stf Theatre | Company Blog
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Company Blog

Company Blog

The cast and crew of HAMLET and ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, offer an insight into the rehearsal process, behind the scenes, costume and set.




8th March: Nicky Goldie

The show must go on  is a maxim ingrained in all theatre folk and it is up to each individual cast and crew member to make sure they stay fit and healthy, including having the necessary flu jab. They do say though, that “Doctor Theatre” kicks in if an actor is taken poorly during the run, meaning adrenaline kicks in so you don’t look pathetic in front of an audience!

Actors are, in theory, pretty good at looking after themselves – your body is your tool after all – they eat healthily and keep fit, and should be aware (through bitter and hungover experience) of the perils of drinking too much alcohol.

However, as soon as you start rehearsals, especially if you are also doing a show in the evening, and away from home without your juicer and usual healthy routines, it all falls apart. Why? Cake.

There is a huge tradition of cake at stf. If someone has a birthday, there’s cake. If your phone goes off in rehearsals, the penalty is cake. If you’re good at baking (and we have some amazing chefs in the company) you are encouraged to provide cake. Or biscuits. Or sweets. Our assistant director on Hamlet, Peter, has practically had to forgo his university degree to keep up with demands for his legendary brownies.

At home in London I was doing the 5.2 diet and cycling everywhere. Here in Bristol I waddle round the corner to work from my digs (it takes 4 minutes) and do not have the energy to resist the goodies on offer, my excuse being that my body needs fuel to give a good performance and there is often simply not enough time to put together a nutritionally balanced meal. Although, incidentally, housewives’ favourite Paul Currier has equipped our miniscule backstage kitchen with some amazing gastro gadgets – an omelette maker, a panini toaster and a 7 egg cooker!

And it is actually quite difficult finding a feeding routine when your schedule is off kilter.  When do you eat? If you’re doing a show, you don’t want to feel heavy and sluggish; you need to fit into your corset or costume, be mindful of not eating anything that might give you wind, and if you’re required to snog anyone, go easy on the garlic. If you eat something dodgy, you might find yourself having to exit the stage in a terrific hurry to avoid catastrophe, as happened to one of us in Hamlet only the other week.

And then there’s the drink. It’s nice to wind down in the bar after the show with a pint or a glass of wine, and it would be rude not to partake of the free booze on press night, and help with the washing up by devouring all the snacks, and we all look forward to Glenys’ seasonal bar night, where a lovely lady and stalwart supporter of stf very generously buys a drink for all the actors after she’s come to see the show and also on Shakespeare’s birthday.

Even on stage, the drink has its perils; John our fight director always keeps a watchful eye out for liquid on the stage before the fight and keeps a renaissance absorbent microfibre cloth with him in case Claudius and Gertrude dribble or spill the wine/water in the cup they use to toast Hamlet in the last scene. Bizarrely, the other day there was a wedge of lemon on the stage at the curtain call. Had Gertie been at the gin and tonics??! And poor Claudius had a coughing fit after the poisoned liquid was forced down his throat, which is not want you want when you’re trying to die.

In All’s Well a few of us will be raising a glass or two during the course of the show. I’m playing Widow Capilet who lives in Florence and I’m particularly looking forward to the scene where three of us ladies are eating together. In fact I’ve got my fingers crossed that stage management will be providing Italian ice cream, though realistically, we’ll probably just do the scene with empty plates as if we’ve just finished eating. Shame.

PS On a Sunday, our one and only day off, it is becoming a tradition for those kicking their heels in Bristol to get together for a Sunday roast at a Bristol hostelry. The text messages start pinging through mid-morning, and on average 30 communications later, after much debate about time and place, a plan of where and when to eat is made. If anyone out there has a guide of where to eat a good Sunday roast in Bristol, we’d love to hear from you.[/vc_column_text]

Nicky Goldie is playing Sexton in Hamlet and Widow Capilet in All’s Well That Ends Well

Charlie Smalley, ASM for Hamlet and All’s Well That Ends Well

23rd Feb: Charlie Smalley, ASM (assistant stage manager)

We’re about to reach our busiest time here at the Tobacco Factory – our first show, ‘Hamlet’ is up and running, while ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ is about to go into rehearsals. It’s exciting, if a little tiring, to be back in the rehearsal room during the day, working on an updated version of ‘All’s Well’, which Dominic Power has been scribbling away at ready for the Read Through.

In the evenings, we’ll put ‘All’s Well’ to bed while we perform ‘Hamlet’, and this will be our pattern for the next five weeks until ‘All’s Well’ opens. This busy schedule affects the whole company, as all fifteen actors have roles in both shows.

