterly eluded me when I yelled the words with dramatic effect.

Listening as an actor is so supremely hard. Partly because it's so hard in everyday life. So often while one person is speaking to us, we've got our own inner monologue going on inside, just waiting for the appropriate moment to interrupt and come on in with our own expression. If only acting were just about learning the lines. As for not bumping into the furniture, one of my props is a large acrylic walking globe with a life of its own, so sometimes the furniture bumps into me.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Week 2: Entry 3: Giving Tilly a Voice (b)

Finding Tilly's voice has been (touch wood) wondrously organic. I feel I know the terrain of her journey in quite an intimate way - after all, I translated her autobiography for 10 years! I've structured the play into 20 'Attractions'. I've called them 'attractions' rather than scenes, because I had initially thought there would be more playing with time, and leaping back and forth from one moment to another. As it is, the narrative is now more linear, as there's enough going on for the audience to try and make sense of without having to work out the time sequence.

However, I've kept the idea of 'attractions' as I like the word. And I like the premise on which it's based. The 'montage of attractions' is a term coined by the early Russian film-maker, Sergei Eisenstein. For him, an attraction might be any single image that contained within it potent emotional material. By montaging one attraction against the next - i.e. one image against a totally unrelated image - you could tell another story in the audience's head, as they put the images together. His most famous example is perhaps his film OCTOBER, where scenes of battle are montaged together with images of a cow being slaughtered in an abattoir. We - as the audience - make the connection that war is as brutal as the butchering of an animal.

There's still a certain degree of montaging that goes on in Tilly No-Body, and I give extensive program notes outlining each attraction for the inquisitive audience member. One of the strands of 'montage' includes the placing of Frank's words - i.e. extracts from his plays - against Tilly's words - i.e. what she really feels. In fact, giving Tilly a voice has inevitably been wound up with giving Frank a voice, as his plays are so revealing of the inner state of their marriage.

There are three ways in which Frank's voice comes through:
1) sometimes he 'possesses' Tilly, and we hear his voice through Tilly as in The Exorcist.
2) sometimes his voice is heard in the soundscape, to give him the power of an omnipresent, omniscient figure.
3) he is manifested as a puppet. This is real fun for me as the actor, because at last I have another actor on stage with me. I can talk to him, ignore him, I can throw him on the floor - in other words, Tilly can do things to Puppet-Frank that she could never have done in real life.

Sometimes Frank is clearly telling Tilly what to say next. After all, he was the playwright, she was the actress, so his job involved giving her a voice. Sometimes I play with the fact that Tilly doesn't know what to say next, as Frank (for various reasons revealed in Tilly No-Body) is choosing not to give her words to speak.

As for the technicalities of me as the actress giving Tilly a speaking voice, I have chosen to adopt a gentle German accent. It's not too heavy, as I don't want to distract too much. The intention is just to give a slight alienation to the voice. Besides, accents are like masks, they give you something to hide behind as an actor. They can be both releasing and empowering.

As for the singing voice, I'm pretty much using my own singing voice, coloured by the German accent. One of my fellow faculty did ask if I should try to change it more, to make it sound less like mine? My answer is no, because the songs are deliberately Brechtian, rather than psychologically real.

Brecht was a huge fan of Wedekind, who (by the way) wasn't actually a very good actor. He was rather wooden and stiff, and often suffered stage fright - and yet he could be immensely compelling in his emotional connection to a role. Brecht's 'making strange' or 'alienation' technique was heavily influenced by Wedekind's acting style.

I'm quite happy, therefore, for the songs to jolt the audience's sense of 'reality'. In fact, the first song is called 'The Ballad of the Family Suicides' in homage to the kind of titles Brecht used for his songs in his plays: they were often called 'The Ballad of...'

Interestingly, the lyrics of both Wedekind's cabaret songs (such as 'The Auntie Murderer') and Brecht's songs (such as 'Mack the Knife') frequently contain dark, sinister, blood-thirsty images. In homage to both of them, here are a couple of the lyrics from Tilly's first song, 'The Ballad of the Family Suicides':

'My sister, she retired one afternoon,
As we took tea in the adjoining room
Then she let out a scream
That froze our blood to ice
She'd cut her throat -
And guttered out her life.
She suffered unrequited love
Now you see there
Her bloodstain on the carpet
By the chair...'

