At the heart of Dom Applewhite’s vision for his experimental production of the play Breathing Corpses are his cast of seven actors (including himself) and a strong focus on character. The play will be in a promenade style, inspired by the work of “Punchdrunk”, audience members will be allowed to wander around the set, never sure at what point the actors might burst in and start living their onstage lives: a form of immersive voyeurism. Applewhite tells me that fundamentally, it’s not about the plot, it’s about the characters; we get to look “inside peoples’ lives” and if we believe that the people in those lives are real then the play will be “incredibly three-dimensional”. No mean feat for a piece of student theatre.
In the snapshot of rehearsal I witnessed, I saw some of the methods Applewhite has tested in reaching his artistic goal. Rehearsals have been led, I am told, with a “non-textual” approach, inspired by the practitioners Stanislavski, with his system of actions and emotion memory, and Mike Alfreds, a more recent playwright and director, who champions spontaneity in his work with actors. Applewhite’s cast are encouraged to feel safe in the rehearsal space; they begin with massages and simple warm-ups, so that when they move on to an exercise involving delving into their subconscious thoughts, turning over the smooth stone to find the spontaneous worms underneath, they feel comfortable doing so. Indeed, the atmosphere in the room is relaxed, supportive and friendly.
But the proof is surely in the pudding. Once the actors have put on the “coat of character” and entered the stage, they are performing to a paying audience, who have not seen the focused hard work behind their performances.
I was shown three scenes from the play, and they were certainly enough to whet my appetite. In each scene, a body is found. The links between the living characters and the dead characters form the basis of the play and the audience are led to make connections and draw conclusions, piecing together evidence to try and work out what is going on. The plot, about which I won’t say too much for fear of ruining any surprise, is exciting and surprising and forces the audience members out of passivity in more ways than one. The dialogue is at times funny, at others shocking, but always fluent and very real. The actors already know their lines well and I was immediately engrossed, jumping in my chair and laughing along. Of particular note is Helena Wilson, whose fraying, frustrated business owner was indeed three-dimensional and captivating. Some of the other characters are more obviously a work-in-progress, which perhaps obscures their successes. But in Wilson’s portrayal I was particularly aware of the fruit of Applewhite’s focus on character, in the hands of a very talented actor.