It’s a bloody terrifying prospect – joining a cast of actors who all know each other and have worked with each other before. It’s like a first day of school mixed in with some first-time film acting- every single thing feels magnified. Many agents of fear are lurking around what appears to be a simple meeting; any sort of malfunction of your face or body, an overly eager attitude, or most of all, telling a joke which nobody laughs at, can leave you feeling like the odd one out.
So off I went, to a meeting with Sleight of Hand, convinced that all these people would be incredibly in tune with each other, and miles ahead of me in terms of experience, maturity and talent. I initially felt that their impressive Drama School backgrounds contrast to my University Drama BA, at least certainly on paper. I was worried our potentially different styles of working within a project would make quite the barrier between us as actors.
Now in life, things are rarely as we expect them, but the people I met were almost exactly what I expected them to be. They are very much at ease with themselves and one another, they’re experienced, and incredibly talented. But what I didn’t expect, was them to be so damned friendly.
About a week later, I was asked to join the cast of The Man Who– Peter Brook’s adaptation from the Oliver Sacks book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. A play formed of short vignettes, with each scene providing an insight into fascinating and troublesome neurological disorders which some people genuinely experience. Being bright eyed, youthful and eager, this project appealed immensely to me, in it’s complexity and the sheer challenge of the piece, so naturally I said yes.
Even better, my previous fears about being the ‘odd one out’ were unfounded. The talent, insight and intelligence in the room is always brilliant; from acting with each other, to just being happy watching each other rehearse. We all get along fantastically well, and working with my fellow cast members has been a dream. I am genuinely worried that the bar has been set this high.
What has challenged me most, is that mime and physical theatre are used heavily in the performance- these are not necessarily my forte. Now mime is fun. It’s exceptionally good when done well. It’s pretty damn magical. It is also incredibly hard to do. If your mime is rubbish, the scene falls apart very quickly, and the sense of ensemble is definitely lost. When a tennis ball morphs into a football then quickly becomes a rugby ball, miscommunication abounds. I’d equate it to a nonverbal equivalent of Chinese Whispers, and sometimes it failed badly.
Help is luckily at hand on this project, our hawk-like director misses nothing. We can be assured that in a scene in rehearsal we will be swiftly chastised if we don’t commit to the mime, or (more often than not) inadvertently walk right through objects supposed to be on the ground. It would cause chaos in a scene with the props there- objects flung across the stage from an ill-placed step. To commit to the mime, we must believe that the objects are there, and so we perform the scene no differently than if we had the physical props.
That said, the elements of ‘physical theatre’ in the piece (a phrase which I tentatively use, as all theatre is essentially physical) sometimes allow us a bit of artistic leeway. Through movements influenced by Laban’s ‘efforts’, we can very quickly leave a scene behind and transform ourselves into our characters for the next scene, having assigned each character their own ‘effort’. Again another great joy of mime and ‘physical theatre’, no props, no hassle, no fuss.
This production has been excellent fun to work on as well as an incredible learning experience from the people we have met, and the people I have been fortunate enough to work with. The piece itself is daunting, terrifying, touching, heartbreaking, and certainly at times, utterly wild. If people have half as much fun watching it, and take away even just a little bit of what we learned when rehearsing it, we’re in for some interesting discussions with audience members over a drink afterwards.
Jake Francis graduated from the University of Exeter last year, having performed in thirty plays and one feature film. He has since performed on the RSC’s Dell stage, and was most recently selected as one of 15 finalists
The Man Who, stage one of the Ergo Sum Project, is running from March 23-28 at The Tristan Bates Theatre: call the Box Office on 020 7240 6283 for tickets.