Sitting in the rehearsal room whilst Dirty Market works towards its work-in-progress piece is a rollercoaster ride. My presence in the process is a complicated one. The company has been kind enough to allow me unrestricted access to its work, and in turn I’m offering a form of documentation for it through the digital space of Digital Dirty Market. Whilst this documentation is about the process, it is in part about me as someone who writes about theatre – to reflect critically upon the process, to observe, to understand and to some extent critique. My watchful eye throughout Dirty Market’s process also means that through offering this collection of thoughts I am laying bare the intimate and chaotic journey that takes place as a piece of theatre is developed by a company.
It is perhaps unsurprising that so many companies and directors keep their rehearsal rooms out of sight. The work that happens within requires trust and sensitivity. It is an unwritten rule that what happens in the rehearsal room stays in the rehearsal room up until the point that the company feels confident to allow an audience/spectators to see it. Sometimes this point will be weeks or months down the line, other times it will be a matter of days. The journey for the actors and director alike is an unknown one, and to have such watchful eyes on every moment can be a daunting prospect for those involved.
I have, wherever possible, kept my presence in the rehearsal room unobtrusive. Sitting quietly observing, or when invited chipping in, but always respecting the work itself.
Why do I write all of this? I guess it is to affirm in my mind that my presence is valuable, but also one that should be highly prized, and treated with care and sensitivity. Over the weekend I attended Devoted and Disgruntled 7, two days of discussions, debates and offerings from artists, arts professionals and theatre lovers. One of the sessions, led by Maddy Costa (Guardian critic and writer), intended to explore how people who write about theatre, and people who make theatre, could do more. Naturally I was drawn to the discussion with my current work with Dirty Market but also because I am generally interested in how new forms of dialogue can be made between writers/observers and makers.
The thing that struck me, and this seems to reverberate with me as I observe in my official capacity at Oval House this week, is how the process of making work is one that doesn’t always need (or even want) to be opened to ‘the critic’, ‘the observer’ or ‘the writer’. The defensive nature of some of those attending the session was slightly disheartening, especially as I have such a love of theatre and the process of making. Why the defensiveness?
Attending rehearsals of Dirty Market, and being in the thick of the journey, I can suddenly understand why some of the artists and theatre makers reacted as they did. In the intensity of the boiling pot that is the rehearsal room, there is a need for failure – and a failure that is not judged. Having my presence in the rehearsal, noting every detail, and having watchful (and without meaning to be) judgemental eyes on the process, could damage the work.
Maddy Costa describes what it is like being in a rehearsal room observing in her beautiful blog post ‘How you do it is up to you’ this week:
“It was the energy of the room I was denying, the tendrils of change and effect with a force of their own, which kept reaching out to me to take part, and which I kept pushing away.”
The energy that Maddy speaks of becomes clear when you observe the tenderness that takes place within the devising process. As the ensemble of Dirty Market and the co-directors attempt to find their way through the work, they experiment and make leaps of faith into the unknown. The rehearsal room therefore becomes a safety net and a support mechanism for the work. Much like a child learning to ride a bike, they need the reassurance that they will learn the right process of peddling to propel the bike onwards. The parent acts as the safety but also as the energy to will the child on.
Having a spectator who is not part of the process, who sits and observes from the side, can be a drain on the energy of the rehearsal room. Whether they mean to be or not, it happens. This is true for me, too: however much I don’t want it to be, there is only so much I can do and offer when I am an outsider to the work. The energy that I deny to the work by actively not joining in leaves its mark.
I’m aware that perhaps what I am writing is not coming across in the best possible light, and that the Digital Dirty Market project is hindering the work of Dirty Market as they make Be Good Revolutionaries. This (I hope!) is not the case. I write this because of the understanding that as a piece of work is made there needs to be trust, sensitivity and understanding for those involved.
Theatre often feels trivial. Actors present a mimicking of the real world, and directors offer a slice of human life. Audiences get lost in the work, and applaud the achievements made before disappearing into the night. Rarely are we, the audience, exposed to the inner workings of the theatre, to the process that is undergone, and the grueling, because it often is grueling, journey that has taken place to reach the work on the stage.
During the sessions at Devoted and Disgruntled, several comments were made about the nature of the critic who dispels theatre so easily with their review. Damning a production in 200-400 words and giving it a star rating before moving onto the next target. Why would a theatre maker want to open up the process to the critic who so readily dismisses a piece of work that took months to make? Why would an artist want to start a dialogue with someone who dislikes their work?
This is where I feel lucky that I am being invited into the rehearsal room of Dirty Market. I have never been one to tear a piece of theatre to shreds purely because I have the words (and power?) to do so through a review. This is entirely unfair on those who made it. What I offer are often reflections on the work as observations and a peeling-back of ideas and formulations so that I can begin to understand the way in which a company or artist thought when developing a piece. This is why Digital Dirty Market so interests me, as a writer of theatre work. I want to understand the process, understand the logic and try to get to the heart of what makes a piece of theatre become exceptional when placed in front of audience. I want to share this online.
What I hope develops out of Digital Dirty Market is the beginnings – for it is never a finished product – of how one particular company has come to make its work. I hope to interest or intrigue an outside audience through what they read. I hope to expose, in the most sensitive manner that I can, the inner workings of the rehearsal room.
I guess in its essence, theatre making – and writing about it – requires nurturing and consideration. Trust between writer and maker, but also a sense of adventure as one permits oneself to plunge into the unknown of the theatre making process. So join me and Dirty Market as we travel this journey together.