‘Observing is the basis of wisdom’ – Eraldo Banovac.
In our constantly noisy, heads down, hurrying, scurrying world there is little room for simply being; still and wholly present, allowing our senses to silently gather information about what is happening around us, without the intervention of the clambering voices of others, or the need for our own spoken judgement.
At the very root of the word ‘Observer’, is the 14th century concept of sitting within a place of worship, imbibing the atmosphere of a religion where the rites and chants are in a language unknown, and the words on the page undecipherable to the illiterate masses; absorbing the mystery passed through the priesthood from a seat within the sanctuary and through that simple act of presence to set faith in context. The Latin ‘observare’ is self explanatory; ob – ‘in front of’, ‘before’, and servare – ‘to watch and keep safe’, from the PIE root ser ‘to protect’, and in many ways the creative work of the artists within the rehearsal room is just as sacred. For the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Sheffield Theatres, I was given the extreme privilege of being that observer, sat quietly sifting the words and processes of the rehearsal space.
Just as an actor is always taught the imperative of listening, learning to be a director by quietly observing without input how theatre is created is of paramount value. The collective hive-mind of actors, musicians, composers, set and costume designers, choreographers, lighting technicians and many more, under the care of the Director and Assistant Director, within the creative space, must be carefully protected, allowing them the freedom to experiment, explore, fail, re-negotiate and triumph without interruption or judgement. I already knew, from the actor’s perspective, what a transformative learning experience the rehearsal room can be, especially with a creative team and actors who are working at the highest level of the industry, but I now longed for a different viewpoint; to observe and learn from an accomplished, respected and established Director, with an aim of understanding the skills and attributes that a professional director possesses in order to be effective in expressing a production visually, aurally, physically and technically. It is deeply humbling and mind-blowingly overwhelming to discover what can be learned by simply being given a seat in the room.
I had applied to be Observer Director specifically for A Midsummer Night’s Dream because it was a play that I had been doing a research paper on and I was particularly interested in the way that classical material was handled, but it was also supremely wonderful to be doing my observership with Robert Hastie and a group of very talented professionals who were all so generous in their spirits and accepting of my presence. Hastie came to directing from being an actor; that too was important to me, and I very much appreciated his open-heart, gentle philosophy and quiet kindness.
Whilst I wouldn’t normally choose to write about something that was such a personal and private learning experience for me, as more and more theatres offer invitations to observe productions, I sense that there is a need to give a flavour of what this means; in a world dominated by interactive learning, the supreme value and benefits of observation as a disciplined practice can perhaps be overlooked or misunderstood. Theatres vary in how these experiences are offered, but essentially being an Observer Director is being a silent guest in the rehearsal space, with no direct interaction with the director or creative process. Sheffield theatres are generously open in their approach, and I had access to talks with the Director, the Assistant Director and other creatives, as well as being able to participate and have some responsibility in some of the talks and rehearsal exercises, but that is not always the case, and it is the responsibility of the Observer to respect the integrity of how individual schemes work.
The first day began with the room packed to capacity with Sheffield Theatres’ executive and production staff, marketing, publicity, box office, interns, creatives, technicians, actors, administration, et cetera, brief introductions from all and the housekeeping necessities that come with a company arriving, quickly progressing into discussions of the overall directorial concept, designer presentations and a preliminary read through. The cast were taken for a tour of the building, the theatre staff dispersed, the Director, Assistant Director and myself were the only ones left in the room, and the intricate weaving of schedules for rehearsals, fittings, production meetings, music and choreography began to be charted out. After lunch, a production meeting, another read through with the company and some preliminary staging and music sessions, individual actors disappearing occasionally for fittings.
From thereon, the days and weeks disappeared in a flurry of staging and choreography sessions, music rehearsals, production meetings, costume fittings and technical. The company ranged from those who had been in the profession for many years, and those for whom it was their first role beyond drama school, but constantly I was impressed by their input, intelligent team work, humour and camaraderie as scene staging was walked through, re-arranged, experimented with and shaped, the movement director demonstrating and refining choreography, until through many incarnations, construction and deconstruction of scenes, much feedback and sharing of concepts and ideas, a final formation was discovered for each tiny part. It was a rich, fluid, collaborative endeavour purposed through hours of intense, concentrated work sessions, and I learned so much by simply seeing the processes unfold in front of me.
