There is a common wisdom amongst theatre makers that goes something like this: ‘treat a classic play like a new work, and a new work like a classic play’. This teaching suggests that directors and actors should not feel suffocated by the long performance history of well known classics, whilst new writing should be given the same rigorous, in-depth research and contextual analysis that goes with staging a well-known play.
After the first two weeks in the rehearsal room for Snow in Midsummer, it has become more apparent to me that companies rehearsing for plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov or Euripides would not have the opportunity to benefit from having the writer in the room. But we do.
Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, writer of Snow in Midsummer, has been in the rehearsal room with us for the best part of two weeks. In that time she has delivered extensive re-writes and structural changes to the play – last time we asked her what draft she thought she was on her reply was “74”. I think she was only half joking. Frances is prolific: an improvised idea between two actors is turned into a succinct scene on the page in just a couple of hours, or less. It has been a fascinating process; one where the whole company has been truly invested and crucial to shaping the script.
Not that the past 2 weeks have been all about dramaturgy. We have certainly packed a lot into a fortnight. We have been super lucky to have had a resident ‘Ghost Expert’ join us; Jo Palazuelos - Krukowski from the University of California-Santa Barbara specialises on the supernatural in East Asian theatre and provided some brilliant insights into the cultural traditions surrounding ghosts in China. Her descriptions of the rituals and superstitions surrounding Hungry Ghost month (a festival in China that falls annually around the 7th Lunar Month, which is also when Snow in Midsummer is set) were especially helpful. Her vivid evocations of archetypal Chinese ghosts - including the Super-Yin ghost which can suck a man’s Yang essence out of his body - were particularly enjoyed by the company.
Added to ghosts, we have also had the thrill of heading up to Stratford-upon-Avon and getting the company on to the Swan Stage for the first time for some voice work; met our three young actors who play a feisty girl of six called Fei Fei (not much ‘acting’ needed there - they are all super smart and already running rings around our main company); explored the movement world that will populate the production (locusts, dancing policemen and raving factory workers have become quite familiar figures in our rehearsal room) and watched as various members of the company have attempted our very own version of the Bushtucker Trials by eating dried locusts. Apparently they taste a lot like salt and vinegar crisps. I haven’t tried to eat one myself. Conveniently, I’m a vegetarian.
All of this was topped off with our first fight call by the brilliant fight directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown. The fight calls included ‘beating, attempting rape and shooting’. It seemed a fitting end to a packed first fortnight.
At the start of rehearsals I was inevitably intrigued about supporting a room as an assistant director - something I haven’t done for the last year and a half – rather than leading it as the director. But any apprehensions have since melted away and I feel so privileged to be working alongside director Justin Audibert, in a company full of fellow East Asian artists. I can’t help but notice that all the things that the protesters marched for during the worldwide Woman’s March – equality, kindness, generosity, and a community working towards a common good – are all being shown in abundance in our rehearsal room.
It has made me so excited for what's to come.