I keep calling myself “an amateur” in the theatre world – whether it’s writing, acting or directing. After a rather lengthy break from writing, I needed a strong start. Masterclass had already proved to be a great learning and motivational platform when I took a session almost a year ago, and I am excited to attend again. It’s Thursday and it’s pouring with rain, but eager to learn, I’m rushing to the masterclass at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. All I know is it’s going to be about approaching text, analysing scenes and their practical application in the rehearsal room. It’s taught by Matthew Xia, who is a professional director.
I am welcomed at the theatre by a very friendly lady and handed a couple of sheets, who tells me this is the scene we are going to work on today. I’m jumping into the text straight away, gulping words in thoroughly, familiarising myself with the material just before Matthew is to appear on stage. I am somehow confused by the following instruction at the top:
“The staging of this play is open to interpretation – the stage directions are intended to evoke the literal world of the characters, but do not demand a literal staging.”
The Masterclass is about how important it is to read, explore and analyse text before taking it further to the rehearsal room – But what is the textual analysis? I am a bit lost in the unfamiliar terminology and looking forward to clarification during the class.
The auditorium is filling in and more than half of the seats are taken. I can see some people are regulars, and others are newbies like me. But we are all in the same shoes – creative bunch, ready for action.
Matthew begins with a short bio and we discover that he was also an actor and a DJ, with his theatrical career rooted at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, his local youth theatre. We learn of his brave intentions of raising controversial matters (e.g race, skin colour, social and mental burdens) in plays he directed. The connection between the stage and the audience seems to be paramount for him. In his direction of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead
at the Young Vic, he segregated the audience along racial lines. No doubt, as a director he is interested in the role of audience and their subjective views.
He then moves on to talk about the hierarchy on stage - between actors and directors, in particular. He emphasizes the importance of actors’ role, and reminds us to “just take the note”, which he repeatedly uses in his practise. He says the key words you should use to describe an actor are Professional, Adult and Artist. He expands further by drawing examples of the stage relationship:
Director is there to excite, clarify, curate
Actors (sometimes too often) look for instructions – they need to be bolder in their choices and their sense of the text
He recalls his approach while working on his play Amsterdam
, where actors didn’t have any characters, but were provided guidance in the text to their roles. However, one of them was rather persistent with his own view of a character, debating his interpretation with the director. Matthew believes that actors need to listen to the director – actors are there to act, directors to direct.
Then we are asked to read a scene from Wish List
by Katherine Soper in pairs, leading to a discussion. The play touches upon the subjects of mental health and our relationship to work. Matthew says we are going to delve into the role of an actor, how to approach and break up text, and think of dramatic intentions and obstacles to achieving these.
People suggest multiple ways they would approach the play, such as doing research (e.g. on young carers relevant to this play), trying to identify intentions, establishing the relationship of the characters and a sense of the environment, completing unfinished sentences, just improvising it, thinking about the subtext, where the characters are coming from, the social and economic world of the time, and more.
Matthew’s piece of advice is to face the essential elements: Who? (who the characters are), What? (what happened in a scene, functionality, structure) When? (year, season, date, specific time), Where? (flat, city, country). We then apply these to the piece and analyse its characters.
Matthew suggests reading a play four times from four different perspectives, and noting down:
1) How your character describes themselves
2) What other characters say about you
4) Given circumstancees
He recommends using Stanislavski’s method of units in order to break down the script and make it easier for actors to play, by creating dynamic titles for each scene that include all its significant events. He highlights the importance of setting up concrete, simple objectives for your characters. Everything must connect to those objectives, including the character’s intentions. Objectives can be internal or external and considerate of the obstacles that are presented. When making decisions on how to approach these obstacles, consider your characters tact - the means they are using to achieve their intention.
I personally applaud such comprehensive structuring method! As a writer I took in the significance of creating characters on paper, building up as much of their traits (inner and outer) as possible. He then led onto a Q&A, where his advice included being more patient in the rehearsal room, and owning a piece collectively. Matthew’s class was packed with useful information, and I was surprised by how much work goes into thinking, researching, exploring and structuring the text!
If you would like to read more of Evgenia's writing, please see her blog.