And this is based on facts from Tilly's autobiography...

Week 2: Entry 2: Giving Tilly a Voice (a)

I had initially intended to commission a professional playwright - the acclaimed British writer of stage, screen, television and radio, Lucy Gough - to write Tilly No-Body for me. I had met Lucy about ten years ago, when I had been cast in one of her BBC Radio 4 plays, The Raft. I had instantly fallen in love with Lucy's writing, and as soon as I met her, I fell in love with the person and the talent as well.

Lucy and I had talked a good deal about Tilly Wedekind, and had both found the material very alluring. As I undertook various pieces of research, I would send Lucy information from US to UK, with extracts from Wedekind's plays, Tilly's autobiography, personal responses to the material, etc. Then in July 2009, Miles and I made a trip to Munich to stay with Margret Greiner, my German language & research collaborator. Margret is another woman with whom I had instantly fallen in love at first sight. A striking lady, with a great wit and sensitivity, she and I had also become mutually entranced by Frank and Tilly as we'd developed our collaboration in September 2008.

That July 2009, Margret took myself and Miles around Munich, and we walked the streets, sat in the cafes, saw the apartment and visited the theatre where Frank and Tilly had worked. Margret also took me to the Wedekind archive, where we're poured over letters scripted by Tilly. Two struck us particularly - one written on tiny paper in tiny handwriting from the sanatorium when she recovered from her poisoning: it was addressed to a theatre director with whom she wished to work. The second was in huge scrawling letters on a big piece of paper to a lover who had spurned her, and in which she accused him of cold-blooded murder. (The lover turned out to be Tilly's daughter's husband...) The two sides of Tilly were blatant and exciting. (I'd already fallen in love with Tilly, long, long ago.)

One of the most impressive moments for me was visiting the graveyard shared by Frank and Tilly in the Munich cemetery. Although Tilly outlived Frank by nearly 50 years - during which time she had several other love affairs - it was with her husband that she found her final resting place. Beneath the art nouveau Pegasus which adorns the memorial, I knew that they lay together - I trusted they were more tranquil in death than in life?

The following week, I met up with Lucy in Cardiff and began to share with her my research. We were staying the night in a B&B, and at 2am I awoke as if possessed. I suddenly knew I had to find the courage to write the play myself. I felt such a bond with Tilly and such a deep rooted need to tell her story, that a strange energy worked its way through me. Had Tilly's spirit wisped its way out of the ground at her graveside and entered my imagination? I sat on the bed in the B&B with all the research spread out around me and I suddenly saw the whole structure. It began with an empty stage. It began with a bottle of pills. It began with the attempted suicide... Then the rest was a kind of flashback through Tilly's life, showing the audience what had brought her to this point of such utter despair.

I didn't go back to sleep that night. I knew I was on some kind of strange mission.

At 7.45am, I gingerly knocked on Lucy's bedroom door. 'I think I've got to write this...' I said.

Lucy, being the unique person she is, absolutely understood. And that was it... I knew I had to leap into the river Spree with Tilly... I had to feel the freezing water and wonder whether on earth I could swim to the other side. I hoped that if I couldn't, Lucy would be able to throw me a life buoy...or at least alert the lifeguard!

Week 2: Entry 1: Musical magic

I've been a songwriter now for some years. This is something I share with Frank Wedekind. He used to sing his cabaret songs in the haunts of Munich to the accompaniment of his lute. Some months ago, I ordered an antique 1920s German lute off ebay. I never really expected it to arrive - or if it did, I thought it would be in matchsticks. However, all the way from Bremen - and completely in tune - arrived the German lute. I fell in love with it immediately.

The first part of Tilly No-Body that I wrote back in September 2009 was a song called 'Tilly Dances' . Late in their marriage and after a good many difficult times, Frank and Tilly Wedekind re-kindled their romantic flame. A fanatical journal writer all his life, Frank would note in his diary whenever he and Tilly made love, the words: 'Tilly danced'. This image struck me as very poignant and romantic. And it inspired me to write the first of 5 songs for Tilly No-Body.

In addition to the songs, I also knew that I wanted a soundscape to be a significant part of the piece. Solo pieces bring with them all sorts of challenges, not least the lack of other actors on stage with whom to work. However, I firmly believe that as an actor, anything can be a partner - the audience, a prop, a piece of set, an item of costume, and indeed a sound.

