Rehearsal Reflections Part One – Francesca Savige

Francesca Savige and Scott Sheridan in In a Dark Dark Wood kids theatre production. Image by Jon Green.

I have been working a lot with Shakespeare in recent years , so it was an exciting and unfamiliar challenge to work on two new Australian works this year. The first of these was a wonderful new play by WA’s Reg Cribb and the second, the delightful In A Dark Dark Wood by Caleb Lewis. On both these projects, the writer was in the room for the first week of rehearsals, but as a special bonus for the latter, we also had the fantastic experience of a creative development months before rehearsals even began. These experiences have been both insightful and revelatory for me, and hugely beneficial to my acting craft.

The creative development for In a Dark Dark Wood took place in April of this year and it was the first time I have ever been involved in a project at such an early stage. Our director Matt and writer Caleb had been developing the concept for months already, but the script was still in draft phase and Caleb was extremely open to suggestions and changes. As we explored forms of storytelling and improvised throughout the week, it was amazing to see Caleb absorb, guide and rework ideas. Not only was he spending the days with us bouncing these ideas around,, but he would write long into the night and come into the development the next day with new chunks of script for us to bite into. It was very impressive! Alongside admiring Caleb’s brilliance, I was also slowly growing in confidence in my own ability to contribute at this stage of creativity.

I had gone into the development feeling a deep fear of improvisation, but this process made me question why I was so nervous about it. It quickly became apparent that the fear was more specific. I’m comfortable improvising without language, using my body to physically tell the story, and so I realised that the impro-phobia (there’s probably a more scientific term for it) was about words, my use of language and an expectation with improvising to say funny things. Going into this development, my impro-phobia was exacerbated by working with my extremely funny fellow actor, Scott Sheridan. This guy is seriously hilarious. I know this all too well because he is also my life partner and he makes me laugh every day! But no matter how many times he told me confidence-boosting lovely things, I was still terrified of improvising.

It dawned on me that my fear of improvising with words probably comes largely from a lack of practice. I’ve done lots of actor-training over the years (I believe actors always should keep training), however it has always been language-based. Always Shakespeare. It sounds ridiculous as I write it, to be afraid of improvising with words, as we obviously improvise with words on a daily basis in life. Yet on stage, or in front of an audience, it was traumatic for me!

Shakespeare’s scripts are 400 years old and there is a certainty and confidence that comes with that, for me. When I am working on Shakespeare, I know what I have to say. People have been saying these lines for centuries!  I can learn my lines perfectly -often before rehearsals even begin- and be able to play and respond in the rehearsal room. My job is to make the words my own as best as possible, and that is the challenge that I love. With a new work in development, not all the words are there yet, and nothing is set in stone. And of course, as an artist and creator, the desire is to contribute, to give, to be a part of the development – that’s what it’s all about. Yet a feeling of inadequacy to do just that, pervaded me in April.

So the development was scary at first. I could feel myself resisting. I wanted to speak only the words Caleb had written in the draft. Meanwhile, Scott was being his usual hilarious self, riffing on ideas, throwing jokes around willy-nilly and cracking everyone up. On the very first day Matt, with his usual brilliant intuitiveness, dis-obligated me from any of the horrid insecurities and pressures I was conjuring up for myself. He encouraged creativity without any need for the material to be perfect, or even any good at all.

Matt directed our focus to the form in which we were working. We were exploring a story-telling mode of playing multiple characters with just two actors. The focus-shift was the perfect distraction for me. And the perfect appeal using the actor’s craft. As actors we are always seeking our motivation, asking why are we doing and saying what we are doing and saying. We ask the question on behalf of our characters: “What do I want?” Matt guided us to want to investigate the form in every way, and the motivation was to conquer the challenge of multi-character story-telling. Alongside Matt, Caleb regularly reminded us not to worry about the words on the page, genuinely encouraging us to try out anything, feeding us with inspiration and laughter.

So throughout the development week, I stopped thinking about myself, being in my head with my own self-doubts, and focused on getting what we wanted. And we got it. We found a mode of storytelling that we would fine-tune later in rehearsals, but it was the foundation for Caleb to keep building on with this exciting new style of multi-character two-hander narrative story-telling. Ultimately the creative development was very productive not only for Caleb and Matt, but also for me facing my fears, and getting back into practice of improvising. And Scott had a blast, of course!

– Francesca Savige

This is part one of a two part rehearsal diary. Part two will be published Thursday 3 November.