“Being an actor”. The phrase summons up all kinds of images. Laurence Olivier declaiming the Bard. Jobbing actors unpacking their weekly suitcases in provincial repertory. Grinning West End performers taking their thirteenth curtain call. And the sort of waspishness which has given “amdram” a bad name.
“Being an in situ: actor” is none of these – bar perhaps the grins, for it’s rare that what we do isn’t enjoyable as well as demanding. Otherwise, we are ruthlessly discouraged from declaiming. We perform not in provincial theatres but in special locations – the “in situ” of the name – such as Cambridge’s Leper Chapel or Wandlebury Common. And we are never waspish. Rather, any leanings towards diva-dom are instantly crushed; the underlying ethos of in situ: is that if you can’t collaborate, you don’t participate.
Our repertoire is devised. Sometimes that’s from scratch, with actors inputting from their own research and insights, guided towards performance by our directors Bella and Richard – past pieces of this kind have been based on the works of Freud, have explored Creation Myths, have recreated the Calendar Cycle of the seasons. Just as often, our productions are based on existing texts; such as a recent five-hour reworking of Aeschylus’s Oresteia and a ‘walk-around’ King Lear where the audience followed the performers through nearly a mile of countryside to the play’s climax.
Now there’s Hamlet. You could almost hear the audible gulp when Richard told us what we would be performing next. But thankfully, we didn’t come to the play unprepared. The Hamlet half of the in situ: company – the other half is currently devising an outdoor piece about Feral Children – has been together for nearly a year already, working on various Shakespeare texts to master how to make the Bard’s work intelligible as well as enjoyable. (All of us have also completed the essential “Learn to Act” classes which are the gateway to joining the company, many have in addition done the annual residential courses, and most have taken our productions to the Brighton Theatre Festival fringe.)
My favourite moments in this pre-rehearsal work? It’s a toss up between recreating one of the soliloquies from Romeo and Juliet whilst pretending to be a ballet dancer… having a wrestling match with another actor as a setting for a scene from Midsummer’s Night’s Dream… and enacting the murder of Polonius while jumping on and off on chairs. Trust me, these exploits will likely never appear in an in situ: production, but they certainly made us break out of our preconceptions of what Shakespeare’s work ‘should be’ in order to get a much better grasp of what it ideally ‘could be’.
All of which exploration finally came into focus when in November 2015 we were handed our scripts for Hamlet. Reduced by our director Richard from the original 4+ hours to a focussed 2, we actors then had the Christmas break to master the text. The words ‘hit’, ‘head’ and ‘brick wall’ came inexorably to my mind, as line learning has never been my strength, but we all returned in the new year almost ‘off book’.
What has followed has been a mixture of intensive weekly whole-group rehearsals in our performance space at St Andrew’s Church Hall. Further weekly individual and small-group coaching with Richard where each scene is dissected, analysed, then put together again. Watching videos of classic versions of the play. Reading round literary criticism – some of it from centuries ago. And, finally, sourcing the tiny sprinkling of backdrop elements – in situ: style is to reduce sets, scenery, costumes and props to a minimum and allow the audience to fill the gaps with their own imagination.
Fascinatingly, the more we do, the less it seems as if it is about any of us ‘being an actor’. Getting to understand the text, the characters we play, our relationships with each other, the way we use the space, the arc of the play’s narrative, the links between one scene and the next… that’s what we find ourselves doing. Conscious performance drops away more and more; ‘acting’ per se comes to seem in some ways to be irrelevant.
Are we ready for performance yet? At the time of writing, in early 2016, the answer is No… we have another two months and another numerous rehearsals ahead of us. But, as with every in situ: production in the seven years I’ve been involved, we do have a growing sense of possibility.
In the end, we’ll reach the point where – in order to perform – we’ll need only one final element; the audience.
And that would be you…