My composer/sound designer is a wonderful musician and great scholar, Dr David Roesner. David and I have known each other since 2003, when we were both hired as new faculty in the Theatre Department at the University of Exeter, UK. Within 4 years, David was the Head of the Department. I meanwhile had winged my way to the US.

David's scholarship has won him acclaim, and his insights into and practices of music theatre (NB not 'musical theatre', which is a rather different genre) struck me as exactly what was needed here. Not to mention, he is German. Not to mention, his mother - Margret Greiner - has been my German language collaborator on the project since September 2008 when I met her with her husband, Bernhard, who was a visiting faculty member at UC Davis for a quarter.

When it comes to rehearsing Tilly No-Body, the tricky thing is that David is between Germany and the UK, while we're in California. Initially, he suggested that we Skype him into rehearsals. However, the time difference of 8 hours would mean that our 6pm-10pm rehearsals would be taking place at 2am-6am for David in Europe. While most theatre people are night owls, there are limits! Instead, Reed (our Stage Manager and Assistant Director) has been recording extracts from rehearsals, putting them on a kind of YouTube link, and enabling David to see what we've been up to in rehearsals in the comfort of his own time and space. This process has proved incredibly successful. In fact, David has been extraordinary in his ability to respond to the daily rehearsal notes and to reconfigure or remix music as and when required. He really is operating from a place of intuition and creative intelligence on many occasions. Perhaps the most impressive has been his response to my writing a new song...

After one run through, Miles, Reed and Sabba all agreed that the gap between the penultimate song - a reprise of a song called 'Sitting on a Powder Keg' - and the final song, 'Tilly Dances' seemed a little long. Could I write another song?

As it was, I realised that one of the speeches that I'd given to the Frank puppet - an extract from his play, Censorship - was a little dry. I had already looked to see if I could cut it, and yet every line of text seemed important. So, what would happen if I turned the speech into a song? What happened if we suddenly saw the Frank puppet sing?...

...The speech in question involves Frank recounting a tightrope walker whom he saw in Palermo. The girl had performed tricks - including a strip tease and somersaults - while walking on an elastic rope with knives positioned underneath the rope...

Palermo... That's Sicily, isn't it? What about a Latin-ish sounding song? A kind of Spanish guitar type of sound, with maracas, or castanets, and almost a little bit 'camp'?

Overnight, I wrote the song 'The Girl on the Elastic Rope'. I played it rather primitively on my guitar and sent it to David as an MP3 file, along with the lyrics and chords. Within 2 days, back came the most wonderful accompaniment. Had I been a better musician, it would have been exactly how I would have played it. Not only was I overjoyed that David had written so perfect an accompaniment, but that he'd done it from half way around the world without being in the rehearsal room with us. Bravo, Maestro!

Week 1: Entry 3: Set

So Frank Wedekind loved the circus: for him, there was something erotic and mysterious about the way in which a tightrope walker or a trapeze artist defied gravity. He frequented circuses, and as a young man in Paris, he haunted the cabarets of Montmartre, the images of which are familiar to us with the paintings of Toulouse Lautrec.

When I first started writing Tilly No-Body, I knew that the set needed to be a fluid space. The storytelling is very fluid - the very first scene involves a pharmacist's shop, a busy street, a hotel lobby and a hotel bedroom, all in the space of 2 minutes. Working with Miles (the director) and John Iacovelli (the Professor of Scenic Design at UC Davis), we fixed upon a faded circus ring. In this ring, we have a large trunk - originally alluding to a touring troupe, now veering towards a box depicting caged tigers as seen in a multitude of period circus posters. We also have what we've come to call the 'elephant podium' which is essentially a series of circular steps with a top platform, which becomes all manner of both real places (e.g. the banks of the river Spree) and metaphoric places (e.g. something alluding to a musical box with one of those tutu-ed ballerinas on top, to give a sense of Tilly being both a doll and something mechanical).

John Iacovelli is a multi-award winning designer, with a flair and a passion which are very infectious. He works fast and mercurially, and it's extremely exciting and daunting working with him. He absolutely understood the atmosphere of the piece and the palette of colours which would be appropriate - blues, golds, reds, silvers. And the images that he initially showed us of circuses, animals and artistes engaged all of our imaginations powerfully. Being such an incredibly busy man, he's not had a chance to be in rehearsals yet, as he has a number of shows opening, both in and out of state. However, we've mocked up the 'elephant's podium', and we have a great rehearsal trunk which we're customising as we need.

