Wednesday, 30 September 2009


Show #5. Press Night

I remember once seeing a piece of research on learning done by McKinseys.

The big message was this: it’s not the quality of the first learning session that matters most.

(Although of course it matters a lot.)

What makes the real difference is the quality of the second session. The recap. Not the initial visit to the information, but the re-visiting of the core insights, the information, the application.

So – yesterday, when Andy and I met to discuss what notes to give before the show, we decided that actually there was nothing new to say.

What was needed was a recap. A recapitulation.

So we looked back at the things we’d done on the journey to today.

What we'd done and why we'd done it.

And we then quickly articulated - formally - the rules (if you like). The rules we’d all slowly and informally co-created throughout our time together working on the show.

But how many did we have?

And how many did we need?

I spend lots of time telling people that three is the magic number, so to go back on it (now that I was practising rather than teaching) would be hypocritical.

We needed three rules.

So I came up with seven.

Andy had about six.

Our challenge was obvious: to make 3 from 7 and 6.


So here they are: the three necessary rules for performing The Author.

Just the headlines first - and subsequent details for anyone who's interested.

1. Tell the story.
2. Support each other.
3. Be present.

1. Tell the story.
Every theatre show that’s ever been made will have reminded itself of how important it is to 'look after' the narrative. It’s what we hold onto as listening, plot devouring human beings.

There was once an old King with three daughters.

Or... A man woke up one morning with a scalpel in his hand.

Or... Gordon had alway loathed party conferences. But this one was going to be different.

Whatever the story, there's one question at the forefront of our mind:

"What happens next?" It's human nature - so work with it. (As David Mamet might say.)

It's not a new idea to maintain narrative drive; to tell the story.

But in The Author, it's about more than maintenance. More than a reminder: it must be a rule.

Different 'presents' (or more clearly: present tenses) co-habit deliberately and provocatively; they need to. The writing is asking us so even more reason for each of the characters to be clear on what their 'now' is. Otherwise our audience won't stand a chance.

So with our audience in mind (always) here's what this rule means in practice:

No words required apart from the text (except when Adrian and only Adrian specifically improvises)

No cheap gags to be taken at the expense of the storyline, no matter how tempting or delicious.

No telegraphing - don't 'help' the audience. It doesn't help them. It leaves them with not enough to do.

2. Support each other.
Something happens when a group of people work together. When they work
for each other. With each other.

It's about confidence. It transmits. It radiates.

So, tangibly:

Always be aware of each other.

Pick up a cue when you think someone else might really feel the benefit of that.

And don't trash the audience. Ever.

N.B. (Trashing the audience can take many forms, most notably in our case asking them sincerely for a response and then not acknowledging it. It's not about pursuing a line of improvisation with them and disappearing down a blind alley... We do after all have a story to tell. A play to do. A script to get on with. But you can acknowledge a response. Hold it. Honour it. Take it on.)

3. Be present.
This is about listening.
Really listening – to the audience, to the story, to yourself.

Pay attention to what’s happening now, not what you thought would happen, or indeed what happened last night or the night before. Or even worse in a yet unperformed version of the play that you had in your head before the play started.

These simple rules - and a positive attitude towards them - formed the core of our notes session.

And the show - was terrific.

Better than before.

More responsive and responsible.


And more exciting.

And for a Press Night (so often laden with tension and fear) it felt relatively relaxed and at times close to fearless.

So - in the hours left before the show is publicly judged, before the views of just a few reasonable and well-intentioned people disproportionately affect the ticket sales (and more importantly the sense of adventure), it feels right(er) to say...

We're learning.

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