This month, in preparation for West Australian Opera’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor (which opens at His Majesty’s Theatre on October 26), we released a teaser video, with various interviews and shots of the rehearsal room environment.
This video has received a lot of interest, and led us to a conversation in WAO offices last week about just how interesting people find the idea of the rehearsal room. So this month I am writing about that.
Partly it’s mysterious – the rehearsal room is where ‘The Process’ takes place, before it becomes public. But there are also issues – of confidentiality, privacy, and the need for exploration in a place of safety – which would make a public process difficult if not impossible.
I have had both wonderful and horrible experiences in the rehearsal room throughout my career. I’ve been shouted at, shut up, shut out, had trees thrown on top of me (yes, really), witnessed tears, shouting matches, and long power struggles in a toxic atmosphere of mutual disdain. On the other hand I have been overcome with joy and emotion, held my breath with tension and delight, even felt that I was getting to the heart of being alive. It’s an atmosphere of extremes, as you can see – but equally it can also sometimes feel like turning up for work and doing an stock inventory.
On the surface, a rehearsal room is the space in which people rehearse – that is, prepare and repeat – a work before it gets on to the stage. And, on the surface, that’s exactly what happens: people learn, memorise, bed down their physical memories of movement and narrative, stand at the right point and say or sing the right words and music – in the right order!
Much more interesting, for both performers and I think outsiders, are the deep processes which happen in parallel. To enable exploration, risk-taking and stretching possibilities, one thing above all else is necessary: trust. It is the stage manager’s role to ensure that people are physically safe and protected, without the risk to them of danger or accident. And it’s the director’s (and conductor’s) responsibility to create an environment in which trust is the norm. This is all too rare, sadly. But it’s something I always try now to create in the rehearsal room, and it’s something on which Matt Barclay, director for this revival of Lucia, and I absolutely agree. So many performers feel hectored, undermined, criticised, or dismissed by a succession of creative directors that I’m surprised they find it in themselves to keep going.
With Matt and me, it helps that we’re both Australian. When international guest artists – whether performers or creatives – come to an Australian rehearsal room for the first time, they often remark on the amount of laughter in the room. I have a theory about this: that Australians are unusually good at having fun AND being serious about the work simultaneously. It’s as if a mild strain of larrikinism infects the workplace, and this infection makes Australian performers particularly good at risk-taking, kissing the joy as it flies, and resisting mindless repetition. Which is all to the good in my view. Sometimes artists from other countries, where focus can only be expressed through being solemn, find this aspect of Australian working practice difficult to understand, if not downright discombobulating. But put a room of Australian artists together and you can pretty much guarantee there will be laughter, teasing and jokes, as well as energy and focus. That’s one of the many reasons I still enjoy working in Australia.
For visitors to the rehearsal space, it’s important to understand that performers are like Schrödinger’s cat. There’s no such thing as a neutral presence in a rehearsal room. Every presence, every action, every word, either increases the sum of trust in the room or diminishes it. (It’s the same for conducting, actually: every beat, instruction or request which has no relevance, intention or connection with the sound undermines the musicians’ faith in the conductor just that tiny bit more; but every relevant, intent, connected action can have the opposite effect.)
Until next time