With any piece of new writing - particularly such a multi-location piece as Tilly No-Body - a creative team is always aware that things may change in rehearsal. As it is we've been able to be quite clear of our intentions re: the storytelling, atmosphere and style, and by the end of the first week, the images that resonated round my imagination for the months of development are beginning to take potent and vivid shape. We also have a great shop team here at UC Davis: our production manager, Eric Steggall arrived less than a year ago, and yet it's hard to imagine life here without him. Eric has an ability to spot potential troubles a mile off, and shoot them square in the face. The team responsible for building the set - Daniel, John and Bryon - are a great cocktail of personalities. Daniel's quiet-spoken reassurances when suddenly the elephant podium looked a little precarious for the amount of running up and down involved in the mise-en-scene were a blessing. Byron is always funny and provocative, and when back in the spring I was learning to walk on a walking globe (an activity that Frank taught Tilly to do for his play The Stone of Wisdom), Byron was often at hand to throw the appropriately supportive - or gently mocking - comment.

The third part of the triumvirate - John (also known affectionately as Murph) - is doing the most amazing job on creating 2 figures/puppets to look like Frank and Tilly. John studied sculpture, and the heads that he has carved for Frank and Tilly render the whole idea of the puppets highly attractive and possible. At the moment, we're having a few problems building the bodies, as there are very specific things that I want the puppets to do - not least, to remain in whatever position I've put them in once I let go of them, so that I can manipulate them in a dialogue without one character 'dying' while the other is speaking. In other words, they can't be marionettes, which lose all life without the operator above them. In fact, John is working on a design not dissimilar to the figurines that artists use to fix in still-life positions for their drawings. I think this is going to work particularly well, given that in addition to the circus there are also references to artist's studios and easels and paintings.

Week 1: Entry 2: Costumes and Props

Tilly No-Body deals with the premise of identity: who are we as actors? What lies beneath the mask? How do we peel away our social, professional, personal, domestic masks to prepare a blank canvas for creating a role? In fact, once we do peel away the masks, does anything lie beneath?

One of the recurring images in the play is the sloughing of skins, like a snake. To take the audience through this narrative, I wanted to have layers of costumes that are literally peeled away to reveal another disguise underneath, until finally we get to the 'real' Tilly underneath.

It would be impossible to start finding the stage pictures in rehearsal without - from the very early days - having some rehearsal costumes. UC Davis is blessed to have the most terrific costume department - and the most wonderful Professor of Costume, Maggie Morgan. Maggie, Miles and I talked a good deal about costumes back in March when I was writing the piece. Circus is a recurring image, and Frank Wedekind loved trapeze artists and circus animals. His plays are riddled with animal references, and one of his most famous plays - Earth Spirit - begins with a ringmaster in a circus. Between us we have devised a peeling away of layers of costume that take us through various circus characters, until we reach the 'skin' of Tilly.

Maggie's designs are fantastic, and with Wardrobe Mistress Roxanne Femling and master-tailor Abel Mercado, they provided me with some excellent rehearsal mock-up costumes as well as some of the actual performance costumes. Because all the clothes come off or are put on on stage, it's vital that every zip, popper, button is part of the stage choreography, and their contribution in early rehearsals has been invaluable.

Props are equally important. Miles Anderson, the director, has a passion in the theatre for 'moments of magic', and the circus lends itself wonderfully to this. He has sprinkled lots of moments of unexpected 'magic' throughout the show, and this has been a huge surprise and challenge to me. The material of Tilly No-Body is quite dark - hey, it starts with a suicide attempt. Miles's aesthetic is so colourful and playful, that he has found a contrapuntal style to the show that I never would have imagined. As an actor, I love it! So the early rehearsals have been littered with props - silk handkerchiefs, sponge balls, masks, feathers, whips and a walking globe. These too are part of the choreography of the staging, and we've not even talked about actually building a character yet!
Week 1: Entry 1: Creating a Safe Rehearsal Space
The key to creative freedom in a rehearsal room for me is undoubtedly a spirit of fun, collaboration and openness. Our director, Miles Anderson’s opening gambit on Monday September 13 was to express his desire that we should all have fun. The minute the process ceased to be fun for any of us, then the time had come to quit - or at least express that loss of fun.

