I was recently lucky enough to attend an open rehearsal for Say It Again, Sorry Company’s new production. It’s a sort of meta take on Wilde called The Importance of Being…Earnest?, where the audience not only get to see the behind the scenes drama – every bit as hilarious and farcical as the play itself – but also, through a range of devices, take part.
It would be hard to spoil a more than century-old play, so for the sake of this article, I am going to assume a certain amount of knowledge of the play and its conceit. However, where I want to tread carefully is in spoiling anything about the modern added elements. Not least because the joy of seeing something in rehearsal phase is that it may never come to look the way I saw it as the experimentation continues.
As an aside, I once played Lady Bracknell, back in the days when I wanted to be an actress (I mean I still *want* to, but then I was actively training). The absolute hardest thing, I found, was to say the line “A handbag” and not just do a dodgy Edith Evans impression. I managed it, but this sort of block may well be why Hollywood never came a-calling.
Anyway, as a result of both my history with the play, my old love for acting and my newer love for theatre criticism and all things immersive/interactive I really enjoyed sitting in this rehearsal that felt at once familiar and new.
Some elements of the play remain gloriously unchanged. The two young women still simper malevolently at each other just as the ridiculous young men compete to be the biggest arse. I would happily watch a regular production of Ernest as it’s a play I adore. And one with interesting things to say about our modern conversations about identity that may not have been so well understood by the Victorians.
It is the added element of the backstage riotousness that is new and definitely adds to the farce. The comedy is broad, but that doesn’t mean the play will lose its original sharpness.
The time of the actors was divided between rehearsing the funniest possible way to deliver the lines as Oscar Wilde had written them and adding in all the elements that will make this production so different. So while I recognised the process of repeating a scene again and again seeking its essence, when you know you’re bringing the audience in, you have to then rehearse for unpredictability.
This is a part of what fascinates me about the creation of interactive work. The ability to prepare for anything that might be thrown at you and how that’s done.
Once again, the key is permission. In this rehearsal a great deal of the discussion was taken up with different ways of ensuring that the audience were comfortable and gave their permission without losing the sense of narrative. Everything from formal contracts to implicit hand extensions were discussed for different scenarios and the phrasing of backstage questions were as rehearsed as the dialogue the whole audience will hear from the stage.
Equally, and just as importantly, there was a discussion about what to do with an audience member who wasn’t working out. Theatre has to work for everyone, and if there’s an audience member who is endlessly pulling focus or drunk, or just downright inappropriate, they need to be moved on swiftly for everyone else’s sake. Usually, however, without making them feel bad in the process. So discussion of how to do that is vital to get right.
It was so interesting to get a glimpse behind the immersive curtain and see how these discussions play out during the process. I also get the sense that this production is going to be a pure joy to see. I’m really interested to see how farce and interactive theatre will work together and based on the few scenes I saw play out, I get the feeling this show will be a blast.
Check the Say It Again, Sorry website for performance details.