A shadowy eye on the wall - rehearsal blog day 1

Maison Foo Production Journal – Day 1 – by Christie Inman-Hall

From the first moment in the Maison Foo rehearsal room it becomes apparent that the cast of 'Pendulum's Bargain Emporium' are a close knit group. Whether they've known each other for years or, as in your writer's case, a brand new acquaintance to the group, is irrelevant; all are welcome here.

Having come on board for this rehearsal week as an outside eye, a reporter in the loosest sense of the word, it is my task to provide you, the reader, with a look into the rehearsals, the process, and, if I dare, the minds of Maison Foo.

A creative and peaceful atmosphere is instantly ushered into the room as the four cast members stretch and limber up in preparation for a hard day of character discovery and plot development. The only sound to be heard is the occasional deep breath and my keyboard tapping away feverishly. It's a rare opportunity to be on the outside of this process – a shadowy eye on the wall, ever looking in but never being noticed, never an intrusion, simply there to observe.

I should mention at this point, as the actors continue their warm-up, that I’ve only just met Beth and Kate (for this week, my employers), downstairs in the theatre café. It wasn't open so no coffee was had; what was had, however, was an interesting an in-depth chat about the show. 'Pendulum's Bargain Emporium' is, as Kate tells me, loosely based on the story of the Shoe-Maker and The Elves  but is, they urged, a tale for grown-ups.

Today, I’m told, is all about discovering who the characters are. In my chat with Beth and Kate they were passionate and informative when telling me about their process; it seems to be one of the utmost artistic creativity wherein play and joy is essential to their overall product. Without the joy of play there can be no true acting and thus, rehearsals which may seem silly and childish at heart are, often, the most useful when it comes to creating the characters that have stories to be told.

As well as the four members of Maison Foo there's another man here, Mick (Barnfather). 

As a mentor to the cast, so far, Mick has clung, like myself, to the outskirts of the rehearsal room, not wanting to interrupt or intrude. However, now is his time and he steps forward with knowledge and warmth, he is ready to start.

The rehearsal, as mentioned, is based largely around play and imagination, for one instance, a small football might be a crocodile, or a weapon, the possibilities are endless. 'Pendulum's Bargain Emporium' might be a show for grown-ups but its' apparent boundless imagination and simple joy in rehearsal is positively play-school – something we all must strive, at some point, to recreate. Theatre, especially theatre created by 'The Foo' as I like to call them, is one of the few times an honest and pure childlike wonderment can be created. There is no fear of reproach or embarrassment, this is all in the name of art for the group.

What's striking about the overall feeling in the rehearsal space surrounding the company is that there's always laughter and smiles, in no line of work have I ever seen such enjoyment and life within a job. For the gang this is no mere working-day, no nine-to-five slog, there's no board meetings and boring stuff, at least not today, today is for the show, for sheer fancy of 'Pendulum's Bargain Emporium'.

As I think these thoughts, Mick has told the cast that they are pinned to the floor with tension, and that they must, in their feeble and often comically pitiful attempts, get up. There are groans and sounds reminiscent of those heard by Monty Python's famous cart-hand, constantly crying “bring out yer dead!”, it becomes apparent though, as 'Maison Foo's Flying Circus' strives ever upward to stand and walk and move with ease, that no such cart will be needed. Slapstick aside, they've made it. They're human.

Well, they're actors.

It's a start.

As Mick takes the cast through their paces it becomes apparent that the cast, each of them, is talented and the consummate professional, dog impressions aside. There are examples of melodrama and hyper-realism and each performer deftly weaves their way through the action in a way that only years of practice and skill can create. As Mick gives each fresh scenario he offers suggestions for movements or snippets of drama that might be nice to see – it is interesting to observe that these suggestions are absorbed and built upon within the pretence of the play. It is instantly obvious that the creation of 'Pendulum's Bargain Emporium' will be an eclectic mix of silliness, sincerity and, above all, a scintillating passion for theatre.

Watching Mick build characters with the cast is reminiscent of watching Obi Wan Kenobe teach young Luke Skywalker of the force; impressive, inspirational and, ultimately, bloody good fun.

The purpose of these exercises seems to be that the actors need to get into an incredibly free and creative state of mind in order to develop and construct the characters needed for the show; as I sit watching the cast go through the motions of leading their movement with different parts of their body, it's easy to see that in changing the walk and movement of a person, it changes the way we perceive them, and, not only that, we see how the performers respond to the world around them and, thus, characters are created.

As various characters begin to come to the fore, it slowly becomes clear that these actors are inherently gifted toward the comic, yet truthful style of performance that will so obviously suit 'Pendulum's Bargain Emporium' – a warm comedy that isn't cynical or jaded, but fresh, innocent and, ultimately, exciting to behold.

These experiments that Mick so expertly implements with the cast will, obviously, forge the pathway for the characters that we'll eventually see in the show, a wonderful medley of silly and sweet becomes the standard for the cast, a combination of the everyday and the over the top that creates a wonderful platform upon which the company can add and subtract at the leisure, as the drama requires.

Being a devised piece, this has the potential to be almost anything, so long as it holds true when compared to the framework of the original story created by Beth and Kate. The passion and enthusiasm for the show is infectious and it is, at times, hard to remain detached and impartial when such exciting developments are unfolding right in front of my eyes, it can be said, however, that the talent of those involved is boundless and especially well suited to a devised show such as 'Pendulum's Bargain Emporium'.

The sporadic nature of this way of working often leads to some truly inspired ideas about the overall drama and the narrative as a whole; all four cast members clearly have very strong ideas about the style and tone of the piece, ideas that have probably been percolating in their minds for weeks, maybe even months at this point and, interestingly enough, it's all working well together; such is the cohesive nature of the cast that, even though they have different ideas, they seem to fit, they seem to possess an inherent cooperative quality. Mick, as with this morning, is giving his impressions as an outside, yet wholly theatrical, eye. He keeps offering shifts in the paradigm of the narrative, thus pushing our cast to new heights of entertaining chaos.

The most striking thing about this collaborative, free exchange of ideas, is the deftness of skill with which the actors create such entertaining and seemingly easy constructs in which the narrative can evolve and grow into drama. Clearly, Maison Foo are well practised in the art of theatre and especially knowledgeable in the area of how to gain an audiences interest and enthusiasm.

Within the devising process it is a constant necessity not to settle on any one idea too early on; the purpose of devising a piece is so that you're not pinned down to anything too concrete from the get go. This appears to be understood incredibly well by the entire team. Never before have I worked with a company so willing to try new things time and time again until something usable rears its' head. It appears to be a constant striving, experimenting and hammering of ideas into shape that creates such high quality drama from absolutely nothing except an idea, an idea that's sometimes ineffable, something that can't be vocalised. In theatre, the only thing to do then is to get up and work it out as an ensemble.

With this in mind the cast works feverishly, honing their improvisations, all the while adding and building upon the core ideas of 'Pendulum's Bargain Emporium', after just one day of rehearsal it's getting clearer and the show begins to take real shape in the minds of the cast and crew.

Towards the end of the working day, Mick wonders what the show should deliver to the audience... Beth proffers the response;

“It's a bit of a warning tale for saying 'be careful what you wish for', we strive for this happiness, but when we actually get it, we might not really be happy...”

Watch this space.

(Ensemble: Kathryn Lowe, Bethany Sheldon, Matt Marks, Morgan Brind. Outside Eye/Clown Mentor: Mick Barnfather)