What does it mean - to have fun in a rehearsal room?

For me as an actor I have to know that I can trust everyone in the room to respect what I’m doing. I don’t mean that in any supercilious, precious way. I simply mean that if I’m expected to be vulnerable in the rehearsal room, then I need to know that no one in that room is going to ridicule or deride the offerings I dare to make.

With a one-person show, the level of vulnerability is particularly high. There’s no one to turn to on stage except myself. I’m very lucky in this situation because the rehearsal room is a very familiar space to me - it’s the blackbox Arena theatre in the Department of Theatre and Dance at UC Davis. I teach actor-training in here, so I know it as a laboratory space. Also, there are only four of us in the rehearsal room: Miles (the director, whom I’ve known for 5 years and with whom I’ve worked as an actor); Reed Wagner (the Stage Manager and Miles’s chosen Assistant Director) and Sabba Rahbar (the Assistant Stage Manager). I asked Reed to be involved in this production as I’d seen him in action a year ago, as the Stage Manager in Sideshow’s previous production - Elephant’s Graveyard. Reed is a student majoring in Dramatic Art, and last year - at a mere 19 years of age - he had impressed me hugely with his ability to take an authoritative position with fellow undergraduates, graduates and faculty. His courtesy and maturity were striking. As Miles got to know Reed in our early production sessions, he was impressed by Reed’s insights into the script, and so Miles asked him to be his Assistant Director, as well as the Stage Manager, thereby giving him a double investment in the production’s growth. I was delighted.

I’ve known Sabba Rahbar since her stage managerial involvement in a production of The Seagull in March of this year. She is also actively involved in the student theatre group, Studio 301. Sabba is another Drama Major whose intelligence and reliability belie her youth. Not only is she a rock-solid production member, she also has great insights into the material of Tilly No-Body.

So what a treat! To have 3 wonderful, creative and mature people in the rehearsal room. The need for a safe space is made all the more important by the fact that I’m faculty and two of them are students: it’s quite a vulnerable position in an educational institution to really try and practise what you preach. I’m the Professor of Acting: I need to show that I’m a decent actor, or my whole credibility is questioned. Also Tilly No-Body is tricky material - it involves someone having a nervous breakdown, it involves someone attempting suicide, it involves someone trying to be talented and sexy and inspirational to her husband, Frank Wedekind. It’s delicate terrain. All the more important that - as I squirm around on the floor having pretended to just take poison, or I cavort on top of a costume trunk attempting to lure my imaginary husband - the people in the rehearsal room don’t find this either deeply embarrassing or just plain funny! At the end of Week 1 of rehearsals, I’m feeling pretty okay! Thanks, team!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Now it all begins

Today, the real work on Tilly No-Body began, in that my director - Miles Anderson - and I sat down to watch a very rough recording of the basic script that I made a few weeks ago to send to David Roesner, the composer. As an actor, it's always very difficult watching work that hasn't been specifically made to be filmed. Also, at this stage, I've not worked on character and interpretation in detail: the recording was pretty much a moved reading. What became instantly apparent to us is to ensure that (a) the story is clear and (b) Tilly garners the audience's sympathy and empathy. Life in 1900's Germany was tough: there was a lead-up to World War 1; there was a certain disposability of life (Wedekind's Spring Awakening was written as a protest against teenage suicides); there was a certain 'dramatic' quality to life. While wanting to harness all those elements, it's important that we find the charm in Tilly, as well as the evident depression and despair that haunted many at that time. Even at this stage - before the real rehearsals start in September, and as I start now to learn the lines - it's important to consider Tilly's 'voice'. I have to focus on vocal warmth, and not be shrill. I have to find a physical liquidity that will be expressive and engaging, while also remaining (as an actor) grounded in a fairly (character-led) eccentricity and drama. As part of this, a certain kind of 'training' must begin. I need to ensure I do some vocal work every day, as well as physical work (I'm currently swimming and doing a particular favorite yoga routine), at the same time as hardening up my finger tips for playing the lute. In other words, it's time now to shift quite radically from researcher-writer mode, into actor-interpreter mode. Anderson will be a great - and very tough - director. He won't let me get away with anything. This is both terrifying and heartening. He is a director who understands acting processes - a rare and valued attribute - due largely to his own acting prowess. He's currently gaining glowing reviews for his wonderful performance of King George in Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III at San Diego Old Globe.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Making music

