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Rehearsal diary: How to direct two shows in two different locations with one cast… at the same time.

House and Garden Director Elizabeth Freestone talks us through the benefits and challenges of rehearsing two simultaneous plays in two separate locations with the same cast.

It’s the day of the annual garden fete. A lunch and various entertainments are planned. Guests are arriving and the village is coming together to mark the day. So far, so simple. But not with Alan Ayckbourn. In House and Garden, he turns what should be a familiar English country scene into a whirlwind of drama and chaos.

Working out how to rehearse the plays is as much as a puzzle as rehearsing the plays themselves. The story takes place simultaneously in two places – inside in House and outside in Garden. The characters constantly move between the two locations. So when a character leaves House, they invariably arrive shortly afterwards in Garden and vice versa. So we need two rehearsal rooms with the actors moving between the two spaces. And I can’t be in two places at once – so sometimes I’m in one room and at other times in another, with my assistant director keeping an eye on things wherever I’m not! Then we need to make sure the scenes in each location run roughly at the same length, so that when a character turns up we can be sure they are entering at the right moment so our stage management team are armed with stopwatches. Then we need to time the journeys the actors make from the theatre (where we are performing House) to the grounds (where we are performing Garden) so make sure they can all get to where they need to be on time. As you can imagine, I’ve been waking up in the night sweating about the wrong actor arriving in the wrong scene at the wrong moment!

Brilliantly though, House and Garden is more than a technical challenge. It’s a complex story for the characters, all of whom go through life-changing events during the course of the day. Marriages break down, relationships are formed, families are re-built. We watch the characters go through personal crises, wrestle with political issues and work out what their futures will hold. So in rehearsals we’re getting to know the characters inside out, making decisions about who they are. We’re looking at how they hope the fete day will unfold – and then enjoying working on how they feel when the day doesn’t quite go as planned. I’ve always felt that comedy and truth go hand in hand – things are funnier when you really believe what the characters are thinking. So we’re working on finding that balance and treading that fine line.

Rehearsing at the Watermill means we can work outside and discover how to make the best of the theatre’s natural environment to bring the world of the plays to life. We just have to be careful the ducks don’t trip the actors up as they run to their next scene.

Elizabeth Freestone will discuss her approach to directing House and Garden in a Lunchtime Talk on Wednesday 7 June. Click here to find out more about this fascinating insight into the production.

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