One on side of the Lion and Unicorn’s black-box theatre space, a group of actors rehearsing Titania’s first meeting with Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are enthusiastically trying out different braying laughs for the unfortunate Mechanical-cum-ass. Performing around them, the love-struck Lysander, Demetrius, Helena and Hermia cling to each other in ever-more comic ways. The atmosphere is light-hearted but focused – so much so, it is easy to forget that the only directors on stage are the cast themselves.
This director-less approach is a distinguishing feature of Grassroots Shakespeare London, which is staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of the Lion and Unicorn’s ‘Magical Shakespearean Christmas’ repertory season, along with The Tempest. It will cap off a successful year for the company, which launched the 2012 More London Free Festival at The Scoop and performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of the World Shakespeare Festival. Their production of Much Ado About Nothing at Victoria Embankment Gardens has been nominated for two Off West End ‘Offie’ Awards.
Grassroots Shakespeare London was founded in 2011 by actress and producer Siobhan Daly – who is playing Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – after she met American actor Mark Oram at the Exeter Fringe Festival. Oram had been developing a company in the USA based upon Shakespeare’s original practices called The Grassroots Shakespeare Company. Inspired by his back-to-basics approach to the Bard, Daly became artistic director of the newly-formed London company when Oram returned to the USA.
I met with Daly at the start of rehearsals for the Christmas season to discuss how Grassroots Shakespeare London is bringing the theory of original practices to the UK, the creative benefits of actors directing themselves and how the company treats Shakespeare’s verse respectfully while at the same time stamping their own mark on it.
Definitions of ‘original practice’ differ. What approach does the Grassroots Shakespeare London take?
Over the past couple of hundred years people have come up with their own definitions of how to speak Shakespeare, for example. I think a lot imagine that this involves an Olivier voice. For us, it means exploring ways of getting back to how Shakespeare’s actors would have performed. How can we strip away the paraphernalia of the past few hundred years and just communicate with people?
What does that mean in actual terms?
It means having no director, casting gender-blind instead of just using men, a shorter rehearsal period and generally performing without an interval, because we like things to be quite fast-paced. Here, the Lion and Unicorn have asked to include an interval because they want it to be family-friendly, so parents can take their children out during the break. Ultimately – for us – original practice means keeping things simple and focused on the text.
When did you first encounter ‘original practices’?
Before I met Mark Oram I had no idea how huge Shakespeare was in the USA, and how seriously it was taken. He’d come here to study the MFA in Theatre Practice at Exeter University. I was performing at the Exeter Fringe Festival and saw that he and his company were doing Romeo and Juliet. I got in touch and said, ‘I live in London but I’d love to talk to you, because what you’re doing sounds fascinating.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you come and be our on-stage prompt?’ So I turned up in Exeter with my rucksack, having never met Mark before, and had a great time!
The concept is particularly popular in the USA, isn’t it?
Part of my attraction to it was that I hadn’t come across anything like it in this country. Mark Rylance has been doing work with original practices, but he still has a director where we work without one. That was something that fascinated me when I was in Mark Oram’s rehearsals. As modern actors, we’re trained to work with a director, but that’s a twentieth-century construct. This is how they used to work! And I’ve found that actors become so liberated, creative and confident this way. That’s been one of the nicest things for me to see, as the person who facilitates it.
Can you give me an example of how it works in the rehearsal room?
We begin the process by going through the script and identifying areas that are going to need more work than others, for example where the blocking is going to be tricky. Then, for example, we might look at the storm scene in The Tempest. The actor playing Prospero might say, ‘This feels very ritualistic and although I’m not written into the scene, I’d like to be involved.’ The actors will say yes or no. It’s amazing how people find consensus – there’s no ego. Everyone’s working towards the same objective.
So there are never major disagreements?
Never – it’s performance by consensus. Actors are trained. They know what works and what doesn’t. I always tell them that it’s about going back to a sense of play, like we did when we were kids, hiding under blankets and making things happen. There’s no failure: if something doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. You’ll know as well as the rest of the room when something falls flat on its face. It’s about taking any good ideas that may have arisen and trying something else instead. You’d be amazed at how that really does work.
Do you ever change the text?
Because we prefer a 1.5 hour running time, we do edit. So, with The Tempest, we took out some of the secondary characters. In that sense, we stay close to the text, but in a Shakespearean way – fitting a play to our needs is what would have been done at the time. Shakespeare was in rehearsals, devising as they went. That’s why you have lots of paired characters who are tall and small: he was writing for the friendships of tall and small actors. You can also see it in the change from physical clowning to something much wordier, once someone leaves. We’re not being disrespectful; the story and the text are important to us. But the differences between the quartos and folios show that they had a rough draft, which they used as a means to an end. That’s what we’re doing with what Shakespeare has given us.
What is the effect of a reduced rehearsing period?
It puts actors under pressure, but it’s a good pressure. They’re not being fed answers or being told that they have to stand here, or behave like that. They have to go away and really understand their characters and the story beforehand. It helps keep everyone focused and driven. They don’t have time to mess around; they’ll have done their work before they arrive. So, right now, we’re able to focus on the blocking and the creative side of staging. It also means people don’t get bogged down in a long rehearsal period, which the actors we work with like. They enjoy the excitement of being on stage right from the start.
What is your role, as both the company’s co-founder and one of its performers?
I audition as well. I could not have made the final cut in these plays. I put myself in that position because I want to gel with the ensemble. It’s not a vanity project. If I didn’t get voted in, I’d just produce a show and have fun doing it. Part of being an actor going through the audition process over the years is that it either knocks it out of you or builds you up. It makes you ask whether you really want to do it, because, otherwise, there’s not an awful lot of reward. I get my reward from telling a story, and I love seeing people engaging with Shakespeare. One of my favourite clips from our website is of two ladies reacting to the first show we ever did. Their language is really colourful, but essentially they said that they didn’t like Shakespeare at school but they absolutely loved it here. That’s why I do it.
Why did you decide to pair The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
They were actually two plays that the Lion and Unicorn asked us to do. They paired them together as part of a magical Shakespearean Christmas, with fairies and mystical happenings. These are family-friendly shows for the festive season.
How has it been, working with the Lion and Unicorn?
It’s fantastic. They’re so supportive. Tamzin and George, who run the theatre, are absolutely brilliant, and they have so much faith in us. So much so, they’ve also asked us to perform Othello at the Lion and Unicorn next April. It’s really rare to meet people with so much faith in new talent. They came to see our Much Ado About Nothing and loved it, and asked us to work with them. George gets as excited as I do about things. He’ll call me up and go, ‘You’ll never guess what – we’re sold out on both press nights!’, and we’ll both go ‘Ooh’ over the phone!
Why should audiences come to this season of plays?
Because they’re fun, exciting, accessible and affordable. There’s a £10 offer on tickets for the last few days in November. You can’t go into the West End on that amount of money. It’s the price of a train fare if you’re lucky! And I really believe that the next generation of strong British actors are in this ensemble. These are actors willing to do repertory theatre and to hone their craft. There’s a big debate in the papers about the lack of repertory companies. It’s sad for my generation of actors that we don’t have that opportunity. But I’m not the type to sit around and lament it. I want to create those opportunities. Fringe isn’t lucrative, so this cast is doing it for other reasons: for the love of Shakespeare and for the love of communicating that.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens at 6pm on 11 December, followed by The Tempest at 8:30pm. The productions will then play on alternate nights until early January. For more information, and tickets, see: http://giantolive.com/
First published by OffWestEnd.com