David Roesner is a sparkling scholar and a highly talented musician. We both started at the University of Exeter, UK, at the same time in September 2005. When I left to join the faculty at UC Davis, David became Head of Department. We're both performance makers who enjoy the interlacing of the Academy and the Industry, while also understanding the complexities of validating and presenting our practical work in the academic environment. We have just been Skyping from US to UK, exchanging ideas about atmosphere, space, and the intricacies of storytelling through music. Working primarily from intuition, David already has some terrific ideas about the texturing of voices and sounds to create abstracted spaces. Last week, I recorded a very rough version of Tilly No-Body in the studio which I will now send David. He already has the script, but is keen to work from visuals, however basic those visuals may be at this stage, so that he can truly tune into the collaborative story-telling.

I started concentrated work on the basic contents for the script of Tilly No-Body in January - researching, archiving, translating, reading as many of Wedekind's plays as possible. Since March, I've been concentrating purely on the writing, but in so doing, I've been testing out the workability of the piece by 'enacting' it. This has involved a curious dialogue between my writer's/archivist's head and my acting body/voice. 'What feels right in the body? Which words lie naturally in the tongue?' While I'll outline more about the writing process in future 'Background' blogs, the key concept to note with 'practice-as-research' as an actor devising (I am finding) is that a particular dual consciousness is necessary in the studio/laboratory (I won't call it 'rehearsal room' yet, as my director Miles Anderson doesn't begin working with me until September). It requires gently easing from writer to actor, without the schizophrenia getting in the way of creative moments of 'aha'! So the DVD I'll be sending David has little concern for detailed staging or nuanced interpretation yet - it's all about the textual story-telling and the script at the moment. That said, the instant visuals arising from the text - while fairly primitive at the moment - will (we hope) prompt David's musical imagination in new ways from the written word.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Who am I?

Take an unknown 18-year old actress. Take a 40-year old nationally celebrated playwright. Put them together in a creative and romantic alliance – and the result is explosive. The dramatis personae in question are Tilly and Frank Wedekind. The time is the early 20th century. The place is Germany. And who am I? I’m an actress in her 40s, based in Davis (California) with a passion for practice-as-research. Which – for me – basically means finding ways of putting historical, cultural and archival material into the body and sharing the results with a live audience. I’ve been fascinated by Frank and Tilly Wedekind since I played Lulu in London in the early 1990s, when as part of my research, I came across Tilly Wedekind’s autobiography: Lulu – Die Rolle Meines Lebens (Lulu: The Role of my Life). It was in German – and I knew there were some real gems inside. I’d imagined that Tilly had called her autobiography Lulu: The Role of my Life because the part was so immense it had launched her whole career. However, over the course of several years (way past the actual production of Lulu), I poured over Tilly’s words – schoolgirl German in my head and German dictionary in my hand. And I began to discover the truth: Lulu was the role of her life because Frank had turned her into Lulu in the course of their life together.

When I played Lulu, I was 26. My then-partner was an extraordinary playwright aged 40. He’d met me one night in a wine bar in London, where I was singing torch songs to the accompaniment of a piano. This imposing figure – long dark hair, white shirt and dark suit, a figure out of a Jacobean Revenge tragedy – came up to me afterwards. ‘You remind me of Wedekind’s Lulu,’ he said, expecting me to speak in some Essex twang, going, ‘Oh, yeah – who’s she, then?’ Instead, I said, ‘That’s one of my favorite plays!’ (I’d studied it during my undergrad years at Birmingham University). That was it – we’d swept each other off our feet. I was impressed by the writer, in awe of him, inspired by his wit, intelligence, literary knowledge and aplomb. Indeed, it was his version of Lulu that we staged at the Chelsea Centre Theatre nearly 20 years ago. Little by little, over the course of our 4 years together, I felt him turning me into Lulu. So when I began to fathom the true contents of Tilly’s autobiography, I had a deep, deep connection with her – a woman long since dead and a different culture and world. And that connection has continued for 20 years. In this blog, I shall recount the journey from translating biography, to visiting Munich, to collecting and collating all the material that has found its way into Tilly No-Body, through rehearsal, to performance, and beyond. I hope you enjoy the ride…