So, you know, what does a producer actually do? Well, judging by the paucity of posts this week, when he’s filming he certainly doesn’t have time for his blog. Since Monday we have been shooting short drama scenes for the research project Shakespearean London Theatres (ShaLT), and for this producer the past four days have included hanging an actor (intentionally and safely; see above), making a lot of coffee, finding locations, finding crew, recasting a major part with less than twenty-four hours notice, acting as a first AD, composing and sending out call sheets, explaining the project (over and over), disbursing petty cash (and collecting receipts), sourcing swords and worrying – a lot. Worrying about money, worrying about whether everyone is warm enough (they haven’t been), worrying about noise, and most of all worrying about time. Oh, and directing the films. We have one further day of rehearsals today, and then our last drama shoot tomorrow morning. So maybe now I have time to tell you a bit about what we’re doing.
We are making a group of short films about the theatre in London between around 1580 and 1642. These will complement a map, book, app, website and lecture series being created by Shakespearean London Theatres, all of which aim to enhance understanding of early modern theatre beyond the story of Shakespeare and the Globe. Our films, which will be freely available from the late spring next year, will include contributions of historians and elements of the documentary evidence from the time – which is comparatively sparse – and the traces of the theatres themselves in modern London.
We wanted, however, to make the films a little more dynamic than this and to give them a sense of life. So we came up with the idea that we would gather a small group of actors and film them both in rehearsal and in staged scenes, shot in a studio and on location, from four key plays. Which is what we have been doing over the past week – a process that has been alternately troubling (for me) and thrilling.
Our nine actors, many of whom have played Shakespeare, worked at Shakespeare’s Globe and contributed to the Read not Dead strand of stagings ‘on the book’, gather at a studio in south London. The cast has been selected by our stage director James Wallace, who has just finished playing in 55 Days at Hampstead Theatre and is a stalwart of the Read not Dead series. The studio space is cold and the space heater makes such a racket that it’s impossible to stay warm and hear yourself think. For the most part, the latter has to take precedence.
We gather in a semi-circle in the studio and I explain the outline of the project before James explains the choice of our four plays, including the only one of the quartet by Shakespeare himself, Richard III. We have chosen to do the scene of the wooing by Richard, or Gloucester as he still is, of the Lady Anne, close to the start of the play. Her husband, King Henry VI, lies in a coffin as Richard, responsible for the king’s death, worms his way into the widow’s favour.
We are to film the scene the next day, and so today’s readings and rehearsals concentrate on this. I have briefed the camera and sound team to capture parts of the rehearsal process, but there is too much else going on to be able to spend much time actually observing. There are transport arrangements to make for tomorrow (these turn out to be me ferrying cast to and from Canning Town tube station), some extras to hire and a make-up person to locate. We do not have a rehearsal space yet for Friday, and then there is the question of whether the coffin for the Richard III shoot can be manhandled down the staircase into tomorrow’s location.
On wrap there is are call times to decide on for tomorrow, and a call-sheet to get out to everyone by e-mail. The agent for one of the cast is requesting time off for an audition, and we need to work out whether this can be accommodated. So it goes. Shakespeare’s London Theatres is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (who have also made possible the Screen Plays research project) and the production budget is a good one but not, as you would expect, at the level of broadcast drama.
For drama, the logistical questions about toilets and lunches and heaters, are taken care of by production managers and production co-ordinators and location managers and assistant directors. On a project of this size with this level of resources, there’s the producer.
It is a really beautiful morning, with bright sun glistening on the river down by Docklands. We are in a beautiful brick basement which – initially at least – seems just perfect for our scene. Facilities are minimal – public toilets across the way, a very willing but over-worked small café, and no heating. Wardrobe and make-up, instead of the dedicated vans that would be brought in for a ‘proper’ shoot, have to make do with tables and chairs in a next-door space, with light from the open doorway. Everyone nonetheless does wonderfully well.
We are playing our scenes mostly in modern dress but our art director Hannah Spice (who worked with us on Julius Caesar) has drawn together a number of key props, including a sword and a ring. ‘Casting’ the coffin for Henry VI involved looking at a range of possibilities drawn from various hire company websites.
James and I were particularly drawn to one that was a fetching shade of red and had a lid a bit like a stable door, with a top half that could reveal the corpse’s head and a bottom part that could remain closed. This we reasoned would help the actor who would be stuck there since he would have to worry less about whether he could be seen breathing. But the lid was hinged, and in the end this led to its rejection. Another had to go because it was so mouldy that it seemed it had indeed once had a ‘real-dead’ occupant.
Our morning is dedicated to blocking the scene, in addition to getting everyone made up and costumed. We start to film around 1pm, aware that we have to be away from the location by 5pm. It all seems very achievable, but this is where single inviolable principle of an Illuminations shoot kicks in: ‘nothing’s simple’. For on the wooden floor above us we start to hear the clickety-clack of heels, and then boxes being dragged around, and finally some sawing and drilling. Shakespeare’s words sound rather less good when punctuated with such sounds.
We plead with the occupants above but to no avail, and so we have to plough on, with our sound recordist shaking his head in despair. Will we be able to cut around the noises? Can we filter some of them out. Perhaps we will have to fix some – or all – of the scene with ‘additional dialogue recording’ (ADR)? Those are questions for next week, but the frustration takes the shine off the day and at the end none of us feels as good about what we’ve achieved as perhaps we ought to.
Now this is a bit special. We are going to film a scene from Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, a hugely popular play written in the late 1580s. And we are going to play the scene inside the circumference of The Rose Theatre, where it was presented over four hundred years ago. The foundations of the Rose were discovered in 1989 and are now submerged in water in a cavern beneath a modern office block. (There are exciting plans for a major restoration.) Over part of the site (and beneath the offices) there is a platform on which is presented a slate of adventurous productions of early modern plays (and the occasional carol concert).
The line of the original exterior wall of The Rose Theatre cuts across the platform where it is marked by a line of tiny red lights. On the ‘inside’ of this is where we erect the arbor within which the character Horatio will be hanged. Remarkably, we have a sense of how this was originally staged (and it is one of the very few such records from the time that has come down to us) in a crude engraving on the title page of the 1615 edition (a detail of which is reproduced above).
With a purchased garden feature and a specialist hanging harness we are, by the end of the day, able to achieve a very fair interpretation of the scene (pictures to come). Nor, part from the occasional police siren, do we have any sound problems today. For toilets we have to use those in the Globe Education a few doors away, and the cast keep warm in there when they are not needed. I had been worried about whether the arbor would fit through the outside door of the theatre but there are inches to spare. Indeed, with the expert help of operations manager at the Rose Pepe Pryke, everything goes wonderfully well, and some of us end the day with a celebratory drink down the road at The Swan Bar.
(Part 2 of these notes will appear tomorrow.)