The Captain's Log
There's ten days to go to the first public performance of Young Herbert's Horrors. Read all about it in "The Captain's Log"...
After I had completed the script in November, Director/Producer Chris Elwell had brought in designer Adam Nee and composers Gregory Hall and Vladimir Sokolov to begin work on the set and music. We'd had one meeting before Christmas to read through the script and discuss set and music ideas. I went away and learnt the words so I was as ready as I could be for what we knew was going to be a tight rehearsal schedule...
Thursday January 11th
The first day of rehearsals proper with director Chris Elwell at Half Moon Theatre. I'm excited. Adam has brought in his brilliant pop-up boat which will form the main set for the show. It's made of shoe leather and it will fold up and go into a treasure chest that I will be able to wheel around when I tour the show. The transportable treasure trunk that I will take all the props out from isn't ready yet and for the Half Moon shows, Phil, the technician, has emptied out his own bed sheets to provide me with a temporary treasure chest. It's looking good. Today we begin to block the show and I'm keen to check out how much I remember the 25 pages of script. Or make that 24 pages now as Chris feels the piece needs a few more cuts. Granny Albatross - a character that pops-up briefly at the end of the play is unceromoniously thrown overboard!
Friday January 12th
The second day at Half Moon. Vlad is in today with the music. The music is rich and exciting but there are still some changes Chris is keen to make to the main theme. By the end of the morning, Vlad has taken away some notes to make alterations to the tracks and we are able to block the rest of the play in the afternoon. There is still so much to do and there will only be another two rehearsal days at the theatre. My anxieties now are not just focused on getting the lines down, but timing them with the music, remembering whereabouts on the stage I am supposed to be for each moment, handling the props (some of which will not be ready until the final day of rehearsals) and cueing the music, which I will be doing myself by a remote control that will be attached to a lanyard I'll be wearing as part of my costume.
At the end of the day, Chris is keen to chat to me about the duck, Frances Drake. Even though Adam and Phil have gone to the trouble of realising him as a yellow rubber duck with his own beautifully created cotton-woolly beard (as ordered by the script) Chris feels the play is still too long and Frances is an unnecessarily complicated distraction from the main plot. I have a moment of quiet despair as I realise all my hard work in bringing him to life on the page has been in vain. But it doesn't last long because any authorly-ego I had when writing the script has been replaced by the anxiety of the performer, desperate to make the show work one way or the other. At this point, the less lines the better!
Saturday January 13th
I'm with my two young sons today and we head down to the beach. It's a cold day but we have got it into our heads that we are going to have fun in the estuary mud, dig big holes and make rivers. From where we are I can make out the coastline of Kent and the Isle of Sheppey where (spoiler alert!) my fictional character dreams of sailing to. The boys may be having fun in the mud but I'm somewhere else entirely. Everytime I get chance, I slip away to wander a few more yards closer to the water to mumble my lines and check I still know them.
Sunday January 14th
Tomorrow I'm going to be doing a run through of the play without music and set with a group of Year 3 children from Westborough School. My feeling is that if I can pull off an engaging performance with just the words alone then that will give me confidence going into the first show proper on Friday. But thinking through the script I realise I am still going to need a few makeshift props to get the show across. Cue sudden scrambling around the kids toyboxes to find objects I can use. Ten minutes later, I have packed my rucksack with a fluffy parrot puppet, a light up pirate sword, pirate hat, my dressing gown to be used for Uncle Albatross' jacket and a pair of my wife's knickers - the biggest and silliest ones she has! As my children have a day off school tomorrow and my wife, Juliet, as movement director, is coming to the run through to give me notes, I decide I'd better get all their permission first. It's a good job I have a supportive family!
Monday January 15th
The kids are not feeling so supportive this morning. They want to spend their day off school staying in and watching the telly and definitely don't want to waste their time watching "Daddy's BORING show!" With a little persuassion, Juliet manages to convince them to come along. (Later I will later notch up a small victory witnessing my youngest son, inspired by the show, dressed up as a pirate and building his own little pirate boat out of the cushions and blankets from the sofa!)
