Harare, March 31st 2016 | Sandra Chidawanyika-Goliath
Sometimes you seem like you are being so careful” reads a line from my end of Mentee Directors Training Evaluation of 11 December 2014 by my esteemed mentor Julia Wharton “Miss Julie”. I was eager to work more on this as I developed my directing techniques over the past two years, and to let this reflect, especially, in my play choices.
I first read the play, The Elephant Man in early 2015 while searching for my first play to direct as a stage reading for June that year and decided I would love to direct this play one day. I quickly put it aside though, with the excuse that a script with 17 characters required a measure of bravery I had not yet acquired. The truth, however, was that this profound play was too near and dear to my heart to explore.
Set in the late nineteenth century, The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance, is based on the life of Joseph Merrick (1862-1890), a man not only horribly physically deformed but also a victim of rare skin and bone diseases. With very few options open to him, Merrick has become the star freak attraction in traveling sideshows. Found abandoned and helpless, he is admitted to a prestigious hospital in London. Under the care of celebrated young physician Frederick Treves, Merrick is introduced to London society and slowly evolves from an object of pity to an urbane and witty favorite of the aristocracy and literati only to be denied his ultimate dream, to become a man like any other. Along with its very unquestionable themes of alienation and loneliness, bullying, freedom and physical deformity versus beauty, this dark story touched a section of my world in all its difficult, painful and glorious contradictions.
Being a mother of a beautiful girl born with several physical birth defects, and having met other children who are destined to walk Merrick’s journey because of their circumstances, I felt that this play would give voice to some complex truths which needed to be excavated.
After auditions, which attracted some very experienced professionals as well as budding actors, a working cast was selected. The day of the first read-through was most stimulating as I engaged the cast of 8, most of whom would play multiple characters, in an exercise which unknown to them, would give me an indication of the team’s communication skills. My heart warmed up as I watched the actors listen to each other and focus on the ‘problem solving’ exercise with ease and respect for each other. My earlier apprehension about casting a mix of experienced and ‘new’ actors was settled and I was confident I had a good creative team in place.
My next task as the director was to encourage an atmosphere of support and trust in the rehearsal room. While sharing my vision for the play, I invited the actors to share any bullying/teasing experiences they may have had growing up, which made them bruised and feel alienated. From their responses I got the feeling that the team understood that this was not just a story of an unlucky man from the past, but a man in whose shoes each of them had walked in at some point in their lives. In the 5 days of rehearsal which followed, which began with seeking to understand the world and text of the play and character analysis (as this was very much a character driven play) I was mindful of the challenges of our local performing arts industry, which makes it necessary that actors have other jobs and business apart from the art. This made it essential to consciously shut out the world outside and focus.
Sadly, I noted that with each late arrival by a member of the creative team, the flow was disrupted, and it would take hours to recover the peace of mind that one needs to get on with the work. The late actors would also be tense, which was clearly a huge obstacle to a creative state. I commend Stanislavsky’s primary acting technique of looking to yoga to achieve relaxation, and regret that not everyone was present for warm up exercises, as most of the scene work was physically and emotionally draining for the actors.
In the rehearsal room I learnt to challenge the actors to be bold in their choices. Often actors are afraid to go over the top in the hope of being believable. The result is that this fear has held many back from ever taking risks and even completely abandoning their gut instinct. While it was most tempting for me as a director with acting experience, to try and act it for the actor the way I would do it, that was one risk I was not willing to take. I found a solution in talking about objectives of each character in each scene and that helped the actors.
I admired the actors’ willingness to try out different ways to help their characters along, and not rely entirely on costume alone, as in a stage reading the audience should be able to follow the story and identify the different characters even with their eyes closed. Together, we explored their ability to move freely between choices and subtext, understand and deliver moments of surprise and LISTEN actively.
The result of these processes was most rewarding, as the performance showed a cast delivering a story they knew well. My vulnerability was redeemed when, during the post performance discussion, an audience member asked why I had chosen that particular piece, and after a moment’s hesitation, I smiled and answered truthfully. What followed was a frank debate on how we can afford the Merrick’s of our society today with equal treatment, and still be sensitive to their special needs, the sad conclusion being that we are yet to find a solution which works for most. I took a risk in telling a story in the hope of finding answers, and even though we have a long way to go, the risk was worth it.