For me, as the Assistant Stage Manager, being back at the start of the rehearsal process means looking for props. I’ll be writing letters, sourcing jewellery and attempting to locate some period furniture – while keeping an eye on the rehearsal reports each day to see if any new props are required. It’s a very enjoyable part of the job, particularly for someone who enjoys shopping, making endless lists and practising calligraphy!

Once the show opens I’m based backstage, where I look after the props, furniture and – of course – the cast (although, as the youngest in the company, they do a lot of looking after me!)  My role as the ASM is to help the Stage Manager ensure that everything runs smoothly each evening, and my duties can range from hoovering and cleaning up fake blood, to waxing swords and fixing skulls.

My main job each day on ‘Hamlet’ is to re-set and check all of the props and furniture are in the right positions for the start of the show. I then do a ‘shout check’ with the Stage Manager, to double check I’ve set everything correctly, and then we’re ready to open the house.

During the show my busiest times are scene changes, when I will often be on stage moving furniture or clearing props. I’m in costume for ‘Hamlet’ – so if you come to see the show you might spot me nipping on and off between scenes! I don’t know yet if I will be costumed for ‘All’s Well’, but we’ll soon see… fingers crossed it’s not a corset!

11th Feb: Liz Purnell, Composer

Week running up to production week:

Exciting times running up to production week – I recorded Estelle Holbrook playing an alto flute last week – this particular instrument conveys the dark and solitary world I am trying to achieve – inside Hamlet’s head if you like..

Looking forward to shaping these recordings  into some scene change cues and the offstage band music for the players’ scene.

Production week:

Halfway through the tech already… and it all looks and sounds good, although I sense there will be changes after the first dress rehearsal tonight.  I’m pleased with how the alto flute is coming across, and its characteristic sound, in combination with the other musical sounds: solo strings and a piano sound that I have butchered to sound a little more like a cimbalom or even a hammer dulcimer, provide a timbre which floods into all of the scenes. I have also used the flute’s breathy character  to ‘whoosh’ us into atmospheric outdoor windy scenes – where music and sound design have a significant crossover.

Deep into precise timings of sound and music cues with the actors – lots of changes.  I have gotten used to scene change music sometimes moving to a completely different place in the play, and have learned to come to a tech week armed with many spare ‘library’ cues of varying length, tempo and instrumentation, ready to insert if the play demands different things than anticipated from script and rehearsal stages.  Sometimes this means that my ‘master plan’ has gone awry and the musical themes which I thought might attach to specific characters or locations (eg. ‘Ophelia’s theme’, or music that tends to play in the grander ‘castle’ scenes)  are played in the wrong order and in different places than planned. I wouldn’t be wearing my ‘theatre composer’ hat if this was a huge problem for me – the tiny bits of music which make up this (not very ‘musicy’) play are part of a whole which all has to add up coherently with all the design elements and the extensive script work which has preceded it and it is my job to make sure the music works in it. I’m happy to be part of the team which brings this about.  As always, my over riding feeling at coming out of this process is – Actors are amazing!

Liz Purnell rehearsing with Nadia Williams for our 2010 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Ian Barritt as Polonius and Alan Mahon as Hamlet.

9th Feb: Ian Barritt

Death is complicated.

When I was first cast in the role of Polonius, a friend sent a text – “Don’t go near any arrases.” The one thing that everyone knows about Polonius is that he gets killed behind an arras.

You all, of course, know what an arras is? A rich embroidered tapestry used as a wall hanging and often covering an alcove. Named after the town where they were first made. Polonius gets his come-uppance for nosiness when, hiding behind the arras, he is  mistaken by Hamlet for the King and is stabbed.

Easy enough in most theatres but tricky in a theatre in the round.

Andrew Hilton, our director, wants Polonius to fall onto the stage as he dies so that his corpse lies there throughout the subsequent scene between Hamlet and his mother. So I hide behind the arras in one of the entrances. But how can the arras be set without obscuring sight lines for the audience in previous scenes? And how does the dead Polonius leave the stage?

The answer is a “kabuki drop”.

A kabuki drop involves material being rolled inside a suspended box. When the box opens the material falls out and hangs in the space. The plan is that after killing me Hamlet will pull down the arras and I will fall onto it. At the end of the scene Hamlet will drag me off on the arras. “I’ll lug the guts into the neighbour room”.

At last night’s technical rehearsal the second part of the plan went well. Hamlet dragged the arras down and I fell onto it.

