Director’s Notes: Reviving and Revising Expectations

As we return to the rehearsal room with our Mankind cast, the director of the upcoming revival shares some of her thoughts.

Recently we jumped into rehearsals with the Mankind revival cast. It was really nice to get to work, to see where the returning cast are with the parts they already know, and to find out how they and the new folks will work together. Most gratifying is seeing how everyone works together, and starting to learn how everyone works, as individuals and as an ensemble.

This project is hardly unprecedented in the world of theatre. It’s not at all unusual for an actor or a director to return to something they’ve worked on previously. In many cases it will be many years apart, with a different company or group of actors. In those cases, while still a ‘revival’ of a play, it’s essentially a new production. [See my earlier post on Defining our Revival for more on this topic]

Something like what we’re doing with Mankind is quite different. A cast mixed of veterans and newcomers, an attempt not to stray too far from last autumn’s performance while still making improvements (because you can always improve something!), and a familiarity not diluted by time all contribute to an interesting cluster of challenges to face down. The biggest of these is simply reevaluating and redefining expectations to acknowledge that difference is totally acceptable.

The greatest factor is of course the actors. Each person brings not only their own personal quirks, but different strengths and weaknesses, and individual ways of approaching their work. Even if you end up with similar performances in the end, the process to getting there probably won’t be much the same between two people. While this might seem obvious, it means that the returning cast members not only have to re-learn the relationships between their characters, they have to do it in a slightly different way, and the director has to find ways to facilitate this that work for both. Moreover, the director has to be conscious from the beginning that the way to handle situations will be different, and that the methodology used last time might not work at all for this round. Maybe your first actor was spectacularly good at conveying character through voice and your new one demonstrates the character in a more physical manner. Both had a talent to use, and a weakness to work on, but filling in the gaps and refining the initial skills are going to be radically different between them.

In any revival, but especially one with a partially new cast mixed with ‘veterans’, everyone returning has to accept, right off the bat, that it will be a different performance. It’s not fair to expect Actor B to replicate the part precisely to what Actor A did previously. It’s all too easy to get into the habit of remembering how a part was portrayed the first time, and making comparisons, but it’s not at all useful to sit there and think, “But Actor A did it differently.” Of course she did, and that’s okay. As several writers, most of whom had one foot in theatre’s door- Lydgate, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Donne- have said, “Comparisons are odious”. They’re also a very human thing to do, but it’s something you have to try to nip in the bud before it becomes a problem. Every actor deserves the chance to create a role in the way that works best for them, to achieve the desired end, and that end should be based on the needs of the character as written and the play, not on the portrayal created by someone else. After all, there isn’t one “right” way to do a play, and different interpretations can be equally valid and compelling. This will also make changes to the performances of the returning actors, because they have to adjust to a new dynamic as well.

But, lest this sound problematic, it’s worth pointing out that this is also one of the things which makes theatre fun. Watching the infinite permutations, the different styles and characters of people, finding your way through the thicket of ideas, expectations, practices, outcomes…. That is, surely, a big part of why we do this. Getting to know new people and their work, working with colleagues you’ve known for years, trying new things and revisiting the familiar, it’s all grist to the mill, and keeps us all on our creative toes.

We are off to a good start with this revived production. I hope everyone else is feeling as enthusiastic as I am, and as excited to see where this journey forwards and backwards will take us together.