Told by an Idiot: Taking risks and not tiring, even up to the final minute

Saturday, 9 November 2019

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Rehearsal blog week 4

Week four. At the beginning of the week, Sara Alexander (pianist, performer and co-devisor) spends time rehearsing the music on her own and afterwards the rest of the company runs the songs ‘E Dunno Where ‘E Are’ and ‘We All of Us Know What that Means ’ with Sophie Cotton, who, after – extensive searches found them in the V&A archive. We do not know if any of them have been played since Victorian times. Chatting with Sara, I discover the songs’ phrasing is unusual. She explains the harmonies are not ones we are used to hearing, making them slightly more challenging to memorise and adapt / expand for the scenes.

The piece moves through different worlds, including musical ones. Because we are working in detail, Sophie asks the actors an important question: “if you are in one world what takes you to the other one? When you are moving between those different musical worlds you want to make sure it’s clear”. Sophie encourages Sara and Nick Haverson (drums, performer and co-devisor) to look at each other in order to mark the transition between one musical world and the next. As soon as they make eye contact, the transition, which happens in a split of a second really, is clearer. She also directs Sara to accent a distinct cadence which signals both to Nick and the audience that we are about to shift. Zoe Rahman, the composer, had mentioned that members of bands always look at each other to keep the timing right and stay connected. Generally actors trust their peripheral vision because they need to communicate with an audience at the same time. These perspectives invite me to reflect on the use of eye contact and the shifting gaze in this play.

The production does not mask the internal mechanics of its construction from the audience, in a Brechtian style. There is no fourth wall, which means that actors share thoughts and ideas with the audience by looking directly at them. The actors in the company make it look super easy – no pun intended. In past productions, I have worked with other actors who might have found this element terrifying and difficult; it requires a courageous lean into vulnerability. The connection and eye contact with the audience calls for audacity, comedic timing and sensitivity. It is both a technical and aesthetic choice; an ‘idiot’ one. Actors in the company use their gaze as a way to mark a fixed point or moment, declare something or synchronise actions. I would say that this use of gaze is what Jacques Lecoq describes as “a point of departure and point of destination”.

Every actor in the cast is a brilliant improvisor and they complement each other in a unique dynamism. I notice they are “yes and” actors. I watch them trying different options and taking risks throughout the day, not tiring even up to the final minute. During the week Paul Hunter, our director, asks them to create a chase though we are not sure where it will sit in the story. Though the script is written “off the cuff” in traditional silent film style, Paul sets them parameters of the chase and contain the following:

1) a Chaplin swap

2) a dog biting someone

3) a foot stuck in a bucket

4) Chaplin hiding in plain sight

5) someone literally having the rug pulled from beneath them.

The actors work quickly. In just over half an hour they have already come up with different options and pick and choose the ones that work together. The process is spontaneous, uncertainty is embraced. We quickly have to let go of an idea and welcome another if needs be. That does not mean that some ideas are better than others, it is simply that we have to take into account different elements: status, character, logic, tone and be sure they work together to further the story in the most powerful way. The show is demanding but the actors keep a good level of energy and positivity which is contagious.

At one point in the script, we decide that a scene is potentially existing only in the imaginations of the characters, a fantasy. After playing the scene, the actors experiment with reworking it in reverse, almost like rewinding a tape. Amalia Vitale (Charlie Chaplin) asks Paul “how much of the scene do you want rewound?” Jerone Marsh-Reid (Stan Laurel) offers that Sara and Nick do a backwards engineering of the whole dance. Sara and Nick create their own acoustic re-mix sound that definitely strikes a chord with my 90s heart; it is the sampling culture of hip hop and electronic music. Zoe, Sara and Nick excel at taking elements from the past (Jazz or cartoon music) bringing something absolutely fresh and new to it. This is exactly what Paul set out to do. The effect is trippy and cool. My mind boggles.

At the end of the week we worked on The Birth of Charlie scene and did a stagger of the first nine scenes. Currently it’s running around ninety minutes. I’m really excited about what’s next; we will start to work in detail, and I imagine there will be some editing as we go. I am also writing the script, notating the adjustments as we go. I look forward to sharing my experience of this aspect of my role.


Andrea Cabrera Luna
Assistant Director for ‘The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel’


The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel’ at Unity Theatre, Tue 18 – Sat 22 Feb 2020