Maison Foo Production Journal - Day 8 By Seana Cooke
Derby Theatre rehearsal rooms
As a Theatre Arts student at Derby University, I am no stranger to Maison Foo. I have seen and loved the final and polished version of Memoirs of Biscuit tin and indeed experienced the beginnings of Pendulums Bargain Emporium- I still have my little Brown paper bag from the shop as memorabilia from visiting the make-shift shop in November; but this is a new and refreshing experience altogether. This week I intend to ‘sit back’ in a way, with my unofficial backstage pass and view the Foo as I’ve never seen them before.
I arrive on time- equipment at hand: Laptop, camera, and crucially my trusty pen and pad, all of which I shall utilize during my time as Production Reporter. I meet Matt at the door and then Beth beckons us in wearing a well suited blonde wig. I am greeted by a very warm welcome- in a literal sense by both the team and the radiation of heat from the room.
The group are in Great Spirit. What is occurring, I can only describe as frivolity of a productive nature: Matt is playing a jolly tune on the keyboard- my initial thoughts are that he is the designated musician of the piece. This thought is later confirmed when he reveals to me over a freshly brewed coffee at lunch, that he is in fact the composer for the company.
When Beth announces “10 minute stretches” and Matt proclaims “where are my pants?” I immediately realise what I am letting myself in for... During the stretches, the general conversation is of Advertising jingles, it seems like a fitting start to a rehearsal that I later discover explores retail in all its ‘glory’. It’s peculiar to be observing the company stretching, as indeed it is bemusing and enlightening to watch them play warm-up games after lunch; from an outsiders perspective it feels like I’m some sort of overt nature documenter.
The rehearsal room is full of necessary clutter: supermarket cages with boxes of stock located upstage centre (if we’re imagining a stage,) are all clearly carefully placed. Other boxes of extra props are located around the outskirts of the room. Post-it notes are strewn across the wall, and written on them are notes such as; “introduction to characters”, “she’s not content” and more amusingly, “darlings”, (as well as other notes I couldn’t possibly read out for spoiler purposes...) To an observer, like me, these notes are alien, but they are paper proof of a well documented rehearsal process, and are referred back to throughout the day by the company.
Once everyone has limbered up, and after Beth has finished her own preparation of humming whilst pulling some highly interesting faces; Matt is back on the keyboard, leading a vocal warm up. He plays a jolly melody while the other 3 actors sing vowel sounds. It could be a musical number in itself; Pure, nonsensical brilliance. This tune is followed by another; about singing ‘high and low’ and it gives me a desiring urge to join in. After a final warm up of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, I’m ready to applaud and suggest an encore, but with scripts in hand, it is apparent that the sing songs have finished... or so I think, when suddenly, once again my musical theatre taste buds are tickled by Matt playing a romantic tango-esque tune on the keyboard, accompanied by Beth dancing with a make-shift manikin. I am being unexpectedly serenaded to a song of the show. The cast try out different tones and harmonies- with direction from Matt, and I get a showcase of the whole scene. I am later told by Beth that this production will be “a play with music.”-right up my street!
What amazes me is how at ease this ensemble is in this space. Their ability to play and find inspiration is evidence that their artistic licence knows no bounds, everyone feeds of each other in this room; positivity and creativity is paramount.
Beth briefly describes the intended representation of the manikin head she is holding, and although this proves helpful in my understanding of the scene- even without the context explained, the content is fulfilling enough to enjoy. I’m starting to feel like my curiosity at this rehearsal process is all part of this week’s experience; it’s like being shown elaborate pieces to an unfinished jigsaw puzzle.
Matt begins an impressive solo on the accordion and starts a semi-poignant monologue about a shoemaker. I am slowly beginning to make sense of the situation and character in this play. His character is a protagonist, with a back story; a narrator to the play, or so I assume. Elements of scenes and characters are being explored none-episodically; with an almost, unaired discussion, the actors separately but simultaneously take a moment to wonder around in the space and work on their own characters for this particular scene.
After a few unsynchronised ‘hummms’ of contemplation, Matt takes up position at the keyboard again and begins to play some typical ‘retail’ music; a pleasant and repetitive tune- One that you might expect to hear whilst browsing around a higher class shopping centre. Beth and Morgan take up positions behind wheeling tables, they then take turns in moving the tables forward and backwards and become the characters of 2 shop assistants, selling items to imaginary customers. The rehearsal room has suddenly been transformed into Pendulums Bargain Emporium. I am now distracted from my reporting role and have become an audience member; absorbed in the scene. (This is something that will happen to me regularly during the day, and more probably, the week.) The characterisations for these shop assistants are defined by voice and movement. A patronising, sickly sweet tone has been adapted, and an expertise of comicality is being presented by both Beth and Morgan. They have become the type of shop assistants that, as a shopper, you feel like avoiding at all costs; but as an audience member, you can’t...
After the first couple of hours of rehearsal there is a break when Kate goes to locate the designers: Kate and Tina. Both as welcoming as the cast, they are clearly an integral part of this team. ‘Team Foo’ then equip themselves with pens and pads and form a discussion circle, led by their mentor, Mick, who shares a few creative ideas with them. Now, a quiet and more serious ambiance is established as they cast talk about the characterisation of ‘the shoe makers wife’. I take the opportunity of calmness to type up my first set of notes, and by the time I look up from my laptop Beth and Kate are both wearing blonde wigs and fashioning boxes that I believe are meant to be symbolise windows. Morgan replaces Beth in the blonde wig extremely well. I have no idea how many musical instruments Matt has brought with him, but now he’s playing a simple melody on the xylophone. What I can surmise from this scene is that Morgan and Kate are playing greedy shoppers, and the improvisation that is taking place is...truly hilarious. Both take turns to chant what they ‘want’ and ‘need’ by opening their boxes and disclosing it to the audience; Kate’s character wants ‘a pony’ and Morgan’s character ‘wants to buy India’. Again, I have become completely transfixed by the scene and so temporarily give up on my note taking... There is a lot of stop starting in this scene. This is the bare bones of devising, and amusing as it is, there is a resounding purpose to every suggestion and every trial and error in this performing session. When Matt takes up the accordion again it is a cue for Beth to rejoin the scene. Now, all 3 characters are wearing cupboard like boxes on their heads and another musical number is being improvised, finished with a cacophony of noise; shouting and music. Michael announces “I love this scene”, to which I concur, and that seems like a fitting conclusion of this section for the day.
The next time I look up from my laptop, after another period of discussion, I find myself observing a truly peculiar scenario: Kate is sat on a table; legs sprawled, has adapted a foreign accent... (make of that what you will.) My inquisitiveness is answered once more when Tina appears with the cut out of a baby. Beth and Kate improvise this scene so impressively that Tina and I are reduced to hysterics, and when Matt adds his own musical take of a Jewish/greek song by literally becoming a one man band, it is ingenious. This session of play ends with an amalgamation of laughter from the whole group. A success. After lunch, I am recruited to help in some of the rehearsal; an exploration of shadow puppetry. This scene has an underlying eerie atmosphere, and I start to realise that this play, like their last, will include provocative and relatable themes.
There is a tenacity of purpose present in everything the company do. Aside from the laughter, every ounce of playful experimentation has a function in this rehearsal process. I have witnessed numerous theatre conventions and snippets of scenes all shaping up to be unequivocally stirring in some way. As a reporter, I am deeply excited to find out what tomorrows rehearsal brings...