(from left) Rex Harrison, Margaret Rutherford, and Constance Cummings in the 1945 film version of Blithe Spirit , which cast members have been advised not to watch.

Theatre Diaries 4: Back to the beginning

Blocking is done, and everyone gets set to start all over again.

Blocking for Blithe Spirit—the next Winding Rivers Arts & Performance Society theatre production—has finished; co-director Mavourneen Varcoe-Ryan and I have taken the actors through the entire play, figuring out where they move, when, and why, so rehearsals go back to the beginning.

As it’s been a while since we blocked each scene, we once more break the rehearsals down and go through a scene or two each time, so the actors are reminded of the blocking and we can make any necessary alterations. Then we immediately go through the scene again, while the blocking is fresh, to cement things.

It’s still fairly laborious; on the first (re)-run through, one scene takes an hour to get through. When we go through it again, however, it only takes a little over 30 minutes. In the finished production, the scene should last 20 minutes, tops.

Our rehearsal space is Room 104 at the Ashcroft HUB; my son’s Grade 4 classroom, back when the HUB was Ashcroft Elementary. Stage manager Jessica Clement has marked out the back wall of the stage—including a set of double doors—with tape, and classroom chairs make up the furniture, standing in for such things as an armchair, a sofa, a fireplace, and a piano, while a desk doubles as a drinks table and a garbage can stands in as a table. At various times characters have to perch on the arm of the chair or sofa, which proves impossible, while the characters who have to lie on the “sofa”—three plastic chairs lined up side-by-each—find it a less-than-comfortable experience. What’s the phrase about suffering for one’s art?

The quest for period-authentic (1940s England) furniture and props goes on apace, and my phone has taken to lighting up at random times with images sent by Jessica and Mavourneen as they discover lamps, sofas, and more that we need. As someone who usually acts in WRAPS productions, I’m unaccustomed to the behind-the-scenes process, and I find myself getting used to saying yay or nay on a wide variety of items.

Elaine Lamarre and Margaret Moreira are already hard at work on the costumes. In the meantime, the female cast members have been asked to find appropriate shoes and long skirts to wear during rehearsals, so they can get accustomed to moving in something like what they will be wearing on stage. You move differently in jeans and flat shoes than you do in a dress and heels, and the sooner the actors get used to that, the better.

Noel Coward’s script is set very firmly in an upper-middle-class Britain of the 1940s, so accents are definitely an issue. Cast members have been advised to seek out various movies and TV shows that will give them an idea of what they should sound like; Downton Abbey is mentioned frequently, as is the recent Netflix adaptation of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and the 1945 film adaptation of Coward’s play Brief Encounter.

One source that is not recommended is the 1945 film version of Blithe Spirit, starring Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, Kay Kendall, and Margaret Rutherford, which won an Academy Award for Best Special Effects. Mavourneen prefers not to watch film versions of a play she’s directing, so that she comes to the material fresh and without preconceived ideas, and suggests that actors take the same approach, so as not to colour their approach to their characters.

In the rehearsal room there are questions about accent and pronunciation. As an Anglophile who lived in Great Britain (Wales) for several years, is married to an Englishman, and has watched more British films and TV shows than is probably healthy, I find myself being asked questions such as “Is the word ‘neither’ pronounced ‘nee-ther’ or ‘ny-ther’?” (the latter), and making the occasional correction: “The town of Folkestone is pronounced ‘FOKE-stun’, not ‘Folk-STONE’.” Explaining to cast member Jim Mertel how to pronounce the surname “Llewellyn” is aided by the fact that Jim knows a little bit about the Welsh language, where a double “l” is pronounced in English as “th-l”; hence “Llewellyn”, which Canadians would naturally pronounce “Lou-ellen”, is properly pronounced “Thlue-eth-thlyn”). Art is never easy.

As of the next rehearsal on October 9, we’re back to the beginning again; Act One, Scene 1. Actors will still have scripts in hand, but the dreaded words “You have to be off-book by …” are hovering in the air. When will that date be? Stay tuned.

Blithe Spirit will be at the Ashcroft HUB for six performances from November 16 to 25.

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