I Trod the Boards at the Royal Shakespeare Company

Last Tuesday, I had a very interesting experience, playing a small but important part in a performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of As You Like It. For a brief moment, I was onstage holding two pieces of paper, bearing the letters I and N, as Orlando had four audience members hold up sheets of paper spelling out the name of his love, Rosalind.

But there’s a lot more to it than that. I attended a very special performance of the play; one that was intimate, nearly a command performance, for an audience of just seven people.

The RSC films its Shakespeare productions and broadcasts them to cinemas in the UK and around the world, and releases them later on DVD and Blu-Ray. Following an interview I did with John Wyver, the producer of these productions, back in 2014, I became friendly with John, and he has graciously given me tickets for many of the performances that were filmed and broadcast. These tickets are generally behind cameras, in the stalls (that’s the ground level), often behind a camera on tracks, that is only occasionally disturbing.

Earlier this month, he asked me if I wanted to see As You Like It, which was broadcast on April 17, and offered three choices: the live broadcast performance, the previous day’s matinee when they do the second camera rehearsal, or the first camera rehearsal, which was Tuesday, a week earlier.

The process for preparing these broadcasts is the following. They do a first single-camera recording of the play early in the run, which the director uses to create a shooting script, setting up all the shots that will be used, and preparing a script for the cameramen. The first camera rehearsal then uses all the cameras (about a half dozen) to film a performance based on this script as a sort of beta test. The crew, together with the play’s stage director, watch it on a cinema screen the following day to make any necessary changes. They may change a shot, change the location of a camera for a specific shot, etc. This camera rehearsal is filmed without an audience.

The second camera rehearsal takes account of any changes to the shooting script, and is shot with an audience (though much of the stalls is empty, because of the cameras), and is used as a backup for the broadcast and when editing the film for DVD and Blu-Ray release. Finally, on broadcast night, everything is live, but if there are technical issues, they can flip a switch and go to the previous day’s second camera rehearsal so as to not disappoint people in cinemas.

For last Tuesday’s first camera rehearsal, there was a unique element that required some audience members to be present. As I mentioned, Orlando came on stage at one point, near the end of the first part of the play, with eight pieces of paper. He selected two audience members from each side of the stage to come on stage and hold these pieces of paper, their backs toward the audience. He then told them to turn around, so the audience could see that they spelled out ROSALIND. As such, there had to be at least four audience members for the first camera rehearsal, who would be willing to go up on stage.

John told me that they had four volunteers already, but I said I would be interested in volunteering if necessary; the idea of being on stage at the RSC, but not in front of one thousand people, was quite attractive.

We met at the main door of the RSC, and Hayley Pepler, the Content Producer, told us what we would do. We would all sit on the side near the back of the stage (the RSC has a thrust stage, where seats face three sides), because the actor playing Orlando would pick people from seats close to some stairs that led up to the stage. Three of us were assigned to be on one side, and four on the other. It was up to the actor who he would pick, and I was selected, along with a young woman sitting behind me; my partner, sitting to my left, was not. (However, the actor playing Touchstone sat next to her at one point in the second half and pretended to fall asleep with his head on her shoulder.)

Rsc

My group of three people were in seats B1, B2, and C1. The four people on the opposite side were in the first seats in rows B and C, and the first two seats in row D.

It was fun; I don’t think I’d want to do this with a full audience; in fact, with four people on stage, there was an audience of three people, one of whom was my partner (plus the crew, which was made up of more than a dozen people). But having seen so many plays at the RSC, it was cool to be on stage.

This performance was interesting in many ways. It was almost a command performance, with only seven people in the audience, and all on the sides, near the back of the stage, so the actors were mostly playing to empty seats (and the crew). In the first half hour, it was very dark in the theater, and, to the actors, it probably wasn’t very different from when they play to a full audience. But when the characters went to Arden Forest, the house lights went on and the actors could clearly see how empty the theater was. But this didn’t alter their performances; they weren’t just phoning it in. It was essential for the success of the broadcast that this be a fully natural performance.

There were some elements that suffered: when there are jokes, and hundreds of people laugh, it creates energy, and that was missing here. And generally when an actor sings a song in a play like this – there are several songs in As You Like It – they get applause afterwards. But aside from that, it was an excellent performance.

The actors naturally played to the whole house, to the empty seats, but as the performance went on, they established eye contact with us more and more, some actors more than others. This intimacy made for an interesting experience, and seeing the play like this made it feel special.

At the end, there was not as much applause as there could have been, but we tried hard to show our appreciation. They actors left the stage, the crew started packing up their gear, and we went off. It may not have been special to them, but to me, this was one of the most interesting theatrical experiences I’ve had.

And I got to be on stage at the RSC.

Follow-up:

I originally wrote this article the day after seeing the performance, and was asked by the production to not publish it until after the broadcast, which was last night, so as to not tip off the audience as to what would happen.

I attended last night’s performance, initially in seats behind the cameras, but just before the broadcast begin, my partner and I were asked to move to seats C1 and C2, to fill in spaces where there was no one. (They do this for the broadcasts to make sure that there are no empty seats visible to the cameras; the people close to the stage, especially those on the side, are often on camera in the background.)

It was very interesting to see this production again, with a nearly full audience, from essentially the same location. Obviously, there was much more energy from the audience, with laughter and clapping after songs, which made the production feel more alive, but I will still recall the initial performance as a very special event.

This is a wonderful production of the play, carried with great energy by Lucy Phelps as Rosalind, and with an excellent cast behind her. Rosalind is one of the great female roles in Shakespeare, she speaks 20% of the lines in the play, and Phelps is excellent in this role.

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