Assistant Director Fay Lomas takes us into the rehearsal room for the first Trouble in Mind rehearsal diary.
We’ve had a busy first week of rehearsals for Trouble in Mind. With its deeply significant political backdrop, its play within a play, its beautifully drawn characters, and its fast paced dialogue, sometimes with several conversations going on at once – the brilliant Trouble in Mind has kept us on our toes. We’ve spent our first week of rehearsals laying the groundwork by exploring characters, relationships, and the politics behind the play, as well as staging Act 1.
On our first day of rehearsals, after we’d got to know each other (and learnt a lot of names!), we did a series of introductory exercises to the play. The story of Trouble in Mind starts on day one of rehearsals for a play called Chaos in Belleville, and one exercise involved the actors improvising that first day of rehearsals in character. This improvisation allowed the actors to explore their instincts about the relationships and power dynamics as the characters first enter the rehearsal room. On one level, the scenario in Act 1 is one that we all recognised (and indeed, were experiencing that very day): the first day of rehearsals, the nerves and excitement, some people you do know, lots you don’t, the anticipation of the weeks ahead etc. But underneath all of this in Trouble in Mind is the political landscape of the play, set in America in 1957, at the time of the Civil Rights Movement. Race affects everything in Trouble in Mind – what’s going on in the play the actors are rehearsing (Chaos in Belleville); what’s going on in their rehearsal room; and what is going on outside the room. The same year that Alice Childress wrote the first version of Trouble in Mind, Emmett Till, a 14 year old boy, was lynched by a gang of white men for supposedly whistling at a white woman; when Alice wrote her second draft, in 1957, black school children had to be protected by the army from white supremacists as they made their way to a newly integrated school.
Following this improvisation of the first day of rehearsals, we had a series of discussions about status. Trying to assign a status to the characters from 1 (lowest status) to 10 (highest), we discovered just how complex status is in the play: what the difference is between the status the characters are, what they think they are, and what they want to be; how the various characters have very different views from each other on the status of other characters; and how status changes over the course of the play.
The rest of the first day was spent reading through the play, and showing the actors the model box for the set, designed by Polly Sullivan. We also had a session with our voice coach, Elspeth Morrison. Most of the actors have to master two different accents: both those of their characters, and those of the characters their characters are playing in Chaos in Belleville. Elspeth talked to the actors not only about different accents, but also about the different tones, intonations, or qualities of voice they might adopt to distinguish between their two roles.
After the first day of rehearsals, the rest of the week has been spent working through Act 1 in detail. For each scene, we did some ‘table work’ first (detailed text work on a scene), and then staged it. What was particularly interesting about our text work for this play was that we did the table work on the set. Laurence Boswell, our director, told us on day two of rehearsals that we would work our rehearsals in the positions that the characters within the play work their rehearsals. Other echoes from their rehearsal process have found their way into ours. We even found ourselves tea-breaking at the same time as the actors in the play! And I have somehow managed to develop the pen-dropping tick of the assistant director character in the play….
Alice Childress’s writing style is incredibly detailed – indeed, Laurence has emphasised this week how the play needs ‘novelistic detail’. Tanya Moodie, playing Wiletta, described the play as like jazz, in terms of the subtlety of the interplay of the characters’ voices. This is both one of the joys and one of the challenges: for the majority of the play, most of the characters are onstage at the same time. Something that has been very important has been to find the specificity of the lines, working out which lines are private (and to whom they are addressed) and which lines are destined for the group. Another challenge how quickly the tone shifts, from humour to high tension, in the space of a breath. There’s a rage bubbling underneath the play – one of the questions we’ve been investigating this week is when do the characters contain it, and when do they let go.
Another aspect of our work has been developing the improvisations: the script often indicates moments where everyone onstage talks at once (for instance, in greeting the director on the first day of rehearsals), and we’ve been improvising our way into these sections. We want to ensure that we make these improvisations specific, and also accurate to the period (we’ve been looking up when certain exclamations came into American English, for example, to make sure we’re not being anachronistic). A final major element of our rehearsals this week has been working on the different styles of acting in Chaos in Belleville – and making sure that we make it clear for the audience when we’re in the play within the play, and when we’re not.
The first week has been highly rewarding, and we’re now setting our sights on Week 2 of rehearsals, and Act 2 of Trouble in Mind.
Trouble in Mind | 14 Sep – 14 Oct | Book Now