The first problem is with the kabuki drop itself. In Japan it would involve light silk. Although our budget doesn’t run to a rich embroidered tapestry we do need material strong enough to support me as I’m dragged off. And the heavier material isn’t yet dropping easily out of the box.

The second problem is dragging an elderly actor off along a narrow entrance and round a tight corner. This might involve a little unseemly crawling by said actor at the last moment screened by other players – but I think we’ll manage it.

The kabuki drop itself hasn’t yet been solved!

Ian will also be playing Lafew in ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL.



5th Feb:  Jane Curnow, Wardrobe Supervisor

We are now in tech week and we’ve moved into the actors dressing room and are just setting up. We have hired the majority of costumes from Bristol Costume Services, and borrowed some items from the University and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. We have also made Hamlet (Alan Mahon), Laertes (Callum McIntyre), Ophelia (Isabella Marshall) and Gertrude’s (Julia Hills) costumes. They have been created by different people, and I myself have made Gertrude’s which I have almost finished putting together, so that is exciting.

The process for costume is that on day one, the Designer Max Johns comes with all his designs, and the items we can’t find from the hire departments, we make. We did a lot of fabric sourcing to try and get exactly the right sort of fabrics, because there is a lot of black in the show and they have to be quite precise. We found samples from fabric stores and online, and Max went to London to find some very beautiful velvet for Gertrude’s over cloak.

The period is 1600 just as the play would originally have been set, with lots of ruffs and big skirts.

For Ophelia’s dress, she has a beautiful fabric that is almost watery. It has a lot of silver and gold with a touch of blue running through it, which could be a watery theme taking you back to the script and her drowning. It is a classic square necked flat fronted bodice, with a lovely ruff stand collar that nobody has seen yet!

The biggest challenge was the budget as this is a huge show. We have 15 actors and there were about 35 costumes I had to source which we couldn’t financially manage. So we have had to be imaginative with some things, and make the important decision to create certain costumes.

The next process for the actors is to try their costumes on again during rehearsals to see if there will be any wardrobe issues during their performance. For example, they might need extra pockets, or can’t climb certain set pieces because their skirts are too long. Anything can arise. Jess who is the Wardrobe Mistress will be there to help actors who are in one scene and then need to change out of their costume quickly to be in the next scene. This quick change might impact on what we need to do to the costume to make it easier to get in and out of fast. So there are still lots of things that need to happen, and people will need extra items that maybe haven’t come up in rehearsals – suddenly we could find they’re stood on stage with no clothes on!

There are some absolutely stunning costumes and it is going to look fantastic, so we are very excited.

Isabella Marshall as Ophelia in HAMLET.

Nicky Goldie as Sexton in HAMLET

4 Feb: Nicky Goldie 

It’s the last week of rehearsals and things are hotting up.

This time next week we’ll be performing in front of an expectant audience for the first time. Eek!!

As a company, we’ve discussed the political, historical and emotional landscape of our court at Elsinore in 1600 (eg not too much bowing and scraping, Danish Kings were elected, feminism definitely hadn’t been invented) but we’ve mostly been rehearsing our scenes in isolation with Andrew, our director.

Now it’s time to put the jigsaw together, and show each other what we’ve been up to. And of course to see if the story makes complete sense to us and to an audience.

I spend a moderate amount of time attending on Gertrude as a lady in waiting, but my main part is the sexton, or gravedigger, which is not exactly a massive role. Three pages worth in fact – but I like to think there are no small parts, only small actors. And being only 5’2” tall, I don’t want to let the company down.

I have the scary responsibility of being the light relief after quite a bit of royal domestic angst and even the odd murder. I’ve also got a sneaking suspicion that people are going to be expecting me to be funny.

My landlady, Elizabeth, has put up with me rolling a skull around her kitchen floor, along with assorted scissors, oven gloves and tea towels – doubling as pickaxe, spade, lantern, bottle and all the other props your average  renaissance grave digger would use, as I try to time the “business” with my props  around my lines to best comic effect.

Today we ran Part 2 for the first time.

Dare I say it – I felt that fizzing sense of excitement when you realise you might be part of something rather special. A palpable hit?

Best not tempt fate, but suffice to say that I am in awe of all of my acting colleagues, was thrilled by the scarily realistic fights, and was reminded again what a jolly good yarn Hamlet is; and as for Alan playing the Dane – how can anyone so young be that talented? He’s only 23 for goodness sake – the baby of the company!

Oh, and people did laugh at my bit. Phew. The fivers are in the post.

Nicky will also be playing Widow Capilet in ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL.