My week at The King’s Head Theatre: Opera? Theatre? What’s the difference?

July 10, 2017

So you want to be a theatre director? Great. So how do you do get there?

One great way to gain experience is to observe a professional rehearsal room and shadow an assistant director.

In June 2017, I applied for the Trainee Director Scheme at The King’s Head Theatre. Although I didn’t get on the scheme, the senior producer and director kindly offered me an opportunity to observe rehearsals for their upcoming production of Coming Clean by Kevin Elyot, directed by Adam Spreadbury-Maher.

After a full week of rehearsals, chats with the director and even an opportunity to try out some ideas myself, I have collated my information into a lovely blog, comparing an opera and play’s rehearsal process.

Music – it’s not that daunting…

I’ve met many emerging directors who steer clear of musicals and opera because they “don’t get music and it’s not [their] thing!” Then they plug themselves into their iPhone and direct something with several awesome soundtracks that drastically alter the mood, atmosphere and emotion of a piece.

A script embodies the playwright’s intentions via text, stage directions and format. An operatic score does all that, but also gives you a bonus clue through the musical interpretation that the composer has smothered the librettist’s words in. In both scenarios, it is the director’s job to encourage the performers to unearth the meaning behind the text/music, and keep them on the right course.

On this production the actors made lists for each of their characters. These lists were made up of any line in the script (stage direction or text) that revealed:

1. Facts about the character

2. What the character says about themselves

3. What the character says about others

4. What others say about the characters

This took up the first two and a half days of rehearsal - with a few practical exercises thrown in. This intense process encouraged the actors to pick apart the script and decode the writer's intentions that are embedded within the piece. I think of it this way. The writer/composer is the puzzle creator, the performers are trying to solve the puzzle, and the director provides hints when necessary. The director Adam has told me that this an be applied to opera just as easily - I look forward to trying it out in practice.


Directors, directors, directors…

A play has a director. An opera has a musical director (MD) and a director. Some productions have movement directors – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. With an MD and a director working on an opera, a director’s input is essentially halved (although every working relationship is different). Furthermore, each director takes the reigns at different stages of the rehearsal process. For example, the first stage and piano run of an opera might be overseen by the musical director. However, the second run might be monitored more closely by the director with less input from the musical director.


Wait… You want me to do what?!

With plays or operas, you can only go so far as your performers capabilities will allow. However, intense physical exercises can help you determine where these boundaries lie e.g. play the scene as if the performers are at the gym, or running away from a herd of Wildebeest. 

In the Coming Clean rehearsals Adam gave the actors a barrage of exhausting possibilities in which to play the scene, from asking actors to avoid each other (resulting in a lot of running, clambering, and chasing) to playing the scene as if they were various members of the animal kingdom. Although the actors were exhausted, they felt that they had explored the text in more ways than they could have possibly imagined and pushed their physical boundaries to the limit.

However, in opera directing it is worth being aware (for those who are unfamiliar with vocal technique), that there is a hugely physical and mental side to singing that goes on underneath the surface. Things like posture, breathing technique and soft palate positioning need to be taken into account. You can easily find out more about this by talking to a singing teacher or trying out a lesson or two yourself. However, suggesting that your Queen of the Night should sing her aria whilst doing aerial silks may be asking a little too much– mind you there’s always one…

Wait… my head hurts…

Actors often have to split their brains in two (e.g. play this intention whilst communicating through grunts, clap the tempo of the scene whilst delivering your lines, etc.). 

Singers have a similar issue vocally (make an ‘ee’ sound whilst thinking of an ‘eh’ sound), which makes it even more difficult when a third layer of intention is thrown into the mix as well. Be kind to them, they will get there but some people may need a little more time.

Let's wrap things up - I'm sure you have things to be getting on with

There is no experience more valuable than doing research, trying things out for yourself and sitting in a rehearsal room. I hope I have managed to give you a glimpse into my experience, and what it has taught me through this blog. I have learnt so much from this week at The King's Head and through observing Adam's direction I can't wait to put this new knowledge into practice with my own upcoming productions. 

Final golden rule: rehearsals are about making mistakes and exploring. If you’re not messing things up, you’re probably not doing it right.

Thanks for reading.



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