Week Two is a strange but exciting place. At the same time as trying to understand the rich, layered text in front of you, you’re also making certain decisions about the production you have to put in front of an audience in three (THREE!) weeks. Nonetheless, it’s where some of the most invigorating discoveries happen and where you set the tone for the rest of the rehearsal period.
In The Glass Menagerie rehearsal room, we have a cunning system to help us navigate this problem. It’s called a table. You know, those flat things with legs. What’s extraordinary is what an intervention like this can do to a rehearsal room: on one end of our space we have our mock-up set filled with props and costumes; on the other is the quiet sanctity of the table. In a crude way, the two halves represent two states of mind – the playful and the cerebral – but by having them both in the same room you encourage traffic between the two, and the two ways of working bleed into each other.
For the past week, a typical scene has been rehearsed like this: We sit around the table, coffee mugs in hand and pencils at the ready, and read through the section in question. Then, slowly, we mark out ‘changes’ in the text, when a shift in action causes the characters on stage to take on a different set of intentions (you might have heard them referred to as ‘events’ or as ‘beats’, which famously may have been the fault of some half-deaf English actor mishearing Stanislavski when he talked about ‘bits’ in his thick Russian accent).
The point of this is twofold; as well as allowing us the space to talk about what these characters want in any particular moment, we can also begin to see the shape of scenes, marking out how Williams creates drama and the pacing of narrative. At one point this week, for example, we clocked just how many changes there are in scene four. When we looked into this a bit more, it became clear that Amanda was trying desperately to find ways she could persuade Tom to stay in the house, and was thus changing tact frequently. Suddenly, it didn’t seem to daunting when we moved to the other end of the hall.
And this, perhaps, is the real reason we carefully go through a text like this. It’s so vast, so complex, so carefully plotted and dramatically poetic that to do otherwise would be terrifying and would make the scenes totally impossible to stage. The groundwork means we can make better, more informed decisions which unlock the text in performance. And, just like in sport, where knowing the rules inside-out helps you play a better game, understanding the basic framework of a play makes the playing bit a whole lot more fruitful.