Today was the first day back in rehearsals for my graduation play after the Easter break. The play is Frank McGuinness' 'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me'; about three men taken hostage in Lebanon in the 1980s. Although the play is based on real events (in particular, the experiences of Irishman, Brian Keenan), all the characters in the play are fictitious. It's known as the "bad joke" play i.e. 'An Englishman, an Irishman and an American...etc', but it's one of the most moving things I've ever seen/read. Even now, in rehearsal, there are moments that leave me speechless (and that's pretty unusual!).
So far the rehearsal period has been a mix of long-form improvisation and careful text study. On the first day, in an attempt to give the actors some taste of what a real hostage might go through (albeit in a sanitised, 'safe' environment), I arranged for four other volunteer actors to ambush us mid-rehearsal and conduct a hostage simulation for the rest of the day. Using fake guns and covering their faces with balaclavas and scarves, the hostage takers burst in shouting gobbledegook. They forced all of us down onto the floor and blindfolded the cast. I was then free to (silently) watch and orchestrate the remaining events of the day. These included interrogations and terrorising (using a rolled up newspaper to aggressively hit the floor and walls around the actors, randomly stroking their hair, alternating between anger and comfort, and moving them round the room at random), culminating in the actors one-by-one being led out of our building and into next door to a room that had had its windows and doors blocked up with black fabric. When they needed the toilet, the cast were escorted - blindfolded - across the hall. Their lunch was brought to them and consisted of: a roll, a hard-boiled egg, some jam and a lump of cheese. This was a day's ration of food that Brian Keenan received during part of his tenure as a hostage. The 'cell' was the actors' home for three hours. In total, the exercise took 6 hours.
This may seem an extreme way to begin rehearsals for a play, but there were certain circumstances that allowed me to take such a liberty. First, all the actors - at a previous read-through - had asked to take part in a lock-in of some kind for 48 hours (even more extreme than my own devising). And second, we had worked as a company on a trailer for the production and so had already built up a level of trust. The rewards of that day have been extraordinary. It serves as a kind of shared language and "reference book" for the discoveries we've later made about relationships and behaviour between the hostages. For example, the rapid conditioning of human responses (e.g. whenever the guards entered the cell, the actors would automatically retreat to their corners and cover their eyes) and bonding together were stronger than I could have imagined. Other interesting things that cropped up was the suspicion of new arrivals, the characterising of the guards ('It's Ok Man'), and the confusion of not knowing whether it was day or night and the body's instinct to shut off and sleep in order to cope.
Other long-form improvisations we've done include two hours of the actors as themselves 'in the cell' (tied by the ankle with rope to the walls) - to have some experience of the boredom of life as a hostage; character-building improv set before their character was taken, as well as exploring scenes preceding the action of scene one (e.g. the first meeting of Edward, the Irishman, and Adam, the American). Always, these exercises are rooted in trying to explore facets of the text, and today was the first time the actors actually stood up and spoke the full text aloud. Now our focus has shifted from background and building up emotional and physical memories to mounting the action of the play itself.