Mary Chater
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Rehearsing Shakespeare: Blocking - #actors #actorslife #rehearsalroom #rehearsalprocess #performingarts #ShareYourShakespeare @RSC

"In a way the objects are to a certain extent providing the subtext that modern actors crave, but is frustratingly absent from the text!"

I'm not sure where the term "blocking" to describe the organisation of stage movement comes from. Perhaps from a time when there was such a thing as weekly rep. Repertory theatres throughout the country knew that the size of their audience was limited. They knew that to maximise their audience it was necessary to put on a new show about once a week. This meant that the turnover had to involve playing at night while rehearsing the next show during the day, usually with the same group of actors. This rhythm would apply whether the play was a Noel Coward or King Lear. There was little time, so deep discussion about character motivation and complex meanings was limited. Often a director's primary function amounted to little more than telling the actors where and when to move and which entrances and exits to use: blocking out the physical action of the performance like a traffic policeman; not knocking over the furniture was a higher imperative than debating why Lear is so emotionally illiterate. Still it's worth remembering that Shakespeare's company may often have been putting on several plays a week. In the days of British provincial weekly rep an actor asking their director about motivation might receive the reply: "Just do it!" I've often thought it revealing that the Nike advertising team who came up with that as a slogan clearly thought it a bracing and inspiring injunction, unaware of what a deadly phrase it can be on the rehearsal room floor. I was assistant once to an old school rep director on a production of Henry the Fourth. It was a clunking production in Elizabethan dress and at the technical rehearsal he was busily moving a group of small part actors around the stage for Prince Hal's coronation scene just before the famous rejection of Falstaff, when one had the temerity to ask: "How did I get here?"

"You took a fucking taxi!" was the answer. 

These days the amount of rehearsal time you have varies greatly, but less than three weeks is unusual and it can be much more, and the movement of actors around the performance space is as fundamental a part of rehearsing as the text. Obviously different kinds of stage require different approaches: a proscenium arch asks different questions from a theatre in the round. I think directing for an end on proscenium stage is the hardest. Any actor will tell you the best place to be is near the front and in the centre. There they are most present for the majority of the audience; there they can best command the space of the whole room. So the character with the most to say and whose role is most important to the scene should stay there while the others approach and withdraw in turn. Right? Clearly not. The result would be static, predictable, unreal and utterly dull. You don't need two years on a drama school directors' course for this to become apparent. Ten minutes would do. But it requires a surprising amount of ingenuity to create a constant flow of alternatives. Theatre in the round is in some ways much easier because as there will always be some of the actors with their backs to the audience constant movement is essential. At any one moment there are as many different stage pictures as there are watchers, so even random unplanned movement is better than none. Other types of stage space have their own special challenges, but whatever the geometry between actor and audience you are contriving a manipulation of movement that seems both natural and interesting, bringing clarity and focus to each evolving moment of the story.

Imagine an empty space. If an audience are looking its probably a stage. Put a chair in it, or two chairs, or twenty chairs and the space changes its nature. The range of possibilities for movement in that space change according to the number of chairs. Imagine you add walls, doors or just gaps in the walls.if you carry on adding objects - tables, bookshelves, sofas, windows, rugs, a telephone, a cocktail cabinet you have a naturalistic interior that's at the other end of the spectrum from the empty space. Many scenes in Shakespeare can be performed in an empty space or a room filled with furniture and this dictates the nature of the movement.

Take an example from 'The Merchant of Venice'. Bassanio and Antonio talking to Shylock about a loan. They could be on their feet in the open, public air, by a canal, in a square - no furniture in sight not even a bench or bollard. They move around each other with nowhere to sit and that shared space dictates their body language which needs to be as precise and meaningful as the inflections in their voices. Now imagine them in a room, let's say Shylocks office, with tables and chairs; the body language changes conveying similar meanings in different ways.

How do they sit down, why do they sit or stand?

How do their bodies behave in a private as opposed to a public space?

There are props now through which they can send each other signals about their attitude and intentions. This stage room might be detailed or purely representational depending on the design, but the furniture, however sparse, and the privacy create different impulses from when they were in an open and public space. Consider these images:

- feet on a desk
- a knocked over chair
- a man spitting on a moneylenders account book as he makes his calculations with ink and pen

Furniture and the idea of a private interior provide a rich range of opportunities for physical behavioural choices related to the world we know. On the other hand, a space empty of objects like chairs, desks and ink is more constraining and demanding for both directors and actors. It needs more imagination to motivate a move. However it can also be liberating, because although the vocabulary of movement is restricted the actual flow of activity can be more beautiful and interesting when unshackled from the comforting but restraining presence of furniture. Some directors feel more confident with solid objects around the actors when you can bang your fist on a desk or break a chair; in a way the objects are to a certain extent providing the subtext that modern actors crave, but is frustratingly absent from the text! But other directors like to embrace both the constraints and freedoms of emptiness. A lot of rehearsing is about finding out how physical activity enriches the text. It's also about locating the need to move, what makes an individual sit or stand at any particular moment. Movement for the sake of itself will be seen through, if only subconsciously by an audience.

Of course the limits of stage movement are pre-set before rehearsals begin, by the design. I've done productions without a stick of furniture from beginning to end and also ones that have used quite a lot. There's no right or wrong - both have their pluses and minuses, but the choices the director and designer bring into the rehearsal room massively affect the impulses of the actor and the physical style of the production. 

When in the rehearsals you begin the "blocking" is a big issue! Some begin by staying round a table reading and discussing the text for days or even weeks. In others the actors are on their feet from the word go developing speech and movement simultaneously. There are some directors who even expect the cast to have learnt their lines before rehearsals begin. 

My own belief is that you need to work on the text first and have a reasonably good understanding of it before you begin to move because, vital though movement is, the words come first, especially with Shakespeare. If you have got somewhere into the meaning and flow of the thought through the language and the inter-play of the characters' minds then the blocking will flow, naturally, meaningfully, easily.

Bill Alexander ©

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