Told by an Idiot: Rehearsals begin!

Monday, 4 November 2019

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Rehearsal blog week 1

I came from Edinburgh to work as assistant director for Told by an Idiot’s The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. It’s the first week of rehearsals and there is a lot of excitement in the air. We start day one by sitting in a circle and introducing ourselves to another member of the team. Paul’s light-hearted advice is not to switch off while our partner talks as we will later introduce them to the rest of the group. After this introduction, we warm-up our voice and learn a couple of upbeat Victorian songs with Sophie Cotton. Paul tells us it is unusual to start rehearsals like this as TBAI normally does a physical warm-up or game. The thing is that the set is being built in the rehearsal room next door.
Because I arrived a little earlier, I had the chance to see Ioana Curelea’s model of the set and it is beautiful. By the time we finish learning the songs the whole set design has materialised almost by magic. Theatre Royal Plymouth, co-producers of the show, built it and we are lucky enough to start rehearsing with the set from the very first hours of rehearsal.

Paul dives right into one of the most complex and intensely physical scenes of the play! I can see why a director would tackle such a difficult scene early on; internationally renowned expert in physical comedy Jos Houben will visit from Paris on Thursday and Friday and by then, the actors will be ready to start refining their movements.

Things are moving fast so being able to rehearse with the set feels more like a necessity than a luxury. There are lopsided platforms, bed bunks, stairs and a sliding pole that actors start to explore and play with.

Prior to starting rehearsals, the play went through two R&D periods and there is material that the company revisits and explores during this week. Paul emphasises that we are not attempting to do anything from the films of either Stan or Charlie, as this would be reductive. “We are attempting to create our own language and all of that will be created in original ways.” He insists that he has some ideas but that the actions will emerge in the room and together we will find a language for the piece. There is a drum kit and a couple of pianos onstage and the actors are encouraged to have a go at playing music.

Zoe Rahman, our brilliant composer, is in the room and spends time working with the actors; specially with Sara Alexander, who apart from playing multiple roles, plays the piano score. Nick, who plays multiple roles, accompanies Sarah on the drums and by day 2, Jerone Marsh-Reid, who plays Stan, is starting to play the drums too!

This gives you an idea of how available the team of actors are and how much Paul trusts their ability to take risks.

At the end of the week Jos Houben came from Paris to visit the company on Thursday. Paul and I met him at the Jerwood Studios café and we had a chance to talk about the play and what we have been doing during the first three days of rehearsals. The actors arrived shortly after and we went upstairs to warm up and run a scene. After the actors marked the scene, we sat down and Jos started a conversation by asking the actors “what do you feel is against you?” “What is difficult?” Amalia said that noise was one thing and “fluff” was another. Jos mentioned that technically it is extremely difficult to play at the high speed that the actors are playing at the moment. “We need to see where the movement comes from and when he’s (Stan) dead you cannot look at him as if you see dead people every day; you need to mark reaction time. Thinking. Surprise”. “There are microscopic things that we need to block. Otherwise, we just see gesticulation”. To mix mime with real things can be very difficult too. “We have to be very careful with mixing languages like that”, says Jos. “The language is in the virtuosity of the transition.” When you open a door, consider the following: “Which door, when and why?”. He offers an example of how, when he worked on Act Without Words with Peter Brook. He and Marcelo Magni, his scene partner, would spend time thinking about different ways to look at his watch. “Why do you look at the time? To see if you are late, to see what time it is or because you like your watch.” There are three different things to play. Jos spent time talking about the importance of establishing the language of the play early on and making a ‘contract’ with the audience in the first minutes of the play.

Having Jos in the room felt like a great privilege and he peppered technical knowledge of physical comedy with stories about Peter Brook, his work with Complicité, and Hollywood stars.

This was a wonderfully productive week; Nuna Sandy, from ZooNation: The Kate Prince Company choreographed the clog dance with Amalia (Charlie) and Jerone (Stan) and added some hip hop moves to the mix; which needless to say, give the play a very contemporary feel. The whole company comments on how they have achieved a lot!


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