The Elephant Man | Rehearsal Diary Week 2

6 Jun 2018

As the company of The Elephant Man continue to rehearse, Assistant Director Katharine Farmer fills us in on all the latest happenings as the cast delve deep into scene work. 

Initially Lee Lyford (Director) approached the text by breaking each scene up into different units. Each unit is defined when something changes: either an entrance/exit, an event, new information or a change in conversation. The cast then decide what each character wants in every given unit and what stands in their way. This breaks the scene up into a journey of different objectives and obstacles.

After that process, Lee then uses an exercise called ‘Actioning’ to make these choices even more specific. It’s a process whereby you ascribe each sentence with a transitive verb (something that is done to someone else). This helps to develop the actor’s understanding of what they want from the other character(s) by using different tactics. For example, “I threaten you” could then follow with “I instruct you” then “I charm you”. Marking up your script with hundreds of verbs may seem laborious on the surface, but what it’s actually doing is helping the actor take ownership over their lines and make precise acting choices.

For many of the actors at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School this is the first time that they have used ‘Actioning’ in a production. Training at the school means that the actors are taught a wide range of different techniques to approach building a character, but they might not have worked with a director who favours the ‘Actioning’ process. The actors seem quite comfortable with the technique and already I am noticing vast leaps in their performances.

After rehearsal I had a quick chat with actress Stephanie Booth (Countess) about her process and her observations on rehearsals so far: 

“I’m playing four different characters, so I have to make sure that they are all individual people who are different, despite them being played by the same person. My first step was to research who they are, or, were. Particularly with a play like The Elephant Man many of the characters are based on real people. However, some of them are fictional and when that’s the case I looked at their circumstances and researched that instead. For example, I’m playing a police officer so I researched the police force in the 1880s. I also play a Countess so I also looked into British aristocracy and its social norms to help me better understand who she could be. Once I did this research, I had a better idea of how I could play my characters and brought that into the rehearsal room. By using ‘Actioning’ in rehearsals I’m able to deepen my understanding of these characters and build an inner life for them. I love this technique as it means that every time you get up and do something you know exactly why you’re doing it, which then gives you the freedom to play around with it in the actual performance.”

I also caught up with actor Max Dinnen (Bishop Walsham How) to tell me a little more about his character and initial impressions playing the role:

“I am playing him slightly differently than the real Bishop Walsham How, as he was much older than I am now when he met Joseph Merrick – so this is an adapted version of him! As well as being a Bishop, he was also a scholar of Natural History and Biology. This was a particularly important discovery to make, as in one of my scenes Bishop How discusses the divide between religion and science with Carr Gomm, the chairman of the London Hospital. Knowing that Bishop How is both a man of the cloth and extremely knowledgeable in science has changed my approach to his opinions on Darwin and religion, as they are incredibly well-considered. It’s great to play a role that can embody the duality of religion vs. science at a time when England was on the brink of change. Having recently played Doctor Seward in Dracula, I’m now able to play the other side of the nature vs. nurture argument, which I’m looking forward to!”

The Elephant Man comes to Bristol Old Vic from 26 Jun – 7 Jul. Book your tickets here