At the start of the very first audition for Mephisto, Milja- the director- warned rather vaguely that her rehearsal style was unusual. She asked if I would be happy doing ‘emotional work’: I said of course (you never say no in an audition) and thus in the three subsequent rounds of audition I was ordered to do thirty sit-ups while saying my lines, to scream the lines in an ‘anger run’ whilst pushing against a wall and later to recite a speech whilst laughing hysterically. The effect of these techniques is eerily powerful: if you’re focused on doing sit ups or pushing against a wall you stop concentrating on ‘acting’ (who can concentrate on anything when you’re that out of breath), your defenses are brought down and you start saying the lines without any self-consciousness.
These auditions, it turns out, were just a taster of what was to come in rehearsals. In the past four weeks of rehearsals I have witnessed many of our cast members reduced to floods of tears in the ‘emotional work’ of rehearsals, describing the imaginary backstory of their characters. My time for emotional work came last week when I was least expecting it- most of the cast have already undergone this kind of thing and I thought I had been overlooked (which was a bit of a relief as I thought I would be more comfortable taking off my clothes in the middle of the room and inviting strangers to take notes than sobbing hysterically in front of a crowd of actors.) I had left the rehearsal to get a drink and the moment I came back into the room I was blindfolded and tied with my own coat to a chair. Someone- I couldn’t work out which of the other actors- was interrogating me about the Peppermill Theatre Club (the club that my character, Alex, performs with). They were screaming, demanding the names of the rest of the actors in the troupe. Confused and genuinely terrified, I was able to let every emotion ‘flow’: I wasn’t trying to channel it into an image of a ‘character’ or try to concentrate on how they would have felt. I was feeling it myself.
The rehearsal ended- in Milja’s typically bizarre and unpredictable style- with a session of ‘laughter yoga’ (as it sounds: you sit, legs crossed, in a circle and one person starts laughing. The cliché that laughter is contagious is never so brilliantly demonstrated. This normally lasts for about fifteen minutes and you generally feel sick from laughing afterwards.)
These physical exercises are just a few of the curious things we’ve been doing in rehearsals. Milja uses a technique called ‘under-reading’ where one actor reads your lines to you a few words ahead and then you repeat them about 5 words later. This means there are always two people speaking at once and it can get seriously confusing, particularly in a conversation scene with four or five characters when you have ten people speaking at once. However the advantage, as we are coming to learn, is that no actor is ever rehearsing with a book and this avoids the problem that often happens when you ‘come off the book’: you forget what to do with your hands and become cripplingly self-conscious about them.
With only three weeks until the play opens we are focusing this week on the most fun scenes of the play: the raunchy shows performed by The Peppermill which involve fewer emotions and more very precise choreography. As I understand there are negotiations taking place with the Playhouse about on-stage nudity I am intrigued (and only a little unnerved) to watch this week’s rehearsals pan out…
Click here for the Mephisto Trailer
Mephisto is playing at the Oxford Playhouse in sixth week.