Director’s Notes: Space & the Actor

As opening night for our ‘Mankind’ revival run approaches we have moved rehearsals into the performance venue. Our Artistic Director has noticed this take quite an effect on the cast she is directing. Here are her some of her thoughts and reflections.

I’ve written before about space, and the way that it can shape and inform a production. What I’ve been contemplating this week, as we’ve moved from Brackenhill Creative Space (which is sadly now closed) into The Studio Theatre at Upstage Centre, is how space makes a difference to the actors and their characters.

It’s kind of obvious that an actor moves through, in and around the space given to them; they are a part of it, and they react to it in various ways. This means that any change in space requires a certain degree of readjustment and reconsideration; and changes are inevitable (unless one is in the rare, lucky position to have the performance space for rehearsal as well). Actors are pretty good about managing it, but of course it’s a challenge for them, particularly as the space is usually being built and adjusted all around them during the first few days.

This has been true with our production of Mankind – while we’re not exactly hanging lights right above their heads as they rehearse, bits and pieces are coming in in dribs and drabs, and we’re all having to adjust accordingly. Stage block number one is too big – bring in a smaller one. The space in front of the audience is much bigger than expected, so use it, but get used to a longer walk if you need to get back to the center. How are the acoustics backstage? How long does it take to cross from entrance three to entrance four [we are performing in thrust by the way]? It all gets worked out, but it takes a bit of work on everyone’s part.

It can also affect characters, to some extent, as well. The Vices in particular are quite mobile and expansive in their motions, and they’re having to adjust to a stage with multiple levels, which means some of the wild flinging-around needs to be tempered for safety’s sake. Mercy’s “congregation’ now surrounds the stage in a totally different manner than was possible in the rehearsal space, and he is having to become accustomed to remembering the people in the far corners, which in some ways seems at odds with a character who is more emotionally and spatially grounded than the helter-skelter demons.

In some medieval plays, space and character were intimately connected. For example, in The Castle of Perseverance, various characters had a performance space (presumably a bit like a small stage on scaffolding) assigned specifically to them, and so moments when they moved outside of it, or into another’s sphere, had very particular meaning. We have, for the most part, chosen to blur the spaces as much as possible: Titivillus and Mercy “own” the same entrance/exit, for example; the actors move freely on and off the raised stage, to be more connected to the audience; the Vices can sit where Mercy leaves his Bible. The point in doing this was the emphasize that good and evil are not the province of particular types of people, that things which we perceive as positive may have a sting in their tail, and evil can easily look charming. By letting the actors use as much space as they can, the characters have an entire world to assign to their own purposes. And they do: Mankind’s patch of land may be the small bit of grass we see, or the entire stage, while the realms of Mercy and the Vices are entirely the same place.

It’s been lovely to get into the proper space and have room for the actors to move about, because it helps them fulfill one of the primary goals of a morality play: highlighting the fact that their story is about everyone. While we’ve asked Mankind to create a specific character and sense of self for our production, the character never the less represents the whole of humanity. (As we often joke: when there is something that needs working on with Mankind, someone inevitably responds, “All of mankind? I don’t think we have time for that!”) His world is also the world of the Vices, and of the forgiveness of Mercy, and of us. In morality plays, all the world really is a stage, and all of these characters can use the space of the theatre to tell us that.