The Year 3's at Westborough are such a brilliant first audience. The show felt hard work to deliver but the story held them. Post-performance, there's lots of good feedback from the young people and the teachers too but also - when I ask them to write down some thoughts on pieces of paper around the library - one or two perceptive points of criticism too, like "Don't shout too much as Uncle Albatross - it hurts my ears!" Juliet agrees with that and she has a page full of her own notes to add to that. But generally she's upbeat "You are a lot more confident a performer than even two years ago when you were putting together Big Wow Small Wonder" she says. There's one awkward moment in the post-show discussion when one girl asks me who the knickers belonged to that I was using for the flag. As I don't like to draw too much attention to the fact that they are my wifes, who is here in the flesh, I try to dodge the question by joking that they aren't mine. The young woman is having none of it! "WHOSE KNICKERS ARE THEY THEN?!!" she demands. But if this is the toughest moment I have to face in the feedback session, I have got to be pretty happy with that.
Tuesday January 16th
Back to rehearsals at the theatre, where I meet Greg, who is co-composing with Vlad. We spend the morning finalising the timings of the music so that by the afternoon I have the complete tracks all ordered and ready to go. More lines are cut at the back end of the play, where Chris still feels after a long run of twists and turns the audience will be ready for the story to come to it's conclusion.
The flags that I will put up to illustrate each scene have now arrived, though the boat itself needs a bit more glue to keep it upright. We do a run but I mess up quite a few lines trying to remember where I should be standing. At this point it feels like I have underestimated how may rehearsals I will need to get the show ready. But even allowing for mistakes the run has come in at 51 minutes, which is just 6 minutes longer than the 45 minutes we are aiming for.
Tonight, I have to cut the rehearsals short to travel to Petersfield to do a gig to adults. I feel exhausted and unprepared but I've decided that I'm going to treat them to a set of poems from my book and then a run through of Young Herbert's Horrors. It's a small audience of (mostly) writers and even if the show's target audience is ages 4 -9 it will give me a good chance to see how it will go down with parents. If the applause at the end is anything to go by, I need not worry and as I hurriedly pick up my improvised props and run for my train, I'm feeling much fresher and more confident than I finished the rehearsal today.
Wednesday January 17th
The exhaustion caused by my 2am bedtime is kicking in - and so our the nerves and the doubts. I've worked so hard on just getting the script together, let alone all the hours of line learning and rehearsal - what if nobody likes it...what if it goes wrong...what if "Daddy's show" really is "BORING!" Walking back from dropping my kids off at school, I begin to wretch violently as if I'm going to be sick. I take some deep breaths to recover and prescribe myself a day of rest. My voice is hoarse too. I go over my script quietly in my head just once to check the lines are still there and take myself to the swimming pool for a gentle swim.
Thursday January 18th
The final day of rehearsals and tech. Phil and Adam have been working extremely hard to get all the props and set complete but there's still last minute adjustments to complete. Eventually I get a full run with all the props and a chance for me to practice the sound cues. I fumble a bit with the props and ipod remote but the lines are feeling pretty solid. So it's back to my cabin now to worry about tomorrow. Its certainly a funny business this writing and performing, never really knowing whether it's going to work, wondering if all the work will be worthwhile. But we will see....
Friday January 19th
The first schools performances. The theatre is packed out. The kids look very young but I’m told they are mostly Year 2 which should be a prime age for the show. Even with all the costume, set, lights and music I still worry that there's too many words and they won't be engaged by the language or follow the story. It starts well but there’s less laughter than at Monday's preview in the library with Year 3. There’s a point about twenty minutes in the show where my throat feels very dry, I can feel the fatigue and I wonder – just briefly – if I will ever be able to hold them to the end. But I remember this feeling from the first performances of my last show and know you just have to trust the writing and the direction you have been given and keep on going. There is a risk in these moments that I will be tempted to rush through the lines but I remember to try to relax, and let the poetry weave its magic. And whenever I do, I can feel that the audience is still with me.
I’m happy enough with both performances. The lack of time rehearsing with props tells when I get the apron I wear at the start of the show twisted and struggle to get it off cleanly. Then the parrot falls off my shoulder because I haven’t fixed it on to it's frame tight enough. It’s a bit of a clanger to say the least but that this seems to be quickly forgiven and forgotten by the children must say something for how much they are following the plot. Whenever I look out into the front rows I see that the kids’ eyes are mesmerised, lost in the story itself. About three quarters of the way through a child shouts out “I love this!” And all I need to do now is to keep focused on the words until the final applause.
Though every show will be important, getting to the end of the first one successfully feels like not so much a triumph for the performer but a relief for the writer. Now I know that the script works, I will be able to focus on growing the confidence of my performance as the tour goes on.