The dynamics in the rehearsal space was one of the things that intensified for me the respectful relationship between the Director, Movement Director and cast. As the actors processed the information, some fulfilled the direction without question, working through the steps or movement, whilst others jumped straight in with questions of motivation, logistics and alternatives, creating an active conversation and peer-like relationship between Directors and actor. Hastie was able to work simultaneously with both groups as he discussed and explored the arc of the scenes, quietly moving from disseminator to collaborator, the skill level of the actors allowing him to create overall parameters for scenes without restricting input or creativity, which concurrently allowed them to make choices and create characters without rigid directives. I remember noting at one point, that Hastie was more listening than prescribing, and this, I believe, went a long way to explaining the room’s collaborative energy and productive atmosphere. It was evident right throughout that the actors felt listened to, which, in turn, made them true confederates in the process; they were remarkable at incorporating the many changes, some of which were extensive, some minute, but which came at them constantly, each change increasing clarity in the characterisations and overall story.
Similarly, as pragmatic questions had to be asked involving everything from props and sound cues, to safety for actors and placing of stage markings, through adjustments to costume, I was able to observe the respect for, and mutual proactive problem solving between, the Director, actor, creatives and technicians, many of whom have years of experience, until efficient solutions were found that enhanced and complemented the vision for the production. It was also useful to notice how, as the Director’s focus was drawn to larger production issues, the Assistant Director (wonderful Taio Lawson) moved closer to the cast in order to address specific actor concerns onstage, but always conferring with Hastie; an aspect of the wider collaborations that was particularly effective in the compressed technical-rehearsal context where problems needed to be resolved simultaneously on multiple fronts. Lawson was clear in supporting and communicating Hastie’s vision and, when faced with a complex situation, brought questions directly to him. Conversations between the two provided a platform for continued updates, questions and concerns that confirmed my understanding that effective collaboration and a clear focus of purpose should always be about keeping the lines of communication open and active.
There is a constant argument that rages in theatrical circles as to whether the art of directing can be taught through educational theory or is best learned by doing, and perhaps the reality is that there is a place for both, but certainly, having gone through the processes of being an Observer Director with Sheffield Theatres, I know how much I absorbed through watching an experienced theatre director at every stage of production. I equated it with the difference between a classically trained violinist, where every lesson has been structured to achieve a performer worthy of orchestral precision, and the philosophy of the Hungarian folk violinists who allow their children to stand at the back of the group with their instruments, without any formal instruction, to absorb the notes, finger positions and rhythms until their screechings subside and they are in joyful harmony with those at the front.
I cannot emphasise enough to any would-be director the usefulness of silent observing, whether ultimately an educational route is pursued or an ‘apprenticeship’ through subsequent assistant directorships. There is no simple answer as to ‘why’. The experience was as expansive as it was specific. I was able to confirm and affirm the collaborative processes and mechanics of development, rehearsal and performance that I had been taught through pedagogical demonstration as being in line with the professional practice of the craft. Within a larger frame, I observed the Sheffield Theatres organisation successfully produce one of two significant works in development over the period. My understanding of terminologies and protocols increased one hundred fold. I had the immense privilege of watching Hastie negotiate every aspect of the development of a Shakespeare text in an entirely new and imaginative way, as he moved between his creative team and cast, and it has to be said, not only watching the Director, but also the incredibly gifted Assistant Director gave huge insight into dynamics and career progression. I had the advantage of observing every artistic and directorial choice made without bearing any of the burden of those choices. Glen Berger writes that a director is,
‘required to cultivate a well-defined, compelling aesthetic and make choice after choice based on that aesthetic. And each of those decisions shuts a few doors; ferries the work closer to finality, with only hindsight revealing which decisions were inconsequential, and which ones were a bullet dodged, or a time bomb triggered.’ (*Berger, 2013)
That unique vantage point as the unburdened Observer Director allowed me to expand my understanding of directing, whilst also further developing my own artistic aesthetic and vision awareness without any consequence whatsoever to the production.
The art of observation is a profoundly humbling one, but one that stretches the thinking and imparts lessons that will stay with me for a very long time. It is, in essence, becoming totally open to receiving the artistic impulses of others through quiet listening, stillness and observational alertness. I am extremely grateful that those ‘others’ were so lovely and generous in all they gave me and I count it complete honour to have been invited to take a seat in that sacred place that is the rehearsal room. My thanks to all those who allowed me this very special role of observation in the place where collaborative processes flow freely and theatre flourishes. I count every second a joyous one.
* Berger, G., 2013. Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of The Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History.. New York: Simon and Schuster.