When I learnt that Vamos Theatre were offering an internship to work on their Finding Joy 2014 tour I applied immediately, and a successful application has me returning to the world of full-mask theatre on a professional level!
In the summer of 2012 I worked with the company on Offal Tales, as part of the The Hive’s opening celebration; a semi-professional production that had me performing and working with members of Vamos again, a year on from artistic director Rachael Savage’s inspirational lectures on mask acting in my first year at university. Earlier this year I joined Vamos’ Young People’s Theatre on their Sharing Joy project; over the summer visiting various care homes in the West Midlands area, taking scenes inspired by the Finding Joy production to perform for the residents and then speak with them afterwards; showing the masks we use and learning about their personal history. When the YPT began again in the autumn our adventures in care homes would continue, as we were set the task to find stories about 1950s cinema for a new production, The Projectionist… more on that at a later date.
Rehearsals for this new tour of Finding Joy started in December 2013. Returning cast members Nanou Harry and Sarah Hawkins (the latter I had worked with in Offal Tales and Sharing Joy) were joined by James Greaves and Alan Riley. Alan had been invited by Rachael to assist with the production as both dramaturg and a stand-in for Richard Fletcher, who would be joining us in January. I had had the pleasure of meeting James and Alan a couple of weeks before at one of the rehearsals for Vamos’ Spring To Life show, and in that one day I had been witness to an incredible amount of talent, so it was very exciting to be working with them properly!
For these next two weeks in December, my role as “Stage Management Trainee” will would make me responsible for taking notes, formulating a new script, putting together a report on costume and set design edits, and making sure that cast and crew were able to function by hydrating them with copious amounts of tea and coffee. This will then continue in the new year, when in January a further two weeks of rehearsals will transfer from Worcester Arts Workshop to the Coach House Theatre in Malvern.
Having seen the production on its original tour, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of attending rehearsals was observing how each scene was redeveloped. For these first two weeks Rachael made improvements to each scene with the help of the exceptionally experienced mask-theatre performer, Alan Riley. The new script that I was composing was to be less detailed than the original, as it was mainly to operate as a prompt, and as the days progressed it became easier to describe the happenings on stage as I saw them, which allowed the actors to then read back over it when they needed.
Even though full-mask theatre is without vocal communication, there is essentially ‘silent speech’. This is, however, not the same as mime acting… Full-mask performance is just as real in production as a show with dialogue; the actors’ gesture and body-language and use of props all come into play. Personally I tend to liken it to a silent movie… Who needs words to tell a story? Mask actors perform silently with an internal monologue playing through in their minds so that they can be as realistic as possible in their performance. For Vamos’ productions in particular the soundtrack is an extremely important element of the show; every action performed on stage is very precise. The composer and sound editor Janie Armour was also in attendance at many rehearsals so that she could make the necessary modifications to her soundtrack.
The empty rehearsal space was transformed when the set was reconstructed within. Sarah and Nanou instructed me on how to put the pieces together; numerous doors, cabinets, hatches and cupboards covering the set, with the majority serving more than one purpose. The logic and simplicity to its assembly surprised me, but was warmly welcome! Carrying each piece down (and then, after two weeks, up) a steep narrow staircase to (and from) the rehearsal area was a challenge, but decent practice for further potentially testing get-ins when out on the road. The lighting rig would be used in private performances in schools, so I was also taught how to put that together and operate it.
In the second week we were visited by BBC Midlands Today, who came to film a scene and interview Rachael about how Vamos Theatre have battled the funding cuts. With a camera in the performance space, the cast performed the football scene from Act 2; their choreography had to improvise and adapt, and then be repeated, so that the BBC could capture the action from multiple angles. I was also briefly filmed sat behind the lighting console… Granted I would not be lighting the show on tour, but it may be that they include some footage of my fingers operating the lighting board and no one would ever know!
By the end of this two week rehearsal period Rachael had rehearsed the entire show, ready to incorporate Richard into his roles when we return in January. A couple of the scenes will still need some work… the penultimate scene in particular, which will actually involve me using torches off stage right and potentially some mask work, although rather informally (but that’s a production secret).
With the set packed into the van and taken away for some modifications and general maintenance, we bid our farewells to return again in the new year!