We’ve all experienced those moments in the life where we’ve had to try and forget something we’ve spent hard-won hours learning. Days and weeks forcing the seemingly impossible into our over-crowded brain, only to desperately try and erase all memory of it once it has finally germinated and taken root. New theatre teases you - a little like the way a mischievous child, once discovering how annoying mimicry can be, will taunt you mercilessly with their new-found power. For actors, creating a new piece of theatre is a little like that. We spend hours outside of the rehearsal room working on script and songs and moves, only to be handed new pages, or harmonies, or even entire dance routines the following morning. It’s a huge part of the development process and a necessary, though sometimes frustrating, evil.
When it came to developing a new version of an old classic, our creative team had the framework to build their show upon, taking the very best bits of the original Sixpence production by composer/lyricist David Heneker and bookwriter Beverley Cross, and shaping it into a completely new show. When you visit our Half A Sixpence you’ll spot familiar songs sitting alongside new material by Stiles and Drewe, woven seamlessly together with a brand new book by Julian Fellowes, which draws upon material in the original inspirational novel Kipps by H.G. Wells. It was only by starting all the way back at the beginning that this was possible, and the process of picking apart, stitching and re-stitching is one which takes time and patience.
Where it all began....
There is much work that happens ahead of the script and score making it to the cast and rehearsal room. Workshops, table reads, rewrites, demo recordings – all happened in the name of perfecting this piece as much as possible before it was presented to the cast on that first day. I was fortunate enough to be involved in some of those early demos, but much of that material has changed, even if only incrementally, since then. Equally the pages distributed for our auditions, faithfully learnt and committed to immortal memory have also shifted and this is where The Great Unlearn begins.
As actors we’re taught to memorise vast amounts of material so that no matter what, come fire alarm going off mid-show, disruptive audience member or costume malfunction, you are able to carry on regardless. Stiff upper lip and all that, eh? Learning to ‘unlearn’, as it were, is one of those necessary but impossible to describe skills. For me it’s more like learning an alternative version and hoping that the original one will eventually fade away to the recesses of my mind, only to be dredged up at cast parties when you loudly exclaim ‘oh god, do you remember that first attempt with the unicorn and fire dancing?!’ [NB there will be neither of these in Half A Sixpence… at this moment in time…]
Helen Wals(h)ingham's first appearance in the novel
But whilst it’s hard, it’s also part of what makes working on a brand new show thoroughly exciting. Every day, as the material begins to settle, little tweaks make their way into the script. Tiny cuts to make the flow of the narrative clearer, to keep the pace fast and the humour and pathos balanced. It’s a tricky part of the job, but sacrificing part of your role is sometimes necessary for the good of the show overall and being able to recognise those moments is key.
Only today we were handed an alternative version of one of the big numbers called ‘If The Rain’s Got To Fall’. It’s essentially the same song but arranged alternatively, making it more exciting and interesting. The harmonies are the same but the lyrics have shifted around a little. I think that’s even harder than learning a totally new song as you’re singing the same words but to a section of the tune that you know other words to. It’s beautifully befuddling and a testament to the patience of our wonderful Musical Director, Graham Hurman, that he was still smiling by the time we’d finished despite it being the end of a VERY long day.
Putting new pages into the script and score
Furthermore these changes can sometimes mean re-choreographing big chunks of the show. Andrew Wright, our fantastic Choreographer, has an organic approach to dance, which makes routines flow out of everyday movement rather than the entire company suddenly bursting out into a massive dance routine every time they sing. It feels more realistic as a performer and gives the audience much more to look at as there are little storylines happening all over the stage. However this also means that, when a big change needs to be implemented, there’s much more work to be done. In a company that consists of every permutation from highly accomplished dancer to potentially awkward mover, Andrew makes sure that everyone is shown off to the best of their ability and with Dance Captain, Jaye Elster, they’re whipping us neatly into shape.
Add in Rachel Kavanaugh, our phenomenal Director, and we’re incredibly lucky that such a great Creative Team is helming this brilliant new show. Their unflappable spirit and passion is unrivalled, and the lack of fear they show in being ruthless with material that isn’t quite working as well as it could or should, makes the company more able to try out alternative options with aplomb. It’s a true team effort and whilst we still have a way to go before previews and the further changes needed that can only be discovered through presentation to an audience, I have a feeling we have the makings of something truly magnificent on our hands.